647 people drown each day. Here’s how to avoid being one of them

Jun 3, 2023, 12:00 PM

People swim in the surf at Waimea Bay Beach Park on the North Shore of Oahu, Hawaii, under a warnin...

People swim in the surf at Waimea Bay Beach Park on the North Shore of Oahu, Hawaii, under a warning flag. Experts say do not underestimate the power of waves, even if there is no official warning. Photo credit: Caleb Jones/AP

(CNN) — On Good Friday 2017, Wyatt Werneth got a call from his wife, who had gone grocery shopping with their daughter: The car’s broken down. Please rescue us.

Werneth hopped in his vehicle to assist, driving by Patrick Space Force Base near Cape Canaveral, Florida. From the A1A highway, Werneth said you can see the ocean.

What he saw next was a twist of fate that led to a much more urgent kind of rescue.

“I could see someone waving in traffic as I was going by. … I pulled in to see what was going on; I had the immediate instinct that something was happening in the water,” Werneth recalled to CNN Travel.

“When I came over the berm, I did not realize what I was getting into. There were multiple people in the water.”

And they were in trouble. Very serious trouble. Rip current kind of trouble.

The scene would send chills of dread down anyone’s spine — but at least Werneth was prepared. He is an experienced lifeguard instructor and had water rescue equipment with him.

But with at least five people struggling in a vicious Atlantic rip current, how would he possibly save them all?

The statistics are grim

The drowning statistics from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are shocking.

In the CDC’s most recently updated numbers, an estimated 4,012 fatal unintentional drownings happen every year in the United States (including boating incidents). That is an average of 11 drowning deaths per day.

From 2016 to 2020, the states with the most drowning deaths per 100,000 people were the following:

1. Alaska
2. Hawaii
3. Louisiana
4. Florida
5. Montana (which replaces former No. 5 Mississippi)

Your odds of drowning are much, much higher than being attacked by a shark or an alligator.

World drowning statistics are even more shocking. There are an estimated 236,000 annual drowning deaths worldwide, according to the UN’s World Health Organization. That comes out to an average of 647 people per day.

And then there are the even more numerous nonfatal drownings. The CDC says people who survive a drowning incident have a range of outcomes: “From no injuries to very serious injuries or permanent disability.”

The tragedy is many of these deaths and injuries are preventable, experts say. What can you do to enjoy the water — be it ocean, river, lake or swimming pool — safely and not join the ranks of drowning deaths? Turns out, a lot.

Who is most at risk?

Knowing who is likely to drown is critical. At-risk groups need the most attention. In the United States, those include the following:

• The youngest people: Children 1 to 4 have the highest drowning rates, the CDC says, mostly in swimming pools.

• Males: They account for nearly 80% of fatal drownings in the United States. More risk-taking behaviors and alcohol use are cited as reasons. Across the world, WHO reports males have twice the fatal drowning rate of females.

• Minority groups: Fatal drowning rates for American Indian or Alaska Native people 29 and younger are two times higher than for White people. For Black people, the rate is 1.5 times higher than for White people.

• People with seizure disorders: People with conditions such as epilepsy are at a higher risk for drowning, and that can happen in a bathtub.

Drowning prevention tips

The CDC emphasizes the importance of learning basic water safety skills, saying formal lessons can reduce the risk of drowning.

However, “children who have had swimming lessons still need close and constant supervision when in or around water,” the agency notes. Don’t get distracted by TV, books or the phone when watching children in the water.

If you’re drinking alcoholic beverages, stay out of the water and don’t go boating. Impaired judgment and slow reactions can lead to tragedy.

People in boats and weaker swimmers should wear life jackets, especially in open water.

And keep an eye on the weather. Exit if there’s a thunderstorm or heavy rains.

Know the water environments

Understand the waters you’re about to enter. Different bodies of water carry different types of dangers:


These currents flow away from shore. They often form at breaks in sandbars and close to piers and rock groins.

Look for signs of a rip current before entering, says the United States Lifesaving Association. That can be “a narrow gap of darker, seemingly calmer water between areas of breaking waves and whitewater,” a difference in water color or “a line of foam, seaweed or debris moving seaward.”

Here’s what to do you’re caught in one:

• Stay calm. Rip currents don’t pull you underwater but do sweep you farther from shore.

• Don’t swim against the current. Try to escape by “swimming out of the current in a direction following the shoreline,” the USLA says. You may be able to escape by floating or treading water and ride the current out.

• If you’re in trouble, yell and wave for help.

If you’re not trained, don’t try to rescue people yourself. Seek a lifeguard, call 911 or throw a flotation device their way. Direct the person to swim parallel to the shoreline to escape.


The National Weather Service warns swimmers to watch out for “shorebreak” waves. They crash directly onto the sand and can batter and disorient swimmers. “When in doubt, don’t go out,” said Wyatt Werneth, who is also the public service spokesperson for the American Lifeguard Association.

Swim Guide and Swim Ireland advise people to swim in the hour before or the hour after low tide or high tide when waters are generally calmer. (But conditions can vary beach to beach).


Tubing and other activities are popular in rivers. But swift currents and obstacles below the surface or debris can be hazardous.

Werneth said research the river before you enter.


The placid waters of lakes and ponds can lull waders and swimmers into a false sense of security. Sharp, sudden dropoffs and debris under the water can startle or entangle people, Werneth said, leading to panic and drowning. He said go in with a swim buddy.

Dive only in designated areas. The USLA says enter unknown waters feet first to avoid striking your head. Swimmers shouldn’t stray into areas where personal watercraft and boats are speeding by.


