10 Shocking Truths About Drowning Every Beach Goer Should Know

If you're going near the water this summer, here's what you need to know

Last week, the RNLI released this chilling drink drive-style video on how good times can very quickly turn bad at the seaside…

It’s super-heavy but it gets the message across. And with over 200 people drowning around British coastlines each year it’s a message we need to hear.

Here are 10 things you might not know about drowning:

1) If you’re a guy and you drink you’re more likely to drown than a woman or non-drinker.

Credit: iStock/Piranka

Over 2/3 of coastal drowning victims are male, with booze and its close friend bravado a contributing factor in a fifth of deaths according to RNLI stats. Alcohol also slows down your reaction times and makes you more susceptible to hypothermia.

2) Drowning is an eerily quiet event.

Credit: Youtube/WIVBTV

Victims rarely scream or manically wave their arms about as we’re used to seeing in TV and at the movies. All their energy and instincts are focused on trying to keep their head above the water to breathe. The little boy in the gif above was saved by a lifeguard, but no one around him had noticed he was in trouble.

3) In fact in 10% of drownings, there were people nearby who didn’t notice.

Credit: iStock/Massimo-Colombo

According to a study by the CDC in the US, quoted in this Slate article. If you think someone might be in trouble, don’t worry about looking like an overprotective fool, ask them if they’re ok to make sure. If they can’t answer you need to act.

4) Cold water makes you more likely to drown even if you’re a strong swimmer.


Cold water shock is the body’s involuntary response to being immersed in cold water, that is water of 15 degrees C and below. UK coastlines average 6-10 degrees C in winter, and 15-20 degrees C in summer. Cold water shock can cause you to gasp uncontrollably, which can lead to drowning. At 15 degrees your ability to breathe would be one third of what it would be in warmer waters, and the lower the water temperature the greater the problem.

If you do feel the cold water shock response coming on the best advice is to keep calm, float on your back and keep your face out of the water. The response peaks at 30 seconds but should subside after two-three minutes as your body gets accustomed to the cold. Read more at RNLI.

5) But the more you swim in cold water, the less likely you are to suffer from cold water shock.

Credit: iStock/miljko

The good news is that research shows the more you swim in cold water the more your lungs and body get used to the cold water so it’s unlikely to produce the shock response. Professor Mike Tipton, an expert on cold water shock from the University of Portsmouth and an RNLI advisor, says: “You can reduce the size of the cold water shock response by as much as a half by repeated exposure to cold water. You only need as few as five or six swims with two or three minute exposures.”

So if you were planning a cold water surf trip or sea swim you could prepare in advance, which also explains why regular year-round surfers and sea swimmers don’t suffer from it. It also helps to get into the water slowly rather than jumping in.

6) You’ll drown quicker in the sea than a river.

Credit: iStock/Shevtsovy

Not because of the waves, though rough water can of course be a factor. But Professor Mike Tipton says: “A lethal dose of salt water in your lungs would be 1.5 litres, where as with fresh water it would be 3 litres.”

7) In the US more children die in swimming pools than from guns.

Credit: iStock/ewg3D

According to the CDC, children are 10 times more likely to die from a swimming pool drowning than an accidental gun discharge. Advice to prevent swimming pool deaths include having gates and fences around them, having one adult clearly in charge of looking after children, keeping young children and non-swimmers within reaching distance and for adults, not drinking and swimming.

8) Rip currents are responsible for 2/3 of RNLI lifeguard call outs.

Credit: Creative Commons

If you do get caught in a rip tide, keep calm and don’t try to fight the current. If you can signal for help and swim parallel to the shore until you’re out of the current and can swim to shore. And if you’re on a board, stay on it.

I was once caught in a rip tide in Bali; I wrote about the experience for Cooler last year.

9) There’s nothing painless about death by drowning.

Credit: iStock/ tunart

People sometimes say that drowning is the best way to die, romanticising it as a painless death. Professor Mike Tipton disputes that. He says: “People who’ve been through near-drowning describe a period of terror and suffocation followed by a burning tearing sensation in your lungs as water enters the airways. Then convulsions and a coma and ultimately a hypoxic death.” That doesn’t sound remotely pleasant to us.

10) Almost all drowning deaths are preventable.

Credit: iStock/ChrisAt

Which is actually the most reassuring thing in many ways. Learning to swim well, swimming between the flags on lifeguarded beaches, and looking out for your buddies and children are the most important things you can do.

The seaside is definitely something to be enjoyed and not feared, you just need to keep your wits about you and #respectthewater as the RNLI hashtag urges. Stay safe this summer people.

And be sure to read more tips and about the work of the RNLI at their website. You can also donate to help this super-important but nonetheless voluntary organisation.

You may also like…

Don’t go surfing without reading this first: how to avoid drowning in a rip current

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167 people died at the British coastline last year, but the biggest killer wasn’t the one you’d expect


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