STORIES THE VIEW UPSTREAM By: Keith 'Catfish' Sutton, WorldFishingNetwork.com Near-Drowning Experiences and How I Survived Drowning is more common than you think; should you find yourself in a scary situation out on the water, it's smart to be prepared Accidental drownings happen much too frequently. When enjoying a day on or in the water, safety should be foremost on everyone's mind. (U.S. Marine Corps/public domain photo) According to the Center for Disease Control, from 2005-2014, there were an average of 3,536 fatal unintentional drownings annually in the United States – about 10 deaths per day. An additional 332 people died each year from drowning in boating-related incidents. Drowning is one of the leading causes of unintentional death for people of all ages. It can happen when we least expect it. I know. Three times I’ve almost been a victim. Summer 2001. One could not have asked for a more beautiful day at the beach. My wife, four sons and I are enjoying the sun and surf in Galveston, Texas. Thousands of beachgoers crowd this stretch of sand along the Gulf of Mexico. Some are swimming. Some are playing. Some are working on their tans. One has waded far offshore. Theresa and I are together, waist-deep in the surf, when I see the woman. “You see that lady way out there?” I ask, pointing to the lone figure 100 yards from the beach. “What do you suppose she’s doing?” “Maybe she’s just seeing how far out she can wade,” Theresa says. “Well, I’m guessing it won’t be much further,” I reply. “If she’s not careful, she’s going to get caught in a riptide or step off into water over her head. I hope she’s a good swimmer.” I’m not too concerned. Lifeguards are posted at regular intervals up and down the beach. Nevertheless, I can’t take my eyes off the woman. When Theresa returns to the beach to soak up the sun, I watch the woman who is now only a speck in the distance. Suddenly she disappears. Endless seconds pass before she surfaces. When she does, it’s obvious she’s in trouble. Her arms are flailing. She screams for help. I look toward the nearest lifeguard tower a hundred yards up the beach. The lifeguard doesn’t see or hear the woman. His attention is elsewhere, and there’s no time to summon him for help. More than twenty years earlier, as a park ranger, I received training in water rescues. I never used that training until now. I know, however, that rescuing a panicky person who thinks they are drowning can be extremely dangerous. As I swim toward the woman, I try to anticipate the worst that can happen and decide how I will avoid becoming a drowning victim myself. When I reach the spot where I last saw the woman, I am out of breath and the woman is nowhere in sight. Then a few feet away I make out her form beneath the water. I swim to her, and she suddenly surfaces, screaming for help. I test the water depth; I can’t touch bottom. When the woman sees me, she does what I expected. She tries to climb on top of me and pushes me beneath the surface. She is struggling fiercely, and I must push her away. “You can’t fight me,” I shout at her. “If you do, I can’t help you.” Miraculously, she listens, and I am able to place an arm around her and start swimming toward shore. I am too exhausted, however, to make much headway. I pray for strength but fear one or both of us will drown. I can barely keep my head above the water. From out of nowhere, I hear a voice. “Do you need help?” A young man has come to our aid. “Yes,” I shout. “I can’t make it any further. Can you help the lady?” The young man takes her under one arm and swims to shore, then returns and helps me as well. I fall on the beach, too exhausted to move. When I look up, the young man has disappeared. “Thank you, thank you, thank you,” the woman says. “I was wading when suddenly the water went over my head. I can’t swim. I would have drowned.” To this day, I don’t know who the young man was who saved us. We both owe our lives to him. Winter 1976. Somewhere off the coast of Islamorada, Florida. I have come to the crystalline waters of the Florida Keys with several students to become certified as a scuba diver. Basic training was completed in a pool back home, and at the instructor’s urging I have joined him here for the open-water portion of my certification. For several days, we explore the amazing coral reefs. Our instructor feels confident in our abilities and suggests we make a deep dive that will require a short period of decompression as we ascend to the surface. He believes it will be a good learning experience. That it is. But it is also a nightmare. The dive boat anchors near a reef, and after going over all safety precautions, we descend. Each student is paired with an experienced diver. We can see forever in the clear water, and all of us experience thrills we’ll never forget—hand-feeding huge moray eels, swimming alongside barracudas and sharks, sitting on live sponges the size of living-room recliners. Soon, however, my air is running low. As planned, I signal this to my diving companion, the first mate of the boat, as soon as the oxygen level falls near the safety margin. He gives me an OK signal, and we head back to the anchor line where we will slowly ascend, allowing nitrogen to leave our bloodstream so we don’t get the bends. Problem is, the anchor line is gone. Unbeknownst to us, the boat has caught fire in our absence. There is no fire extinguisher on board. The topside man takes the boat back to shore, hoping to save it. My oxygen level falls lower and lower until finally it is gone. The first mate shoves a buddy-breathing rig in my mouth. Now I’m using the oxygen he too is breathing. I watch the level fall to near nothing, and I panic. I drop the breathing apparatus from my mouth, pull the cord on my May West vest and head for the surface. Getting the bends may be painful, but it’s better than drowning, I think. The first mate has other ideas, though. He grabs my foot, pulls me back down and shoves the regulator back in my mouth, waving a finger in my face to say, “No!” He does his best to calm me, but fails. I’m convinced we will drown. Another student diver has run out of air and is buddy-breathing with his dive companion. He, too, is in a state of panic. But neither of us will drown. Our oxygen levels fall far below critical, but before our air is gone, an anchor sinks from the surface. Fresh air tanks are tied to the line. The mate has returned with another boat just in the nick of time. Spring 1970. I am alone in my johnboat, running a trotline in an Arkansas farm pond. I had stretched the trotline between two brushy tops offshore. I then baited the hooks with live shiners and waited an hour to see if any catfish had taken the baits. They had. When I put a hand on the line, I can feel several fish tugging at the stagings. It’s time now to bring in the catch. I remove several catfish and started rebaiting hooks. When I reach two window weights at the line’s middle, I balance them on the transom. The weights are used to keep the line on the bottom where catfish feed. Suddenly, one weight rolls back in, pulling the other with it and driving a 5/0 hook through my little finger. Searing pain shoots through my hand. I grab at the line, but capsize the boat and tumble in. The water is only six feet deep, but I can’t surface. I almost black out before reaching my hunting knife and cutting the staging to the hook. An uncle taught me always to keep a knife within easy reach when trotlining. Had I not heeded his advice, I surely would have drowned. Anyone can drown. It can happen more quickly than you can imagine. In most cases, however, drowning can be prevented. Wearing a lifejacket when on the water is the more important precaution. Avoiding potential hazards such as deep water is another, particularly if you’re a non-swimmer. It’s also important to keep all the necessary safety equipment close at hand when fishing, boating, swimming, diving or otherwise enjoying a day on the water. There are times, however, when we make bad decisions, and beneath the water, we stare death in the eye. If we are lucky, we learn from our mistakes. If not, we die.