How To Tell If Someone is Drowning

“A drowning person will usually be all wet: this is because liquids, particularly water, play a large role in drowning, especially being submerged in a liquid.”


Photo courtesy of the State Library of Queensland, Australia

Detecting a drowning person is not as easy as you think; it’s not like the movies, which feature glamorous shots of people drowning, or like on television either, which critics say is going through a new golden age of depictions of drowning. This summer, consider the following guidelines so you know what to look for:

A drowning person might look like they are swimming
This can be confusing because nearly everyone in a pool or body of water is swimming, whether they are drowning or not. The thing to remember is that a drowning person is swimming not for fun or recreation, but to avoid imminent drowning.

A person drowning might be splashing a lot
Though it’s easy to dismiss a person splashing in the water as some kind of jerk, their splashes may actually indicate that they are struggling to stay afloat. To test whether or not they are drowning, try splashing them back. If it turns into a bout of good-natured horseplay, all is okay; if it does not, your splashing will exacerbate their drowning, and you’ll know to seek help. A second option is to inform them that you’ll tell on them if they don’t stop splashing. With this option, be prepared to be called a wuss or a sissy.

A drowning person will usually be all wet
This is because liquids, particularly water, play a large role in drowning, especially being submerged in a liquid. This leaves the person sopping wet. Keep in mind though, wetness does not always mean drowning: a person who is wet because they were in the rain or took a clothes-on shower is most likely not drowning.

A drowning person looks very thirsty
This is the body preparing itself to ingest a large amount of water. If you see someone who’s thirsty in the water, and you know they recently had a beverage, and you think to yourself, “How can they be thirsty already?” it’s quite possible they are drowning.

A drowning person won’t complain about hot weather
Summer is filled with moments of complaining about hot weather; it’s practically all anyone does in the summer. But because a drowning person has cooled off in a pool or in beach water, they will not have the complaints of a hot person: temperature-wise, they are actually quite comfortable. Please know, however, that a person who is not complaining about hot weather but is inside an air-conditioned building is probably not drowning.

A drowning person might have a lifeguard swimming toward them
Because of the obligation of a lifeguard to attempt the rescue of a drowning person, the lifeguard will bypass all the non-drowning people, giving you a clear indication of who in the water is drowning and who is not. For the times when a drowning person does not have a lifeguard swimming toward them, that person has not yet been sighted by the lifeguard or is immensely disliked by the lifeguard.

A drowning person will refuse a drink
Despite the thirstiness brought on by drowning, a drowning person is in no position to accept a beverage. So when you offer them a drink and they refuse or simply push it away, and you think to yourself, “Why would a thirsty person so rudely refuse a drink?” remember then that their thirst is a byproduct of drowning. They do not intend to be ungrateful, and they just may take you up on that drink when they are no longer in a drowning state. NOTE: a drowning person will refuse an offer of food as well.

A person being held underwater by someone else is a drowning person
This one is 100% foolproof. The key thing to remember is that, of the two people involved in this drowning scenario, the person holding the other under the water is not drowning and is in no need of aid. (Particularly if this person is a lifeguard who immensely dislikes the drowning person: trust that the lifeguard knows what he or she is doing.)

David Guzman writes sketch comedy and performs improv in New York City. His humor pieces have appeared in McSweeney's Internet Tendency and Splitsider, and he writes a sci-fi/comedy radio show with The Pulp Variety Streamcast. You can see him perform with the team Zealand on Fridays at the Queen's Secret Improv Theatre in Long Island City and you can get at him on Twitter and Tumblr.