How do people who can swim drown in pools, gravel pits etc?

In summer I seem to read regional news items on the following lines every few weeks:

a) 12-year-old X was found drowned in the swimmers’ pool of A-town municipial baths. X, who could swim, had not been observed to struggle or cry out.

b) 35-year-old Y’s body was recovered by divers from the bottom of B-village’s former gravel pit. He had spent a hot Sunday afternoon with acquaintances at the gravel pit, swimming, sunning and barbecuing. At some point he was missed by his acquaintances who after a search called water rescue. Y was a swimmer.

Now I can understand people who cannot swim drowning in deep water, or swimmers in larger bodies of water being overwhelmed by waves, currents, spray or hypothermia. But how do swimmers quietly drown in calm water a few strokes away from the water’s edge?
I recollect getting a leg cramp a few times in a public pool myself, but I could always get to the edge without assistance, and never felt in danger.

As a pretty good swimmer and former swim instructor and swim team member, I’ve discovered that lots of people say they can swim, but really can’t swim very well at all.

That’s no problem if you want to float around on an air matress all day, but it’s a serious problem if a boat wake flips you in deep water or you get a nasty cramp or the weeds pull on your foot.

I know you presented it as a hypothetical example but in your b) scenario my first thought was “The guy must have been drinking”. My guess is this contributes to not a few such drownings every year.

I also think even an experienced swimmer can succumb to panic, and it can be diificult to impossible to cry out if you are choking on water.

I also agree with Apricot. I’ve seen a lot of people who claimed they could swim who really weren’t very good.

There are any number of reasons for this:
They were not as good a swimmer as they though
Drank too much
Legs caught on something.
Dove into some rocks
I was at Lake Powell this weekend in Arizona where we were jumping from cliffs - that were safe… I was so tired on my second jump I was having a hard time swimming to the rocks to get out… I’m a powerful swimmer. i.e. it can happen to anyone

Here’s something you see all the time, although more often in automobile accidents:

“According to police reports alcohol may have been a factor…”

You could also become unconscience before you drown. I am sure some people dove headfirst into shallow water knocking themselves out without anyone noticing before they were dead. Someone could also panic, hyperventilate, and then drown. There are some strange but simple ways too. I am a great swimmer but one time I almost drowned. I was floating arms and head through an inner tube when I leaned over the side of it. The other side of the inner tube flipped over and pinned my head underwater. It was all I could do to save myself.

I was thinking about this recently. We had an eight year old child die at one of our community pools early this summer. She was there for a swim team practice. They cleared the pool because of lightning and later found her at the bottom. She was apparently a decent enough swimmer and the pool is never deeper than about five and a half feet, which is not terribly deep but well over an eight year old child’s head. I recall at the time that there was some discussion over whether maybe some lightning did strike the pool, but never heard more about autopsy results. Perhaps because of this the community voted not to allow a local high school to use the pool for practice, which seems a pity.

When I used to swim competitively, at about 12 years of age, I recall a practice early in the season when the water was still relatively cold. This was in an outdoor pool in Altanta. It was a night practice, and I don’t recall any “lifeguards”, just the swim coaches. I got a cramp in one of my calves and sank to the bottom in the deep end of the pool, about 10 feet deep to allow for diving. I sat on the bottom of the pool for a short period of time, wondering if anyone would notice me down there. I rubbed the cramp out of my leg and then swam back up. Nobody mentioned it. A very surreal experience. I suppose someone could drown pretty easily that way. It should be noted that I had very little (almost non-existent) body fat at the time.

Another issue is some people float like a cork and others sink like a rock, so some people are much more likely to drown if they run into trouble.

I’m a decent swimmer. I almost drowned once just out of sheer fatigue. I and some folks on an Army driving course had stopped to take a swim in a river. I went across once, and coming back suddenly realized I was running out of juice. The river had a decent current, and it had sapped me very quickly; a current will tire you out before you realize it’s happening. I was too far away from anyone to cry for help and too tired anyway; I thought to myself “Well, I’ve got about a fifty-fifty shot of making that rock. If I do, I’ll be okay; if I don’t, I guess I’ll die today.” I just barely made it.

Water’s dangerous.

Ooooh yeah, I can relate. A few years ago a friend borrowed a boat and we went out to the lake for the day. Now I’ve always been a fairly strong swimmer, but I overdid it it pretty bad. I ended up running completely out of steam about 50 feet from the boat. I’m convinced I would’ve drowned had it not been for one important fact: I’m a tubby bastard.

In the event of a water landing, Lazlo can serve as a floatation device.

Clem worked at a chocolate factory, and was stirring a large vat of chocolate, when he tripped and fell in. Just as he was going down for the third time he started to, yell FIRE, FIRE!
The Fire Brigade came a runnin’, and pulled him to safety.
Asked why he was yelling FIRE!, Clem said no one would have come if he was yelling CHOCOLATE!.

