Total Immersion —
A Short Course in Not Drowning
By Tamia Nelson
August 10, 2010
Water may be every paddler's favorite element, but unless you've grown gills, it's not your natural element. So whenever you're on the water — or even near it — drowning's always a danger. Deaths by drowning happen every day, and the toll includes expert swimmers as well as folks who can't swim a stroke. But there's some good news, too. Drowning is almost always preventable. I learned this lesson the hard way. Twice. You might think I'm a slow learner, and you'd be right. Luckily, though, you don't have to repeat my mistakes. You can profit from them, instead.
My first brush with death by drowning came on a hot June morning when I was in the fifth‑grade, on a class trip to a nearby lake. I had just swum out to the diving float, anchored over the lake's steeply shelving, weedy bottom. No sooner had I hauled myself out of the water and onto the float, however, than I found myself in the middle of a melee. A couple of other girls were scuffling, and before I knew it, I'd been knocked back into the water — but this time I was on the deep‑water side of the float. I landed hard, into the bargain, knocking all the breath out of my body, and I seemed to have lost all ability to swim. I couldn't scream for help, and I couldn't wave my hands in the air to attract attention. After a few seconds of ineffectual thrashing, I just sank. I can still remember the wave of panic rising in my breast as I drifted down toward the weed‑choked depths.
That could easily have been the end of the story, and it would have been, but for the quick actions of another girl, one not involved in the scuffle. She saw me go into the water. Then, when I didn't come right back up, she dived in after me and — with the help of several of my classmates on the float — pulled me out. I lay on the float and spluttered my thanks, but it was quite a while before I'd gathered the courage to swim back to shore. I probably hadn't been under water for more than minute when I was rescued, but that was plenty long enough. Another few seconds and I might not be writing this today.
And where was the lifeguard when all this was going on? Well, the swimming beach did have a lifeguard, and he was at his post, but I disappeared below the surface with so little fuss that he knew nothing of my plight. So it comes down to this: I owe my life to one of my classmates, an observant (and intelligent) 10‑year‑old girl.
The next time I came near to drowning, the setting was far more dramatic: the scenic Narrows of the upper Hudson. Farwell has told the story before, but here's the bare outline: He and I were paddling our Old Town Tripper in Class IV water. We did most things by the book. We were tolerably accomplished whitewater canoeists, we were paddling with other experienced boaters, and our canoe was properly outfitted. Nonetheless, I suffered (and was soon to suffer because of) two serious lapses of judgement. It was a warm day, and I'd opened the zipper on my PFD halfway in order to cool off. I'd also neglected to cinch up the PFD's waist tie after making a pit stop just upriver. The result was all too predictable, though it took the intervention of Nemesis — in the form of a massive, curling breaker — to make my folly manifest. When we failed to punch through the huge wave, Nemesis retaliated by heaving the bow of the Tripper skyward, throwing Farwell out of the boat in the process. I was left behind to do the best I could alone. But from my seat in the stern, I really couldn't do much with a waterlogged canoe. Not with another violent drop just ahead. And sure enough, only a second or two after the Tripper had reared up, it came back down, right on top of me.
Suddenly I was swimming a Class IV drop, trapped under a 17‑foot canoe. To add to my joy, my half‑zipped PFD almost floated free. My arms kept it from making a clean break, but it didn't do much to help me breathe. And to make matters even worse, my now‑sodden wool shirt was weighing down my chest, while my wetsuit pants were doing their best to hold my feet above the surface, forcing my head still further under water.
The few minutes that followed are a blur, but I remember the feeling of powerlessness that quickly overwhelmed me. Once again, I found my muscles ignoring my brain's commands. Meanwhile, Farwell was running frantically — and futilely — along the rocky shoreline, trying desperately to track my descent, listening for a shout that would never come. And what of our companions? While they knew we'd dumped, they didn't even know I was in trouble. Still, luck was on my side again, and Fortune's smile deflected Nemesis' wrath. The timely intervention of a kayaker from another group of boaters saved me. He hauled my nearly inert form from the river just when I thought all hope was lost.
