Drownproofing: A simple water survival technique that is easy to learn.
August 10, 2019 5:52 AM   Subscribe

With Drownproofing it is possible to survive almost indefinitely with minimal effort. You don't even need to know how to swim. Drownproofing is a water survival technique that was invented by Fred Lanoue, swimming coach at Georgia Institute of Technology from 1936 to 1964. Coach Lanoue believed that everyone should be able to survive in water and developed a simple technique that was easy to learn and did not depend on physical strength or intensive training. During his time at the Tech, Fred personally taught his method to 20,000 students. It's pretty much what it says on the tin, a simple site describing the technique, and the value of it. Previously on MetaFilter.
posted by dancestoblue (45 comments total) 46 users marked this as a favorite
This might be getting things off on a weird foot, since it's only brought up as a side point. But uncritically repeating the inventor's "White people are naturally buoyant enough to float; 1/3 of young Black men aren't" thing seems like a mistake. It strikes me as a pretty clear case of someone finding what he expected and maybe wanted to find, and it's definitely not the consensus now.
posted by nebulawindphone at 6:18 AM on August 10, 2019 [24 favorites]

I learned this method as a kid, but back then I was so skinny that I did have what the article refers to as “negative buoyancy”. Without some sort of paddling I would sink right to the bottom of the pool.

These days I’m a bit more buoyant. I should review the technique next time I have a chance to go swimming.
posted by tdismukes at 6:30 AM on August 10, 2019 [1 favorite]

My drown proofing technique is just to be very fat. I naturally float with my head fully out of the water even in fresh water.
posted by jacquilynne at 6:32 AM on August 10, 2019 [16 favorites]

ut uncritically repeating the inventor's "White people are naturally buoyant enough to float; 1/3 of young Black men aren't" thing seems like a mistake. It strikes me as a pretty clear case of someone finding what he expected and maybe wanted to find, and it's definitely not the consensus now.

I'm a skinny white guy who sinks today and has sank all my life. I used to swim competitively in high school, still sank even back then when I was able to swim 800Ms regularly without dying. My family has owned a pontoon boat for 30years... and I've never been able to float in the lake. I've tried every possible method, none work. Buoyancy is a simple function of body fat percentage, if your BMI is 19.9 like me, you're going to have to work to keep your head up, regardless of your skin color.
posted by T.D. Strange at 6:39 AM on August 10, 2019 [9 favorites]

Yeah, I would not be surprised one little bit if this white UGA professor in the '30s-'60s found that 1/3 of black men didn't float and attributed it to innate lack of natural buoyancy, when really it was just that black people were more likely to have low body fat because of poverty. It's a classic race science move to attribute to nature what is really caused by structural oppression.

Anyway, I learned to do this as a kid, and it really is amazing how long you can keep it up. I'm a pretty strong swimmer, but I doubt I could tread water for much longer than five or ten minutes. (I think the longest I have ever tread water is three, for a swimming test.) I am not sure I can think of the situation in which I would need to stay afloat for hours, but if I did, I think this would work for me.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 6:50 AM on August 10, 2019 [23 favorites]

I missed it if it was said explicitly, but it seems like this technique was developed for pools. It seems like this would not work as well as it's described if there are waves. Still, as someone who's tried and failed multiple times at multiple ages to learn to swim in a pool, I want to try this.
posted by rikschell at 6:52 AM on August 10, 2019 [3 favorites]

It looks to me like the main difference between this and the Dead Man's Float is that in the Dead Man's Float your body is mostly horizontal with perhaps your legs hanging down whereas in Downproofing your body is mostly vertical. I wonder if getting your mouth above water from a vertical position might take less energy than from a prone position. I always hated the Dead Man's Float. Maybe I should give this a try.
posted by smammy at 6:56 AM on August 10, 2019 [1 favorite]

"Drownproofing" was a required class for all 4th graders in my public school system as of the late 70s, early 80s. They took us to the school that had an indoor pool, and my next door neighbor was the teacher. It was more about water safety and survival rather than just teaching the one technique. I remember using a pair of jeans that you take off in the water and make into some kind of flotation device. And the dead man's float.

