Any experienced open water swimmer will be, or at least should be familiar with evaluating personal risk on an ongoing basis. (I have written many posts about the Do’s and Don’t’s of open water).
One thing we don’t talk about is drowning, because we put ourselves in the category of people unlikely to join the statistics, just because we are strong, confident and experienced open water swimmers.
In some cases below I can’t separate open water drowning from overall drownings. The IWS report is particularly useful for so doing however.
The Irish Water Safety Association (which promotes open water safety and collates Irish drowning figures and for decades has taught people to swim in open water locations) released a report about drowning rates in open water locations, based on 25 years of data collection up to 2012 (not including 2013 which had higher rates due to an unusually good summer).
The headline figures are startling. An average of 140 people drown every year in Ireland. America’s CDC releases the US figures, and for 2005 to 2009, the annual average is 3,533 (non-boating related). That’s almost 10 per day in the US, of whom two are under 14.
The World Health Organisation places drowning as the third leading cause of unintentional death worldwide, accounting for 7% of all injury related deaths. In 2011, 359,000 people worldwide drowned, 95% of them in poorer countries. As the CDC notes, for every child that drowns, another five receive emergency department treatment, and some will suffer long-term disabilities up to permanent vegetative state.
If you work out per capita rates, you find Ireland is 0.000035% while the US is 0.000013%, almost one-third of Ireland. However the Irish figures do include boating, suicide and fishing industry accidents. The IWS say that the suicide rate figure accounts for one-third to half of the Irish total, so once that’s accounted for the Irish and US accidental drowning figures aren’t that different.
79% of Irish drowning victims are from the local area. One is never more than 100 miles from the sea in Ireland whereas the maximum distance from any sea in the USA is over 1000 miles.
In Ireland 79% of drowning are male, the same as the US.
One of the more surprising statistics from Ireland is where the drownings occur and the figure that prompted me to write this article.
Ireland’s relationship with the ship has long been difficult. It is only very recently that we’ve started to embrace our coastal heritage, as traditionally the Irish were extremely wary of the Atlantic, understandable when we take the brunt of the wild Atlantic. We swimmers also know that people here assume the sea is more dangerous.
The locations listed are varied: Lakes, rivers, canals, ponds, quarries, but also bog holes, drains, slurry tanks and reservoirs. We have a weird sport here called Bog Snorkling (yes, it’s worth clicking on that link and yes, I’ve considered it but I hate kick drills) but I’ve not heard of any drowning during this sport. Such drownings are more likely to occur with bog walkers or people footing (cutting & stacking) turf. Slurry tank deaths are a tragic annual incidence that result when farmers or agricultural workers are overcome by hydrogen sulfide and drown as a consequence).
Inland also includes swimming pools which are less than 1% of drowning as Ireland is too cold for home or outdoor swimming pools to be popular here.
If we look at the breakdown, one noticeable figure stands out.
Five counties accounted for 52% of all drownings (Cork, Dublin, Galway, Kerry and Mayo) and the main location in those is rural. As the IWS reports says “while  rural
drowning presents as principal region in nine counties, the majority of drowning incidents appear to happen in or surrounding urban settlement areas“. County Cork’s river Lee is the highest single location in the figures.
The IWS report also gives a breakdown of the circumstances leading to drowning.
Swimming and walking suffered the same level of drowning. If one adds shore angling, more people drown from the shore than from getting into the water. You may recall I wrote a relevant article last year called “There’s no such thing as freak wave, coastal safety is your own responsibility.”
You’ve probably heard the old saw that the “strongest swimmers are the ones most likely to drown“. The report says that data on ability is lacking in 42% of cases, 26% are reported as poor and 33% as good, so there is some support for this notion but it’s hardly conclusive.
In contrast, it says that 27% of cases involved some level of intoxication, and maybe a third of those were intentional. In the US, that figure is up to 70%.
All this indicates that the “average” Irish drowning victim is a 42-year-old male, who has drank some alcohol, and is from the local area and the location is more likely to be a river near an urban location.
The average US victim is younger due to an increase in child drownings. Minorities, whether racial or economic, are also more prone to risk.
So what should you do? I tried to come up with a list of things that individual open water swimmers can do outside becoming qualified lifeguards. As swimmers we take absolutely for granted that every child should be taught to swim.
- As every experienced open water swimmer knows, alcohol should be absolutely avoided. If you see people drinking while around water or looking like they are going to get in, (this happens at the Guillamenes), try to talk them out of swimming. I know how these conversations go, they are not easy. Nonetheless.
- Use a buddy system. (When you can, most of the time I can’t)
- If you see small children without an adult, stay on watch yourself until you find their guardian. The figures suggest that children under 14 should also always be supervised around water.
- In your local location, in the absence of signs, flags or lifeguards, communicate any relevant local dangers to others. Wind, wave size, rip currents, tidal currents, exits, submerged rocks, jellyfish, weaver fish etc. I’ve found for example that casual bathers and inexperienced swimmers frequently underestimate wave size and exit difficulty. One problem I occasionally face is that teenagers assume if an “old guy” like me can get in the water, so can they. Even if it’s Force 5 with four metre waves. Be prepared to explain your experience and warn people off.
- If you don’t have life-saving experience or training, familiarise yourself with some basic techniques, such as throwing lifebuoys or rope, using approaching a drowning victim from behind instead of in front and contacting rescue services. Did you know that 112 is the emergency services number across all of Europe?
- Be wary at new locations. Be wary at rivers and lakes (hidden obstacles, fast currents, marine craft). Be wary in urban locations.