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May 30, 2016

Drowning Doesn't Look Like Drowning

by Amanda MacMillan

Summer is here, at least unofficially – time for fun at the pool or beach. Some of the stay-safe basics are obvious: Just for starters, don’t swim alone, don’t mix alcohol with swimming or boating and don't take your eyes off your kids when they’re near water.

But there’s another important point to keep in mind, one that isn’t so well-known: Drowning doesn’t look like drowning. Some years ago, writer and former Coast Guard officer Mario Vittone wrote about what people really look like when they’re drowning – and it bears little resemblance to what you’ve seen on TV. With permission, we’re excerpting Vittone's article here.

The new captain jumped from the deck, fully dressed, and sprinted through the water. A former lifeguard, he kept his eyes on his victim as he headed straight for the couple swimming between their anchored sportfisher and the beach. “I think he thinks you’re drowning,” the husband said to his wife. They had been splashing each other and she had screamed but now they were just standing, neck-deep on the sand bar. “We’re fine, what is he doing?” she asked, a little annoyed. “We’re fine!” the husband yelled, waving him off, but his captain kept swimming hard. ”Move!” he barked as he sprinted between the stunned owners. Directly behind them, not ten feet away, their nine-year-old daughter was drowning. Safely above the surface in the arms of the captain, she burst into tears, “Daddy!”

How did this captain know – from fifty feet away – what the father couldn’t recognize from just ten? Drowning is not the violent, splashing, call for help that most people expect. The captain was trained to recognize drowning by experts and years of experience. The father, on the other hand, had learned what drowning looks like by watching television. If you spend time on or near the water (hint: that’s all of us) then you should make sure that you and your crew knows what to look for whenever people enter the water. Until she cried a tearful, “Daddy,” she hadn’t made a sound. As a former Coast Guard rescue swimmer, I wasn’t surprised at all by this story. Drowning is almost always a deceptively quiet event. The waving, splashing, and yelling that dramatic conditioning (television) prepares us to look for, is rarely seen in real life.

This disconnect – between our image of drowning and the reality – is partly responsible for the fact that drowning is a leading cause of death in children, Vittone says. Indeed, he points out that many children who drown do so within 25 yards of a parent or another adult.

Keep your family safe this summer by getting to know the real signs of drowning. Vittone lists them, from water-safety expert Francesco A. Pia, Ph.D.

  • Except in rare circumstances, drowning people are physiologically unable to call out for help. You can’t yell if you can’t catch a breath, Pia says.
  • Drowning people’s mouths alternately sink below and reappear above the surface of the water. The mouths of drowning people are not above the surface of the water long enough for them to exhale, inhale, and call out for help.
  • Drowning people cannot wave for help. Physiologically, drowning people who are struggling on the surface of the water cannot stop drowning and perform voluntary movements, such as waving for help, moving toward a rescuer, or reaching out for a piece of rescue equipment. Instead, they typically extend their arms to the side and press down on the surface of the water to leverage their body upwards.
  • Drowning people’s bodies remain upright in the water, with no evidence of a supporting kick. Unless rescued by a trained lifeguard, they can struggle on the surface of the water for only 20 to 60 seconds before submersion occurs.

Vittone ticks off other clues to look for: head tilted back, with mouth open; eyes closed, or glassy, empty, unable to focus; hair over forehead or eyes; trying to swim but not making progress; trying to roll over onto his or her back; appearing to be climbing an invisible ladder.

“This doesn’t mean that a person that is yelling for help and thrashing isn’t in real trouble,” Vittone adds. The noisier kind of aquatic distress sometimes (but not always) comes before actual drowning, and usually doesn’t last long.

The bottom line? Even if someone looks like they’re okay in the water, make sure. “Sometimes the most common indication that someone is drowning is that they don’t look like they’re drowning,” writes Vittone. “They may just look like they are treading water and looking up at the deck.

“One way to be sure? Ask them, ‘Are you alright?’ If they can answer at all—they probably are. If they return a blank stare, you may have less than 30 seconds to get to them.”

He adds a final warning to parents: “Children playing in the water make noise. When they get quiet, you get to them and find out why.”