I appreciate that we all had this class. I would be surprised if they still have that requirement, given budget cuts to education.
posted by Stewriffic at 6:57 AM on August 10, 2019 [3 favorites]

uncritically repeating the inventor's "White people are naturally buoyant enough to float; 1/3 of young Black men aren't" thing seems like a mistake. It strikes me as a pretty clear case of someone finding what he expected and maybe wanted to find, and it's definitely not the consensus now.
posted by nebulawindphone at 8:18 AM on August 10

That would perhaps made it to where I didn't post this but in listening to David Goggins discuss himself being negative buoyant and saying that other black men are also negative buoyant swung me to post it. (Goggins comment on this is at 7:50 in this youtube vid, but I've heard him in other interviews say the same thing)

No more thread-sit! It's all yours, Ladies and Gentlemen!
posted by dancestoblue at 7:01 AM on August 10, 2019 [2 favorites]

UGA professor

this will not stand
posted by mittens at 7:02 AM on August 10, 2019 [8 favorites]

Oh god, I'm sorry! I haven't had my coffee yet! Please forgive me, Georgia Tech people!
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 7:07 AM on August 10, 2019 [3 favorites]

I remember taking a water safety course in high school PE, and one day we had to wear jeans, a shirt, and shoes over our bathing suits. We then had to take off the outer clothes under water, then had to make some sort of floatation device out of the shirt. It’s still one of my most vivid gym class memories 40 years later—although I don’t recall how to do the shirt thing anymore!

If I ever get the opportunity I’m going to try this.
posted by bookmammal at 7:10 AM on August 10, 2019 [3 favorites]

I missed it if it was said explicitly, but it seems like this technique was developed for pools.
I could swear we were told that it worked in the ocean, which prompted lots of jokes about how this would allow you to survive until the sharks came to eat you. We called it "survival float," and I'm pretty sure you had to be able to do it to get a Red Cross Advanced Beginner swimming pin.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 7:23 AM on August 10, 2019

In the ‘80s, I was told by a friend’s dad that I would always float if I bent my head as far back as it would go. I had to believe him, because he then Built Character by pulling me out to the deep end. It worked. I haven’t been afraid of sinking since.

I don’t know if this was secondhand drownproofing or what. I soon developed a personal source of natural buoyancy in any case.
posted by Countess Elena at 7:27 AM on August 10, 2019 [6 favorites]

a personal source of natural buoyancy

This is my new favorite euphemism for boobs and I am very grateful to you for it.
posted by ocherdraco at 7:40 AM on August 10, 2019 [33 favorites]

I'm sure I've mentioned this on metafilter before, but I am neutrally boyant - breath in, I float on the surface, breath out, I sink and can sit on the bottom of the pool. I like to think of myself as a submarine. My dad on the other hand sank like a stone regardless, which he said made it almost impossible to swim butterfly.

We also did the survival training with making a flotation device with a shirt or something, and I don't really remember it either, although the novelty of wearing pyjamas in the pool was great.
posted by stillnocturnal at 7:47 AM on August 10, 2019 [2 favorites]

I am neutrally boyant - breath in, I float on the surface, breath out, I sink

I used to be negatively buoyant in freshwater, and almost neutrally buoyant in salt water, but I'd still sink without paddling or kicking. I never really liked beach outings because it was always a lot of work to stay afloat, whereas the people I'd be with could all just lounge on their backs and bask.

My body fat percentage is higher now and I'm sure I would float in salt, but I'm not sure about freshwater, I might still be just under the line.
posted by Dip Flash at 7:55 AM on August 10, 2019 [1 favorite]

I learned this as a teenager — from whom I don’t recall — but was always pretty skinny with juuust less than neutral buoyancy, and never could tolerate the sensation of putting your face into the water while your body was just on the verge of sinking.

However, I learned that by leaning way back, I could achieve the same sort of barely-buoyant effect without my face in the water. When I inhaled, I’d float, but when I exhaled, I’d sink. But if I held the inhale for longer time than I spent exhaling, I could generally stay afloat.

I learned, also, that I could then fishtail just my hands for propulsion, kind of like little sampan oars, without moving my arms much. And like that, I could swim for a looong time without fatigue. The only drawback was it was swimming backward, without being able to see where you’re going.

