For most people, the closest they get to drowning is watching someone on TV or in the movies going through the motions: screaming, flailing arms, and lots of splashing. So, when someone actually drowns, you’d think it would be easy to spot. But not always.

In real life, drowning people rarely look like the water-drenched actors on screen. In fact, drowning people usually don’t make much of a commotion, according to the Red Cross, which has been teaching people to swim for more than a century.

“We’re asking every family to make sure that both adults and children can swim and that parents make water safety a priority this summer,” said Connie Harvey, director of the Red Cross Centennial Initiative, in a statement. Harvey said people often believe they are better swimmers than they actually are. A Red Cross survey recently found that while 80 percent of Americans said they could swim, only 56 percent of the self-described swimmers can perform all five of the basic skills that could save their life in the water.

Those basic skills are the ability to, in this order: step or jump into water over your head; return to the surface and float or tread water for one minute; turn around in a full circle and find an exit; swim 25 yards to the exit; and exit from the water. If in a pool, it means being able to exit without using the ladder.

There are two types of swimmers who need help: distressed swimmers and drowning victims. Distressed swimmers may flail and yell, while drowning victims are more silent.

Here are some signs that a person is drowning

•He’s vertical in the water, but unable to move forward or tread water.

• He may be pushing his arms down at his side in a bid to keep his head above water.

• His face is difficult to see.

• He cannot call out.

If someone is drowning, the Red Cross recommends throwing something buoyant or something that can be used to pull the drowning person to a safer area. Never attempt to touch a drowning person — they are panicking and will try to scramble on top of whatever is above water, including untrained people who try to help.

Drowning isn’t just a concern for swimmers. Whether you’re kayaking, canoeing, or even tubing, the river can be a perilous place if the right precautions aren’t taken. But don’t let this deter you from enjoying a paddling adventure.

Glenna Alderson has been an outdoor educator at Hampshire College for the last 29 years. She’s rafted and kayaked all over the world, is an American Canoe Association certified instructor, and teaches lifeguarding and water safety courses. She and her husband Earl had just finished paddling the Grand Canyon when we spoke to her on the phone. She offered these bits of advice for staying safe on the river:

•Always be aware of conditions. Websites like are great resources for evaluating whether or not conditions are right for navigation. For obvious reasons, you want to make sure that the river is running, but you also need to make sure that it’s not running at levels that are too high above normal. Check the weather forecast and don’t go out in a storm, or just after one. Don’t rely solely on stream gauges and weather forecasts either. Talk to locals about the conditions.

•Don’t go alone. It’s impossible to predict every kind of possible accident, but you can mitigate the danger by using the good ol’ buddy system.

•Always wear a life jacket.  A lot of people think that life jackets look dorky, but the pros know that it’s the people without them that look stupid. In whitewater conditions, a helmet is another essential piece of gear. Too many have died needlessly by not heeding this piece of advice.

•Keep your feet up if you go overboard. You don’t know what’s under the surface. There’s a chance you could get your feet caught on something, which could be disastrous even with a life jacket on.

•Don’t tie yourself to anything! This mistake seems to be especially common with tubers. For the love of God, this can’t be reiterated enough. Don’t ever tie yourself to anything on the water, even if it’s buoyant. The rope can get caught on any number of unseen things below the surface, dragging you under.

•Take a class. It’s not essential, but it’s definitely helpful to get a little first-hand instruction from the pros when you’re taking on something new and potentially dangerous. The more you know…

• Save the booze for the after party. Alcohol and the river don’t mix. According to the CDC, alcohol is a factor in 70 percent of deaths related to water recreation. 

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