Recognize and Prevent Drowning

Knowing the signs of drowning makes you a safer boatman.

As a former lifeguard, I can attest that people drown fast, often in the close company of their companions. As boat owners, it makes good sense for us to recognize the signs of drowning. This is critical not only for safety, but also for executing the most effective rescue techniques should the danger threaten. So, what does drowning really look like?

“Unfortunately, most people get their idea from TV,” says Frank Pia, a former lifeguard and member of the American Red Cross’ Advisory Council on First Aid and Safety and Preparedness, who holds a doctorate in interdisciplinary studies. Pia’s advice should not be taken lightly — after all, he is credited with identifying the Instinctive Drowning Response(IDR), now used in standard training procedures for lifesavers worldwide, including the U.S. Coast Guard.

Forget Hollywood
The IDR blows away the stereotype of the flailing, screaming victim. Such behavior describes aquatic distress , and distressed persons can help themselves to a degree.


“Because breathing is the respiratory system’s priority, the brain doesn’t allow for speech during drowning,” Pia explains. Even though the victim’s head may be above the water, he or she can’t call for help and is instead relegated to gulping air. Graphic proof of this can be seen in the short film Why People Drown ($19,, which captures actual drowning rescues.

Additionally, a drowning person’s brain automatically instructs the arms to push down on the water, in an effort to get the mouth and nose above the surface. In survival mode, body and mind don’t allow for grabbing a rope or life jacket thrown nearby.

With the IDR embedded deep in the reptilian part of our brain, these autonomic responses can’t be overcome. The bottom line for us boatmen is that drowning crew memberS can’t tell us that they are drowning, and they can’t assist in their own rescue.


Keys to Prevent Drowning
Pia maintains that drowning isn’t an accident. Rather, it’s a preventable injury. Here are five steps to prevent drowning on your watch.

1. Keep a sharp eye on crew in the water. Alcohol, exposure to the elements and unexpected bottom-structure drop-offs can cause even strong adult swimmers to suddenly drown.

2. Learn to recognize the primary signs of the IDR: a vertical orientation in the water, no speech or leg kicks and arms pushing down beneath the surface.


3. When tossing a lifeline or Type IV PFD, aim so that the apparatus lands beside the flapping arms. Remember, the person won’t be able to reach and grab. Ditto for extending a gaff or mop to a drowning person — place it where the arms will touch it without reaching and allow nature’s clutching instinct to take over.

4. Avoid a swimming rescue as your first response unless you are a trained lifesaver — double drownings occur this way.

5. If you must swim to save a crew member, don a life jacket and then perform a “wading rescue,” in which you angle your body toward the boat or shore at arm’s length from the victim, grab the wrist and then side-stroke to safety. Let go if the person tries to hug you.


Crew safety is seamanship’s primary purpose. Learn to recognize drowning and then act decisively.