Saving someone who is drowning is more difficult and dangerous than many people think (heck, even realizing someone is drowning is hard — the signs don’t look like you think they would.) A person who’s drowning can be panicked and clutch, kick, and grab at you as you try to rescue them, dragging you both underwater. And simply carrying someone through the water to safety who isn’t fighting you is more physically arduous than you’d imagine. For this reason, the first recourse to saving a drowning victim should be to extend a rope, oar, or stick to them from the shore, or from a boat, rather than getting in the water yourself.
If the victim is too far from shore to be reached with an implement, you’ll need to jump in to get them. It’s best to disrobe before you jump in, especially if they’re in open water, and a ways away. Clothes and shoes will only weigh you down, and make a difficult task much more difficult. The weight of your soaked garments may end up sinking the both of you. Of course every second matters when you’re trying to save someone, so you have to be able to undress with lightning speed.
The 1952 edition of the Handbook for Boys (the Boy Scout manual), admonishes young men to be able to strip down to their underpants or swim trunks in 20 seconds or less, holding up 15 seconds as the ultimate goal. The manual includes a diagram of how this can be accomplished, which we have recreated above. The original illustration lacked captions, but the sequence seems to go like this:
- Remove coat while removing your shoes.
- Slip your shirt off your shoulders as you step out of your pants.
- Remove your arms from the sleeves of the shirt. (It’s hard to tell from the original illustration, but the figure may be re-buttoning one of the buttons on his shirt here, perhaps to turn it into a more effective towing device.)
- Peel off your socks as you clamp your shirt between your teeth.
- Jump into the water.
- Extend your shirt to the victim to hold onto. Even when you get into the water with the victim, it’s best to have them hold onto something and tow them ashore, rather than getting close enough to get clawed, grabbed, and/or kicked. If you don’t have something to extend to him or her, swim behind them, and wrap your arm around their chest, keeping their head above water. Swim ashore.
Throughout every step, you should keep your eyes on the victim, so you don’t lose track of where they are, and know if they slip underwater.
The Handbook for Boys advises Scouts to “Practice undressing as quickly as possible when you get ready for bed each night.” Sage advice, for when it comes to saving lives, it’s just as important to know how to dress quickly, as it is to know how to undress in a flash!