Do you know what drowning looks like?
The popular image of dying underwater – characterized by flailing arms and legs, screaming and desperate cries for help – is ubiquitous in movies and on television.
But the victims mostly slip under the surface unnoticed, a leading water safety organization has warned.
“Drowning is not like the movies,” warns Guy Addington, South East Water Safety Officer at the Royal National Lifeboat Institution.
“Someone is thrashing and screaming – they might be in great distress, but they’re not drowning.
“Drowning can go unnoticed, be silent and not be seen until it is too late.
Silent drownings occur with “alarming frequency”, warns Addington.
But you can protect yourself – and others – from this fate by following a few simple tips.
What does drowning look like?
Every year around 140 people die by drowning in the UK coast. If you include the number of deaths at indoor venues and swimming poolsthis grim figure climbs to over 400.
Across the EU, more than 5,000 people die this way each year.
Part of the problem is a misunderstanding of how people drown, Addington says.
“Very often drowning is nothing like what you would expect,” he says.
“Drowning is water entering the airways and choking [it] at the top. And once you have water in your airways, you can’t make noise.
As well as working for the RNLI, Addington has volunteered for the Margate Life Navigation Station since he was just 17. For nearly three decades at the station, he helped thousands of struggling people sea.
Drowning is so dangerous because the victims usually cannot attract attention, he explains.
“A very recent example involves a four-year-old girl who disappeared on a beach,” he says.
“She was found below the surface in a coastal pool area. Fortunately, she is recovering completely.
“But the thing is, it was a beautiful day, with really mild conditions, in a fairly sheltered spot. And it slipped below the surface unnoticed by thousands of people on that particular beach.
Drowning often feels like nothing at all – and that’s what makes it so dangerous.
How to prevent drowning?
Fortunately, there are ways to reduce the risk of drowning.
The key is to keep an eye on your friends and family at beach. Children being particularly vulnerable, they must be supervised at all times.
“Make sure children don’t go it alone,” Addington says.
“It sounds obvious, but it can be really difficult when it’s a nice sunny day and you’re having fun.”
If you find yourself in trouble, try not to panic. Instead, follow the RNLI’s “float to live” advice.
Fight the instinct to swim hard – it will only tire you. Instead, lean back, extend your arms and legs out in a starfish shape, and float on your back. You may need to gently wiggle your limbs to keep yourself out of the water.
Once you’ve got your breathing under control, you can consider your next move – whether it’s calling for help or trying to swim to safety.
What other swimming safety tips should you know?
Know your limits when swimming, especially at the beach.
“Drowning is almost always the result of people overestimating their ability to swim and underestimating the risks and dangers,” Addington says.
“People think their ability in a swimming pool matches their ability in a the wide environment.
“But the ground is not flat, you don’t know where the shallow end is, you don’t know where the deep end is – and the water is moving.”
Whether you are swimming or taking a inflatable or by boat, you must be aware of the environmental conditions.
The weather can change quickly, so check the forecast before heading out. Make sure you understand when the tides come in and go out.
Keep an eye out for strong currents flowing out to sea, called riptides. They can quickly take you away from the shore and in deep water.
If you find yourself in a rip, “float to live” – then swim parallel to the shore to try and get out of the current.
Finally, if you see someone in distress at sea, know which emergency number to call. In the UK, call 999 and ask for the coastguard. If you are swimming in Europe, check the local emergency contact before you go.
“We don’t want to take the party pooper mantle, we really want people to come to the coast,” Addington says.
“But we want to make sure that people, when they visit the coast do it safely.