How Can Good Swimmers Drown? (Here’s what to know)


man next to lifeboat

As swimming can be fun and relaxing, it’s easy to forget that water can also be a threat in the wrong situation.

The World Health Organisation identifies drowning as the 3rd leading cause of unintentional injury death worldwide, accounting for 7% of all injury-related deaths. [source]

Although children are most at risk of drowning, we lose thousands of competent adult swimmers each year. As the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) point out, most of these drownings happen in rivers, lakes, and oceans – not hospitals – making formal reporting of these deaths rare. [source]

Good swimmers can drown from a number of factors, including strong currents in the ocean, lack of water education, not knowing how to “float to live”, overconfidence, panic, underwater obstacles that can cause injury or drinking alcohol around water.

It can be hard to believe that a good swimmer can drown, but there are lots of situations and reasons why this could happen.

As someone who has had to cope with a fear of water, the prospect of drowning and the threat that water poses is never too far from my mind.

In this article, I want to shed a light on how good swimmers can drown so we can all watch out for these hidden threats.

1. Not Knowing The “Float To Live” Guide

Drowning prevention research has shown that the best way to survive a potential drowning situation is to turn on your back, float and relax. [source]

Sometimes good swimmers will find themselves in a tricky water situation and instantly thrash about trying to break into a swim to get to safety.

Depending on the situation, sometimes going straight to swimming can be a bad move, as if you are in cold water or in strong currents, you might find yourself fatigued and gasping uncontrollably, which can lead to drowning.

The RNLI has a drowning prevention campaign called “Float To Live”, which is clear advice on what you should do if you find yourself in a panicked water situation. [source]

Here is a summary of the main points on how to float, which can be read in full on the RNLI website.

1. Fight Your Instinct To Thrash Around

The instinct of a good swimmer will be to swim hard. The RNLI advise against this. They suggest that you keep calm and try not to panic.

2. Lean Back

Lean back into the water, which will keep your nose and mouth out of the water and maintain a cleared airway. It will help if you extend your arms and legs.

3. Gentle Body Movements

Gently move your arms and legs if you need to in order to float or tread water.

4. Control Your Breathing

It is important to float on your back until you can catch your breath and control your breathing. This can take a couple of minutes until you feel calm and relaxed. It can take up to 90 seconds for cold water shock to pass and if you are in cold water, you need to wait for your body to adapt.

5. Get To Safety

Once you have control of your breathing and are calm, you can then think straight and get out of the situation.

2. Cold Water Shock

Falling into cold water can cause good swimmers to drown.

The average temperature of UK and Irish seas is around 12⁰C which the National Centre For Cold Water Safety classify as, “Very Dangerous / Immediately Life-Threatening”.

60-50F (15-10C) Very Dangerous/Immediately Life-threatening

Total loss of breathing control. Maximum intensity cold shock. Unable to control gasping and hyperventilation.

National Centre For Cold Water Safety

Professor Mike Tipton MBE, who is a Professor of Human and Applied Physiology at the University of Portsmouth, has identified cold water shock as the real threat in cold water, not hypothermia.

He points out that when you fall into cold water, it makes you thrash around and triggers the ‘flight or fight’ response, which works on land but not water.

Our natural instinct is to swim hard to safety in cold water, but he recommends you fight the instinct to swim until the cold shock passes. [source]

It takes between 60-90 seconds for cold water shock to pass. If you drop suddenly into cold water, get on your back and float until the shock passes and you can control your breathing.

Cold water will make you gasp uncontrollably. It is a horrible experience but will pass within three minutes. You need to get on your back and relax, with your mouth and nose above the water.

This advice ties in with what the RNLI recommends with their “float to live” advice.

It might feel counterintuitive to remain still in cold water and goes against every one of your natural instincts but drowning prevention research has shown that we should not fight against cold water and we should float on our backs until we have gained control and the cold water shock passes. [source]

3. Over Confidence

Water confidence is a great thing, and it is wonderful to be confident and embrace the water.

It is possible to be overconfident however and overestimate your swimming ability.

Many good swimmers can get into difficulty by being overconfident.

It might be a case that they swim farther than their ability out to sea or take on a challenge that is beyond their skill level.

Once your confidence is challenged in the water, panic can settle in which can lead to drowning.

It is important to not overestimate your water ability or place yourself in a tricky water situation because it “looks easy”.

If you are taking on a swimming event or swimming in waters that you are not used to, be cautious and train to ensure you have the ability to cope.

4. Underwater Obstacles

Many great swimmers have drowned due to injuries caused by underwater obstacles.

A common injury in swimming results from diving headfirst into shallow water, or water with reeds, or objects on the floor that can catch on clothing and hold you under.

Head injury can lead to being unconscious in the water, which can lead to drowning.

For experienced swimmers, these underwater obstacles are a threat in open water lakes and river swimming.

