How to float

Last summer, our Respect the Water campaign advised people: Float to Live. But can everyone float? The University of Portsmouth has been helping us look into this.

Regular readers of Magazine will know all about cold water shock – when you enter cold water unexpectedly it makes you gasp uncontrollably and breathe in water, which can quickly lead to drowning. Floating for up to 2 minutes allows the effects of cold water shock to pass. It enables you to regain control of your breathing and your survival chances will greatly increase.

After last year's Float to Live campaign, we heard back from people who told us the advice had helped save their lives – but also from people who believed they were unable to float.

So we’ve been working with Professor Mike Tipton MBE and his team to research floating ability and techniques.

We’ve done tests with people of different ages, genders, body types and clothing, in both waves and calm water. 

And the results have surprised both us and the participants.

Firstly: almost everyone can float if they take the right steps, and most people find it easier than they expect. Regardless of who you are or how you’re built, most of us can float with no, or a small amount of effort.

Secondly: one of the first things some people try to do is strip off their clothes, thinking they’ll make them sink. But clothing can aid your buoyancy in the first few moments of getting into trouble, particularly if you’re lying back resting horizontal in the water as air gets trapped between the layers.

Mike stresses the importance of not fighting the water: ‘During that initial minute or so of floating, your body will regain control of your breathing, it'll regain control of your heart rate, and you'll start to think straight. You can plan your next move.

‘Apart from panic, one of the biggest barriers to floating is confidence. But most people can do it.

'A little practice will prove this. Don’t wait until you’re in an accident, go to your local pool to practise in a controlled environment.'

A step-by-step guide from Professor Mike Tipton, University of Portsmouth

1. Fight your instinct to thrash around.

First, keep calm and try not to panic. Your instinct will be to swim hard – don’t.

2. Lean back

Lean back, extending your arms and legs, to keep your mouth and nose out of the water and your airway clear.

3. Gentle movements

If you need to, gently move your arms and legs in a sculling motion to help you float.

4. Catch your breath

Float until you can control your breathing. Do this for 60-90 seconds or until you feel calm.

5. Now think about how to get out

Only now can you think about the next steps. If you can, swim to safety. If someone is nearby, raise a hand and call for help.

Find out more about floating on our Respect the Water website.