the 2020 swim free water safety guide

John McCarthy completed his Lifesaving Surf Proficiency Award as a teenager and worked as a professional lifeguard on Durban’s South Beach in his early 20s. He is a former national and professional level competitive surfer and has surfed all over the world. He is a veteran of multiple Dusi, Fish and Umkomaas canoe marathons;  a surf ski paddler; and a certified level 3 Master Freediver.
He is a passionate open water swimmer, and was the Navigation & Safety Officer for Sarah Ferguson on both her Molokai Crossing and Easter Island swims. He designed the SWIM FREE CONFIDENCE UNDERWATER course to help people be safer and more comfortable operating in and under water. He is the author of two books, The Sexy Ugly Beautifuls and Swimming Easter Island and is the subject of an award-winning short film entitled Sea Change which chronicles his efforts to usher in a new era of more environmentally-friendly surfboard production.
He has just released The 2020 SWIM FREE Water Safety Guide to share his knowledge of water safety with a broader audience.
The 2020 SWIM FREE Water Safety Guide
By John McCarthy
With contribution from the NSRI
© John McCarthy 2020.
No part of this document may be on-sold without the express permission of John McCarthy.
The intention is that it is shared freely at no cost in the interest of promoting water safety.

In South Africa, we have an incredible variety of beaches, rivers and waterways. Sadly, many South Africans are prevented from fully enjoying these resources because they simply do not feel safe enough to do so; can’t swim; or don’t understand the risks of being in water.
For many, these beautiful resources can be deadly. In South Africa more than 600 children die by drowning each year, and many more are disabled by a non-fatal drowning incident. This is a statistic that I, as a father and someone who has spent a lifetime enjoying these resources, struggle to accept.
While the SWIM FREE CONFIDENCE UNDERWATER course offers in-depth training to assist both beginner and advanced level water users to be safer, I have also developed The 2020 SWIM FREE Water Safety Guide which is an easily shareable 18-step guide to help anyone enjoy water activities more safely. I encourage parents, coaches, facilitators and anyone working with children or adults where water activities are involved, to read this. Beyond that, take your children through it, step by step.
It could save their lives. 
18 steps to enjoying water safely:
  1. Always respect water. We can survive extraordinary things in water if we approach it with respect and are able to operate in a calm and confident manner. Equally, it is easy to perish in very non-threatening conditions if we are ignorant, arrogant, impatient or foolish.
  2. Understand the difference between drowning and blacking out underwater:
Drowning is when you exhale underwater and inhale water into your lungs. This is classified as respiratory failure. Death would follow in the time the brain took to cease oxygen-dependent vital functions.
This could be between 2-6 minutes depending on the age of the victim and the temperature of the water. Note that in very cold water, it is sometimes possible to resuscitate someone who had been submerged for a long period.
There are cases recorded where small adults or children have been submerged in water that is below 6 degrees for 90 minutes and have survived.
Resuscitation from drowning requires CPR. To do this you need to get the victim onto a hard, stable platform.
The success statistics vary but they are generally not good. To start CPR, you need to ensure the airways are clear, then give three rescue breaths. Use a bag valve mask if you have one and then follow with 20 compressions.
Push hard and fast in the centre of the chest.  Call 112 for help and try your best with the compressions. It is a good idea for everyone to do a first aid course, part of which is learning how to do effective CPR.
Blacking Out
Blacking out in freediving or Shallow Water Blackout is not the same as drowning.
In this case, the Mammalian Dive Reflex (MDR) - triggered when we submerge our faces in water - will initiate a set of involuntary responses through the body. When oxygen levels become dangerously low in our body (which would be the case if you were under water and unable to breathe), the MDR prioritises the delivery of oxygen to the brain and heart to sustain life for as long as possible.
In the process, it shuts down all motor control and even consciousness. This is a Hypoxic Blackout.
When this happens, we experience a laryngospasm, which effectively closes the airways and prevents water from flooding our lungs.
Once a hypoxic blackout has occurred, there is still 3-5 minutes of oxygen trapped in the body to sustain oxygen-dependent vital functions.
Resuscitation from a hypoxic blackout is straightforward, provided it is done within 3-5 minutes of losing consciousness. It is achieved by reversing the MDR – simply by taking the person’s face out of water and clearing the airway of water (this reflexively tells the body that you are no longer submerged in water and it is safe to breathe).
In freediving, this technique is known as Deep Water Resuscitation because it is done in the water, at the scene of the blackout.
You do not need to waste time removing someone from the water to reverse a blackout and get them breathing again.  We use a technique called Blow Tap Talk (BTT).
After the victim’s airways are clear of water, the rescuer will remove any diving mask and then blow on the patient’s cheek, tap them on the cheek and then direct them to breathe. The success rate is 100 percent if done quickly (within 3-5 minutes).
