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Desperately sad. Easily avoided.

I have to say something about this desperately sad story, in which two children, non-swimmers both, drowned and died along with their mother, also a non-swimmer, who had been supervising them as they swam in a hotel pool (without a lifeguard). It seems that one or both girls somehow got into trouble and the mother then jumped in to try to save them. All of them died.

What I have to say is this: do not ever swim without a qualified lifeguard watching you. And if you do, quite literally the last thing you may do is jump in to save someone. By doing so you are worsening the emergency: now there are two people in trouble instead of one.

Drowning people don’t look like the stereotype, with lots of thrashing and waving arms and shouting and all that. People who truly can’t swim often are just below the surface. You might see their arms — they might look like they’re climbing a ladder — but they don’t come far out of the water. They’re quiet, not calling out. They’re using all their effort to try to reach the surface. They are desperate and they are not rational.

And these folks are dangerous. Unless you really know what you’re doing, you shouldn’t go anywhere near a drowning person. They are so freaked out, so detached from normal perception, so focused on their own survival that they will do anything — ANYTHING — to keep themselves at the surface. They are incredibly strong from adrenalin, and they will push you under and keep you under the surface of the water if climbing up your body will help them stay on the surface. Even a small child can drown you this way, even if you are a grown adult and a good swimmer.

Sometimes, drowning people don’t struggle. In a certain percentage of cases people just quietly slide under the surface. Even then if you jump in and try to grab them, if they’re still conscious they can push you under and kill you. They don’t mean to do it, but they will.

Treat drowning people like you would a wild animal you were trying to rescue. Pretend they have fangs and claws and poisonous barbs.

The usual algorithm to follow when considering a rescue is (with variations, but this is the simplest to remember):

  1. Talk – sometimes all the person needs is a calming voice, reassurance and guidance to help them reach safety.
  2. Reach – reach out to the person with an object — reaching pole, flutterboard, towel, paddle, pool noodle, piece of clothing — anything! If you absolutely must use your own body, lie down on your stomach so the drowning person can’t pull you in.
  3. Throw – throw the person a buoyant object such as a flutterboard or ring buoy and talk them in or pull them in. If you’re using a ring buoy, don’t forget to stand on the end of the rope when you throw it so it doesn’t ALL head out to sea (I always forget this important point).
  4. Row – use a boat to get to them, have them grab the stern end of the boat, and row them to shallow water,
  5. Go – swim out to them with a buoyant object. Stop a few metres away. Push the object to them with your foot. Keep well away. Talk to them reassuringly and guide them to shore.
  6. Tow – swim out to them with any object — a buoyant one if you can get one, but otherwise anything – piece of clothing, towel, whatever. The point is just to keep some distance between you. Have them hold one end of the object. Hold the other end and tow them to safety. If they start to come at you (by crawling up the object, for example), let go and swim a short distance away. Talk to them and see if you can get them to calm down and stop trying to kill you.
  7. and then if all else fails, Carry, which you should only ever do if you are trained to do so. If you aren’t trained in how to safely touch a drowning person, don’t do it. Run for help instead.

In a pool situation, such as the one referenced above in which all three people died, there is virtually never a reason for someone who is not a trained lifeguard to go in the water to rescue someone. Pools are always equipped with reaching and throwing assists. Always. More than one. There will probably be a reaching pole on a wall, a ring bouy on another wall, and various pool noodles, flutterboards, and other buoyant objects around. Use these. Don’t lose your head and leap in.

If you have children, or if you cannot swim yourself, as a first step for everyone I recommend the Swim to Survive program, because you can never tell when you may end up in deep water. It pays to be prepared, even minimally prepared. The Star has been promoting this program recently.

As the Kaianad/Yasmin family so tragically demonstrated this week, non-swimmers should never, ever be “supervising” non-swimmers in the water. Even if you are a good swimmer, you never know when you’re going to bonk your head, inhale water unexpectedly, get tangled in seaweed, get a cramp, or any number of other minor issues that could become fatal if no help is available.

So swim only in places where you know a trained person is watching. Please.

One Response to “Desperately sad. Easily avoided.”

Sara Schmidt says:

Appreciate your article. Good advice to keep cool in desperate situations.