How To Describe a Person Who is Drowning

In almost all movies I have ever seen or books I have ever read where a person is supposedly drowning, there is lots of thrashing around, calling and waving for help, and other panicky behavior, but the truth is completely different from what we’d expect.

In the Fall 2006 issue of On Scene: The Journal of U.S. Coast Guard Search and Rescue, Aviation Survival Technician First Class Mario Vittone and Francesco A. Pia, Ph.D explain how to recognize the instinctive drowning response:

1. 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. 2. Drowning people’s mouths alternately sink below and reappear above the surface of the water. The moutpuget soundhs 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.

3. 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.

4. 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.

5. 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.

Yikes. Makes me glad I’m not a lifeguard or someone who writes books with drowning victims since it would be hard to recognize such stillness as someone in distress. (Makes me even gladder I have a healthy fear of deep water.) Still, if I ever had to write about someone who is drowning, I know how to do write the scene. Hmmm. Maybe a short story someday. After all, I’ve already done the research! Or rather, Francesco Pia did.


Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

9 Responses to “How To Describe a Person Who is Drowning”

  1. rami ungar the writer Says:

    As someone who nearly drowned when I was 8 at the pool, this brought back memories.

  2. ROD MARSDEN Says:

    I nearly drowned at a beach when I was two but I have no memory of the incident. It’s just what I have been told.

    I know what drowning is like though. I had pneumonia when I was still in primary. Apparently the sensations on the mind and body are similar to drowning since your lungs are being filled up and not with air. I have also been told that there are also similarities in the corpse of a drowned person and also that of someone who has died from pneumonia.

  3. Pat Bertram Says:

    I once thought I was drowning, but apparently not. During a swimming lesson, we were told to jump into to deep end. I sunk to the bottom, and thrashed around and tried to find my way to the surface of the pool. The teacher had to rescue me. But I don’t think I ever got water in my lungs, so I wasn’t drowing. Just panicked.

  4. nancylynnjarvis Says:

    I open my first book, The Death Contingency, with a young man drowning off the shore of Davenport, California. His demise wasn’t what you described, but he suffered from hypothermia and we left him before he succumbed.

  5. lvgaudet Says:

    This is interesting. Every person drowning in a movie or book went completely against my own experience. I always thought there must be something wrong with me I panicked. I froze. I read an article recently too that described the real signs of drowning. The couple thought their boat captain was jumping in to rescue them, that he mistook their play splashing. It never occurred to them their kid was quietly drowning behind then.

    It makes me wonder what else is often described wrong either from simple ignorance or just because the reality isn’t splashy enough.

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      Most truths aren’t splashy enough for movies, not just water truths. For example, in almost all cinematic car chases, the driver turns around to look out the back window. I mean, who in real life ever does that? But quietly glancing at a rear view mirror isn’t dramatic enough, I guess.

      I’m so glad you didn’t drown! Not just because it would ave been a terrible way to go, but because I would have missed knowing you.

    • ROD MARSDEN Says:

      Cars and trucks going over cliffs and exploding when they presumably hit the ground is wrong. Most cars and trucks will crumple rather than explode. I saw a French movie once where they got the timing wrong. The truck exploded a fraction of a second before it hit. Obviously the guys making the explosion happen did so too soon and they didn’t have the money to do the scene over again.

Please leave a comment. I'd love to hear what you have to say.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: