Water Safety – Do you know what 'DROWNING' really looks like?

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  • Water Safety – Do you know what 'DROWNING' really looks like?

    FYI, there have been a few drownings in this area recently, so I was reminded of a post that I once had added (with the original poster's permission) to my Classic Parker boat website when I was actively running it.

    It is my sincere hope that this awareness may help save a life ...

    Drowning Doesn’t Look Like Drowning, by Mario on May 19, 2010

    “The Capt jumped from the cockpit, fully dressed, and sprinted through the water. A former lifeguard, he kept his eyes on his victim as he headed straight for the owners who were swimming between their anchored sportfisher and the beach. “I think he thinks you’re drowning,” the husband said to his wife, as 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 Capt kept swimming hard. “Move!” he barked as he sprinted between the two stunned owners. Directly behind them, not 10’ away, their 9-year-old daughter was drowning. Safely above the surface in the arms of the Capt, she burst into tears, “Daddy!”

    How did this Capt know, from 50’ away, what the Father couldn’t recognize from just ten feet? Drowning is not the violent, splashing, call for help that most people expect. The Capt 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.

    The Instinctive Drowning Response – So named by Francesco A. Pia, Ph.D., is what people do to avoid actual or perceived suffocation in the water. And it does not look like most people expect. There is very little splashing, no waving, and no yelling or calls for help of any kind. To get an idea of just how quiet and undramatic from the surface drowning can be, consider this: It is the Number 2 cause of accidental death in children age 15 and under (just behind vehicle accidents). Of the approximately 750 children who will drown next year, about 375 of them will do so within 25-yards of a parent or other adult. In 10% of those drownings, the adult will actually watch them do it, having no idea it is happening (source: CDC).

    “Drowning does not look like drowning!” – as Dr. Pia, in an article in the Coast Guard’s On Scene magazine, described the instinctive drowning response like this:

    “Except in rare circumstances, drowning people are physiologically unable to call out for help. The respiratory system was designed for breathing. Speech is the secondary or overlaid function. Breathing must be fulfilled before speech occurs. 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. When the drowning people’s mouths are above the surface, they exhale and inhale quickly as their mouths start to sink below the surface of the water.

    Drowning people cannot wave for help. Nature instinctively forces them to extend their arms laterally and press down on the water’s surface. Pressing down on the surface of the water permits drowning people to leverage their bodies so they can lift their mouths out of the water to breathe. Throughout the Instinctive Drowning Response, drowning people cannot voluntarily control their arm movements. Physiologically, drowning people who are struggling on the surface of the water cannot stop drowning and instead perform voluntary movements such as waving for help, moving toward a rescuer, or reaching out for a piece of rescue equipment.

    From beginning to end of the Instinctive Drowning Response, people’s bodies remain upright in the water, with no evidence of a supporting kick. Unless rescued by a trained lifeguard, these drowning people can only struggle on the surface of the water from 20 to 60 seconds before submersion occurs.”
    (Source: On Scene magazine – Fall 2006)

    This doesn’t mean that a person that is yelling for help and thrashing isn’t in real trouble – they are experiencing aquatic distress. Not always present before the instinctive drowning response, aquatic distress doesn’t last long – but unlike true drowning, these victims can still assist in their own rescue; they can grab lifelines, throw rings, etc.

    Look for these other signs of drowning, when people are in the water:

    * Head low in the water, mouth at water level
    * Head tilted back with mouth open
    * Eyes glassy & 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 their back
    * Ladder climb – rarely out of the water

    So if a crew member falls overboard and everything looks OK – don’t be too sure! Sometimes the most common indication that someone is drowning is that they don’t look like they’re drowning. They may just look like they are treading water and looking up at the deck. One way to be sure? Ask them directly: “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! And parents ... children playing in the water make noise … when they get quiet ... get to them fast and find out why!

    Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by the author of the referenced article are not necessarily those of the Department of Homeland Security or the U.S. Coast Guard.

    Life is too short for an ugly boat!

  • #2
    I'll add one to this...a phenomenon called "dry drowning." Specifically, dry drowning by stray currents.

    Its appearance is almost exactly the same as described in Dale's post above. The difference is that it is induced from stray currents (actual not what most boaters call galvanic corrosion) and the victims cannot breath or move. You can have a life vest on and still drown in this manner. If you feel a tingle in the water as you are moving along, swim back in the direction you came from. If you cannot, swim away from docks or boats that you are approaching. If you cannot, turn your body 90 degrees so that your surface area facing the source is minimized. You may also bring your legs and arms in as close to your body as possible to reduce the electrical current experienced.
    Barefoot Boats
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    • DaleH
      DaleH commented
      Editing a comment
      Damn .... saw it happen once too, to a diver who went in to replace zincs on a prop shaft at the marina dock! Luckily a bystander immediately knew what was going on and we got them out ...

  • #3
    Never learned this in lifeguard training.


    • #4
      I witnessed it twice . My sister once , in Lake Michigan . We were just playing in the waves , and I looked at her and by the look on her face I could tell something was wrong . I just reached out and grabbed her and lifted her up , she caught her breath then started crying . But she couldn't speak or call for help . She always said I saved her life , crazy stuff .


      • #5
        Originally posted by cpflaum View Post
        Never learned this in lifeguard training.
        Yes. It wasn’t until I took a Red Cross WSI course that this was taught. Hopefully that has changed and is now being taught in other classes. My training was in the early 1980’s.