With half-term in full swing and thousands of people flocking to the UK coast and beaches as it hots up at the weekend, the RNLI are urging anyone who gets into difficulties in the water to ‘Float to Live’.

Ruth Osborne survived by listening to the advice

Ruth Osborne survived by listening to the advice

11 people in trouble in the water have done exactly this since the charity started advocating floating as a survival technique. Each one cited the RNLI’s advice on floating as absolutely key to their survival. Despite it being counter-intuitive, floating, really can be the difference between life and drowning.

The advice comes as the RNLI launch Respect the Water - their annual drowning prevention campaign. 

Even though the number of coastal deaths has generally come down since the campaign was launched in 2014, the figure rose slightly from 109 to 128 last year. In part this could be linked to the record number of people who flocked to the UK’s coast and beaches in the exceptionally long, hot summer.

And worryingly, coastal fatality data reveals that 115 of the 128 people who died at the coast in 2018 were male; so this year’s campaign is directed at them.

55% of the people who died at the coast last year ended up in the water unexpectedly, many caused by slips, trips or falls in while out walking and running. The water around the UK’s coasts remains cold year-round – especially in late spring it is still ‘winter-cold’ despite the rise in air temperatures. The instinctive human reaction when you fall into cold water is to panic, thrash around and gasp for breath, increasing the chances of breathing in water – enough to cause drowning. The best way to survive when in trouble in cold water is: 

  • Fight your instinct to immediately try to swim hard or thrash about
  • Do not panic but instead stay calm and float on your back, keeping your mouth out of the water until you have regained control of your breathing
  • Only then should you attempt to swim to safety, signal for help, or continue floating

Even though it’s seemingly counter intuitive, floating will help you keep your airway clear, so allowing you to regain control of your breathing, and plan your next step to safety. And moving less also causes air to remain trapped inside any clothing, so increasing your buoyancy.

One 39 -year-old woman who survived by floating was Ruth Osborne, from Newquay in Cornwall. When surfing at Perranporth Beach her surfboard leash snapped, leaving her in the water beginning to panic: ‘Wave after wave came. You get tumbled up like a washing machine. I was out of my depth and drifting out of sight. I thought “that’s it, that’s me gone. I can’t deal with this anymore”. A few days earlier an RNLI lifeguard had told me what to do if I was in trouble in the water. I remembered his advice to relax and float, rather than try and swim. I just trusted that laying back would allow me to keep my head out of the water. I was able to conserve my energy and catch my breath. I was eventually pushed back to shore by the sea. That float advice helped me stay alive.’

Meanwhile, Nathan Slack, from Cambridgeshire, found himself in danger after being pulled out to sea by a strong current off the Dorset coast last summer: ‘I tried to swim back to shore but nothing was happening. I started to panic. That’s when I remembered the RNLI’s advert I’d heard on the radio which told me to float instead of trying to fight the water. I just lay back and started floating and kicking my legs. Eventually, after about 20 minutes, I managed to get back to the safety of the beach. The advice saved my life.’

The RNLI charity is urging people to practice the float technique before heading to the beach in a controlled environment like a swimming pool, to help build confidence in floating.

For those planning to go into the water the charity’s advice is to choose a lifeguarded beach and swim between the red and yellow flags – the area most closely monitored by the lifeguards. And if you see someone else in danger in the water at the coast, fight your instinct to go in and try to rescue them yourself, instead call 999 or 112 and ask for the Coastguard.