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20 Signs of Drowning Taught to Lifeguards

As beach season revs up, a San Clemente lifeguard shares the telltale signals of swimmer distress that everyone should know.

Editor's Note: Patch originally published this article June 4 of 2011. We decided these tips are worth repeating in the last days of May, which is beach safety month in the city.

San Clemente Marine Safety Officer Nick Giugni spends his days scanning the coast for swimmers in trouble, but he can’t do it alone.

That’s why, at the first-ever , he shared the 20 signs of drowning or distress in hopes that any beachgoer could save a life this year.

But Giugni and his colleagues warned that it’s never a good idea to go after a swimmer in distress yourself; always get a lifeguard.

However, if it’s a case where seconds count, don’t go in without a flotation device and never get within arm's reach of the victim; he or she will pull you down out of reflex.

Some signs are obvious, but others are subtle enough for the average person to miss. If you see any of the following signs, the swimmer might be in distress or in danger of drowning:

  1. Making no progress or moving out to sea while swimming in; this means the swimmer is caught in a rip current.
  2. Waving for help
  3. Hair in the face; this means the swimmer is focusing more on getting a breath than seeing.
  4. Double-arm backstroke; this indicates the swimmer may be desperately flailing to shore
  5. Broken leash or lost surf or body board
  6. Swimmer is facing shore
  7. Taking waves to the back of the head
  8. Panicked look on swimmer’s face
  9. Small children; if you see a small child deep in the water, rush for a lifeguard—the kid can disappear in an instant.
  10. Weak swim stroke
  11. Bailing from body/surfboard
  12. Going “over the falls,” i.e., swimming in the impact zone where the waves crash
  13. Fully or partially dressed in non-swim attire
  14. Paddling farther and farther out; afraid to come in
  15. Caught in a lateral current moving toward rocks or jetties; this is very dangerous because usually the swimmer won’t realize he or she is in danger. The upside is just shouting to them can often get them to realize and swim in—no harm done.
  16. No swim fins in large surf
  17. Multiple people on a single surfboard or other flotation device
  18. Head is low in the water
  19. “Climbing the ladder,” meaning the swimmer is flailing his arms and legs while vertical, rather than swimming horizontally; this indicates the victim is desperately trying to stay above water.
  20. Floating face-down
Lindsey Hanson May 22, 2012 at 08:17 PM
I knew the last one!
Golden State Lifeguards June 12, 2012 at 07:58 PM
This is such a great article that anyone going to the beach should be aware of! Drownings are preventable and awareness should be taken to a whole new level. On occasion we do get called on to provide private lifeguarding services to beach parties along Southern California beaches and this information is shared among our staff by our career open water guards. Good stuff! ### Golden State lifeguards http://www.goldenstatelifeguards.com 888-571-2142

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