Drowning Research

Boating and water sports are very enjoyable activities. Millions of people engage in some form
of outing involving boats every year. Boating though, is not a casual or simple activity; there are risks involved, and specific knowledge required that can only be gained through education and experience.

The water environment gives us life, nourishes our bodies, connects our economies and rejuvenates our spirit; but it can also rise up from time to time and take it all away.

Water demands our respect and we are often reluctant to imagine this darker side. Unfortunately, numerous preventable fatalities and injuries occur every year.

New awareness of the serious effects of sudden immersion in cold water is calling into question many accepted practices and out-of-date assumptions. Research has shown that most drownings associated with boating activity would not have occurred if the person had been wearing a lifejacket or PFD.


Why wear a lifejacket


In May 2001, the Canadian Safe Boating Council struck a Lifejacket/Personal Flotation Device (PFD) Taskforce to examine the advisability of advocating for legislation concerning mandatory PFD use for recreational boaters in small craft. In October 2002, the taskforce contracted with SMARTRISK, a national injury prevention organization, to develop a background research paper summarizing the best available evidence pertaining to mandatory lifejacket/PFD use. This background research paper would then be used to inform a position paper on the topic of mandatory PFD wear legislation by the taskforce. Several lines of evidence were considered in order to examine the case for mandatory wear of lifejackets/PFDs for boaters in vessels under 6m while the vessel is underway.

• Read “A Rationale for Wearing Rather than Carry PFDs”,Will It Float? Background Research Report (page 44-50) CSBC/SMARTRISK


Man overboard


It does happen. Throughout history the worst nightmare of a sailor is to fall overboard. It happens in ocean going shipping, yacht racing across the strait, canoeing to the island and fishing off the point. A simple slip on the wet deck or seat, a wave that hits you when you are leaning over the anchor - or starting a motor - or hauling in a fish; and there you are in the water.

In small boats it is not uncommon to capsize in waves or turn too suddenly at speed and eject someone from their seat. The end result is a person in the water who didn't plan to be there.

Unexpected immersion is rarely fun and in cool or cold water it can be very dangerous. It is not the same as jumping into the pool or diving into the lake on a sunny day in a swimsuit.

Seventy per cent of boating fatalities occur after a fall overboard, capsize or swamping of a boat. When the man overboard is not wearing a lifejacket or PFD the ability to stay afloat and to hang on to an overturned hull is greatly reduced. Learn the proper way to recover someone from the water into your boat. Take a boat rescue course for a safety organization in your area.

Rescue of a person in the water and their subsequent treatment requires some expert knowledge and training. If the person has been immersed in cold water or there is the possibility that they have inhale water, or lost consciousness at any time, seek professional medical assessment.

• Recover a Person Overboard Transport Canada Safe Boating Guide (see p. 20-22)




How much water does it take to drown?

Drowning occurs when aspiration of fluid into the lungs results in suffocation. It only requires a small amount of water (1/4 to 1/2 liter) to be inhaled for complications within the lung tissue to create a near drowning condition that can lead to death without immediate medical treatment. A somewhat larger amount of water (1 1/2 liter) entering the lungs of an average person will more than likely cause them to drown (Golden/Tipton, 2003).

Worldwide over 100,000 people drown each year in a variety of ways. Drowning is the third leading cause of death in Canada (after auto accidents and poisoning and not including intentional death by murder or suicide.)

Among yearly boating fatalities a large percentage (an average of 140 Canadians) drown.

• About the science and physiology of drowning in Essentials of Sea Survival by Golden/Tipton

• Drowning terms

• Read "It Doesn't Look Like They're Drowning" from the U.S. Coast Guard Search and Rescue Journal On Scene - Fall 2006 (pdf)


Cold water


• Canadian Red Cross Society Drownings in Canada and other water-related injuries -
10 Years of Research (Published in 2006) Module 1 - Overview (pdf 2.8MB) - Module 2 - Ice & Cold Water (pdf 3.7MB)

• CSBC/SMARTRISK Report 2003 "Will It Float?"

