Respect the Water: ‘fight your instincts, not the water’ to help stay alive

Today we launch our Respect the Water campaign to help prevent people from drowning. 

Respect the Water launch



As part of our launch to the public today we share the news of recent research commissioned by our Insights and Research team that over half (54%) of the UK population would follow a potentially life-threatening instinct if they fell unexpectedly into water. Our research also identified that only one third of the population knew what to do if they saw somebody else in danger in the water – to call 999 or 112 and ask for the Coastguard.

With this research in mind, we are now calling on the public to fight their instincts and remember two memorable skills – floating which could save lives from drowning and to call 999 or 112 and ask for the Coastguard.

Our coastal fatality figures released today show that 162 people lost their lives at the UK coast in 2016, with nearly half (44%) of those being people who didn’t even intend to enter the water. 

Sudden immersion in cold water puts 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. Our research shows over half of the UK population would follow this potentially life-threatening instinct if they fell into water, with 40% 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 (4%); do nothing (3%); hold their breath (1%), and 4% said they would not know what to do. As our Respect the Water campaign enters its fourth
year, we’re 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, just under a quarter (22%) of respondents 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 (11%); look for something to hold on to (3%); lie on their back (1%) or catch their breath (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.’

Ross Macleod, RNLI Coastal Safety Manager, says: ‘The RNLI’s volunteer lifeboat crews and lifeguards saved 530 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’re asking the public to remember 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.’

Our campaign is targeted at adult men, who account for over three-quarters (77%) of the coastal deaths over the past five years, and 74% of last year’s fatalities, although the advice is relevant to anyone who goes near the water.

The Respect the Water campaign will run throughout the summer with adverts placed in cinemas and outdoor billboards. There will also be adverts running on Capital Radio, Absolute Radio and Radio X from the start of June alongside websites, and on catch-up TV channels.

We’re also asking people to visit where they will find information on the effects of cold water shock and floating techniques alongside our usual all-important safety advice. On social media search #RespectTheWater to follow the campaign. If you’ve not yet seen this year’s resources page that we shared with all our staff and volunteers last week you’ll get all you need to support this year’s campaign here.