TopKayaker.Net: Kayak Safety Articles

Ocean Kayak Malibu IIHow to Recognize & Assist A Drowning Child by Athena Holtey

We recently took a course offered by the State of New Hampshire on Water Safety & Supervision Training intitled: Preventing Drowning in Child Care.

We were surprised and grateful to learn many new important truths. Children playing around a kayak floating off the beach house or lake cabin is a common scene so be prepared with some of the valuable knowledge shared here.

Statistics: Drowning remains the second greatest cause of accidental death in children ages 1 to 14 nationwide. Actually, in our state of New Hampshire, it is tied for #1 with auto accidents. For every drowning ending in death, four children end up with permanent injury resulting in life-long disabilities.

While Kayaking:

  • Constant adult supervision of children is a must.
  • All adults and children wear approved PFD.
  • Small children ride in a kayak with an adult as a passenger.
  • Larger children who can paddle solo must have an adult buddy in direct supervision at all times on the water.
  • Plan to be ashore before kids get tired, thirsty, hungry, and need a bathroom break.

While at the waterside:

  • Constant adult supervision of children is a must.
  • No life vests to be worn by children while wading or swimming.
  • Count heads every ten seconds.
  • Take regular breaks, counting heads is tedious.

As most drowning incidents happen during periods when children are being supervised, appreciating a child's limited muscle stamina during water activities and - most importantly - learning to recognize child play from drowning is a much more serious challenge facing their supervising adults than is commonly thought. 90% of deaths occur within 10 yards of help.

What Drowning Looks Like: A child can only struggle ten to twenty seconds before drowning. They usually do not have a prior panic moment when they can cry out. The very effort to get air prohibits calling out.

Bobbing up and down and splashing in an involuntary response to survive often appears as child play or even dog paddling. Natural instinct forces them to extend their arms laterally and press down on the water’s surface. Mouths alternately sink below and reappear above the surface of the water. Their mouths are not above the surface of the water long enough for them to exhale, inhale, and call out for help. From beginning to end a child's body remains upright in the water, with no evidence of a supporting kick.

It is tragic but true that often parents do not recognize their child is drowning while they are watching. There are heartbreaking videos on the web taken by stationary cams showing drowning occurring while friends stand around or play in the water next to the victims.

For this reason do not take anything for granted while enjoying your summer out on the lake or at the seashore. Like taking your eyes off the road for just a few seconds, 10 to 20 seconds is all you need to lose track of a drowning child. The recommendation is to count faces of the children in your group every ten seconds. This is tedious for the supervising adult so minimize risk and fatigue by calling them out often from the water for any excuse you can find like snacks, water, sunscreen applications or bathroom breaks. Do not leave siblings in charge of each other.

What Secondary Drowning Looks Like: It can happen that a rescued drowning victim goes home feeling grateful, but tired and lays down to rest, never to rise again. Secondary Drowning is a condition caused by a small amount of water left in the lungs. The irritation causes a problem with being able to extract oxygen from the air while breathing. It makes them feel tired. It sometimes causes a heaving cough or shallow breathing. Death has been known to happen between six and 24 hours after the victim has been rescued. Be on the safe side always and call 911 or get your rescue victim to the emergency room whether they say they are ok or not.

wrong pfd

A common error is an ill fitting PFD. Life Jackets should fit snug and not ride up in the child's face, push them face forward or slip over their arms restricting movement.

Link to Infant PFD - Life Jacket at Tom's TopKayaker ShopFloatation Devices & Swimming Lessons: So just wrap your child in floatation or teach them to swim at a young age and they'll be safe? Wrong. The wrong life vest or floatation device can compromise a child and result in drowning. After taking this course a browse on the web reveals a frightening and astonishingly large market for floatation bathing outfits for children that are not Coast Guard approved. Although U.S. Coast Guard Approved bathing suits for children do exist, most of the designs from companies advertising cheap child floatation devices would not pass approval by the U.S. Coast Guard.

The reason? Some floatation bathing suits for children actually force a child's face down when they get tired. Some prohibit movement in shallow water and easily slip off their frail frames. It is actually wrong to have a child in wading depth water wearing floatation. It can make it impossible for them to maneuver or try to turn over from lying in shallow water considering their limited strength and size.

Also of concern are the popular "water wings." They fail in unpredictable episodes of deflation but, like floatation bathing suits, often float children into unsafe water conditions or depths. For such reasons it was recommended that children not be encouraged to learn swim under 3 years of age as their excitement, even while wearing a Coast Guard Approved floatation bathing suit, can journey them off into waters beyond their abilities. There just is no alternative to a constantly attentive capable adult supervising a child's water play at all times.

In 2002 a Federal mandate was passed to require all children under the age of 13 to wear a personal floatation device (PFD) aka "life-jacket" while boating. So what do you do? Never leave children unattended and always choose a PFD or floatation device that is Coast Guard approved and fits the child well. Kayakers with children be sure and revisit this article at Topkayaker.net on Properly Fitting A Child To A PFD.

Boat Tushion
Boat Tushion - See Safety Gear

How To Rescue: If you believe a child is drowning, don't jump in and go to them. Your first priority is to get them out of the water. Small children have super-human adrenalin strength to grab on and climb, bringing strong adults into perilous circumstances. The motto is to: Reach, Throw, Never Go. Work out a plan in advance for what to use to reach or throw to a drowning victim as part of your water activity adventure preparation. If you must get in the water keep a floatation device between you and the victim. If they climb up it to grab on to you, let go. If you are on the beach where your kayaks are anchored, jumping in the kayak and paddling over to the victim might be a better strategy than swimming to them.

A paddle can be used to reach and pull someone to safety. A throw-rope, a kick board, or a spare life jacket. A Type IV throwable - aka "Boat Tushion" is an excellent dual use piece of equipment. Use anything that can help you keep your distance and hence your balance or stability while rescuing a distressed or drowning child.

Practice recovery techniques with your children and visit some of the excellent water safety websites for more ideas on water-safety play practice.

Other Websites:

More articles:

Ocean Kayak PeekabooFor more on Kayaking with your children or pets and life vest care with important facts about their use, please continue reading these excellent articles:

Infant PFD - Life JacketYouth PFD - Life Jacket

LIFE JACKETS, PFDs can be found at:


© 2002-11 Tom Holtey

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