• Brooks C.J., Survival in Cold Waters, Staying Alive Transport Canada, 2003

• Essentials of Sea Survival - Golden/Tipton 2003

• Golden F, Tipton, M. Essentials of Sea Survival Human Kinetics, 2002

• Brooks CJ. Survival in Cold Waters. Ottawa Transport Canada, 2001

• Tipton MJ. The Initial Responses to Cold-Water Immersion in Man. Clinical Science 1989;

• Hayward JS, Hay, C., Matthews, B.R., Overweel, C.H., Radford, D.D. Temperature Effect on the
Human Dive Response in Relation to Cold Water Near-Drowning. Journal of Applied Physiology:
Respiration, Environmental and Exercise Physiology 1984; 56:202-206

• Barcroft H, Edholm, O.G. Temperature and Blood Flow in the Human Forearm. Journal of
Physiology 1946; 104:366-376

• Vincent MJ, Tipton, M.J. The Effects of Cold Immersion and Hand Protection on Grip Strength.
Aviation, Space, and Environmental Medicine 1988; 59:738-741

• Brooks CJ. Survival in Cold Water (presentation), 2003



Detailed gathering and analysis of data with respect to fatalities has been done in addition to counting the injuries and incidents where death by drowning has only been narrowly averted. The picture which has emerged confirms scientifically what has been understood anecdotally for decades by rescue and safety professionals.

Information about sudden capsize, falls overboard, alcohol, the debilitating effects of cold shock and the difficulty of donning a PFD once in the water has brought into sharp focus the necessity of always wearing a lifejacket or PFD in small boats.

• Canadian Red Cross Recreational Boating Trend Report 2010 (pdf 1.1MB)

• Canadian Red Cross Society Drownings in Canada and other water-related injuries - 10 Years of Research (Published in 2006/2009):

    Module 1 - Overview (pdf 2.8MB)

    Module 2 - Ice & Cold Water (pdf 3.7MB)

    Module 3 - Boating & Powerboats (pdf 1MB)

    Module 4 - Unpowered Boating (pdf 690k)

    Module 5 - Fishing (pdf 1MB)

• Canadian Red Cross Society Drowning Report (Published in 2005) (pdf 1185k)

• Canadian Red Cross Society 10th Anniversary Drowning Report (Published in 2003) (pdf 847k)

• Canadian Red Cross Society Drowning Report (Published in 2001)

    Introduction (pdf 171k)

    Part 2: Drownings and Other Water-Related Injury Fatalities During Boating (pdf 263k)

    Discussion (pdf 172k)

    References (pdf 71k)


• Link to Canadian Red Cross Society (you will leave this site)


Drowning prevention

Considerable research has been conducted in recent years by safety organizations, regulatory and enforcement bodies and community groups interested in solving the problem of preventable drownings related to boating activity.


Social Attitudes

Investigative studies into personal and social attitudes about wearing lifejackets uncovers a complacency about risk and a confidence about swimming ability, boating experience and judgement which unfortunately is not supported by the facts on the water. Sadly, many good swimmers have drowned near shore on nice days in calm weather.

Canadian Coast Guard - Office of Boating Safety:
• Canadian Boater Attitudes Toward Personal Flotation Devices - 2002 (prepared by Environics Research Group)

• Omnitel. 'Lifejackets - Get in the habit for life!' Impact Evaluation: Canadian Coast Guard, 1997

Canadian Red Cross Society:
• Boating Safety Study 1996 (by MarkTrend Research)

• Boating Safety Study 2001 (by Market Facts/Markrend)

• MarkTrend Research. Boating Safety Advertising Evaluation Study. Vancouver, BC: The Canadian Red Cross Society, 1996

• Roger Boshier PhD, UBC study "Man Overboard: Survivor Stories and Prevention" pdf

• Forrester L, Hotz S. Issues concerning the wearing of personal flotation devices: A literature review, 1998

• Butler Research Associates Inc. Motivating PFD Usage among small craft operators: A Qualitative Research Report: Office of Boating Safety, Canadian Coast Guard, 1999

• McCarthy P, Talley WK. Evidence on risk compensation and safety behaviour. Economics Letters 1999; 62:91-96

Wear Rates

Although excellent work has been done in many areas of boating safety education, the wear rate of lifejackets or PFDs remains consistently very low (less than 15%) despite the strong correlation with fatalities in men 18-55 years of age venturing out in power and utility boats under 20ft.

Significantly, many of the respondents seemed unaware of new developments in the style and comfort of PFDs. They felt no need to seek out and try on a lifejacket that could be worn, being content to comply with regulations requiring them to have an approved device on board.

Canadian Coast Guard - Office of Boating Safety:
• National PFD Observational Wear Rate Study - March 2001 (The Star Group Inc. in association
with SCS Consultants Inc.)

National Association of State Boating Law Administrators:
• Personal Flotation Device Wearability Study: NASBLA, 1997


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