I’ll leave the scene, now. :smiley:

During just regular swimming, there’s an precise automatic system for lifting your mouth up out of the water, waiting for the sheet of water to run off, opening your mouth and then taking a breath. If you get distracted slightly while doing this, you get a mouthful or more of water. If you react rather instinctively to gasp for another breath, and it’s “not the right time” to inhale, more water comes in. Since the lungs help alot in keeping you afloat, water in the lungs can quickly make you settle lower in the water than you are used to. All the automatic stuff is now not only useless, but dangerous if you aren’t thinking clearly. And most people don’t think clearly in such situations.

In short: we all get brain farts. A brain fart while swimming is usually not too much of a problem. But given enough people doing enough swimming, there’s going to be some brain farts that will kill.

(Note that like many experienced swimmers, I can swim my mouth open and use my tongue and the air pocket in the back of my mouth rather than my lips to regulate things. But still same principle.)

maybe this is why. (tongue stuck deeply in cheek, cause I know this is a serious topic!!!)

I had a friend who asked me almost exactly this on the way into the pool, shortly before she got into some trouble herself.

She has lung problems, is not a strong swimmer, and had not been in a pool in awhile–possibly a couple of years. She’d had surgery on one lung about six months before, which had reduced her already compromised capacity.

So, less than five minutes after asking me, “How can people drown, anyway? If you get into trouble you can always just float,” she jumped into the water, the squeeze of it gave her an attack of breathless, the diminished lung capacity & everything at once made her gasp, she inhaled some water, and she came up with a panicked look on her face.

Now I was once a qualified lifeguard. (In the 1960s. For more than 20 minutes, though. But still, a long, long time ago.) I could see she was in trouble and, while I am a strong swimmer, I didn’t really want to test my extremely rusty lifesaving skills (the only thing I could remember anyway was, “don’t let them drag you under too”). So I did not swim over to her but got behind her and guided her to the rope, and then when the lifeguard helpfully yelled not to hang onto the rope I swam her over to the ladder (a distance of about 8 feet, which we covered pretty slowly). While she hung onto the ladder I climbed out, got her inhaler out of her bag and brought it over to her and by then, the lifeguard had decided to come over and see if there might be a problem. Well, if my friend had been swimming by herself there might indeed have been a problem. Although I think she could have made it to the rope, and I’ll bet she would have hung onto it despite what the lifeguard said.

So a few minutes later, when we were in the shallow end and she was recovering slowly, I said, “So why didn’t you just float?” She said, “Well, it’s hard to just float when you can’t [expl. deleted] breathe.”

Okay. So that’s how people can drown.

Also contrary to folk wisdom, drowners don’t necessarily go down three times. (I’m sure I don’t have to mention this here, but I am anyway.) Once will do it. The two people I have rescued (both children, neither in an official lifeguard capacity, and I am not counting my friend) were both overconfident and they MIGHT have come up on their own but I figured why risk it and hauled them up myself.

Everyone thinks they are a good swimmer until they get into a desperate situation. The first time I went to the beach in San Diego when I was 19 I got caught in an undertow. People on shore were yelling at me to stand on the bottom and walk in but the water was already too deep. I grew up in Tucson, I didn’t know about this stuff. The lifeguard came out to me, put the loop with the floatey thing around me and said to relax, that he would pull me back. About fifteen seconds later he said, “uh, we’re not getting closer. I need you to swim as hard as you can.” That scared the crap out of me. We finally got back to the beach. I was shaking and could barely stand up and the lifeguard wasn’t exactly doing sprints.

I would have shown up. :smiley:

I seem to recall that I recently read that some people are prone to sudden death in the water, and they’ve found a gene that’s connected to it. Perhaps something to do with long-QT syndrome?

Ah, here we go. Cite.

at a local lake where I have been swimming for close to 20 years there seems to be a death every couple years due to drownings. the Vast majority of these involve booze, drugs, or a severe case of the stupids. out of all of them only one kid died a truly accidental death, he swam down deep near the dock and got tangled in some fishing line.
some others I can recall.
some stoned/drunk asshat dove off a 4’ retaining wall into less than 1’ of water…
drunks going of the rope swing, holds on, slams into the cliff, falls into water landing on a submerged log…
there are more along those lines but a few more like this.

young kid (18ish) swims out to a floating dock thing in his jeans, now instead of floating out or taking his time he of course sprints the entire way out…on his way back he tries the exact same thing and runs out of steam and drowns just a few feet from shore.

now my son has been swimming across that lake since he was around 6-7, I showed him how to float, how to take your time and swim slowly and its never been an issue, we some times swim for an hour at a stretch just messing around.

I am not a particularly strong swimmer but in calm water I can stay afloat for a hell of along time because I start out knowing thats the plan. alot of people die because they think you can only swim like its a friggin race.

Another factor, at least around here, is water temperature.

Many of the old quarries/gravel pits with water in the bottom can get amazingly cold. Just a minute or two can sap the strength out of you. Every winter we have people fall through ice, and up through June there are pools of water cold enough that hypothermia sets in within minutes and kills you. Doesn’t matter how good a swimmer you are, you get cold enough your muscles stop working properly. A little colder still and you are unconcious, then dead.