South east coastal deaths: RNLI says ‘fight your instincts, not the water’

Lifeboats News Release

New research1 commissioned by the RNLI has revealed that more than half (51%) of people in the south east would follow a potentially life-threatening instinct if they fell unexpectedly into water

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

Meanwhile, coastal fatality figures2 released today by the lifesaving charity show 32 people lost their lives at the south east coast in 2016, with over a third (34%) 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, which triggers the instinctive but life-threatening reaction to gasp uncontrollably and swim hard, which can quickly lead to drowning.

Research commissioned by the RNLI shows more than half of people in the south east would follow this potentially life-threatening instinct if they fell into water3, with 35% of respondents saying their immediate reaction would be to swim, while 2% said they would panic – two of the instinctive responses the RNLI is urging people to fight. Others said they would remove clothing (5%); do nothing (3%); 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 the core survival action of floating, until the effects of cold water shock pass and they can catch their breath, before then trying to swim to safety or calling for help.

Overall, less than a quarter (23%) of respondents in the south east alluded to a recommended first course of action, with just 8% knowing specifically to float (4%) or tread water (4%). Others said they would stay calm (9%); look for something to hold on to (3%); relax (1%); lie on their back (1%) take deep breaths (1%) or catch their breath (1%).

Mike Tipton, Professor of Human and Applied Physiology at the University of Portsmouth, explained: ‘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 thing to do 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 continue to float until help arrives.’

Guy Addington, RNLI Community Safety Partner for the south east, said: ‘The RNLI’s volunteer lifeboat crews and lifeguards saved hundreds of people from near-fatal incidents in 2016 and rescued thousands more but, sadly, they aren’t able to reach everyone. If people in danger in the water can help themselves initially by floating and regaining control of their breathing, they stand a much greater chance of surviving.

‘Through our Respect the Water campaign, we want to start a national conversation about water safety. We’re asking the public to remember this lifesaving advice, share with others and practice the survival skill of floating – it could be the difference between life and death.

‘For those who are 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. And 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 campaign is targeted at adult men, who account for 79% of the coastal deaths in the south east over the past five years, and 84% of last year’s fatalities in the region4, although the advice is relevant to anyone who goes near the water.

The Respect the Water campaign will run throughout the summer on channels including cinema, outdoor, 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 in the south east, n=131.

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.

Notes to Editors

  • Professor Mike Tipton and Guy Addington are available for interview. Please contact RNLI Public Relations on the numbers below to arrange interviews.
  • Filmed interviews with Professor Mike Tipton and RNLI Coastal Safety Manager Ross Macleod and a demonstration of the floating technique can be viewed and downloaded here and here
  • The fatality figures quoted are for water-related fatalities from accidents and natural causes in UK tidal waters. The figures for the south east region 2012–2016 are: 33, 21, 22, 37 and 32.
  • In 2016 in the south east, swimming, jumping in and general leisure use of the water accounted for 35% (11) of the deaths; walking and running 10% (3); commercial use of the water 9% (3); sailing and boating (powered and manual) 9% (3). Unknown activity was 25% (8).

Media contacts

  • Tim Ash, RNLI Public Relations Manager (London/East/South East) on 0207 6207426, 07785 296252
  • Paul Dunt, RNLI Press Officer (London/East/South East) on 0207 6207416, 07786 668825,
  • For enquiries outside normal business hours, contact the RNLI duty press officer 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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Contacting the RNLI - public enquiries

Members of the public may contact the RNLI on 0300 300 9990 (UK) or 1800 991802 (Ireland) or or by email.