Why is this important for us to understand? Well, if you are submerged and you immediately exhale and then inhale water you will be clinically dead within 2-6 minutes. If you are trapped underwater and untrained, you will have 2-4 minutes before your blackout and then an additional 3-5 minutes where you can be easily resuscitated with a 100 percent chance of success.
In summary:
In a drowning you have 2-6 minutes with a low chance of resuscitation. In a blackout you have 5-10 minutes with a very high chance of a resuscitation. The big take away here is, if you are trapped underwater NEVER exhale. Rather hold your breath until you blackout because:
A) it will give you more time overall for a rescuer to assist you and
B) The resuscitation is so much more straightforward in a blackout than in a drowning. Everyone should learn BTT. If you see someone floating face down in the water, this is the first course of action!
  1. When evaluating risk, think in colours: Green, Amber and Red (GAR). Green is safe, amber is moving away from safe. Red is dangerous.
Use this GAR Mindset to assess risk. When approaching any body of water, be it the ocean, a dam, a river or a swimming pool, pause before entering and take time out to colour in the picture in your mind.

If things go wrong at water level, it is very useful to have a clear picture of the risk profile in your mind of where the hazards and obstacles are and how you fit into that picture.

So, for example, in a swimming pool you’d colour the deep end and the diving boards amber to red and the shallow end green. In a river the rapids, fast flowing water, weirs and any submerged trees or blockages would be red. Conversely, in a nice quiet pool at the bottom of a rapid with easy entrance and exit points, the colour would be green. In a dam with clear water and easy access in and out you’d mark that green. In the same dam but with murky water where you can’t see the bottom you’d mark that amber because you don’t know what hazards are below the surface. In the ocean, the rocks and the rip currents would be amber to red, where a nice shallow sand bank with gentle foamies rolling towards shore would be green. If you look at a situation and you don’t understand what is going on, then by default you automatically mark that part of the picture red.
  1. Remember that nature is dynamic and always changing. A picture can change from green to red very quickly. A flash flood in a narrow river gorge can turn a green situation into a bright red one in seconds. Equally, the sudden arrival of a powerful long period swell or even a change in tide or wind can significantly affect ocean conditions to alter the risk profile. If you are sailing a boat far out on a dam and a thunderstorm suddenly moves in, your picture has just changed from green to red. Be ready to adapt if conditions change.
  2. The first rule of lifesaving is self-rescue. As you’ve been using the GAR colours to describe the environment you are going to be in, so you also use these colours to describe how you are feeling in that situation. Green is, ‘I understand my situation and I’m completely calm and confident in my ability to be doing what I’m doing’. Amber is when doubt is creeping in, and ‘I’m no longer sure that I’m comfortable with this aquatic activity’. Red is, ‘I’m out of my depth and feeling overwhelmed by what I need to deal with, be it currents, waves, or exhaustion’. Panic is imminent and risk vs reward is disproportionate.
  3. You always want to be green. If you find yourself moving into amber or red you need to exit the water. Experienced lifeguards, big wave surfers, white water kayakers and freedivers are able to reverse that process with training, while still in the water. They are able to recognise the signs of rising physiological and psychological distress and reverse that process by making use of conscious breath.
  4. Prevention is better than cure. If in any doubt at all, simply do not enter the water. It is safer and more sensible to live to swim another day. Stay green on the shore!
If you fall into a fast-flowing river DO NOT put your feet down as you risk incurring a foot entrapment. Rather lie on your back and float feet first down the river using your feet to bounce of rocks, trees and other obstacles.Try and steer your way towards the inside bank of the river with your hands. Note, the water usually flows fastest on the outside bank, so the inside bank is usually slightly more protected.
If you are in the ocean and get swept into a rip current DO NOT try and swim against the current. Rather swim at 45 degrees across the current, roll over onto your back and rest frequently, you can float indefinitely if you save your energy. A common mistake inexperienced surf swimmers make when attempting to return to the shore is to try and find a place where there are no waves breaking. This is usually exactly the wrong place to try and head back to the beach. If there are no waves breaking it means the water is deeper and there is a good chance that there is a rip current flowing back out to sea. Rather look for the white water and constant lines of surf. Use the breaking waves to help get washed back towards the shore.
  1. When entering the water, always use the buddy rule. When you buddy up, you each watch out for the other. Stay close to each other. If one of you is swimming underwater, then the other must stay on the surface until they surface, only then is it your turn to dive. If you become separated from your buddy, immediately alert the closest teacher, lifeguard or person in a position in authority. If you are in distress the universal signal for assistance is one arm waved slowly above your head. Attract the attention of your buddy so that they can alert the teacher/lifeguards to affect a rescue.
