It’s time to talk about a concept called “Reach or Throw, Don’t Go!” A drowning person may be in danger… but they can also be a danger to an ill-prepared rescuer. When it comes to recognizing a drowning person and springing to action, some methods are safer than others.

Drowning is Quieter Than Most People Realize

Drowing happens far more frequently than a lot of us realize. According to the CDC, from 2005-2014 there were about ten (non-boating related) drowning deaths per day in the United States. Swimming lessons and pool fences are a great start, but it is clear that accidents can still happen.

After all, just because someone knows how to swim doesn’t mean that they aren’t at risk of drowning. For example, if a swimmer is tired and has drifted out too far, they may have trouble getting back to shore. Alternately, a person who jumps into the water may not come back up if they hit their head on the way down.

As it turns out, drowning rarely happens the way we’ve seen in movies and television shows. There is not much thrashing or screaming. Instead, the drowning person often slips quietly under the water without anyone else noticing. It only takes a few minutes for this type of situation to turn potentially fatal.

Keeping this in mind, it is important to know how to deal with a drowning person.

Getting Started

Before we get started, here is a great primer lesson from Eric Lupton, the President of Life Saver Pool Fence:

Eric covers the basics of “Reach or Throw, Don’t Go!” but in the next section, we will delve a bit deeper on this topic.

Reach or Throw, Don’t Go!

This is a common saying among water safety experts for a reason. The phrase is catchy and easy to remember. That helps people to remember it in a dangerous situation. Most importantly, it is lifesaving advice.


When you notice someone drowning, your first instinct might be to jump into the water. Unfortunately, this action could easily be deadly. A drowning person is likely panicking. In this situation, the victim might accidentally drag their rescuer under the water with them. Now this incident just became twice as dangerous.

Start by Calling for Help

Instead of leaping into danger, be sure to call for help. Yell as loud as you can, even if you seem to be alone. Over the water, voices often travel. Someone may hear your calls and call 9-1-1.

Drowning Safety: Reach or Throw, Don’t Go!

Next, look around for a floatation device. A buoy is ideal, but anything that lets you reach the victim without being dragged into the water can help. This can even be a tree branch or a pool noodle. It doesn’t matter what it is, as long as it can keep you out of harm’s way while you attempt to pull the victim ashore. Like the saying implies, the goal is to reach out to the person, or throw them something to help them. This way you can avoid putting yourself in harm’s way.

Coming Up from the Rear

If the drowning person has something to hold onto, you’re on your way. Now that the victim is likely not panicking, it is recommended that you approach the drowning person from behind.

The key here is to avoid being accidentally drowned by the panicked person. The victim may not notice you at first, which gives you a better opportunity to help them. From behind the drowning person, slide your arms under theirs in a scooping motion. This will lock their arms in yours and allow you to move them to safety. After this, carefully and quickly “drag” them to land. Above all, be sure to tilt the victim’s head back. This will keep their mouth and nose out of the water.

For a more detailed lesson check for classes in your area. For example, the American Red Cross offers specific classes on this very topic as well as CPR certification. Education and drowning safety awareness are critical to keeping safe in the water. These lessons could easily save a life.