The National Drowing Prevention Alliance has this advice for pool owners: “four-sided fencing with self-closing self-latching gates, door and window alarms, and safety covers can help make sure kids don’t get to the water unsupervised.”

And even if your children know how to swim, adults should still maintain a careful watch. Keep flotation devices on hand.


The National Park Service’s “Operation Dry Water” reminds people that all vessels must carry personal flotation devices.

National lifeguard shortage

Werneth, who is also a spokesman for the American Lifeguard Association, warned of a critical lifeguard shortage this coming summer that’s expected to be even worse than what the country saw in 2022.

He said the group’s message has always been “swim in front of a lifeguard.” But he said the reality of the shortage is prompting a new one: “Learn to swim, America.”

“We want people to self-lifeguard. Assign someone in your family to be a water watcher. Have that person learn CPR.”

And if someone can’t swim and still wants to wade, “put a life jacket on them. That’s going to make a difference.”

Werneth said that if you plan on going to a destination that features water activities, go online first to find out the lifeguard situation and adapt your plans as needed. Some pools, lakes and beaches might not even be open.

Operation Rescue

Back in 2017 at that Florida beach, Werneth’s task was daunting. But he had a cool head, decades of experience — and fortunately, a second experienced helper on hand that he later learned was from the Air Force.

“He was single-handedly pulling people out before I even got there. … That Air Force guy was kind of coming back with one. I saw that he had one that was kind of going unconscious, and I immediately jumped in the water, swam out, grabbed the unconscious person and got him out.”

Werneth guesses that they were about 50 yards out, and he recalls they ended up pulling five male teens out of the water. They weren’t even in swimming attire, Werneth said, leading him to think it was a spur-of-the-moment decision to enter the ocean.

Would the group have died without the rescue, which left him exhausted?

“I assure you they all would have. … These people were going in to help each other, and it caused a chain reaction. Do not go into the water to assist anyone without a flotation device,” he said.

“It was perfect timing that I showed up and happened to be there to help those guys.” All because the family car had broken down. But not everyone can rely on luck.

In the end, you need “water confidence,” gained by experience and respect for the water.

“The fear is what generates the panic which generates the drowning.”


We want to hear from you.

Have a story idea or tip? Send it to the KSL NewsRadio team here.


Afghan relatives offer prayers during a burial ceremony near the graves of victims who lost their l...

Niamh Kennedy and Radina Gigova, CNN

At least 300 people killed by flash floods in Afghanistan

At least 300 people have died in flash flooding that has ravaged northern Afghanistan in recent days, the Word Food Programme said Sunday.

1 month ago

The Apple Store at Towson Town Center Mall in Maryland is pictured. Apple Store workers in Towson, ...

Jordan Valinsky, CNN

Apple Store workers in Maryland vote to authorize strike

Apple Store workers in Towson, Maryland made history by voting late May 11 in favor of authorizing a strike.

1 month ago

Smoke from wildfires blankets the city as a couple has a picnic in Edmonton, Alberta, Saturday, May...

Paradise Afshar and Sara Smart, CNN

Canadians evacuate due to wildfires as air quality deteriorates

Thousands across Canada were urged to evacuate from blazing wildfires on Saturday, and the smoke emanating from them could be another danger.

1 month ago

Salvage crew members work on the deck of the cargo ship Dali on Friday, May 10....

Nicole Grether and Gloria Pazmino, CNN

Crews could use explosives to demolish part of Baltimore’s Key Bridge

Crews are expected to execute a plan to use small explosives to break apart a massive chunk of the Baltimore bridge that collapsed.

1 month ago

The sun is rising with a flare over Korla, Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, China, on May 10....

Brian Fung, CNN

Why tonight’s massive solar storm could disrupt communications and GPS systems

An unusual amount of solar activity due to a solar storm this week could disrupt some of the most important technologies society relies on.

1 month ago

A customer wipes sweat from their face as they work out on a treadmill inside a Planet Fitness Inc....

Nathaniel Meyersohn, CNN

Planet Fitness will raise its $10 membership plan for the first time in 26 years

Planet Fitness will raise the price of its “classic” membership from $10 a month to $15 for new members beginning in the summer.

1 month ago

Sponsored Articles

Underwater shot of the fisherman holding the fish...

Bear Lake Convention and Visitors Bureau

Your Bear Lake fishing guide

Bear Lake offers year-round fishing opportunities. By preparing ahead of time, you might go home with a big catch!

A group of people cut a purple ribbon...


Comcast announces major fiber network expansion in Utah

Comcast's commitment to delivering extensive coverage signifies a monumental leap toward a digitally empowered future for Utahns.

a doctor putting her hand on the chest of her patient...

Intermountain Health

Intermountain nurse-midwives launch new gynecology access clinic

An access clinic launched by Intermountain nurse-midwives provides women with comprehensive gynecology care.

Young couple hugging while a realtor in a suit hands them keys in a new home...

Utah Association of Realtors

Buying a home this spring? Avoid these 5 costly pitfalls

By avoiding these pitfalls when buying a home this spring, you can ensure your investment will be long-lasting and secure.

a person dressed up as a nordic viking in a dragon boat resembling the bear lake monster...

Bear Lake Convention and Visitors Bureau

The Legend of the Bear Lake Monster

The Bear Lake monster has captivated people in the region for centuries, with tales that range from the believable to the bizarre.


Live Nation Concerts

All the artists coming to Utah First Credit Union Amphitheatre (formerly USANA Amp) this summer

Summer concerts are more than just entertainment; they’re a celebration of life, love, and connection.

647 people drown each day. Here’s how to avoid being one of them