Drowning Is Anything But Dramatic

Here’s the deal, dudes. As summer comes on, more and more of us will be out on the water. As a parent, I found this article to be quite timely.

It also managed to scare the snot out of me. My family and I are big beach folks. For a week every summer, we head down to Florida’s Crescent Beach and frolic, enjoying fun in the sun in the waves and surf.

I thought I was prepared. I thought I knew what I needed to watch for to keep my kids safe.

I was an idiot, as this recent article in Slate will show.

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 10 feet away, their 9-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 50 feet away—what the father couldn’t recognize from just 10? 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 know 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.

Yeah, I know. Frightened the heck out of me, too, dudes.

There’s this thing called the Instinctive Drowning Response—so named by Francesco A. Pia, Ph.D., and it’s what people do when they’re actually drowning. And it doesn’t involve waving their arms and shouting and making a fuss so they can be seen by the hot lifeguard and dramatically rescued.

Drowning victims actually are very quiet. Breathing comes first, before speaking. If you can’t breathe, you’re not going to be talking or shouting. They are incapable of actually waving their arms as said arms are locked out to their sides and instinctively pushing down on the water to try and keep their mouth in the air and not the water. They can’t stop drowning and perform voluntary movements like trying to attract attention.

From start to finish, the Instinctive Drowning Response will mean that the victim usually is upright in the water, quietly drowning with no evidence of a supporting kick.

According to Dr. Pia and rescue experts, there are a number of things to look for in a drowning victim.

  • Head low in the water, mouth at water level
  • Head tilted back with mouth open
  • Eyes glassy and empty, unable to focus
  • Eyes closed
  • Hair over forehead or eyes
  • Not using legs—vertical
  • Hyperventilating or gasping
  • Trying to swim in a particular direction but not making headway
  • Trying to roll over on the back

The most important thing, though, is when you’re around the water, stay observant. Make sure you know where your children are, where everyone in your party is. If they’re in trouble, you won’t hear it. So it’s up to you to be aware.

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