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How long can you hold your breath? RNLI launches hard-hitting campaign to get people to 'respect the water'

Terrifying adverts show what it's like to drown Warning: some readers may find video content distressing

By Claire Williamson

Published 09/07/2015

It's the idyllic silent killer whose unpredictability is deadly.

Water can be fun and especially in the summer months cooling off in the outdoors can be very desirable.

But in a hard-hitting campaign the Royal National Lifeboat Institution are warning people to 'Respect the Water'.

Two short films will be shown in Northern Ireland cinemas over the next eight weeks to show the effect of cold water shock on the body and the unpredictability of water.

The first film called Breathe invites the audience to hold its breath while watching the film, as the casualty struggles and succumbs to the effects of cold water shock in the time the audience is holding their breath.

It reveals that on land the average person could hold their breath for 45 seconds - but in cold water they might not last 10.

The second film called Unpredictable shows the unpredictability of the water and how quickly conditions can turn.

Both films have received a 15-age rating.

Eight people lost their lives around Northern Ireland's coast last year - but nearly two-thirds of them (63%) didn't set out to enter the water, according to coastal fatality figures released by RNLI.

The number of near-misses was even higher with the RNLI’s lifeboat crews and lifeguards in Northern Ireland rescuing 340 people and saving 12 lives in 2014.

Each year an average of five people die along the Northern Ireland coast according to five-year figures.

Of the 26 people who died over the past five years, over a third (38%) were taking part in activities like walking, running, climbing and boating and were unlikely to have intended to enter the water.

Over the past five years, slips and falls while walking and running contributed to 19% (5) of the coastal deaths.

Swimming, jumping in and general leisure use accounted for 23% (6) of the coastal deaths over the five-year period, while people in the water (whose activity was unknown) accounted for 27% (7).

Men are far more prone to getting into danger at the coast than women – they accounted for three-quarters (75%) of the deaths over the five-year period, and 85% of the deaths in 2014.

The RNLI is aiming to halve the number of coastal deaths in the UK and Ireland by 2024.

RNLI Coastal Safety Manager for Ireland Joe Moore said: ‘Most people heading for a stroll or run along the coastline probably wouldn't consider a drowning prevention campaign like this relevant to them as they have no plans at all to enter the water.

"We’re warning people that if they’re going near the water, whatever their activity, they could be at risk and they need to take care. Unexpected dangers like slippery rocks, sudden waves or unstable ground can catch anyone out."

The charity is also warning people of the unpredictability of the water including the dangers of cold water and rip currents.  While summer air temperatures may be warm the average UK sea temperature is just 12c.

Cold water shock, which causes uncontrollable gasping and numbs the limbs, can set in at any temperature below 15c.

Rips are strong currents of water which can quickly drag people out of their depth.

They account for around two-thirds of the environmental-related incidents RNLI lifeguards respond to each year.

For those not at a lifeguarded beach, being caught in a rip can prove fatal if they don’t take the right steps to free themselves and make it safely to shore.

Joe Moore from the RNLI added: ‘The water might look inviting, but it can be dangerously unpredictable, with hazards which can be fatal if not respected. Cold water is a major risk for anyone who ends up in the water – intentionally or otherwise.

"The body’s reaction to sudden immersion in cold water will trigger uncontrollable gasping, which can draw water into the lungs and lead to drowning. The coldness will also gradually shut down the use of limbs, making it very difficult even for strong swimmers to stay afloat.

"‘Currents under the surface can overwhelm even the strongest swimmers. They can drag people out of their depth so quickly, and if you try to swim against them you’ll become exhausted."

"We want people to enjoy the water but to make sure they respect it. On average five lives are lost around Northern Ireland’s coast each year but many of these losses could be avoided if people acknowledge the dangers and follow some basic safety advice."


UK-wide, 163 people died at the coast last year. The RNLI’s Respect the Water campaign, warning people of the dangerously unpredictable nature of our seas and coastlines, will run across the UK and Ireland during the summer, through advertising channels including cinema, outdoor, radio and online. The charity is also running a number of tailored safety programmes, targeted at those who participate in the activities which account for a large number of coastal incidents each year. For example, a scheme urging divers over 50 to get a health check before their next dive, and another reminding kayakers to make sure they carry a means of calling for help and keep it within reach at all times.

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