RNLI says '˜fight your instincts, not the water'

New research commissioned by the RNLI has revealed that over half (55 per cent) of people in the north of England would follow a potentially life-threatening instinct if they fell unexpectedly into water.

Monday, 29th May 2017, 1:15 pm
Updated Sunday, 4th June 2017, 9:04 pm
The RNLI campaign poster.

The RNLI is now calling on the public to fight their instincts and remember one simple skill – floating – that could save lives from drowning.

Darren Lewis, RNLI lifesaving delivery manager in the north, said: “Thousands of people are rescued every year by RNLI lifeboat crews and lifeguards but, tragically, there are many more who cannot be saved.

“The simple advice we are sharing with our Respect the Water campaign could be the difference between life and death and we very much hope people will take notice and practice floating the next time they are in a pool – it could save their lives.”

Figures reveal 27 people lost their lives at the north of England coasts in 2016.

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Nearly half (48 per cent) of those being people who didn’t even intend to enter the water.

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

Research commissioned by the RNLI shows over half of people in the north of England would follow this potentially life-threatening instinct if they fell into water, with 42 per cent of respondents saying their immediate reaction would be to swim, while 1 per cent said they would panic – two of the instinctive responses the RNLI is urging people to fight. Others said they would do nothing (4 per cent); remove clothing (2 per cent); hold their breath (1 per cent), and 5 per cent said they would not know what to do.

As the RNLI’s national drowning prevention campaign Respect the Water enters its fourth year, the charity is calling on the public to fight their instincts and remember one core survival skill – floating – until the effects of cold water shock pass and you can catch your breath, before then trying to swim to safety or call for help.

Overall, less than a fifth (19 per cent) of respondents in the north alluded to a recommended first course of action, with just 6 per cent knowing specifically to float (3 per cent) or tread water (3 per cent). Others said they would stay calm (9 per cent); look for something to hold on to (3 per cent), or relax (1 per cent).

Mike Tipton, Professor of Human and Applied Physiology at the University of Portsmouth, explains: “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 60–90 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 continuing to float until help arrives.”

The Respect the Water campaign is targeted at adult men, who account for nearly three-quarters (73 per cent) of the coastal deaths in the north over the past five years, and 63 per cent of last year’s coastal fatalities in the region4, although the advice is relevant to anyone who goes near the water.

The campaign will run throughout the summer on channels including cinema, outdoor advertising, radio, online, and on catch-up TV channels. The RNLI is asking people to visit RNLI.org/RespectTheWater where they will find information on the effects of cold water shock and floating techniques. On social media search #RespectTheWater.