  2. You can never have too much safety. Safety starts with you. If you are not green do not go in the water. If you are going in the water, always have a buddy. If you are unconfident of your swimming ability, wear a personal flotation device or life jacket P(FD). If you are at a public swimming pool, go to the duty lifeguard and tell him/her what you intend to do. This way, you add layers of safety to your water time.
  3. No float, no boat! If you are operating a boat or canoe or a yacht on any body of water, you should ONLY do so wearing a PFD. If your equipment fails, you need to know that you will at least not have to fight to stay at the surface.
  4. A drowning person doesn’t look like what they show on TV. Most often a drowning person will simply slip below the surface of the water with very little splashing or fuss. This is because they either can’t swim at all or have become fatigued to the point where they can no longer swim. This is how people are able to drown so easily in an over-crowded swimming pool. They silently slip below the surface and no one notices until it is too late.
  5. If you are onsite as an incident is unfolding, DO NOT act impulsively. First ASSESS the situation. How many people are in trouble? What is the nature of their distress? What environment are they in? You want as much detail as possible. Then EVALUATE your options for rescue. Is there access to ropes, flotation devices or rescue craft? What would be the most effective and safest way to deploy those resources? Finally, ACT in the most conservative and sensible way possible.
  6. If you spot someone who is experiencing difficulty in the water DO NOT go into the water and approach them directly and try to help that way. This very often leads to a DOUBLE DROWNING, where a panicking victim either pulls the rescuer under or you are both swept out to sea or down the river.
Rescuer safety is paramount. First try and REACH out to them with a stick or a rope and pull them back to shore. If that is not an option, then try and THROW a flotation aid to them. Most public swimming pools and designated swimming beaches will have lifeguards with rescue buoys. The NSRI has also installed these at many of our beaches. In rivers, dams and unprotected beaches, you can improvise with flotation devices like, surfboards/boogie boards, soccer balls or even a 2l cool drink container. If that is not an option and you have a watercraft available, then you can ROW out to the victim and TOW them to safety, try and avoid entering the water. Only as a last resort and only If you look at the situation and it is completely green for you, do you GO into the water and try and effect a rescue. DO NOT attempt to rescue someone unless you have some form of flotation, and which you can offer them to hold onto. Approach the victim with the flotation device and either throw it or hand it to them. Make sure that they have completely calmed down before you allow them into your physical space and try and get them back to the land.
  1. If you are overwhelmed by a panicking person who attempts to climb up you to keep their head above water and in the process pushes you underwater, swim down immediately. They will release you to try and stay above water.
  2. Be prepared. Use technology, check the weather forecasts (, windguru, are all excellent weather forecasting sites. If you are doing a river trip and you can see that it is raining for 5 days prior to that in the catchment area expect high waters. Likewise, if you are going on a beach holiday challenge yourself to learn how to read the tides and swell predictions and that way you’ll be able to see the safest times for entering the water.
  3.  Invest in yourself, learn how to swim. This is a basic skill that will enable you to enjoy our aquatic recreation resources and to do so safely. Remember that even good swimmers can drown.
  4. Parents - watch children when they are in the water, even if they can swim regardless of how old they are. Do not be distracted by social media. Drowning is silent. You will not hear splashes or screams for help.
  5. If a child says that they can swim, do not believe them unless you witness their swimming ability. Being able to swim means different things to different people. For some people, their definition of swimming means splashing around in the shallow end of a swimming pool. This is not the same thing as being able to save yourself in a deep fast flowing river or strong ocean rip current.
If you forget everything else, just remember these 7 golden rules.
  1. Always colour in the picture before entering it. If it is not green do not enter!
  2. Always “be green” yourself. If you are not green, do not enter. If you feel you are moving away from green get out.
  3. Never exhale if trapped under water.
  4. Learn how to do Blow Tap Talk (BTT). If you see someone floating unconscious and face down, this is your first course of action, and you do it right there in the water.
  5. Always have a buddy. Remember the universal signal for help is one arm waved above your head.
  6. Always wear a lifejacket when you are on a boat, canoe etc.
  7. Call 112 from your cell phone for help in an emergency.
From the NSRI: Special notes for parents, teachers and those supervising aquatic activities
This is a six-point briefing template for all those “supervising” water activities (whatever they may be). It is solid way to ensure that all the basics are in place for safety, especially when the reality is that in many circumstances, the supervisor (especially in school contexts) might not be the most water competent person (this is not ideal at all, but a reality).
  1. Determine the ability of the participants to operate safely in water prior to entering it. Ask probing questions, with practical examples – to get the “real” answer. For example: When you swim in the pool, do you swim in the shallow or deep end? Do you stay on the side or swim in the middle? What is the furthest you have swum? Do you swim on top of the water or can you swim under the water? Depending on the answers, be prepared to change the activity if you feel that the child/children are not water competent enough to deal with the prescribed water activity. In this regard, always be conservative.