Decades later, I’ve now put on an extra 25 pounds, so it’s rather easier these days...
posted by darkstar at 7:57 AM on August 10, 2019 [1 favorite]

The thing about this technique is it requires you being comfortable with your face immersed in water most of the time. That's a great thing to teach people, it's the core skill in being a comfortable swimmer and it doesn't come naturally. But a lot of people panic when their face gets wet, much less deliberately floating with your face in the water for minutes or hours at a time. I wonder how hard it is to teach. I'd think floating on your back (arms stretched) would be easier since it keeps your face out of the water. You won't last as long, but surely you'll last the few minutes it'd take to get rescued in most circumstances.

Really the key skill in not drowning is not panicking.
posted by Nelson at 8:04 AM on August 10, 2019 [11 favorites]

We need a word which means the opposite of ‘buoyant’. ‘Sombrant’?
posted by Segundus at 8:10 AM on August 10, 2019

We need a word which means the opposite of ‘buoyant’.

posted by Kadin2048 at 8:14 AM on August 10, 2019 [25 favorites]

I feel like on some level the opposite of "buoy" is "shipwreck," so I propose "naufragent."

posted by nebulawindphone at 8:17 AM on August 10, 2019 [11 favorites]

@darkstar I learned to float like that as well when I was younger. And I was breath-out => sink, breath-in & hold => float. So I'd alternate just floating with a lung full on my back for as long as I could, let it out => combine that with a downward motion of my hands/arms at my side => would give me a brief upward pulse I'd use to get another lung full of air and float for a while longer on my back. Only using arms for that brief pulse => less fatigue over time and less going somewhere backwards. Could last as long as I wanted to bother with it that way. And of course you can always come out of it every once in a while to look around (and spend energy doing it) to see if there's something better you could be doing than just floating there.
posted by aleph at 8:55 AM on August 10, 2019 [3 favorites]

I'm a sinker, despite being a bit of a chonk, so no. Not drownproofable. Team Drowny!

One of my managers studied at that school in Georgia, and she said the drownproofing course was mandatory
posted by scruss at 9:33 AM on August 10, 2019 [1 favorite]

This thread inspired me to go to the swimming pool this morning and try it out face downward. Sadly, I’m still a “barely buoyant”, and every time I start to exhale, I start to sink. So it looks like it’s still back-floating for me.

It has me wondering, though, whether something like an inflatable neck pillow (the kind you use in an airplane) might be enough to give you buoyancy so you could actually fall asleep in the water. Sure, you could just use a larger personal flotation device like a vest, but I’m thinking of the absolute minimum needed to give you positive buoyancy.

A 1-quart Zip-loc freezer bag? A 1-foot length of pool noodle? Hmm...
posted by darkstar at 10:14 AM on August 10, 2019 [1 favorite]

And searching for “mini flotation” turned up this nifty device for a disabled goldfish!
posted by darkstar at 10:19 AM on August 10, 2019 [5 favorites]

...for pools...

I learned drown-proofing in Red Cross and BSA Lifeguard training. I've practiced it successfully in open water for 1+ hours. YMMV.
posted by j_curiouser at 10:39 AM on August 10, 2019 [5 favorites]

Really the key skill in not drowning is not panicking.
This is particularly true if you fall in by accident. I recall seeing some data about the quite high percentage of people in these circumstances - particularly those older than their mid thirties - who die from cardiac arrest from the shock of entering cold water long before exhaustion or hypothermia would have taken their toll. People who are somehow able to persuade themselves to be calm and confident under the circumstances, will be at an advantage - drown proofing may help with this; sea survival training, likewise.

The techniques of getting accustomed to having your face underwater for most of the time and of of breathing out while underwater - and then briefly in while above it - will be familiar to freestyle swimmers, I think.
posted by rongorongo at 10:43 AM on August 10, 2019

Really the key skill in not drowning is not panicking.

I think floating is one of those things where if you don’t believe you can do it you just go straight under, even if the laws of physics are saying otherwise.
posted by Segundus at 10:44 AM on August 10, 2019

I coach para swimmers, I work with coach education and I develop materials regarding best practice.

I'm not a great natural floater and certainly didn't learn to float as a kid. What I know now that I didn't know then is that while some people do float better and body composition plays a factor there isn't a person alive who can't float.

And posture plays a much larger part than body composition.

If those athletes with rare myopathies and dystrophies and congenital spinal cord injuries and significant disproportionate limbs and extreme spasticity and neuromuscular disorders can all learn to float than so can you. Floating is, for many people, the emergent result of acquiring several skills and some physical literacy. It can be acquired, refined and developed but (like any skill) doesnt' come "for free" for everybody.

