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Rip Currents Part III: How to Spot a Drowning Victim and What to Do Without a Lifeguard

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Recently, I wrote about rip currents in two separate blogs. The main point that I emphasized in both blogs was the danger of other non-trained bystanders attempting to save victims caught in rip currents. However, one of my readers brought it to my attention that with the recent cutbacks in lifeguards at public beaches, it is becoming ever more difficult to rely on trained safety officials such as these. Bob Pratt, creator of the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project, informed me of several important facts about rip current deaths:

  • 20% of the 100 nationwide rip current-related deaths occur in the Great Lakes.
  • While 20-30 years ago, lifeguards were in great abundance at our Great Lakes beaches, with budget cuts, there are fewer and fewer trained rescuers.
  • Unfortunately, by the time rescuers arrive, there is little hope of saving a rip current victim. In fact, recovery in 2 minutes is equal to an 80% resuscitation rate, while rescue after 10 minutes is equivalent to only a 10% resuscitation rate.

While Bob doesn’t recommend that an untrained swimmer attempt an in-water rescue, there are several steps that someone can take to save a drowning person. First, flotation is key and tossing any flotable item to someone caught in a rip current could save their life (i.e. throw rings located at most piers, a plastic cooler, or a football). Second, many of the rip current victims are from the inlands of Michigan and don’t realize the power of the Great Lakes. Thus, getting information to all tourists visiting the Great Lakes is vitally important.

Bob also recommended that I provide my readers with some advice on how to spot someone that is drowning before it is too late. While you may imagine a drowning victim to be throwing their hands around wildly and screaming for help, that isn’t the case. In fact, drowning victims don’t usually scream or throw their hands around wildly since they are trying to save their energy to stay afloat. In addition, in a 2006 article of the Coast Guard’s magazine, On Scene, Dr. Pia described the instinctive drowning response:

    • 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.

My special thanks to Bob for his insight and I hope that this helps all Michiganders and others to safely enjoy the Great Lakes.

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    Last night as I paddled out to “Old Man’s” surf break at Diamond Head, I thought about your series on rip currents. Rips were not a problem yesterday because the surf was small. In the winter, however, Hawaii witnesses several deaths each year from inexperienced swimmers do to rips. The beach where they filmed the love scene in the movie South Pacific, Lumahai Beach on Kauai, has a viscious rip that snatches tourists each year. The rip at Sunset Beach on the North Shore of Oahu is a hundred yards wide and goes out a mile off shore or more. Even professional surfers have been trapped in that rip. A key point for any swimmer is to asl the locals if there is a rip. If you still go into the ocean, you should have a plan for how to get out of the rip if you are caught in it, and what route to take to get back to shore. Surfers know these things as do local lifeguards. Ask.