How Not to Drown

Dear Black Bag Confidential Reader,

We lived in fluid for our first nine months, so swimming should be instinctual — but for many people, it’s not. The human body (for most of us) is naturally buoyant. We are designed to float.

That said, there is a large percentage of the population who can’t swim. And an even larger percentage will be hopeless in churning seas and the surf zone.

Trust me when I tell you when you have 30-foot waves crashing above you that the safest place is UNDER the water. I have avoided death many times by simply swimming down and grabbing sand with my hands to anchor myself until the break in sets (the time between the waves) and taking that time gap to swim to shore.

If you can hold your breath for 30 seconds, you will find that under the waves is the safest place to be. It’s utter calmness. If you can’t, here are some other things you can try.

DIY Flotation Device

According to the Navy Swimming and Water Survival Instructor’s Manual, you should “carefully weigh the pros and cons of removing clothing, as clothing can protect against hypothermia and offers protection from marine life, fuel oil and sunlight.”

If you find yourself in the water without a life vest, here’s how you can improvise:

According to the Navy manual, you should take your pants off and “tie the two legs together using a square or overhand knot,” and then zip and button the waist closures.

Holding the pant legs vertically about two inches beneath the surface of the water, take a deep breath and exhale into the submerged waistband. The air will rise and be trapped in the leg knots. Place your neck in the crotch of the pants. Congratulations — you now have a makeshift life vest.


A few things to keep in mind: Make sure you keep the waistband below the surface of the water to keep air from escaping. Also, as the manual explains, “The trousers should be kept wet by splashing water on them periodically. If the trousers are allowed to dry out, they may leak.”

Face-Down Survival Float

As also stated in the Navy Swimming and Water Survival Instructor’s Manual, the back float (often preferred by bad or nonswimmers who have not learned proper breath control) “is effective only in calm water, and can be hazardous in rough seas.”

So the best way to stay afloat in choppy seas is the face-down float. Here’s how to execute this maneuver by the book just like a trained Navy SEAL:

1. Place your face in the water with your chin to your chest and the back of your head just above the surface of the water. “The upper back and shoulders are underwater, horizontal to the surface, and the arms are at the surface with elbows bent and hands separated slightly.” Allow your legs to dangle beneath you. “These actions balance the floater around the chest, the center of buoyancy.”


2. To take a breath, “pivot at the neck, lifting your chin off your chest until your mouth clears the surface… As your mouth clears the surface, the swimmer exhales quickly and forcefully through the mouth and nose.” Then inhale deeply. Once you’ve inhaled a full breath of air, lower your head back to the resting position with your chin on your chest.

3. When you lift your head to breathe, keep your arms parallel to the surface and press your hands outward (palms facing out) to a point near the width of your shoulders. This motion is called sculling and will help you keep your head above water while you take in a new breath. You can also use your legs for additional support — the best method is a modified frog kick: Kick while your head is above water. “Only one or two short, quick kicks are required to support the head while breathing.”

The most important aspect of this maneuver is that it will help you conserve energy while you wait for help to arrive. Also, remember to stay calm and keep your breathing consistent so you don’t hyperventilate or aspirate.

Make sure you check the local conditions before heading into the water on your next vacation so you can avoid this issue altogether. But if you do find yourself in suddenly violent waters, you’ll know what to do to make it out alive.

Be a survivor… not a statistic,

Cade Courtley

Cade Courtley

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