Have You Ever Wondered What It Feels Like To Drown?

Sponsored by RNLI
Sponsored by RNLI
Have You Ever Wondered What It Feels Like To Drown?

The fear of drowning is known as aquaphobia. And, when you hear stories from people who have had near fatal experiences in the water, it becomes pretty easy to understand why some would harbor a fear such as this.

I mean, drowning sounds gruesome, right? A forlorn effort to get to the surface as you gasp desperately for air inevitably makes it a nasty and scary proposition. Give me a quick and painless way to go any day of the week.

Survivors have described the phenomenon as incredibly painful; a kind of tearing and burning sensation that occurs in your chest simultaneously. The distress felt as people are drowning - trying to hold in breath, frantic not to inhale until the very last moment - sounds very grim indeed.

To understand a little more about what it really feels like to succumb to the unpredictability of the water, I sought expert insight from Mike Tipton, Professor of Human & Applied Physiology at the University of Portsmouth. Thankfully we got to grips with cold water immersion via a friendly chat rather than by shoving my head down the toilet like those bigger boys at school (sob).

RNLI drowning 2
RNLI drowning 2

Professor Tipton, of course, would never do such a thing; firstly as he's a nice bloke and, secondly, because like us, he is supporting the RNLI's Respect The Water campaign this summer to help prevent accidents around the coast when we're out enjoying the sun.

One startling thing that quickly became apparent during our discussion was that drowning in its most simplistic form is not necessarily the biggest danger when getting in water-based strife. It's actually cold water shock - i.e. the immediate and potentially deadly impact the temperature of surroundings can have on your body, especially when entering the water suddenly or unexpectedly.

"Seconds," said Prof. Tipton when asked how quickly a lad of average fitness could meet his end in the water. The shock results in automatic gasping or hyperventilation and, if you're unlucky, gulping in fatal levels of liquid. It's either that, cardiac arrest or a stroke. Take your pick.

"The danger is that the inability to hold breath and uncontrollable breathing can quickly lead to you inhaling the small volume of water needed to drown," added Professor Tipton. "A normal breath would see you inhale around five litres of air while inhaling just 1.5 litres of water can be fatal. One breath is all it could take."

Reckon you can hold your breath if you fell in the water? This might change your mind...

Something that is concerning here is the definition of 'cold'. We're not exactly talking about artic temps that'll turn your knackers into ice-cubes immediately. The feeling of shock actually occurs in British waters all year round; even at the height of summer down on Brighton beach or wherever you choose to get those milky white pins out.

Professor Tipton said: "[Cold water shock] starts in a mild form in water below about 24°C but breathing can still be controlled at that sort of temperature. The response peaks in water somewhere between 10 and 15 °C. Sea temperature around the British Isles in summer vary between 13-21°C, depending where you are."

Watch as SAS hard-man Ant Middleton tries to battle against cold water shock.

Other than helplessness, breathlessness, suffocation and, quite frankly, shitting yourself, Professor Tipton was also kind enough to point out the other debilitating effects cold water shock can have. I kind of wish I hadn't asked, really.

"[You feel] intense cold down to about 10°C then cold and pain below 10°C. The cold receptors in the skin initiate the cold shock response. The cooling of the superficial nerves and muscles occurs - especially in the arms where these tissues are close to the surface."

Essentially, you lose the use of your hands and limbs and become something of stranded blob with not a lot of hope left. That is, of course, if you're lucky enough to make it that far.

All that said, don't be put off from having a dip this summer - going balls deep into nippy water is one of the great British pastimes. But just ensure to think twice before dive-bombing into unknown territory.

RNLI drowning 3
RNLI drowning 3

However, if you do discover yourself in conditions that take you out of your comfort zone, then keep these tips from RNLI in mind. You never know, they could save your life.

  • The initial effects of cold water shock pass in less than a minute so don't try to swim straight away.
  • Float on your back to catch your breath, relax and hold onto something that will float if you can.
  • Keep calm until the shock passes then call for help or swim to safety if you're able

If you want to know more read up here.

If you, or any of your friends, have a story to share about your own experiences of struggle in British waters, please contact [email protected]

Topics: rnli

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