647 people drown every day. Here’s how to avoid being one of them

Originally posted: JUL 03, 22 09:34 ETBy Forrest Brown, CNN

(CNN) — On Good Friday 2017, Wyatt Werneth received a call from his wife, who had gone shopping with their daughter: The car broke down. Please save us.

Werneth jumped into his vehicle to help, passing by Patrick Space Force Base near Cape Canaveral, Florida. From the A1A highway, Werneth said you can see the ocean.

What he saw next was a twist of fate that led to a much more urgent rescue.

“I could see someone waving in traffic as I passed. … I stopped to see what was going on; I had an immediate instinct that something was going on in the water,” recalled Werneth at CNN Travel.

“When I got to the berm, I didn’t realize what I was getting into. There were several people in the water.”

And they were in trouble. Very serious trouble. Tear the current problem type.

The scene would send chills of terror down anyone’s spine – but at least Werneth was prepared. He is an experienced lifesaving instructor and had water rescue equipment with him.

But with at least five people caught in a vicious Atlantic rip current, how would he save them all?

The statistics are grim

The drowning figures from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are shocking.

An estimated 3,960 unintentional fatal drownings occur each year in the United States (including boating incidents). This represents an average of 11 drowning deaths per day.

From 2015 to 2019, the states with the most drowning deaths per 100,000 population were:

2. Hawaii
3. Louisiana
4. Florida
5. Mississippi

The global statistics are even more shocking. There are approximately 236,000 drowning deaths worldwide, according to the United Nations World Health Organization. This amounts to an average of 647 people per day.

And then there are even more non-fatal drownings. The CDC says people who survive a drowning incident have a range of outcomes: “From no injury to very serious injury or permanent disability.”

The tragedy is that many of these deaths and injuries are preventable, experts say. What can you do to enjoy the water – be it the ocean, river, lake or swimming pool – safely and not join the ranks of the drowning dead? It turns out a lot.

Who is most at risk?

Knowing who is most likely to drown is essential. At-risk groups need the most attention. Some of them in the United States are:

• The youngest : Children ages 1 to 4 have the highest drowning rates, according to the CDC, primarily in swimming pools.

• Males: They account for nearly 80% of fatal drownings. More risky behavior and alcohol consumption are cited as reasons. Around the world, the WHO reports that men have twice as many fatal drownings as women.

• Minority groups: Rates of fatal drowning among American Indians or Alaska Natives 29 and younger are twice as high as among whites. For blacks, the rate is 1.5 times higher than for whites.

Drowning Prevention Tips

The CDC emphasizes the importance of learning basic water safety skills, saying formal courses can reduce the risk of drowning.

However, “children who have taken swimming lessons still need close and constant supervision when in or around water,” the agency writes. Don’t be distracted by the TV, books or phone while watching children in the water.

If you drink alcoholic beverages, stay out of the water and don’t boat. Impaired judgment and slow reactions can lead to tragedy.

People in boats and weaker swimmers, especially in open water, should wear life jackets.

And keep an eye on the weather. Go out in the event of a thunderstorm or heavy rain.

Know aquatic environments

Understand the waters you are about to enter. Different bodies of water have different types of hazards.


These currents move away from the shore. They often form at breaks in sandbars and near piers and rocky groynes.

Look for signs of a rip current before entering, says the United States Lifesaving Association. This may be “a narrow space of darker, seemingly calmer water between areas of breaking waves and white water”, a difference in water color, or “a line of scum, seaweed or debris moving out to sea”.

Here’s what to do if you’re trapped:

• Stay calm. The rip currents do not pull you underwater but pull you farther from shore.

• Don’t swim against the current. Try to escape by “swimming out of the current in a direction following the shore,” the USLA says. You may be able to escape by floating or walking on water and following the current.

• If you are in trouble, shout and ask for help.

If you are untrained, do not attempt to rescue people yourself. Look for a lifeguard, call 911, or throw a flotation device in their path. Ask the person to swim parallel to the shore to escape.


The National Weather Service warns swimmers to watch out for “shorebreak” waves. They crash directly into the sand and can knock and disorient swimmers. “When in doubt, don’t come out,” said Wyatt Werneth, who is also the public service spokesman for the American Lifeguard Association.

Swim Guide and Swim Ireland advise people to swim within the hour before or hour after low tide or high tide when the waters are generally calmer. (But conditions may vary from beach to beach).


Tubing and other activities are popular in the rivers. But fast currents and sub-surface obstacles or debris can be dangerous.

Werneth said to search the river before entering.


The calm waters of lakes and ponds can lull waders and swimmers into a false sense of security. Sharp, sudden drops and debris underwater can spook or entangle people, Werneth said, causing panic and drowning. He said to go with a swim buddy.

Dive only in designated areas. The USLA says to enter uncharted waters feet first to avoid head banging. Swimmers should not stray into areas where personal watercraft and boats are speeding past.


The National Drowing Prevention Alliance has this advice for pool owners: “Four-sided fences with self-closing and self-locking gates, door and window alarms, and safety covers can help ensure that children do not access water unsupervised.”

And even if your children know how to swim, adults must still remain vigilant. Keep flotation devices handy.

Shortage of national lifeguards

Bernard Fisher, director of health and safety at the American Lifeguard Association, warned of a critical shortage of lifeguards this summer.

Werneth said the band’s message has always been “swim past a lifeguard”. But he said the reality of the shortage prompted a new one: “Learn to swim, America.”

“We want people to watch themselves. Assign someone in your family the role of water watcher. Ask that person to learn CPR.”

And if someone can’t swim and still wants to wade, “put them in a life jacket. It will make a difference.”

rescue operation

In 2017, on this Florida beach, Werneth’s task was difficult. But he had a cool head, decades of experience – and luckily, an experienced second aide on hand that he later learned was from the Air Force.

“He was single-handedly shooting people before I even got there. … This Air Force guy was kind of coming back with one. I saw he had one that was sort of unconscious, and I immediately jumped into the water, swam, grabbed the unconscious person and pulled them out.”

Werneth assumes they were about 50 yards away and he remembers that they ended up pulling five teenage boys out of the water. They weren’t even in swim gear, Werneth said, leading him to think it was an impulsive decision to go into the ocean.

Would the group have died without the rescue, which exhausted it?

“I assure you they all would have. … These people were going to help each other, and it caused a chain reaction. Don’t go in the water to help anyone without a flotation device,” did he declare.

“It was the perfect time for me to show up and be there to help these guys.” All because the family car had broken down. But not everyone can rely on luck.

In the end, you need a “confidence in water”, acquired through experience and respect for water.

“Fear is what generates the panic that generates drowning.”

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