North coastal safety: ‘fight your instincts, not the water’ to help survive

Lifeboats News Release

New research* commissioned by the RNLI has revealed that over half (55%) of people in the north of England would follow a potentially life-threatening instinct if they fell unexpectedly into water.


RNLI's Respect the Water poster

The RNLI is now calling on the public to fight their instincts and remember one simple skill – floating – that could save lives from drowning.

Meanwhile, coastal fatality figures2 released today by the RNLI show 27 people lost their lives at the north of England coasts in 2016, with nearly half (48%) of those being people who didn’t even intend to enter the water.

Sudden immersion in cold water puts these people at severe risk of suffering cold water shock, triggering the instinctive but life-threatening reaction to gasp uncontrollably and swim hard, which can quickly lead to drowning.

Research commissioned by the RNLI shows over half of people in the north of England would follow this potentially life-threatening instinct if they fell into water3, with 42% of respondents saying their immediate reaction would be to swim, while 1% said they would panic – two of the instinctive responses the RNLI is urging people to fight. Others said they would do nothing (4%); remove clothing (2%); hold their breath (1%), and 5% said they would not know what to do.

As the RNLI’s national drowning prevention campaign Respect the Water enters its fourth year, the charity is calling on the public to fight their instincts and remember one core survival skill – floating – until the effects of cold water shock pass and you can catch your breath, before then trying to swim to safety or call for help.

Overall, less than a fifth (19%) of respondents in the north alluded to a recommended first course of action, with just 6% knowing specifically to float (3%) or tread water (3%). Others said they would stay calm (9%); look for something to hold on to (3%), or relax (1%).

Mike Tipton, Professor of Human and Applied Physiology at the University of Portsmouth, explains:

‘We often rely on our instincts but our instinctive response to sudden immersion in cold water – gasping, thrashing and swimming hard – is potentially a killer. It increases chances of water entering your lungs, increases the strain on your heart, cools the skin further and helps air escape from any clothing, which then reduces buoyancy.

‘Although it’s counter-intuitive, the best immediate course of action in that situation is to fight your instinct and try to float or rest, just for a short time. The effects of cold water shock will pass quite quickly, within 60–90 seconds. Floating for this short time will let you regain control of your breathing and your survival chances will greatly increase.

‘Floating is not an easy skill in cold open water but most people can float, and the air trapped in their clothes as they fall in should make it easier. As little exercise as necessary can be undertaken to help stay afloat. The recommended floating position is to lean back in the water and keep your airway clear. Keeping calm will help maintain buoyancy. Some people find it helpful to gently scull with their hands and kick their feet to keep afloat. The main principle is to do as little as possible until you have control of your breathing. At this point you have a much better chance of avoiding drowning and surviving until you can swim to safety, call for help, or continuing to float until help arrives.’

Darren Lewis, RNLI Lifesaving Delivery Manager in the north, says:

‘Thousands of people are rescued every year by RNLI lifeboat crews and lifeguards but, tragically, there are many more who cannot be saved. The simple advice we are sharing with our Respect the Water campaign could be the difference between life and death and we very much hope people will take notice and practice floating the next time they are in a pool – it could save their lives.

‘People will be flocking to the coast this weekend if the weather forecast is to be believed, and we want people to have a safe and enjoyable time at the seaside. For anyone planning to go into the water, the best way to stay safe is to choose a lifeguarded beach and swim between the red and yellow flags, which is the area most closely monitored by the lifeguards. If you see someone else in danger in the water, fight your instinct to go in and try to rescue them yourself – instead call 999 and ask for the Coastguard.’

The charity’s lifeguards will start the majority of their patrols in the north of England from this Saturday (27 May). A seven-day-a-week service will then operate until early September with the lifeguards keeping a watchful eye between 10am and 6pm. Details for individual beaches can be found here:

The Respect the Water campaign is targeted at adult men, who account for nearly three-quarters (73%) of the coastal deaths in the north over the past five years, and 63% of last year’s coastal fatalities in the region4, although the advice is relevant to anyone who goes near the water.

The campaign will run throughout the summer on channels including cinema, outdoor advertising, radio, online, and on catch-up TV channels. The RNLI is asking people to visit where they will find information on the effects of cold water shock and floating techniques. On social media search #RespectTheWater.

1 Basis research conducted on behalf of the RNLI (nationally representative sample across the UK n=1,000). Figures shown are respondents asked in North of England, n=230.

2 Records from the National Water Safety Forum’s Water Incident Database (WAID) 2012–2016. RNLI has analysed the data using GIS software to plot and analyse incidents before inclusion in a specific coastal dataset (accident and natural causes only).

3 Respondents asked: Imagine a scenario where you have fallen unexpectedly into a body of water such as the sea, river or canal. What are the very first action(s) you would take to get yourself out of this situation safely?

4 All males except for those known to be under 18. Includes those where age was not recorded.

Video and images

Filmed interviews with Professor Mike Tipton and RNLI Coastal Safety Manager Ross Macleod, including a demonstration of the floating technique, are available here. B roll footage is also available.

An image of a Respect the Water campaign poster is attached.

Notes to Editors

· The fatality figures quoted are for water-related fatalities from accidents and natural causes in UK tidal waters. The figures for the north of England 2012–2016 are: 2012 -18; 2013 – 29; 2014 – 31; 2015 - 22 and 2016 - 27.

· In 2016 in the north of England, swimming, jumping in and general leisure use of the water accounted for 22% (6) of the deaths; walking and running 22% (6); commercial use of the water 15% (4); sailing and boating 8% (2). Unknown activity was 22% (6).

· Professor Mike Tipton, Darren Lewis and other RNLI representatives are available for interview. Please contact RNLI Public Relations on the numbers below to arrange interviews.

Media contacts

For more information, contact Alison Levett, RNLI PR Manager, on 07786 668912 / or Clare Hopps on 07824 518641 / or the RNLI Press Office on 01202 336789 /

Key facts about the RNLI

The RNLI charity saves lives at sea. Its volunteers provide a 24-hour search and rescue service around the United Kingdom and Republic of Ireland coasts. The RNLI operates over 238 lifeboat stations in the UK and Ireland and more than 240 lifeguard units on beaches around the UK and Channel Islands. The RNLI is independent of Coastguard and government and depends on voluntary donations and legacies to maintain its rescue service. Since the RNLI was founded in 1824, its lifeboat crews and lifeguards have saved over 142,700 lives.

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