All too often good swimmers have dived into rivers and lakes from bridges, to find that the water is much shallower than expected or there is a bed of tangled weeds on the lake floor which can cause their clothing to become caught, which can hold them under.

Never dive into unknown waters. Always check the water depth and the floor of the water to ensure you will not suffer a head injury or get your clothing snagged on underwater obstacles.

5. Panic

The key to surviving a bad water situation is to not panic, but this is a lot easier said than done.

Anyone can experience panic in the water, from amateur swimmers to expert swimmers.

A good swimmer might find themselves in an unknown water situation that they are not used to or are uncomfortable with. For example, a talented pool swimmer might feel very uncomfortable and panicked if swimming in the sea.

The key to survival is to float on your back until you have relaxed and can think clearly.

Once you have controlled your breathing and negative thoughts, you can then begin to swim to safety.

To deal with panic, simply turn on your back and float until you have relaxed.

6. Alcohol & Intoxication

Being drunk or intoxicated around a body of water is dangerous.

If you fall into deep water and do not have control of your senses, you could find yourself thrashing to stay afloat, which will lead to fatigue and ultimately drowning.

91+ Best Swimming Quotes
91+ Best Swimming Quotes

Most of us love and party and the swimmers amongst us love a party next to the water!

Being intoxicated next to the water can be a deadly combination, so ensure you take precautions and avoid the water when under the influence.

7. Lack Of Water Education

When learning to swim, the majority of lessons focus on teaching the swims strokes and not on the actual skill of survival in water.

Personally, I believe that survival skills such as floating, treading water and identifying a dangerous body of water should be taught as part of every swimming lesson, but this is not always the case.

Many people can swim well in the swimming pool, however, once they are in a deeper pool or in the ocean, they might find they are out of their comfort zone and realise that they need to tread water for a much longer period of time as they cannot simply swim to the pool edge for something to hold on to.

In addition to knowing how to float and how to tread water, I believe it is important to know how to identify dangerous water, for example, learning how to spot a rip current.

If you watch experienced surfers at a beach, you will see that they will not just jump out of their car and run to the water.

Firstly, they will find a high point so they can get a good view of how the sea is working, where the waves are breaking and if there is a rip current they can use to help carry them out to sea to get out to the big waves.

A rip current is a powerful and narrow channel of water that is running out to sea. Once you learn to spot them, you can see that they are like a river running out into the ocean.

All the waves that come onto the beach must return out to sea and typically they will take the path of least resistance. You may see a channel of water running out into the ocean. To the untrained eye, they can be very hard to spot.

If you do not educate yourself about rip currents, it can be very easy to find yourself in one. Here is a great video that will teach you how to spot a rip current.

Many swimmers panic and try to swim hard towards the shore, which is the worst thing you can do if you get caught in a rip current.

Swimming against a rip current is like swimming upriver. Within seconds, you will be exhausted.

A common strategy for escaping from a rip current is to swim parallel to shore. The idea is that you “swim across” the river of water and slowly swim into the beach at an angle.

By doing this, you are not swimming against the current and can get out of it.

Sometimes, however, if there is a longshore current going against you, it may push you back into the rip.

Here is a video on how to escape a rip current. This advice has helped me escape a rip current in the past.

8. Open Water

Open water swimming can be dangerous and is an area where experienced swimmers can find themselves in difficulty.

There are many aspects of open water that can be a drowning risk for an experienced swimmer, including: [source]

1. Risk of impact from other water bodies such as boats.

If you are going to swim in open water, ensure you wear a bright wetsuit and a brightly coloured swimming hat.

This will allow other water users to see you in the water.

Ideally, you should also use an inflatable tow so you can be seen in the water.

2. Poor visibility

It can be very difficult to see in some open water. This poor visibility can lead to navigation problems, and experienced swimmers can find themselves off course, which can lead to panic.

3. Unsupervised Water

Most open water is unsupervised and not protected by lifeguards.

As a result, good swimmers do not always have extra help and protection when things go wrong.

4. Water Temperature.

Water temperature can vary in open water and it is important to wear the right thermal protection to avoid the risk of cold water shock.

Final Thoughts

Safety first is always the most important thing around water. Sometimes good swimmers can become complacent and not realise the water they love so much maybe a threat to their lives.

As someone who has had to deal with a fear of water, I have to constantly work on my water confidence.

For me, part of building water confidence is understanding the hidden threats that might be in the water which can be dangerous to even the best of swimmers.

There are some basic survival skills that we should all know if we swim, including how to tread water and how to float on your back.

Always remember if you get into a difficult water situation to float. According to the experts, “simply turn on your back, float & relax”. [source]

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Louise Byrne

Hi, I am Louise and I am obsessed with swimming. I spend my free time in the water or getting ready for my next water adventure.

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