An aside: in para swimming classification the first part of the Technical Assessment is the Water Safety test which includes a front float, back float and a roll from front to back. Without demonstrating these skills a para swimmer, regardless of impairment or underlying health condition will not receive a sport class and will be ineligible to compete.
posted by mce at 10:46 AM on August 10, 2019 [13 favorites]

there isn't a person alive who can't float

Well, not anymore.
posted by sjswitzer at 10:50 AM on August 10, 2019 [42 favorites]

When I was at school, we had to take a "lifeguard test" when we were 15, and it took years of weekly training to get there. My impression was that it was a national thing, but now I'm not certain, it may just have been municipal. You weren't allowed to attend sailing school without it, which was important for many of my friends and family, back then we were still a seafaring nation. I had a skin disease so I couldn't swim every week, one year I broke my arm, and I was scared of diving, not least from the three-meter board, but I passed with the lowest grade. We had to be able to swim a kilometer, get our clothes off in the water, dive for a "drowned" mannequin at least 3 meters down and ship it 50 meters to "the shore", we also learnt to float and tread water, but not this technique*. And we learnt safety rules for pool and sea and freshwater swimming. It was tough for someone who didn't enjoy it. But today I think it's a pity that it isn't obligatory for every child (because of costs and a contemporary culture that prioritizes book learning). So many of those who drown aren't educated about water.

*I'd guess that the authorities judged that you would die of hypothermia rapidly anyway; even though the Gulf Stream warms western Scandinavia, we also get the icy Baltic waters in the inner seas most of the year. There was a terrible boat accident some years ago, in shallow water and close to the coast. The young people and their teacher died from hypothermia (and to a degree from the lack of orientation that comes with it).
posted by mumimor at 10:58 AM on August 10, 2019 [4 favorites]

Holy cow, I was almost done in by hypothermia while swimming in the Mediterranean. I can’t begin to imagine swimming in western Scandinavia.
posted by darkstar at 11:12 AM on August 10, 2019

The RNLI's campaign this past two summers has been Float To Live - lie back, relax and float. I don't swim and usually sink when trying to stay up vertical, so was pleasantly suprised that I floated nice and peacefully on my back.
posted by sarahdal at 11:56 AM on August 10, 2019 [4 favorites]

A follow-up on the above comment: I realized that a lot of the things we did at school can only have been possible because we had that certificate, such as we loved going canoeing, mostly daytrips but also twice on week-long trips on rivers and deep lakes. And as a 18 year old tutor at a youth club, I and a couple of colleagues took the kids fishing on open sea. No way would that have been legal without the skills we had from school.
Then I googled the accident I wrote about. The good news is that 8 of the kids were only technically dead and were brought back to life after long periods of artificial coma though I think a couple are brain-damaged for life. The rest were severely cold and traumatized but able to breathe and recover normally. The bad news is that the teacher did die, and that he was totally irresponsible during the whole process. He can't have passed the test we had to take, or he disregarded it, which is insane. Anyway, drownproofing would have been useless in the freezing waters. An obligatory lifesaving test would have saved them from the damage and death they suffered.
posted by mumimor at 12:05 PM on August 10, 2019 [1 favorite]

I've always been a just-barely-neutrally-buoyant person (low body fat). While everyone else was learning the back-float with their face out of the water, my feet would be sinking and the waterline would be about my nose. Just like a slightly heavy-overall submarine, a workaround is a bit of gentle flutter kick propulsion (and feet down/head up attitude caused a bit of up-planes effect).

I guess I'm technically positively buoyant; I don't continue to sink, I just only get about a mm of surface above the waterline. This technique works, but mostly as a psychological technique that lets you learn to swim. A gentle side stroke is probably a better waiting-to-be-rescued strategy. But first you need to realize you don't need to panic. If all else fails, you still won't sink. It's a more reassuring way to learn this than the way I was - "Even dead bodies float; you have to make yourself sink".
posted by ctmf at 12:09 PM on August 10, 2019 [2 favorites]

Crap, I got here after the basic life skills post. I don't see how this is any different than dead man's float. It depends on the balance. The denser your bottom bits below your lungs are the more vertical you end up. If your arms and upper chest are dense or your ass is buoyant you hang like an inverted U. If your legs have enough fat to mostly float then floating on your back is cool (otherwise you're bending your body backwards and expending some energy). The whole point of these survival floating methods is to expend the least amount of energy as possible so you can last as long as possible.

