Respect water and ‘float’ to safety

By Kate Cotton in Emergency Services

THE RNLI is calling on people to fight their instincts and force themselves to float if they unexpectedly fall into open cold water, until the effects of shock pass and they can swim to safety or be rescued.

As part of their annual Respect the Water campaign the RNLI has released posters and demonstrations to explain how staying calm and floating can prevent drowning.

Professor Mike Tipton, a cold water survival expert, said: ‘We often rely on our instincts but our instinctive response to sudden immersion in cold water – gasping, thrashing and swimming hard – is potentially a killer.

‘It increases chances of water entering your lungs, increases the strain on your heart, cools the skin further and helps air escape from any clothing, which then reduces buoyancy.

‘Although it’s counter-intuitive, the best immediate course of action in that situation is to fight your instinct and try to float or rest, just for a short time. The effects of cold water shock will pass quite quickly, within 60 to 90 seconds. Floating for this short time will let you regain control of your breathing and your survival chances will greatly increase.

‘Floating is not an easy skill in cold open water but most people can float, and the air trapped in their clothes as they fall in should make it easier. As little exercise as necessary can be undertaken to help stay afloat.

‘The recommended floating position is to lean back in the water and keep your airway clear. Keeping calm will help maintain buoyancy. Some people find it helpful to gently scull with their hands and kick their feet to keep afloat.

‘The main principle is to do as little as possible until you have control of your breathing. At this point you have a much better chance of avoiding drowning and surviving until you can swim to safety, call for help, or continue to float until help arrives.’

Research commissioned by the RNLI found that nearly half, 49 per cent, of people in the South West would follow a potentially life-threatening instinct if they fell unexpectedly into water.

Figures released by the RNLI show 33 people lost their lives at the South West coast in 2016, with nearly a quarter, 24 per cent, of those being people who didn’t even intend to enter the water.

A RNLI spokesman said: ‘Sudden immersion in cold water puts these people at severe risk of suffering cold water shock, which triggers the instinctive but life-threatening reaction to gasp uncontrollably and swim hard, which can quickly lead to drowning.

‘Research commissioned by the RNLI shows nearly half of people in the South West would follow this potentially life-threatening instinct if they fell into water, with 38 per cent of respondents saying their immediate reaction would be to swim, while two per cent said they would panic – two of the instinctive responses the RNLI is urging people to fight. Four per cent said they would do nothing; two per cent that they would remove clothing; one per cent would hold their breath; and two per cent said they would not know what to do.’

The spokesman said 25 per cent ‘alluded to a recommended first course of action’, with just two per cent knowing specifically to float. Others said they would stay calm, 14 per cent; five per cent said they would look for something to hold on to; two per cent relax; one per cent take deep breaths.

Steve Instance, RNLI South West, said: ‘The RNLI’s volunteer lifeboat crews and lifeguards saved hundreds of people from near-fatal incidents in 2016 and rescued thousands more but, sadly, they aren’t able to reach everyone.

‘If people in danger in the water can help themselves initially by floating and regaining control of their breathing, they stand a much greater chance of surviving. Through our Respect the Water campaign, we want to start a national conversation about water safety. We’re asking the public to remember this lifesaving advice, share with others and practise the survival skill of floating – it could be the difference between life and death.

‘For those who are planning to go into the water, the best way to stay safe is to choose a lifeguarded beach and swim between the red and yellow flags, which is the area most closely monitored by the lifeguards. And if you see someone else in danger in the water, fight your instinct to go in and try to rescue them yourself – instead call 999 and ask for the coastguard.’

The campaign is targeted at adult men, who account for more than three-quarters of the coastal deaths in the South West over the past five years, although the advice is relevant to anyone who goes near the water.

The Respect the Water campaign will run throughout the summer on channels including cinema, outdoor, radio, online, and on catch-up TV channels. More information on floating techniques is available at

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