Popular Science Monthly/Volume 19/July 1881/How to Prevent Drowning



I WISH to show how drowning might, under ordinary circumstances, be avoided, even in the case of persons otherwise wholly ignorant of what is called the art of swimming. The numerous frightful casualties render every working suggestion of importance, and that which I here offer I venture to think is entirely available.

When one of the inferior animals takes the water, falls or is thrown in, it instantly begins to walk as it does when out of the water. But, when a man who can not "swim" falls into the water, he makes a few spasmodic struggles, throws up his arms, and drowns. The brute, on the other hand, treads water, remains on the surface, and is virtually insubmergible. In order, then, to escape drowning, it is only necessary to do as the brute does, and that is to tread or walk the water. The brute has no advantage in regard of his relative weight, in respect of the water, over man, and yet the man perishes while the brute lives. Nevertheless, any man, any woman, any child who can walk on the land may also walk in the water, just as readily as the animal does, if only he will, and that without any prior instruction or drilling whatever. Throw a dog into the water, and he treads or walks the water instantly, and there is no imaginable reason why a human being under like circumstances should not do as the dog does.

The brute, indeed, walks in the water instinctively, whereas the man has to be told. The ignorance of so simple a possibility, namely, the possibility of treading water, strikes me as one of the most singular things in the history of man, and speaks very little indeed for his intelligence. He is, in fact, as ignorant on the subject as is the newborn babe. Perhaps something is to be ascribed to the vague meaning which is attached to the word swim. When a man swims it means one thing, when a dog swims it means another and quite a different act. The dog is wholly incapable of swimming as a man swims, but nothing is more certain than that a man is capable of swimming, and on the instant, too, as a dog swims, without any previous training or instruction, and that, by so doing without fear or hesitancy, he will be just as safe in the water as the dog is.

The brute in the water continues to go on all-fours, and the man who wishes to save his life, and can not otherwise swim, must do so too, striking alternately, one two, one two, but without hurry or precipitation, with hand and foot, exactly as the brute does. Whether he be provided with paw or hoof, the brute swims with the greatest ease and buoyancy. The human being, if he will, can do so too, with the further immense advantage of having a paddle-formed hand, and of being able to rest himself when tired by floating, a thing of which the animal has no conception. Bridget Money, a poor Irish immigrant, saved her own life and her three children's lives, when the steamer conveying them took lire on Lake Erie, by floating herself, and making them float, which simply consists in lying quite still, with the mouth shut and the head thrown well back in the water. The dog, the horse, the cow, the swine, the deer, and even the cat, all take to the water on occasion, and sustain themselves perfectly without any prior experience whatever. Nothing is less difficult, whether for man or brute, than to tread water, even for the first time. I have done so often, using the feet alone, or the hands alone, or the whole four, many times, with perhaps one of my children on my back. Once I recollect being carried a good way out to sea by the receding tide at Boulogne, but regained the shore without difficulty. A drop of water once passed through the rima of the glottis, and on another occasion I experienced such sudden indisposition that, if I had been unable to float, it must, I think, have gone hard with me.

Men and animals are able to sustain themselves for long distances in the water, and would do so much oftener were they not incapacitated, in regard of the former at least, by sheer terror, as well as complete ignorance of their real powers. Webb's wonderful endurance will never be forgotten. But there are other instances only less remarkable. Some years since, the second mate of a ship fell overboard while in the act of fisting a sail. It was blowing fresh; the time was night, and the place some miles out in the stormy German Ocean. The hardy fellow nevertheless managed to gain the English coast. Brock, with a dozen other pilots, was plying for fares by Yarmouth; and, as the main-sheet was belayed, a sudden puff of wind upset the boat, when presently all perished except Brock himself, who, from four in the afternoon of an October evening to one the next morning, swam thirteen miles before he was able to hail a vessel at anchor in the offing. Animals themselves are capable of swimming immense distances, although unable to rest by the way. A dog recently swam thirty miles in America in order to rejoin his master. A mule and a dog washed overboard during a gale in the Bay of Biscay have been known to make their way to shore. A dog swam ashore with a letter in his mouth at the Cape of Good Hope. The crew of the ship to which the dog belonged all perished, which they need not have done had they only ventured to tread water as the dog did. As a certain ship was laboring heavily in the trough of the sea, it was found needful, in order to lighten the vessel, to throw some troop-horses overboard, which had been taken in at Corunna. The poor things, my informant, a staff-surgeon, told me, when they found themselves abandoned, faced round and swam for miles after the vessel. A man on the east coast of Lincolnshire saved quite a number of lives by swimming out on horseback to vessels in distress. He commonly rode an old gray mare, but, when the mare was not to hand, he took the first horse that offered.

The loss of life from shipwreck, boating, bathing, skating, fishing, and accidental immersion is so disastrously great, that every feasible procedure calculated to avert it ought to be had recourse to. People will not consent to wear life-preservers, but, if they only knew that in their own limbs, properly used, they possessed the most efficient of life-preservers, they would most likely avail themselves of them. In every school, every house, there ought to be a slate tank of sufficient depth, with a trickle of water at one end and a siphon at the other, in order to keep the contents pure. A pail or two of hot water would at any time render the contents sufficiently warm. In such a tank every child from the time it could walk ought to be made to tread water daily. Every adult, when the opportunity presents itself, should do so. The printed injunction should be pasted up on all boat-houses, on every boat, at every bathing-place, and in every school. "Tread water when you find yourself out of your depth" is all that need be said, unless, indeed, we add, "Float when you are tired." Every one, of whatever age or sex, or however encumbered with clothing, might tread water with at least as much facility, even in a breaking sea, as a four-footed animal does. The position of a person who treads water is, in other respects, very much safer, and better than is the sprawling attitude which we assume in ordinary swimming. And then the beauty of it is that we can tread water without any preliminary teaching, whereas "to swim" involves time and pains, entails considerable fatigue, and is very seldom adequately acquired, after all.

The Indians on the Missouri River, when they have occasion to traverse that impetuous stream, invariably tread water just as the dog treads it. The natives of Joanna, an island on the coast of Madagascar, young persons of both sexes, walk the water, carrying fruit and vegetables to ships becalmed, or it may be lying-to, in the offing miles away. Some Kroomen, whose canoe upset before my eyes in the seaway on the coast of Africa, walked the water, to the safe-keeping of their lives, with the utmost facility; and I witnessed negro children on other occasions doing so at a very tender age. At Madras, watching their opportunity, messengers, with letters secured in an oil-skin cap, plunge into the boiling surf, and make their way, treading the water, to the vessels outside, through a sea in which an ordinary European boat will not live. At the Cape of Good Hope men used to proceed to the vessels in the offing through the mountain-billows, treading the water as they went with the utmost security. And yet here, on our own shores, and amid smooth waters, men, women, and children perish like flies annually, when a little properly-directed effort—treading the water as I have said—would haply suffice to rescue them every one.—Nature.