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How to not drown

John Worsey, Marketing Creative Copywriter at the University of Portsmouth

Every day, more than 1,000 people around the globe drown. But you can avoid becoming a statistic. August Bank Holiday is one of the busiest days of the year for the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI). Their nationwide campaign urging people to Respect The Water has been heavily informed by Professor Mike Tipton at the University of Portsmouth.

Research at Portsmouth revealed a key factor in drowning is a phenomenon known as “cold shock”. Sudden immersion in cold water snatches air from your lungs, leaving you gasping, panicking for breath. You can accidentally suck in water instead of air and quickly find yourself drowning.

Mike explains, ‘If you take a big breath in, that’s around three litres. The lethal dose of salt water for drowning is about a litre and a half. So being under the water or having a big wave splash into your face can be enough to start the drowning process. The other problem with cold water is that it tends to make you thrash around and try to swim hard – panicking and fighting the water. That’s the “fight or flight” response. Which works on land, but not in water.’

Mike knows all about this, because he established the globally recognised way to prevent drowning – turn on your back, float and relax. Fight the instinct to swim to safety until the cold shock passes, usually within 60–90 seconds. Force yourself to pause. Float until you’re able to catch your breath.

Staying still in cold water isn’t easy, and many people don’t believe they’re able to float. But Mike and his teamconducted trials with 85 people of different ages, shapes, sizes, genders, and swimming abilities. These revealed that everyone can float, either on their own or with gentle sculling, and clothing helps you float by trapping air.

Mike says, ‘Horizontal is a much less stressful position to be in. You’ve got to have the confidence to do nothing and to fight that instinct to thrash about and swim. Just trust that you’re not going to be floating on top of the water. You’re still in it but your airways will be clear of water.’

So, how to float? Lean back in the water and keep your airway clear. Keeping calm will help maintain buoyancy. You might find it helps to assume a “star” position, gently scull with your hands and kick your feet if necessary. But essentially, the idea is to do as little as possible until the shock has gone in a minute or two. 

Mike’s research helped shape the RNLI’s Float To Live advice. With coastal drownings falling by 30 per cent in 2017, it seems to be saving lives; numerous people have contacted the RNLI saying they remembered to float first when they fell into cold water, and they’re sure it saved their life.

Some final tips from Mike: ‘If you’re planning to go into the water, choose a lifeguarded beach and swim between the red and yellow flags – the area most closely monitored by the lifeguards. And if you see someone else in danger in the water, don’t try to rescue them if it involves putting yourself in danger. Instead, call 999 or 112 and ask for the Coastguard.’  

Posted in: Articles, Health & Fitness