When boaters jump on board for a day or weekend of fun on the water, drowning is probably not at the top of their minds.

Most boaters consider their skills to be adequate, few have ever actually seen someone drown, and certainly no one expects the unthinkable to happen to themselves or someone they know.

But drowning is the second-leading cause of accidental death among children age 14 and younger. And according to the Coast Guard, of the 709 boating-related deaths in 2008, 72 percent were caused by drowning (and 90 percent of those victims were not wearing life jackets).

So it makes sense for boaters, or anyone who spends lots of time on or near the water, to know what drowning looks like. Chances are it isn’t what you might expect.

An Internet blog post by U.S. Coast Guard marine safety specialist Mario Vittone — titled “Drowning Doesn’t Look Like Drowning” — has gone viral in recent weeks.

Links to it have been posted on numerous Internet boating forums, and it has been shared on Facebook and other social networking sites.

While the piece most recently surfaced this spring at www.gcaptain.com, a site for maritime professionals, it has been around at least since its publication in the Fall 2006 edition of the U.S. Coast Guard’s On Scene magazine. The article stands out as one of a few Internet musings on boating that is well worth reading and repeating.

It turns out that drowning is not the violent, splashing, yell-for-help scene portrayed in the movies or on television, according to Vittone and Francesco Pia, Ph.D., a former lifeguard who has spent decades developing and conducting water safety training programs.

On the contrary, there is virtually no splashing or calling for help when someone is drowning. “Deceptively quiet” is a more fitting way to describe it.

Pia coined the term “Instinctive Drowning Response” to describe what people do to avoid actual or perceived suffocation in the water. Here are some of the characteristics, excerpted from the article:

In nearly all circumstances, drowning people are physiologically unable to call out for help. The respiratory system was designed mainly for breathing, so speech is secondary. Without effective breathing, the use of speech to call out for help is not going to happen.

Drowning people’s mouths alternately move from just above to just below the surface of the water. The victim’s mouth will not be above the surface of the water long enough to exhale, inhale, and call out for help.

Instead, when above the water’s surface, a drowning person will exhale and inhale quickly as he/she starts to sink below the surface of the water.

People who are drowning cannot wave for help. Nature instinctively forces the victim to extend arms laterally and press down on the water’s surface. Pressing down on the surface of the water allows drowning people to leverage their bodies so they can lift their mouths out of the water to breathe.

Keep in mind this instinctive response means they won’t be able to perform voluntary movements such as waving for help, moving toward a rescuer, or reaching out for a life ring, throw bag, or other piece of rescue equipment.

From beginning to end of the Instinctive Drowning Response, people’s bodies remain upright in the water, with no evidence of a supporting kick. Unless rescued by a trained lifeguard, these drowning people can only struggle on the surface of the water from 20 to 60 seconds before submersion occurs.

The danger signs to look for include a head low in the water, possibly tilted back, with the mouth open; eyes either closed or if they’re open, glassy and unable to focus; hair over the forehead or eyes; legs vertical in the water with no kick; attempts to swim but making no headway; or someone trying to roll over on the back.

Now that is not to say that people should ignore someone who is kicking, splashing and calling for help — clearly, they’re in a stage of aquatic distress.

While they’re not drowning (yet), they know they’re in trouble, and they still have the mental and physical capacity to call for help.

They will probably be much more able to grab that life ring or swim toward a rescuer on command.

When in doubt, ask the person in the water if they’re all right. If they can answer back, they are probably OK.

Knowing that it’s the quiet ones who are in the most immediate danger can help a rescuer take the appropriate action quickly enough to make a difference.

Gail Rice of Freeport and her husband, Randy, race and cruise their Pearson 30 sloop on Casco Bay. Contact her at:

[email protected]