Are they drowning?

Do you know what a drowning person looks like? Silly question, huh? Waving arms, panicky cries for help, lots of splashing and thrashing …

Sure, while that person may be in “aquatic distress” and needs help, drowning is usually not like in the movies. When someone is very close to drowning, their body will start a series of easily recognisable, involuntary reactions which will set off any trained rescuer’s mental high-alert alarm. It’s called the “Instinctive Drowning Response.”

  1. 99% of the time, a drowning person won’t call out. The lungs are designed for breathing first, speech second. If there is no air, there is no noise.
  2. The person’s mouth repeatedly goes underwater then reappears, but not long enough to take a deep, full breath. They will snatch quick, shallow breaths as they start to go under.
  3. They cannot wave for help. Their natural instinct makes them hold their arms out horizontally and press down on the surface to try and keep their airway above water.
  4. They cannot voluntarily control their arms. They can’t wave, move towards a rescuer, or grab a life ring.
  5. Their body remains upright in the water with arms out like a crucifix, with little or no kicking. When they get to this stage, you have 20-60 seconds to get to them.

Remember these points:

  • Drowning looks like a child that has gone quiet. Happy children in the water shriek, splash and yell. A silent child is a drowning child.
  • Drowning looks like a Man Overboard seeming to tread water and quietly look up at you on the boat. Simply ask “Are you OK?” If they can’t reply, move fast.
  • Drowning looks like head low, mouth at or under water level, long hair straggling in eyes because they can’t move their arms to clear it away.
  • Drowning looks like eyes glassy and unfocussed, or eyes shut.

Drowning doesn’t look like “drowning” does on the TV!