Coast guard

Seven Deadly Swims

Story by Pamela Doty
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Water Safety

The primary reasons that lead to most adults dying in open waters while boating or swimming may surprise you. What follows are seven swimming-related activities to avoid that lead to most water-related fatalities.

1. Many people who drown were known to be able to swim, so adults’ overestimating their swimming ability is a leading cause of drowning. Open-water swimming fatalities usually happen outside of designated swimming areas. Swimming in open waters is not like swimming in a pool where you can easily touch the bottom or reach the sides. Plus, unless you’re swimming on a regular basis your swim abilities tend to decrease with age. Another common deadly occurrence is when someone challenges another to a distance swim. A belt-style, manually-inflatable, life jacket is good to wear while swimming because if you become exhausted all you have to do is pull the cord to inflate it and save your life.

2. Swimming to rescue a person or retrieve a boat, beach ball, or some other object is another common way that adults drown in open waters. Often this happens when a boat drifts away at a boat ramp from not being properly tied. Someone jumps in to retrieve the boat and they haven’t thought to put on their life jacket yet or it’s on the boat. It’s too common how many people drown while trying to retrieve a hat that flew off someone on a boat or after a beach ball that has floated away. It’s very sad when an adult jumps overboard without wearing a life jacket to help someone else in distress and their loved ones watch them drown.

3. Falls from boats, docks, or the shore are another leading cause of water-related fatalities. The shock of unexpectedly falling into water has even caused swimmers to panic and drown in shallow waters where they could have stood up. Entering cold water unexpectedly causes an involuntary gasp reflex that makes people drown, even if they know how to swim. Eight out of ten fall overboard incidents happen on vessels less than 21-feet long, but people drown from falling off pontoon and larger boats too. It takes an average of ten minutes for a strong swimmer to put on a life jacket after they enter the water. Therefore, the time to put on a life jacket is anytime you’re near water and definitely before you get on a boat. You may be knocked unconscious when you suddenly fall in and the thought that you’ll be able to grab a life jacket as you’re falling is as ridiculous as thinking you could put on a seat belt just before a car accident. If you’re knocked unconscious wearing a life jacket, someone can pull you from the water before you drown, so always boat and swim with a buddy.

4. Jumping or diving into open waters where you can’t see what’s under the water’s surface can be a deadly or paralyzing experience. You never know what kind of floating objects or hidden debris could be underwater. At a lake near me, a guy jumped into the water and was impaled by a stick that went through his rectum. In another incident a grandfather drowned in front of his wife and granddaughter from jumping off the boat to check the water depth. That particular man didn’t know how to swim, but even good swimmers have jumped into open waters and never came back up for reasons that were never determined. Impaired jumpers or people who enter water unexpectedly have been known to swim down, instead of up to safety, due to an inner ear imbalance caused by alcohol or drugs.

5. Carbon Monoxide (CO) poisoning has killed people while on boats and swimming around them. CO is generated by faulty gasoline-powered engines, including generators. CO can be linger near the water’s surface, especially on calm days with no wind. Inhaling this colorless, odorless gas can cause you to quickly and silently pass out and drown if you’re in the water. Swimming around boats rafted together or having many boats in the same area can increase the chances of CO poisoning accumulating. If you’re enjoying floating or swimming in the water around boats, make sure all boat motors and generators are turned off and wear a properly-fitted life jacket.

6. Alcohol is a leading contributing factor for boating accidents and fatalities when primary cause is known, according to the U.S. Coast Guard. Boating and swimming in open waters can be exhausting even without alcohol. It’s important to stay hydrated with water when you’re on or in the water. There’s something called boater’s hypnosis caused by the effects of sun, glare, wind, noise, and motion (vibration) of a boat. These stressors can slow your reaction time almost as much as if you were legally intoxicated. An alert sober driver and passengers are needed to help keep watch out for other boaters that may not be as cautious. Prepare for the unexpected by making sure everyone on board or swimming around your boat is wearing a properly-fitted life jacket.

7. Shallow water or hypoxic blackout can happen from prolonged breath-holding activities while swimming or playing in the water. A person basically “blacks out” or faints in the water from low oxygen to the brain which is sometimes caused by hyperventilating before you enter the water. Shallow water / hypoxic blackout can affect anyone who is breath-holding, and it typically happens to swimmers, snorkelers, or anyone that free dives. The old adage “swim with a buddy” is just as important for adults as children and it’s a good idea to make sure your buddy is aware of this risk and proper rescue methods.

To ensure all your memories of water-related activities are fun and enjoyable for you and your loved ones, please wear a properly-fitted life jacket. Share this information with others to raise more awareness and prevent swims that could have a tragic ending.


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