What Should You Do If You See Someone Drowning? – Experienced lifeguards Dave Wassel and Mark Cunningham break down the basics.

Experienced lifeguards Dave Wassel and Mark Cunningham break down the basics.

Everyone gets in sticky situations from one time to another. It’s how we learn to handle them that can make all the difference. Photo: Jimmicane

A little over five years ago, I was surfing a beachbreak in Bali with a few friends shortly before dark. The swell was picking up, the tide was shifting and rip currents were forming in random places, pulling you out of position. Nothing an average surfer isn’t completely used to though.

Suddenly, I saw a couple other surfers about 50 yards outside of us paddle toward something very quickly. They began to holler and yell and wave at us to come help. A couple of my friends and I that noticed the commotion paddled out to them and discovered that they had found a small boy who’d been sucked out to sea in a current and drowned. He looked no older than 7, was grey in the face, foaming at the mouth and utterly lifeless.

We struggled to keep him on one of our boards as he kept slipping off awkwardly. We were also caught in a rip current and getting sucked even further out to sea. There were no lifeguards around, the shoreline looked like a 10-minute paddle away from us and there was a brief moment where we were trying to decide if we should perform CPR on the boy right then and there (on the surfboard) — or risk the 10 minutes to paddle him in.

Chest compressions on a sinking 6’0” were useless, so a few of us grabbed a rail of the board and paddled the boy out of the rip current and eventually to shore.

This story doesn’t end well, and that’s that.

Every year, we see one of our own heroes drown — at Pipe, at Tavarua, at Cortez Bank — and thank God, usually get rescued and brought back to life. There’s a huge focus on water safety in big waves, there’s seminars, conventions and classes the world-over outlining what to do in crazy, full-on situations…But what about in regular scenarios?

What does the average surfer — one, who probably has no CPR or proper lifesaving training — do, when they see someone drowning? Or, when they see someone who has already drowned?

I asked a couple of men who have saved many, many lives this question, and here’s what they said. –Beau Flemister

Dave Wassel, Working North Shore Lifeguard:

First off, if you ask me, EVERYBODY should know CPR. Everybody. It’s basic and nowadays, it’s hands-only CPR; there is no mouth-to-mouth. That’s gone. It’s straight up chest-compressions —100 compressions a minute. So, if you think about it, that’s almost 2 a second, so that’s really fast.

In an actual drowning scenario, Rule No. 1: NEVER ever take off that person’s leash. Never take off something that’s attached to that person, because if you do and you guys get hit by a wave, you’re going to lose sight of that person. We’ve seen this happen many times, people literally disappearing at Pipeline, never to be seen again because the leash was taken off.

In that scenario that you described to me where you were in Bali, I would have taken my leash off, put it on the kid’s leg, laid directly on top of him on the Then, paddle straight into a wave and let the whitewater send you in. This is all, of course, easier said than done because a lifeless body is very slippery and doesn’t want to stay in one place.

But when you’re trying to help somebody, you HAVE to get them out of that hostile environment and the ocean is probably one of the most hostile environments for a person. You’re surrounded by water, so you need to get them on the beach, call 911 and start doing compressions.

When you see foam coming out of the mouth, that’s just the body expelling that water and liquid and vomit. After compressions, if the person starts vomiting, roll them to the side so they don’t choke on their vomit. You can tell if the compressions are working because when the heart starts beating, the person changes color pretty instantly.

You also can’t hurt a dead person. Everybody’s covered by the Good Samaritan Act, so TRY to help. Sometimes when you do CPR, you hear ribs breaking — and that’s an eerie sound — but, honestly, that means you’re doing it right. That’s OK. I know that sounds weird, but if you’re dealing with someone who has drowned and is technically dead, a couple broken ribs aren’t gonna matter.

If you see someone drowning, don’t go out and grab someone’s hand. Always give them the board or whatever you have that’s buoyant. When you approach that person get that object between you and the person. If you don’t, they will literally climb you for air, and then there are two drowning people, now.

A lineup that’s never lacked respect. Pipeline. Photo: Jimmicane

Mark Cunningham, Retired North Shore Lifeguard:

Honestly, maybe the first thing surfers should start doing more at places like Pipeline is wearing a helmet to prevent concussions. That needs to happen more.

But, rule No. 1: Call for help or back up. Make sure someone else knows what’s going on and that that person is calling 911 if you already haven’t. That’s key. Let other beachgoers know what’s happening.

If you’re going to attempt to save someone, always have something with you that floats. A surfboard, whatever, because 150-plus-lbs of dead-weight, pardon my phrasing, is not easy to manage at all. Just get as much help as you can to assist you.

If they’re unconscious or underwater, do your best to wrestle their head to the surface. But even just getting an unconscious head out of the water is actually extremely hard. It’s hard enough in a pool; in an ocean with waves and currents, that’s another story.

But the most important thing is to get this person to the beach as fast as you can.

If you’re going to do chest compressions, it needs to happen on a firm surface. Never try to do it on a board in the ocean. Get the body to land. Try not to waste precious time.

Once you get the person to shore, go straight into chest compressions and then be ready to roll the victim on his/her side so water can drain. After some chest compressions be ready for some froth, saliva, blood, vomit and water to come out.

One thing to know, is that even if it’s a friend you’re saving or helping to rescue, be prepared to not even recognize them. Faces get distorted, discolored and swollen, and it’s a scary situation with probably a lot of vomit. It’s life and death, plain and simple, so you have to stay clam and use as many resources and people as you can. Again, 150-plus-lbs of dead weight in currents and ocean is very difficult.

For more information on hands-only CPR and first-aid training, visit the American Red Cross site here.