Drowning Doesn’t Look Like Drowning

One of the first things I ever wrote for publication was a short article about drowning recognition for a Coast Guard magazine. A few years later, I adapted the piece for recreational boaters. I tried my best to get it published, but no one wanted it. Reader’s Digest said it was “too dark,” and everyone else (including Soundings magazine) simply ignored the submission.

Thanks to a friend of mine who had a blog, my piece on drowning was first posted eight years ago to the day in 2010. It went viral and crashed his website. Since then, it’s been translated into 15 languages, was published in the Washington Post, and Reader’s Digest eventually requested to buy the rights. After years of saying yes to requests to republish, repost and translate (there have been hundreds), I released the piece to the public domain. But I never got the article into a major boating magazine as I intended. Well, this is my blog, so I like my chances this time.

Summer is coming, folks, and I think the short article below is the most valuable thing I’ve put together, ever. I wanted to make sure followers of this blog have read it.

Drowning Doesn’t Look Like Drowning

The new captain jumped from the deck, fully dressed, and sprinted through the water. A former lifeguard, he kept his eyes on his victim and headed straight for a couple who were swimming between their anchored sportfish 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 a sandbar. “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 toward him. “Move!” he barked as he sprinted between the stunned owners. Directly behind them, not 10 feet away, their nine-year-old daughter was drowning. Safely above the surface in the arms of the captain, she burst into tears and screamed, “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, 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 when people enter the water. Until she cried a tearful, “Daddy,” the owner’s daughter 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 it to. When someone is drowning there is very little splashing, and no waving or yelling or calling for help of any kind. To get an idea of just how quiet and undramatic drowning can be, consider this: It is the number two 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 percent of those drownings, the adult will actually watch them do it, having no idea it is happening.

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