Understanding the Signs of Water Distress

Yellow live saving buoy floating in a swimming pool

Part of creating a safer swimming pool environment for your loved ones is learning to recognize a distressed swimmer and understanding how to get them to safety without endangering yourself or others. Everyone is familiar with Hollywood’s signs of drowning, complete with perilous music scored to elicit a more visceral reaction. Real-life accidental drownings, injuries, and aquatic emergencies often have a far less dramatic appearance, but the results can be just as tragic as those mimicked on the silver screen. As a responsible pool owner, you already know you need to do your part to prevent the kind of accidental drownings that take thousands of lives annually, and learning to spot a distressed swimmer is an important part of fulfilling that obligation.

Distress Comes In Many Forms

Swimmer underwater showing clear signs of distress with their arms above water

One of the first things you need to know about a swimmer in danger is that they don’t all look, sound, or behave alike. Swimmers facing different emergencies with varying levels of experience in the water can create unique circumstances that don’t always look like the classic picture of someone bobbing in and out of the water, desperately waving their arms over their head and screaming. Signs of drowning in some might include simply not making progress as their limbs grow tired and they slip lower and lower in the water, while others may yell, flail, or even become panicked and violent while trying to save themselves. That’s why it’s so important to not just learn about the signs of a distressed swimmer but also cultivate vigilant attention to detail when watching the water so you can better spot the small danger signs before they become huge risks to your pool guests.

Signs of a Distressed Swimmer

It can be hard to spot a swimmer in distress, especially when entertaining a boisterous group of kids, teens, or fun-loving adults. With all the sounds, splashing, and movement, the signs of drowning can easily blend into the background unless you stay focused. Watch for changes in behavior and look out for these key warning signs:

  • Bobbing at the Water’s Surface – A distressed swimmer who realizes they are going under may try to bob in the water in an attempt to breathe. Far from treading water, this is usually accomplished by sinking and pushing off the bottom of the pool to breach the surface briefly or violently moving their arms up and down to propel themselves up and out of the water. These inefficient movements will tire them quickly and do little to move them laterally toward a pool edge where they can escape danger.
  • Flailing -When swimmers panic, they lose coordination, reducing the efficiency of their movements even further, leading to more distress. Eventually, this can lead to uncoordinated flailing of their arms and legs in an attempt to grab hold of something or someone to save themselves or to draw attention.
  • Calls For Help – A swimmer calling for help may seem straightforward, but what about when kids are playing a game in the pool or at the poolside? What about when adults are having an animated conversation about office politics? Calls for help aren’t always actual calls for help, and a distressed swimmer may not be coherent enough to express themselves with words.
  • Lack of Progress Despite Effort – One of the most difficult signs of drowning can occur before the swimmer themselves even knows they’re in trouble. When they’re working on swimming but going nowhere, it could point to an undercurrent more powerful than their swimming ability or simply exhausted limbs that are losing strength and coordination. Either way, they can find themselves far away from the pool’s edge, too tired to save themselves.
  • Obvious Signs of Pain – Wincing, grunts, grabbing at calves, and more can be signs of an injury or emergency even happening in the water. While not every discomfort or pang requires rescue, some, like serious cramps, can make swimming next to impossible and put their victims in danger.
  • Staying Near the Bottom of the Pool – When acting as the water watcher for your swimming pool, don’t just focus on the surface of the water but also on the bottom of the pool, where distressed swimmers can slip to as they tire of trying to rescue themselves. Watch for swimmers–especially kids–who seem to stay down longer and longer or move very little under the water without a reasonable explanation.
  • Unfocused Gaze and Lack of Response – If you notice a swimmer who has taken on a blank, “thousand-yard stare” that signals emotional detachment or they don’t seem to hear or recognize your attempts to gain their attention, you could be looking at a distressed swimmer whose panic has reduced them to simply focusing on the physical act of trying to keep their head above water as long as possible. 

What To Do About a Distressed Swimmer

White and orange life saving buoys sitting poolside

While it may seem that the simple answer is to rescue them, the correct answer is to rescue them safely. The last thing you want to do is create a situation that not only increases the risk to them but also to other swimmers or yourself. 

  • Clear The Pool – While there may be plenty of swimmers close to the victim, it’s far too easy for a relayed emergency to devolve into chaos. The victim may grab onto another weak swimmer, lash out at them, or the confusion and shifting currents could drag them under the water. It’s far safer to clear the pool of swimmers and their pool toys, giving yourself or another designated responsible party the room to work safely to get them out of the pool.
  • Use Rescue Equipment – Flotation devices and rescue hooks can help you give the person showing signs of drowning a literal lifeline while you work to reach them, pull them closer to safety, or aid you in retrieving them from the center of the pool. Make sure these tools are in good repair, close at hand, and clearly marked should a bystander need to aid you.
  • Move Efficiently to Control The Situation – As you approach the distressed swimmer, remember that they may be tired, scared, and even combative. It’s vital you rescue them while ensuring you can safely navigate the water yourself. Both of your lives may depend on your ability to swim.
  • Get Trained – Water rescue is a specialized skill that encompasses not just being a strong swimmer but knowing how to respond to emergencies in and around the water. Check with your local American Red Cross for classes to teach you the real-world skills you will need to save a life.
  • Prevent Unsupervised Access – An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, and that holds true when it comes to water safety. Vulnerable individuals, like children, may not realize they don’t have the skills or strength to safely navigate the water, either due to inexperience or exhaustion. Pool safety barriers help keep them out of the water and safely on dry land. Removable mesh pool fences help protect the entire perimeter of your pool area behind a tall fence and a self-latching gate while swimming pool safety covers and nets block access to the pool’s surface and hold potential distressed swimmers up and out of the water. 

Request Your Free Pool Safety Quote

Your independent All-Safe Pool installer is ready to help you create a safer pool area for your friends, family, and pets. Locally based, they’re your go-to experts for professionally installed pool safety barriers. They’ll measure your pool area, talk to you about your needs, and give you a detailed quote that lays out your pool protection options without any obligation. Find out how affordable peace of mind for your swimming pool can be. Get your quote from your local All-Safe Pool pro today.

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