How to rescue someone from drowning

Most people won’t just stand by and do nothing while someone’s in trouble in the water. On a lifeguarded beach, in an emergency you’d alert the lifeguards. But what do you do out of season or on holiday when there are no lifeguards and someone’s drowning?

How to rescue someone from drowning

Photo: RNLI/Mike Lavis

If your instinct is to dive in after them without a second’s thought, this may cost you.

In May 2012, Plamen Petkov was walking along the beach at West Wittering, West Sussex, when he was alerted to a 5-year-old girl on an inflatable being dragged out to sea. Running in to help her, he swam her back to shore, fighting to keep both of their heads above water. A woman stepped in to take the child while Plamen was brought unconscious to the shore. He could not be saved.

Plamen’s mother Antoaneta can understand why her son ran in: ‘Everybody was shocked at what happened, but at the same time they were not surprised; my son had a very good heart,’ but the loss is devastating nonetheless.

Antoaneta’s message: ‘People don’t need to be afraid to go into the sea, but they need to have respect for it.’

Plamen Petkov who drowned saving the life of a 5-year-old girl

Photo: Petkov family

Plamen Petkov who drowned saving the life of a 5-year-old girl

While we all admire the selflessness that prompts people to risk their lives for others, the RNLI message is clear: Call for help rather than endanger your own life and the lives of others.

Below you’ll find a guide from Mike Dunn, Deputy Director of Education and Research at RLSS UK. It’s for everyone who has the instinct to help, but who respects the water.

Six steps to saving a life without risking your own

1. Keep alert

Don't expect a casualty to be shouting for help. They may be struggling to breathe, and drowning looks very different to how it is portrayed in the movies.

If you're not sure, shout: 'Do you need help?' If they say yes or don't answer at all, it’s time to act.

How to rescue someone from drowning, keep alert

Photo: RNLI/Andy Perryman

2. Resist temptation

Don't be tempted to go in. The water might be cold, which will limit your ability to swim. And whatever has caused the casualty to need help is likely to happen to you too. Stay well back from the edge.

How to rescue someone from drowning, do not enter the water

Photo: RNLI/Andy Perryman

3. Call 999 or 112

Call the emergency services before you do anything else, so help will be on its way.

Or ask someone else to call while you try to help the casualty. If you're alone without a phone, find someone who can call for help.

How to rescue someone from drowning, call 999 or 112

Photo: RNLI/Andy Perryman

4. Shout and signal

From the shore you have a better view of the area than the casualty. Shout and encourage them to stay calm and float. Remind them to kick their legs gently. Once they've caught their breath they may be able to reach a lifering in the water, a jetty, or a shallower area of water.

How to rescue someone from drowning, shout and signal

Photo: RNLI/Andy Berryman

5. Find a rescue aid

If there is a lifering, throw bag (filled with rope), or other public rescue aid equipment nearby, quickly read any instructions then throw it to the casualty. See our advice on how to use a throw bag or lifering.

If there is no public rescue aid equipment, throw anything that will float.

How to rescue someone from drowning, find a rescue aid

Photo: RNLI/Andy Perryman

6. Safe rescue

Before you pull the casualty in, get down on one knee or lie down so you don’t fall in.

Remember, even if your rescue attempts fail, emergency services are on their way. Keep sight of the casualty to help the emergency services locate them quicker.

How to rescue someone from drowning, safe rescue

Photo: RNLI/Andy Perryman

Would you know what to do if you fell in the water?

Around 190 people die in British and Irish waters each year. We’re aiming to halve that number by our 200th anniversary in 2024.

Take the Respect the Water challenge to see whether you’d know what to do if you fell in.