What are some WRONG ways to try to save a drowning person?

So I’m working on a couple of short stories to alleviate my self-loathing at writing crap for a living. In one of them, the narrator and another character have fallen in the ocean; the secondary character is knocked unconscious, and the narrator, a gifted athlete and strong swimmer who nevertheless has no lifeguard experience, tries to save her. Naturally I want him to do the wrong thing–so what are some common or typical mistakes a person might make in such a situation?

If anyone cares, I plan to have them rescued by a third party; I just want to describe the errors the narrator makes in his ignorance. If anybody wants to include things the narrator wants to do, that’s fine as well. Both characters are in their early teens; the narrator is male and a little bigger than the drowning character, a girl.


Given the nature and purpose of your OP, I think this one belongs over in IMHO.

Just my opinion.


Pretty much a WAG, but he gets too close to the drowning girl without realizing how much she’s struggling and she manages to pull/push him under??

wow, I replied to a GQ and found myself with a HO.


(Sorry, it’s just that’s the first time it’s happened to me.)

The biggest mistake you can make is jumping into the water to save someone if you yourself have no training. If I understand the scenario in the OP though both characters are already in the water, and the resucuee is unconcious, right?

Back when I learned they taught us “Reach, row, throw, go”. The first thing you were to try to do was reach the victim from the shore, with any kind of pole, your leg, or even a towel, without yourself getting in the water. The next choice was to row or paddle out in a boat. The next choice was to throw something, ideally a lifesaving ring or something like that. The absolute last choice, when no other avenue was available, was to swim out to them.

This was the standard Red Cross and also Boy Scout training, which gives you an idea what a serious proposition trying to save a drowning person in this manner is.

How about he throws her a rope…with an anchor on the end of it?

Or he realizes that a victim sruggling could endanger him also so he tries to club her unconscious with an oar to make the rescue safer for himself

Or…I got nothing

Not true; you got a wicked sense of humor. When I am god-king I will find work for you.

I think I screwed that up and it was reach, throw, row, go. It was thirty years ago though…

The point is the same though: even for someone with training jumping in was the last option. For someone without training it is almost a guaranteed way to turn one potential drowning into two (because as chrisk says it is easy to get pulled under by a panicking victim).

As has already been said, the general mistake is approaching frontal when the drownee is panicking, and pulls the saviour down.

But if the drownee is unconscious, the right response would be to put her onto her back and hold the head/mouth free from the water. If he wants to make a mistake, he’ll keep the unconsious person in the vertical position - she could easily swallow or breath water in that position.
Remember, once her breathing stops, he can’t revive her in water.

Also (as one particular Baywatch ep. dissing untrained Aussies showed), it’s important to bring the girl to a hospital after pulling her out - breathing in saltwater can otherwise lead to drowning in your own water (through osmosis), so that’s something an unexperienced teen could mess up.

You also need to pull them out before hypothermia sets in…

Well, mixing a whole shitload of Jell-O powder into the ocean and waiting for winter would be fairly ineffective…

If all else fails, and you have to jump in, at least take your shoes off. For that matter, if at all possible take off any heavy clothes – they will quickly become waterlogged and make it difficult to stay afloat yourself, let alone rescue anyone.

Half of water rescue training is learning how not to become a drowning victim yourself.

When one of my cousins was training to be a lifeguard, she practiced rescuing people who were in a state of panic and trying to pull her under. When I got to play the “drowning person”, she was careful to approach me from behind, so that I couldn’t grab her and pull her under.

Throw rocks at her?
Dynamite the lake so she’ll float to the surface?
Send a rescue alligator?
Light a pathway of flaming gasoline to guide her to shore?
Toss a plugged-in toaster out to her?

Knocking a struggling rescuee is actually recomended - rescuing a struggling person is much harder than an unconscious one.

Since the rescuee in the OP is already unconscious, I’m thinking along the lines of him having trouble to figure out how to grab her. A friend who once rescued a drowning man (after knocking his lights out) described swimming on his back, with the rescuee lying on top of him: this is not instinctive at all. Someone who didn’t have any training and wasn’t very cold-headed would be likely to push the rescuee down while trying to grab them.

I haven’t seen any published studies on this, so I may be going out on a limb here, but I would have to say that there are indications that harbooning would likely not be recommended.

Don’t you hate it when a perfectly good smart-ass remark is ruined by a miskeying finger! I’ll say it for you:


I’ll add one from personal experience; it only applies in the ocean, though, and only near shore (or a breakwater). If someone is in a riptide, swimming into the riptide to help them is not likely to increase your collective odds of survival. It’s not really a lifeguard/non-lifeguard piece of wisdom, but understanding how to get out of a riptide is crucial to being able to save someone else from one.

My father almost drowned in the ocean when he was a kid. He said that before the lifeguard reached him, several fishermen on the nearby jetty ran up to where he was struggling. There were five to ten people standing there, each with a surf casting rod in their hand. Nobody cast their line.

That’s about it. I have a Bronze Medallion which is your standard Aussie lifesaver qualification and I can’t think of anything else wrong you could do with an unconcious victim…other than tow them face down.

If you’re trying to rescue a drowning person, you probably shouldn’t stand on their shoulders and yell for help.