"Dr. Pia, in an article in the Coast Guard’s On Scene Magazine, described the instinctive drowning response like this:
- Except in rare circumstances, drowning people are physiologically unable to call out for help. The respiratory system was designed for breathing. Speech is the secondary or overlaid function. Breathing must be fulfilled, before speech occurs.
- Drowning people’s mouths alternately sink below and reappear above the surface of the water. The mouths of drowning people are not above the surface of the water long enough for them to exhale, inhale, and call out for help. When the drowning people’s mouths are above the surface, they exhale and inhale quickly as their mouths start to sink below the surface of the water.
- Drowning people cannot wave for help. Nature instinctively forces them to extend their arms laterally and press down on the water’s surface. Pressing down on the surface of the water, permits drowning people to leverage their bodies so they can lift their mouths out of the water to breathe.
- Throughout the Instinctive Drowning Response, drowning people cannot voluntarily control their arm movements. Physiologically, drowning people who are struggling on the surface of the water cannot stop drowning and perform voluntary movements such as waving for help, moving toward a rescuer, or reaching out for a piece of rescue equipment.
- From beginning to end of the Instinctive Drowning Response people’s bodies remain upright in the water, with no evidence of a supporting kick. Unless rescued by a trained lifeguard, these drowning people can only struggle on the surface of the water from 20 to 60 seconds before submersion occurs."
(Source: On Scene Magazine: Fall 2006 (page 14))
Some years ago I went with a youth group on a rafting trip on the American river. I wasn't as familiar with the history of that river as I am now. Since that time, I have learned that many people drown each year on the American river. If I had known that then, I would have reacted differently to what happened.
While we were floating down the river, a couple of the young men got out of the boats, and were floating down the river without life jackets. Both of the boys were at least 6'3", and at least 250 pounds. As we were floating along, one of them floated nearby, and I noticed a look in his eye that wasn't normal. My instincts told me something wasn't right. He was very close to the boat, so I said, "Are you okay?" He shook his head no. I called for the others to help me, and we got him up in to our raft. He said that while he was swimming, an undertow got hold of him, and he couldn't swim out of it. He said he swam with all his might to try to swim out of the powerful tug of the undertow, but couldn't. Finally he was able to break free, and came to the surface of the water, exhausted, and frightened. That was when I saw him.
A few minutes later, we were a little farther down the river, and I noticed that same look in the eye of the other young man who was in the water. Again, I asked if he was okay, and he said no. The same thing had happened to him, and even though he was a good swimmer, he was unable to break free of the undertow for quite some time. We were able to also get him in to our raft.
At the time I complained to the other leaders that it wasn't safe for the youth to be out of the rafts. They all disagreed with me, even though two young men had near misses. If I had known the history of the river then, I would have INSISTED that all youth remain in the boats. In recent years, they have discontinued the rafting activity, much to my relief.
I hope that each of us can review the signs of a drowning victim, and act quickly if we see someone having trouble. It might just save a life!