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Friday, June 21, 2013

Summer is here! Be safe around water.

At the lake, 2010.

Happy solstice! Summer is finally back!

If you live in the northern latitudes like me, you know too well it's a short season that deserves to be enjoyed fully.

I don't know for you, but one of the first things that comes to mind when I think of summer fun is water. Let's jump, let's dive, let's splash around! Playing in and around water is such a joy.

My first video! Woohoo!

But are you truly ready for the joys of swimming?

Not to burst anyone's bubble, but as much as water is wondrous... it's also treacherous.

I'm not talking through my hat. I was a lifeguard, swimming instructor and swim coach for 10 years. I worked with children, adults, babies and seniors, whose abilities ranged from beginners (sometimes aquaphobics) all the way to university swim team athletes. I worked in swimming pool settings and on continental beaches (lakes). Apart from swimming, I taught the basics of canoeing, kayaking, windsurfing, and snorkeling.

In the second half of my aquatic career, I became chief instructor/lifeguard and was responsible for training, hiring and evaluating swimming instructors.

As of today I still act as editor and proofreader for Quebec's Lifesaving Society's paper publications in French.

First summer of lifeguarding, 1993.

Between all those roles, I've either read, heard, or seen it all. Believe me when I say water is a perfidious friend.

Some examples. Did you know that:

  • a child can drown in a few inches of water, including in the bathtub or a small pond?
  • many backyard pools are NOT safe? (e.g. are you sure there is no possible access to your pool unless you authorize it, including from the house? A toddler can be very quick at opening a patio door.) Do you have floating devices, a first aid kit and a phone at hand? Would you know what to do if someone was in distress in your pool?
  • a lot of drowning incidents occur when the victim had not even intended to go in the water, e.g. was in a boat, or was walking/playing beside the water, then accidentally fell in? Don't only watch your kids in the water. Watch them as soon as they get close to the water.
  • a significant number of drowning incidents occur in the winter (e.g. walking or driving a snowmobile over thin ice)?
  • a person who knows how to swim can drown, because of circumstances such as surprise (was not planning to fall in the water), cold temperatures, currents, waves, etc? No matter what your abilities are, always swim with a buddy.
  • adults (especially young men) can be particularly at risk because of their fearless behavior? According to the Lifesaving Society, "risk-taking 18 to 24-year-olds continue to have the highest water related death rate", and "the vast majority of drowning victims continue to be men". Apart from risk-taking behaviors, drinking alcohol would be associated with many incidents in and around the water, for example in small boats (capsizing, etc.) Even if you're a grown-up and know how to swim, when in a boat wear your PFD (personal floating device) and bring along the mandatory equipment - see here). 
  • drowning can occur within a few seconds only? I'm serious: you have NO IDEA how fast someone can go from having fun to disappearing under the water. You also have no idea how hard it is to fetch a victim who's already deep under water - especially in dark or moving waters where you don't see a thing - believe me on that one! We will never repeat it enough: DO NOT let young swimmers out of your sight. Not even for a minute. Ever. (If you're a trained lifeguard, you know to never let ANY swimmer out of your sight, right?)
  • drowning often DOES NOT look like drowning? (Would you notice the drowning child in this video if you were enjoying a nice day at the beach?)

Did you also know that:

  • life jackets and other buoyant objects can NEVER replace vigilant adult supervision? Your kids might be wearing so many floaties they look like the Michelin Man... you still have to watch them!
  • the presence of lifeguards does not suffice, especially when the pool is crowed? There is a reason why most pools ask that a parent accompany younger children in the water. This is the same reason why children in summer camps may have to wear a life jacket when swimming, based on their age and even if they "know how to swim". Although it's rare, drowning in supervised settings does happen. Some children have lost their lives to it. Need I add that as in any other profession, there are good lifeguards... and then there are the "other ones"? Just because they're sitting on the lifeguard chair does not mean they are paying full attention, and just because they did the whole training does not mean they won't "freeze" when a real situation happens (I've witnessed this). Don't get me wrong, most lifeguards are well trained, professional and attentive, but unfortunately, the exception exists. And sometimes... it's just really hard to see it all.

Finally, did you ever consider that a good portion of accidents that happen in or around the water have nothing to do with drowning? Spinal cord injuries and head traumas are probably the most serious examples (from diving head first in water that is too shallow - ALWAYS check first! or from slipping on wet tile, rocks, docks or diving boards - please walk! or from being jumped on!), but I've also had to treat hypothermia, heat strokes, cuts/lacerations/abrasions, bruises, fractures, hemorrhages (not to mention cardiorespiratory problems)... and even someone whose permanent teeth got stuck in the Tarzan Rope as she was swinging over the water. I'm probably forgetting some other examples.

Those incidents do not have to happen! Getting informed about the risks, and using precaution, will help ensure you have an incident-free summer in or around the water.

If I can offer one last piece of advice (or two): 1) make sure you and your loved ones learn how to swim - ideally, aim to become a strong swimmer, to increase your odds of surviving in a tricky water-related situation; 2) if you haven't done it yet, please learn first aid and CPR. You never know when you'll suddenly become a first responder!

As we used to say: safety first, then fun!


  1. My favorite lifeguard ! Nice to see you swim !

    Important stuff here. Thank you for sharing the info.

  2. Great points J!

    Most people don't realize the dangers of water or they put a life jacket on the kid and go have a beer...... =(

    1. I've seen what you mention way too many times, unfortunately...

  3. Loved the video! You are so quiet in the water! Except for the fly, but that's the stroke, not you. Being at the University of Florida, I've seen some wonderful swimmers!

    I'm always amazed when I meet an adult that can't swim. Being able to swim saved me one time, although, as you, I'd rather focus on all the pleasure it brings. Something about the feeling of being in water...

    1. Maybe one of the reasons it feels so good is because it's the mother of us all (thinking particularly of the ocean).

      Just like with many other things, it's so much easier to learn how to swim when you're a child... it's unfortunate that some don't get the opportunity.

      The one time I came closest to drown, I was already a good swimmer, and was wearing a life jacket! I went white water rafting in May, when the current is at its worst (snow has just melted), and we capsized right in the spot our guide had told us it was the most dangerous! I was carried under water and unable to resurface for way too long! Just when I thought I was not gonna make it, somehow I floated back up. Life lesson: water currents can be VERY strong!

  4. Excellent, excellent reminders. We have an above ground pool that we set up in the summer. It is 4 feet deep and even though all but my youngest can swim, I never, ever let them swim without me being right there.

    Like you said - it can happen so fast.

    1. The lifeguard in me is proud of you, Diane! :-)

      Have fun in the pool this summer!

  5. Wow, lots of stuff I did not know! Am already leery of ocean-swimming scenarios, but wow, so many more ways to end up dead than I even realized!

    1. The thing is, almost all those deaths (or injuries) can be prevented... if people get educated. Let's spread the word! :-)

  6. Such an awesome post! Thanks for sharing. Being safe around water is so so important. Where I live, they've passed a law that children starting from kindergarten must take swimming lessons as part of their curriculum.

    1. They are trying to implement the same kind of thing here. :-) Thank you for your comment!