If Waving, Not Drowning

“This summer I went swimming / this summer I might have drowned.” Anyone listening to the radio in 1973 may recognize the opening lines to Loudon Wainwright’s “Swimming Song,” which continues: “but I held my breath, kicked my feet /and I moved my arms around.”

This summer I did go swimming, a lot, underwater and for hours at a time. Breathing through an airline, I swam along reefs and over sandy plains, among fishes, corals and waving plant-creatures. The only sound came from the bubbles I exhaled. It’s something like flying in a dream—except when the air stops suddenly, as it did this past weekend, and my diving partner and I had to race to the surface without pause. Even at the shallow depths we keep to, under 35 feet, the surface can seem awfully far away, especially if you’ve been swimming for a couple of hours. It’s in such moments, when the routine of breathing comes to the fore of consciousness, that I think about the phenomenon of drowning.

“Drowning is the process of experiencing respiratory impairment from submersion/immersion in liquid,” according to a report issued after the 2002 World Congress on Drowning. One strange thing about drowning is that it doesn’t always even involve water in the lungs. Free divers sometimes intentionally hyperventilate before going under, which deactivates the breathing reflex. But without that reflex telling the body it needs air, swimmers can black out and suffocate underwater.

DiveAnother strange thing about drowning is what a drowning person looks like. Stevie Smith had it wrong in her poem “Not Waving but Drowning”: If you are waving, you are not drowning. When someone is drowning, something called the instinctive drowning response takes over, and the person becomes physiologically unable to wave, call for help or splash about in the water. Seasoned rescue personnel learn to recognize the often eerily calm behavior of a person who is about to go down for the last time. Unfortunately, thanks in part to erroneously staged drowning scenes in movies and television (Baywatch was a shameless culprit) showing a panicked, thrashing victim, many people drown each year in full view of others, who think they look just fine. In 2002, a U.S. Coast Guard airman at the scene of a capsized boat reported, “two of the victims appeared to be looking up at us treading water.” The rescue helicopter’s pilot commented that they looked as if they were not in immediate danger, but fortunately the first airman recognized the behavior: “No, sir,” he corrected, “they are drowning!”

The instinctive drowning response is a set of involuntary behaviors; as the autonomic nervous system takes over, the body is able to respond only to the need to take in air. The arms extend to the sides and begin pushing down on the water in order to elevate the mouth above the surface. The body remains upright, the legs stop kicking, and the person quietly bobs up and down. A key signal is the mouth, alternately rising above and slipping below the surface. Once the instinctive drowning response has kicked in, submersion often occurs within a minute.

There are plenty of songs and poems about drowning, but like Wainwright, I prefer to stay on the swimming side of the equation.