It's no surprise that nearly 90% of all drowning accidents in natural water settings, including boating, are those of men or boys. Males tend to take more risks, according to psychologists. But a recent report from the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control & Prevention says that drowning is the second leading cause of unintentional injury death for kids ages 1 to 14 years -- and the fifth leading cause for people of all ages. This means that any of us who get near the water should learn how to reduce the risk of drowning.
In 2007 (the last year for which statistics have been compiled), at least 43% of all drowning in recreational water happened in natural water settings. Another 9% occurred in boating accidents, for a total of 52%. This is almost three times the number that occurred in swimming pools that year (19%).
The highest risk of drowning for both males and females is between ages 1 to 4. After the age of 1, however, males are at increased risk and account for 88% of all reports of drowning in natural water settings, including while boating.
Boating Risks & The Importance of Life Jackets
According to the U.S. Coast Guard, almost 75% of all persons killed in boating incidents in 2007 drowned, as opposed to dying from other causes, such as injuries. Of those, 84% were not wearing a life jacket. Operator error, lack of training and alcohol use contributed to the risk of drowning in a boating incident, according to the CDC. And the boats need not be under way -- 29% of deaths occurred on boats that were anchored, docked, moored, or drifting.
Watch Out For Rip Currents
I can testify to the strength of rip currents. While swimming in front of the Sheraton Hotel in Rio de Janeiro, a rip current carried me away. I could have drowned after being tumbled around underwater, ending up hundreds of yards away from where I encountered the current. It was, in fact, the same beach where the Soviet ambassador to Brazil had drowned a few weeks earlier. And yet there were no warning flags, no lifeguards, not even a notice in the lobby. I only learned about the diplomat's drowning and the peril off that beach from a friend after the fact.
Rip currents running in the offshore direction are prevalent along most U.S. coastlines, the CDC says. These currents pull swimmers away from the shore into deeper water at speeds of up to 8 feet per second -- faster than an Olympic swimmer. They can sweep even the strongest swimmer out to sea, says the CDC, and thus are dangerous to all swimmers. Over 80% of rescues performed by surf beach lifeguards are due to rip currents. The U.S. Lifesaving Association estimates that more than 100 people die each year due to rip currents on our nation's beaches.
11 Safety Tips for Swimmers & Boaters
The CDC has issued nearly a dozen tips for swimmers and boaters. Whether you swim or boat on the ocean, in a lake, or on a river, these safety tips may seem obvious but the reminder could one day save a life.
1. Learn to swim.
2. Watch swimmers in or around the water. When selecting who is in charge, designate a CPR-trained adult who can swim. And do not read, play with your iPad, or do anything else distracting when it's your turn to watch the children.
3. Learn CPR.
4. Use buddy systems and lifeguards. Regardless of your age, swim with a buddy and select sites with lifeguards wherever possible. Be nice to your lifeguard, too. (Ronald Reagan was a lifeguard long before becoming president.) And your buddy should be a human, not your dog.
5. Heed warning flags at the beach. If you don't know what they mean, find someone and ask. If many people suddenly are leaving the beach, ask one of them why everyone is leaving. If the beach is deserted, don't go in the water at all. (And if you see shark fins in the water, don't go in.)
6. Know the terrain. Beware of sudden drop-offs. Always enter water feet first. (One of my high school friends became paralyzed after diving into a flooded quarry and hitting his head.
7. Avoid rip currents. You can identify them by looking for water that is discolored, choppy, foamy, or filled with debris and that is moving in a channel away from shore. If caught in a rip current, swim parallel to shore until you get free of the current, then swim toward shore. (That's what I instinctively did in Rio, since I hadn't yet heard about the danger of rip currents.)
8. Use life jackets. I can't tell you how many boats I've boarded with no life jackets in sight. After asking about the life jackets, I've been told that "they're stored below" or words to that effect. The worst offenders were pilots of boats outside of North America or Europe. Do not use "noodles," inner tubes, or water wings in place of life jackets, as they are toys and not designed to keep you safe. Unless there are no life jackets, then use anything you can to stay afloat.
9. Avoid alcohol while swimming, boating or water skiing, as well as when supervising children.
10. Learn boating safety; take a formal safety course.
11. Know the weather before you go swimming or boating. Avoid strong winds and thunderstorms when lightning strikes can be dangerous.
Water Safety Resources
Consider the following resources for information on boating and swimming safety.
Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (www.cdc.gov)
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (www.ripcurrents.noaa.gov)
U.S. Coast Guard (www.uscgboating.org)
U.S. Lifesaving Association (www.usla.org)