OK. If you're a whitewater boater, you've probably spotted where Farwell and I went wrong that day on the Hudson. We didn't scout the rapids, for one thing, even though this was our first time through the Narrows. And we didn't insist on posting a rescue boat near the bottom of the drop, for another. Nor was I wise to exchange my wetsuit top for a wool shirt. But Farwell's already touched on many of these mistakes in his earlier column, and I don't see the need to go over them again now. Instead, let's concentrate on the "end game" itself. What, in short, have I learned about drowning in my two narrow brushes with death?
The Straight Skinny About Drowning
Three things stand out, mostly because they run counter to "common sense." While I came to these conclusions after my own lucky escapes, I'm happy to say that they're echoed by the real experts: rescue swimmers and other pros. And here they are…
- Drowning victims go quietly
- The drowning can't help themselves
- And it doesn't take long to drown
Now let's look at each of these points a bit more closely:
Drowning victims go quietly. If someone is drowning, they won't have any breath to spare for shouting. And they probably won't have the strength to attract attention by waving their hands in the air, either. They'll struggle briefly and then sink. Quietly, without much fuss or fanfare.
That's why the buddy system is so important. Don't swim (or run wild rivers) alone. And keep an eye on your companions. If someone disappears from sight beneath the surface unexpectedly, or fails to come up promptly after a dive or a capsize, go looking for her. Now. Don't wait till you hear a cry for help, or see her arms flailing frantically in the air. You're waiting for something that may never come.
The drowning can't help themselves. At best, a drowning person may — may — be able to grab a line or a pole. But you can't count on it. If someone in your party is drowning, don't bet on him being able to help himself. Assume that you'll have to do everything for him. His life is in your hands now. Literally.
It doesn't take long to drown. While there've been a few cases where drowning victims have been "brought back to life" after an hour or so underwater, such happy endings are very rare. Moreover, the fortunate victims in these singular instances were usually young (often an infant or child), the water was cold, and a well‑staffed trauma center was nearby. But these are infrequent exceptions, not everyday occurrences. The fate of most drowning victims is decided in a very few minutes. So if you think a companion is drowning, don't dawdle and dither. Act immediately. It's a matter of life and death.
As important as it is to recognize a drowning victim in time, however, it's better by far to avoid the need for a rescue in the first place. Happily, that's not so hard to do. The old saw was right: Where drowning is concerned…
Prevention Is Better Than Cure
The rules are simple:
- Always wear a properly fitted PFD
- Be a buddy
- Practice, practice, practice
Or, to be a little less cryptic…
Always wear a properly fitted PFD. A PFD that doesn't fit you can't do the job it was designed to do. Nor can one that's unzipped. So zip up! If you dump, you'll be busy enough without having to struggle just to hold your head above water. A securely fastened PFD lets you save your energy for other things, like snatching a breath between breakers. Be sure to keep it on until you stop for the day, too. Lots of folks have found themselves in the water when they lost their footing while scouting, tracking, or lining. Some of us have even slipped into the drink while we were framing a photograph at the river's edge. I'm naming no names, though.
Be a buddy. I've touched on this earlier, but it's worth repeating. We're in this together, right? So keep an eye on your buddies. And be sure they keep an eye on you, as well. Don't let anyone go under unnoticed.
Practice, practice, practice. Practice makes perfect. Another old saw, but no less true for all that. Learn the techniques of water rescue from an expert, and practice them regularly. Be sure you know how to spot a drowning victim, too. I've given a summary based on my own experience, but you can find a pro's account at "Drowning Doesn't Look Like Drowning." It's written by professional rescue swimmer and marine safety specialist Mario Vittone, and it's well worth studying. After all, it just might help you save someone's life. Or help someone else save yours.