Maybe this is better than dead man for denser bodies on the minimum energy requirement. But it seems like it would be more energy than doing dead man if you can.
posted by zengargoyle at 2:39 PM on August 10, 2019

For most of my life (though probably not now :( ) I've been a sinker. Can easily sit on the bottom of the pool (assuming not too deep... my ears, yow!). With an uncomfortably full set of lungs I can just barely float. But treading water is my stupid pet trick. There's no firm data on how long I can tread water because--although the life guards let me stay in through adult swim--I eventually came upon pool closing time. Treading water can be extremely efficient (I mean, I can't run a quarter mile, but can tread water forever) and should be taught as an essential water survival skill. (Bonus is that the very mild exertion slightly helps stave of hypothermia.)

I'll second that not panicking is the most important water survival skill. Waves can be crazy and you sometimes just have to roll with it and wait until you figure out which way is up, then make your way to the surface. Not sure how much of this is practice or temperament, but surely some of both.
posted by sjswitzer at 3:38 PM on August 10, 2019 [1 favorite]

Did anybody else get Machinehead stuck in their brain while reading about that technique?

No? Just me? Okay then.
posted by DingoMutt at 3:55 PM on August 10, 2019 [1 favorite]

I would not be surprised one little bit if this white UGA professor in the '30s-'60s found that 1/3 of black men didn't float and attributed it to innate lack of natural buoyancy...

Is this true, i.e., did Fred Lanoue actually refer to this as an innate characteristic due to race or was he just noting his observation?

I learned this technique in the late 1980s when I took a swimming class in grad school. When the instructor mentioned the stat re young black men, he referred to variables that could account for this difference and diet/nutrition was at the top of the list.
posted by she's not there at 6:15 AM on August 11, 2019 [1 favorite]

The US Navy teaches this as part of aviation swim survival. It is taught that it works at sea in waves, something about keeping you low in the water and less affected by the motion I think.

Being a negatively buoyant individual is no joke, when I was younger I used to be able to take in a full breath and then sink and sit on the bottom of a pool. I gotten a little more fluffy since then, so it isn't so bad anymore. But when you do that part of drownproofing where you are supposed to just lean your head up and grab a breath and go back to floating--and you find you have settled just under the surface of the water, and you now have to swim to get back up and take that breath, it seems a less calm, survival type exercise.

I always though there was a hereditary component to being able to float or not. I heard a story growing up that my grandfather never could float, and the only reason he got through Navy training was that it was WWII, and he could swim, so they basically just let it slide.

Aviators in the Navy get refreshed on this every 4 years, as in you have to successfully do it in flight gear, to include boots, for a set amount of time (depends on what facility, but usually not longer than 1 min), then you 'get' manually inflate your flotation gear. If you get the choice between trying it in a salt water pool or a fresh water pool, definitely try the salt water.
posted by HycoSpeed at 6:19 AM on August 11, 2019 [2 favorites]

This article explained to me *why* my grandfather believed black people couldn’t be good swimmers. He tried unsuccessfully to “reason” with me several times that they didn’t float like white people.

All the swim instructors my kids have had in a atlanta were black. Pointing this out to him only proved to him that black people had to work *really hard* to be able to swim well.

Neither my skinny husband nor my low BMI oldest daughter can float. It’s BMI.
posted by EinAtlanta at 3:42 AM on August 12, 2019

lots of jokes about how this would allow you to survive until the sharks came to eat you

More practically, it should allow you to cease panicking for long enough for the circulating current whose outbound leg is trying to induce you to exhaust yourself and drown to bring you back to shore.
posted by flabdablet at 11:10 AM on August 12, 2019

So it's like Shovelglove, but for drowning.
posted by turbid dahlia at 3:58 PM on August 12, 2019

I used to think of course everyone can float. My husband is a sinker. He can take a deep breath, hold it, and sink straight to the bottom of the pool. In fact, he did just that to demonstrate for his first sergeant in SERE school.

I like to think it's the rocks in his head.
posted by corvikate at 9:25 AM on August 13, 2019 [2 favorites]

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