How to Rescue Someone Drowning


Maybe you're on vacation with your family at a secluded mountain lake. You could be on an ocean beach at an exotic locale. Suddenly you notice that somebody is thrashing about frantically in the water offshore, and there are no lifeguards. Even if you are not a trained lifesaver, you can rescue somebody who is drowning. Remember to consider these steps in order.

  • Reach. This method works best for a pool, if somebody falls off a dock or is relatively close to shore. Bracing yourself firmly you can offer the victim a pool pole, an oar, paddle, tree branch or an arm. In your haste, be careful not to hit the victim over the head with a paddle or pool pole, simple extend it to within the victim's reach while reassuring her. Verify that she's firmly grasped the pole, then pull her in. It's better to offer an object like a pole than your arm because if you need to you can let go of a pole.

  • Throw. Many docks or swim areas keep life rings handy that are tied to a rope. One end of the rope should have a loop that you'll slip over the wrist of your non-dominant hand. Using your throwing arm, grab the life ring and toss it underhanded at a forty five degree angle so that the ring flies over the victim's shoulder placing the rope there. Pull the ring buoy toward you. Let the victim grab hold and tug her in.

  • Row. If you can't reach or throw, then use a boat to get to the victim. Rowboats are preferred. Since you row facing backwards, get close, then pivot the boat so that your transom is facing the victim. Back your boat toward her and tell her to grab on. Ship your oars. Keeping your weight low, move to the stern. Hold the victim under the armpits and as gently as possible pull her aboard. If you need a little extra lift, you can ask her to kick to help propel her out of the water.
    Once while lifeguarding I had to save a swimmer who got a cramp. After I backed the rowboat toward him, he was simply too heavy for me to lift into the stern. His leg cramp prevented him from kicking. I asked him to put him armpits on the transom, then I rowed him to shallow water.

    If you're using a power boat, maneuver your craft so that the swim ladder faces the victim. Be sure to put your motor in neutral before the victim gets close. If you only have a canoe or kayak, you've got to be extremely cautious since these boats are prone to capsize. Keep both your and the victim's weight very low and try to ease him over the gunwale in a canoe or onto the deck of a kayak. If you swamp the canoe, get on either side of it and swim in, paddling it full of water to shore. If you capsize the kayak, try to swim onto it.

  • Go. This is by far the most hazardous step. A drowning person usually is flailing around in the water desperate to get high enough to take a breath. If you swim out to a victim, his first reaction will be to climb on top of you. Lifeguards in Los Angles County carry buoys with them attached to their wrists by a line. They swim out through the surf towing the buoy behind them, toss it to a victim, and then tow him in. If you have to swim out to somebody, bring a shirt or a towel with you. Dive head first with a straight back through any surf. Use the crawl, checking forward to keep your victim in view. As you get very close, switch to a heads-up breast stroke. Talk to the victim to reassure him. Tell him to simply grab the towel and you'll tow him in. Toss one end of the towel toward him, make sure he's taken hold, then swim toward shore. If the victim should start to work his way up the towel to your arm, use a kick to keep him away. If necessary, swim off and try again. It's all too easy for you to be pulled under by a struggling, drowning man.

Tips & Warnings

  • For more about rescuing a swimmer in the water, see my posting on How to Use a Tired Swimmer Carry.

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