Swim Clubs

80% of Drownings are Male


By Mike Gustafson//Correspondent

Here’s something you may not know: Males have a staggeringly higher drowning rate than females. According to the CDC in a report published last year, 80% of people who drown in natural bodies of water are male. 


The hypothesis is that males, compared to females, engage in riskier behavior, swim alone with greater frequency, and more often engage in the consumption of alcohol before swimming. When you consider that four out of five drowning deaths are males, the specific reasoning, at least to me, can be debated and argued. What really matters is just that acknowledgement that a large division in drowning rates exists not necessarily by ethnicity or socioeconomic boundaries, but by gender.

And that needs to be addressed.

Hearing this statistic surprised me, but not completely. Growing up in “The Great Lakes State,” I’ve seen my share of risky behavior around large bodies of water. Thinking back to my own youth experiences, I’ve tipped canoes both accidentally and on-purpose, jumped off bridges, leaped off cliffs, swam alone at night, and boated with no one else around. These things were dumb. They were stupid. And, reflecting back now, I can’t think of many females doing the same things.

Why do males engage in sometimes riskier behavior around water? Why such the greater drowning rate?

The answer, of course, is complicated. We may never know solid, concrete reasoning why males drown with greater frequency than females, but we do know that a wide gender division exists. As we embark on March and the subsequent advent of spring, the time to discuss this higher drowning rate is not the day before pools open or the day before people swim in lakes, rivers, and oceans. It is now.

First and foremost, never drink alcohol and swim. Ever. Drinking and boating is just as dangerous and disastrous as drinking and driving. Drinking and swimming should never mix. For some reason – maybe because the water is relaxing – drinking in the summer on boats, beaches, and floating down rivers has become part of a specific culture. Growing up on a river, nearly every summer Saturday, groups of men and women floated down the river and drank large quantities of alcohol. Sometimes these canoe or kayak trips lasted for hours. But when you drink alcohol, your reflexes are affected, your balance is affected, and you don’t use proper judgment. When mixed with a water environment, it’s a dangerous situation just waiting to happen. Don’t do it.

Second, never swim alone. Never swim, boat, or even cannonball into bodies of water alone. Even if you are an experienced competitive swimmer, never, ever swim alone. There are currents you may not see. There are rocks you may not know about. And if you swim alone, you can go under the water’s surface in a millisecond and no one would be able to see or find you. For some reason, people sometimes swim alone because they think they’ll be OK, just as if you run alone. But the difference between swimming alone and running alone is that when you’re running, if you trip, fall, or need to rest, or if you had some health emergency, eventually someone will come to your aid. In the dark opaque waters of lakes, rivers, and oceans, it’s a different story.

Third, if you are male, simply acknowledge that the majority of people who drown are your own gender. The acknowledgement of this startling statistic may alter potentially risky behavior. Sometimes, even competitive swimmers embark on hazardous, at-risk activities around the water. Maybe because as competitive swimmers we feel like we can conquer the currents and tides of any body of water. But calm, current-less pools are one thing. Rivers, lakes, and oceans are another.

One memory in particular comes to mind:

It was mid-March, and I went kayaking on a river in Northern Michigan. I consider myself to be an “experienced kayaker” just as I consider myself an “experienced swimmer.” I kayaked 30-40 minutes. I saw a tin can stuck in a logjam. Wanting to clean the river, I pulled my kayak to the logjam, reached, and SPLASH. I lost balance, tipped the kayak, and went underwater. The water temperature in this Northern Michigan river was just above freezing. Snow was on the ground. The shock was unlike any I’ve ever experienced. It felt like a thousand sharp stabbing needles. The underwater current, mixed with the springtime run-off and the churning undercurrent, swept me in circles. I’m still not even sure how I got back into my kayak.

But this was only half the battle. The cold set in. The temperature outside was 40-degrees. I was in the middle of nowhere. I couldn’t think clearly. I was freezing. The wind picked up. I was still a 30-minute paddle from anyone. There were no other cabins nearby.

As a male swimmer who has competed most my life, I’ve placed myself in risky situations involving water. Most situations were because I was swimming alone, boating alone, or overconfident in my own swimming ability. However, just because I knew how to swim didn’t mean I was invincible to drowning. Thankfully, I was just fine. But oftentimes I think back to that kayaking experience and wonder what would have happened, if I tipped towards a rock, or if I was underwater just another few seconds…

80% of all drowning deaths are males. If you’re a male, think about that the next time you swim outside. Swimming beyond the concrete boundaries of competitive swim pools is one of the best, most liberating experiences anyone can have. But think before you swim. Don’t swim alone. Don’t drink and swim. And don’t overestimate your own swimming abilities around water.

Mike Gustafson is a freelance writer for USA Swimming and Splash Magazine.