Recreational Boating Safety – Emergency Procedures: Drowning Recognition

By Bob Currie, Vessel Examiner
United States Coast Guard Auxiliary Station Galveston Flotilla.
The Kemah community is mourning the loss of their police chief, Chris Reed, who drowned when he was knocked overboard from a recreational fishing boat that was rocked by a wave from a passing large vessel. He was well-loved and will be missed by many people in the area. By all accounts, there is nothing that could have been done to save him by those that were with him once it happened. However, I would like to share some safety information that could help save someone in similar circumstances.

The Station Galveston Flotilla of the US Coast Guard Auxiliary operates out of the USCG Station Galveston base on Galveston Island. They provide assistance to the Coast Guard by providing maritime observation patrols in Galveston Bay; by providing recreational boating vessel safety checks; and by working alongside Coast Guard members in maritime accident investigation, small boat training, watch standing, and property administration.

Wear a Life Jacket
Reports say that Chief Reed was not wearing a life jacket. Had he been wearing one, he may have survived falling overboard. A properly fitting life jacket is designed to bring you to the surface in an upright position. Some are designed to keep you in a position that keeps your face out of the water if you are unconscious. Falling into the water is not the same as jumping into the water. When a person falls into the water, in many cases they hit their head and are knocked unconscious. In many other cases, a person falling into the water undergoes the gasp reflex, which causes the person to suddenly gasp and inhale water. In either case, if the person is not wearing a life jacket, they have almost no chance of surviving. I know several people who never wear a life jacket, but I also know several people who wear a life jacket while underway (moving), but they take it off when they stop. I never take mine off, and I recommend that you wear your life jacket at all times while on the water. Even if you are stopped there are several things that could cause you to fall overboard.

Have and Use a Marine VHF/FM Radio
When Chief Reed fell overboard, reports say that the boat operator used his cell phone to call 911. The 911 operator called the Kemah Police Department, and they called the Coast Guard. Valuable time was lost in getting the emergency situation relayed to the Coast Guard. There is no excuse for not having and knowing how to use a marine radio. You can get a handheld, floating marine radio for less than $100. If you are operating anywhere within 20 miles of the US coast, you can reach the Coast Guard instantly on channel 16. Cell phones are unreliable, they do not display your location to the 911 operator if you get through, and the 911 operator is not trained to handle marine calls for help.

Watch Out for Large Waves
We live near and boat in the most active ship channel in the entire United States. The channel is the conduit for some of the largest ocean going vessels in the world, and also to thousands of tug and barge movements. Each of these large vessels is capable of producing large waves capable of capsizing even large recreational vessels. The waves generated can travel for miles before dissipating at all in strength. They only lose their energy when they hit the shore. These waves are called wash waves. The Houston Ship Channel is divided into three parts. Down the middle of the channel the water is deep in order to handle deep draft ocean-going vessels. On either side is a shallower section for barge traffic. This design is conducive to creating large, powerful wash waves within the shallow barge fairways on either side of the deep channel. The waves do not increase in strength, but they increase in height as they hit the shallow fairways. If you are going to operate your recreational boat within the ship channel, be aware that operating within the barge fairway is risky due to the nature of the wash wave phenomenon. Those wash waves carry a great deal of energy. The news reports state that it was a wave from a large vessel that knocked Chief Reed into the water.

Recognize Drowning
The Instinctive Drowning Response, so named by Francesco A. Pia, Ph.D., is what people do to avoid actual or perceived suffocation in the water. And it does not look like most people expect it to. When someone is drowning there is very little splashing, and no waving or yelling or calling for help of any kind. To get an idea of just how quiet and non-dramatic drowning can be, consider this: It is the number two cause of accidental death in children age 15 and under (just behind vehicle accidents). Of the approximately 750 children who will drown next year, about 375 of them will do so within 25 yards of a parent or other adult. In 10 percent of those cases, the adult will actually watch them drown, having no idea it is happening. Dr. Pia, in an article he wrote for the Coast Guard’s On Scene magazine, described the instinctive drowning response like this:

Except in rare circumstances, drowning people are physiologically unable to call out for help. The respiratory system was designed for breathing. Speech is a secondary or overlaid function. Breathing must be fulfilled before speech occurs.

Drowning people’s mouths alternately sink below and reappear above the surface of the water. The mouths of drowning people are not above the surface of the water long enough for them to exhale, inhale and call out for help. When a drowning person’s mouth is above the surface, they exhale and inhale quickly as their mouth starts to sink below the surface of the water.

Drowning people cannot wave for help. Nature instinctively forces them to extend their arms laterally and press down on the water’s surface. Pressing down on the surface of the water permits drowning people to leverage their bodies so they can lift their mouths out of the water to breathe.

Throughout the Instinctive Drowning Response, drowning people cannot voluntarily control their arm movements. Physiologically, drowning people who are struggling on the surface of the water cannot stop drowning and perform voluntary movements such as waving for help, moving toward a rescuer or reaching out for a piece of rescue equipment.

From beginning to end of the Instinctive Drowning Response, a drowning person’s body remains upright in the water, with no evidence of a supporting kick. Unless rescued by a trained lifeguard, a drowning person can only struggle on the surface of the water from 20 to 60 seconds before submersion occurs. Look for these signs of drowning when persons are in the water:

  • Head low in the water, mouth at water level
  • Head tilted back with mouth open
  • Eyes glassy and empty, unable to focus
  • Eyes closed
  • Hair over forehead or eyes
  • Not using legs
  • Hyperventilating or gasping
  • Trying to swim in a particular direction but not making headway
  • Trying to roll over onto the back
  • Appears to be climbing an invisible ladder

So, if a passenger falls overboard and everything looks okay, don’t be too sure. Sometimes the most common indication that someone is drowning is that they don’t look as if they’re drowning. They may just look as if they are treading water and looking up at the deck. One way to be sure? Ask them, “Are you alright?” If they can answer at all, they probably are. If they return a blank stare, you may have less than 30 seconds to get to them.

For more information on boating safety, please visit the Official Website of the U.S. Coast Guard’s Boating Safety Division at Questions about the US Coast Guard Auxiliary or our free Vessel Safety Check program may be directed to me at [email protected] I am available to perform free Vessel Safety Checks, and I will come to your location to perform them. SAFE BOATING!


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2 Responses to “Recreational Boating Safety – Emergency Procedures: Drowning Recognition”

  1. Pete Bock says:

    Thank you Bob!

  2. Constance Dearing says:

    Excellent info Bob. No blame, just the facts. I am a spiritual person, and sometimes you can only explain things as it was your time to go.. however that is no comfort for the family and friends, and community, that will miss him. His legacy is large, but for us lucky ones on Bolivar with whome we have you to coach us, a smaller version of his legacy will be in boating safety for the Peninsula. Thank you Bob.

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