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Safe swimming tips

“Summer” and “swimming” are practically synonymous in a state that boasts more than 15,000 lakes. While swimming and other water recreation is a great way to enjoy the summer months, it is important to recognize the dangers of unsafe swimming. If you plan to swim this summer, keep it safe and fun by using this guide to learn how to prevent, recognize, and respond to drowning.


Prevent: Before you Swim

Use the buddy system

Make like you’re headed down the East Australian Current and grab your exit buddy. Make sure you can see your buddy at all times, and try to check in with them every few minutes. Designating a swimming buddy is particularly helpful if you’re with a large group, as it is much easier to be responsible for one other person rather than tracking every person at once.

Pack a flotation device

Having a flotation device on hand is a good way to ensure safe swimming ensues even if you or a member of your crew gets tired or experiences struggles while swimming. Most pools and docks will have a flotation device of some sort, but not all, so it is important to be prepared, especially if swimming in a more remote body of water.

Swim sober

Alcohol is involved in 70 percent of adolescent and adult deaths associated with water recreation, the CDC reports. Alcohol not only inhibits judgement and may cause you to put yourself in a more risky situation, but also dehydrates you, making you more prone to cramp up while swimming. Drink plenty of water and other fluids instead of alcohol to prevent exhaustion, dehydration, and cramping.

Check the weather

Storms, wind, and lightening all present hazardous swimming conditions. Checking the weather and planning ahead of time is essential to water safety, particularly in a variable climate like Wisconsin’s.

Look for lifeguards


If possible, swim in locations that have a trained life guard on duty to provide assistance in an emergency situation. If you’re in Madison, check out this beach guide to check lifeguard hours and other amenities.

Recognizing: While on the Water

Drowning doesn’t look like “drowning”. Movies have led us to believe that a drowning person will scream and thrash around violently in the water, clearly signaling to rescuers that they are in danger. While persons experiencing aquatic distress, or growing tired in the water, may do these things, drowning victims likely won’t exhibit any of these behaviors. Here are signs to look for:

The person is quiet

In most cases, a drowning person will be unable to speak. Since breathing is the main responsibility of the respiratory system, less vital functions like speech will be impaired so long as breathing is not occurring.

Bobbing behavior

Since the drowning victim is struggling to breathe, their head will be tilted back in an attempt to quickly inhale and exhale. Their head will bob in and out of the water, with their mouth on the same level as the surface.

Lateral arms

The victim’s arms most likely won’t wave around for help, but will be outstretched laterally along the water’s surface in an instinctual attempt to remain afloat.

Vertical orientation

A drowning person will be upright in the water. They may attempt to swim but will remain stationary in their position in the water, and won’t use their legs to kick.

Glassy eyes

A drowning victim will struggle to focus on one particular thing and have a glazed over look in their eyes.

What does drowning look like? – Slate

Respond: What to do

If you’ve noticed a friend or fellow swimmer exhibiting any of the above behaviors or if you think they are struggling to stay afloat, here are some steps you should take to ensure that person returns safely to shore.

Check in

Ask the person, “Are you okay?” If the person doesn’t respond, they are likely in trouble, as their breathing has been impaired to the point of inhibiting speech. If they do respond, they are likely okay, but perhaps bring them a flotation device or encourage them to take a swimming break if you sense they might be experiencing difficulties.

Call for help

If you have established that a person is struggling, call for help by signaling a lifeguard or calling 911 right away. These individuals are specially trained to rescue drowning persons. A drowning person may unintentionally harm a rescuer by pulling them under water in an attempt to keep themselves afloat. Lifeguards and other trained professionals know how handle drowning victims, so proceed with extreme caution if trained help isn’t available. To ensure safety for both victims and responders, use the Reach, Throw, Row, Go Technique:

  1. Reach: Make sure that you have a firm and stable position before reaching for the victim. Lie belly down on a dock or hold onto a swimming pool ladder before extending your arm to the drowning person. If you are too far away to stably reach the person, have them grab onto a tree branch, a tee-shirt, or something else you have on hand that could be used to pull them to safety.
  2. Throw: If the person is too far away to safely reach, throw them a flotation device. A safety ring attached to a rope provided by the dock or pool is preferred, but use your own if this is unavailable.
  3. Row: Use a boat to paddle out towards the victim if you cannot throw a flotation device towards them. Bring the flotation device with to throw as you get closer, and when you reach to bring them aboard the boat, remember to double-check you are in a stable and secure position.
  4. Go: Only trained and highly skilled rescuers and swimmers should swim towards a drowning person. If there is absolutely no other option, swim towards the persona as a last resort, and be sure to bring a towel, a tee-shirt, or a flotation device with you for the person to grab ahold of. This allows you to keep a safe distance between yourself and them.

Written by Gina Nerone, UHS Web and Communications Assistant