  2. Explain lifejacket or PFD use if a participant cannot swim, and if supervision ratios don’t allow for in-water activity without flotation. Obviously, freedivers and those who can swim competently don’t require a PFD, but many other water sports do. If rafting, canoeing, going out in a boat etc., lifejackets are a must. If there are no lifejackets, do not under any circumstances allow children to perform the activity.
  3. Explain and allocate a buddy system (see point 8 above). Remind them of the universal signal for assistance.
  4. Explain what is required to breathe, and how to control it. The GAR mind-set is very useful here.
  5. Explain the location/hazards, deep end/ Rips/etc.
  6. Explain your role as supervisor, how you will control the activity, and how participants signal for help, hand signals, whistle, etc.
Remember the word Trethrog (talk, reach, throw, ro, go)  as a rescue priority continuum. This will eliminate risky rescues, and promote simple, but effective rescue, which shouldn’t happen at all if you have done the six points above.
Have fun and be safe!

The 2020 SWIM FREE WATER Safety Test
  1. One should always approach a body of water with:
  1. A weight belt.
  2. Sunscreen.
  3. A towel.
  4. Respect.
  1. Blacking out is the same as drowning:
  1. True.
  2. False.
  1. Once you have drowned you have between_____ time period before oxygen dependent vital functions will cease and death will occur.
  1. Half an hour.
  2. An hour.
  3. An hour and a half.
  4. 2-6 minutes.
  1. In a blackout you have______ time period to safely resuscitate the victim.
  1. All day.
  2. 15 minutes.
  3. 5-10 minutes.
  4. Half an hour.
  1. If trapped underwater you should slowly exhale, to help relieve pressure.
  1. True.
  2. False.
  1. Deepwater resuscitation for a blackout is done__________.
  1. Immediately on the victim in the water where you find them.
  2. In the deepend.
  3. Under the diving boards.
  4. On the side of the pool.
  1. Blow Tap Talk is the__________
  1. Newest lifesaving app on Itunes.
  2. Resuscitation technique used for reversing a blackout.
  3. The secret code name for water polo.
  4. A canoeing technique.
  1. When assessing risk around an aquatic activity, one should always_____
  1. SMS your friends first.
  2. Take a selfie.
  3. Round up as many people as possible.
  4. Think in colours, Green, amber and red (GAR).
  1. If you look at a situation and you don’t understand what is going on you should_______
  1. Automatically colour that part of the picture red.
  2. Hold your breath for as long as possible.
  3. Do a google search.
  4. Phone a friend.
  1. Nature is dynamic and always changing.
  1. True.
  2. False.
  1. The first rule of lifesaving is_________
  1. Always swim alone.
  2. Attach yourself to your surfboard with a leash.
  3. Do doggy paddle.
  4. Self rescue.
  1. If in any doubt about entering the water you should_______
  1. Toughen up and dive in.
  2. Challenge your friend to a race.
  3. Apply extra sunscreen.
  4. Stay green on the shore!
  1. If you fall into a fast flowing river, you should_________ to avoid a foot entrapment.
  1. Quickly untie your shoe laces.
  2. Always use a snorkel.
  3. Never put your feet down.
  4. Swim your best freestyle stroke as quickly as possible.
  1. If you are in the ocean and get swept into a rip current, the best thing to do is______
  1. Swim at 45 degrees across the current, resting periodically on your back before returning to shore a little further down the beach with the aid of breaking waves.
  2. Always have a friend filming on the beach, so you can discuss what went wrong later.
  3. Swim as quickly as you can directly against the current to get back to shore ASAP.
  4. Ask a surfer if you can borrow their surfboard.
  1.  When entering the water we should always use the _______ rule to add layers of safety.
  1. Freestyle.
  2. Backstroke.
  3. Breastroke.
  4. Buddy.
  1. You can never have too much safety.
  1. True.
  2. False.
  1. When operating any form of canoe, boat or craft on a body of water one should always_________
  1. Wear a PFD.
  2. Make sure you have a waterproof case for your camera.
  3. Invite your non swimming friends.
  4. Remember to take a cooler box with refreshments.
  1. A drowning persons actions are usually characterized by _________
  1. Lots of shouting and whistling.
  2. Furious hand waving and lots of splashes.
  3. Sobbing and tears.
  4. Slipping below the surface with very little splashing or fuss.
  1. If you are onsite as a situation is unfolding you should________
  1. Take off your shirt and shoes and dive in as quickly as possible to render assistance.
  2. Film the episode on your phone.
  3. Asses, Evaluate and then Act conservatively.
  4. All of the above.
  1. If you spot someone who is experiencing difficulty in the water you should not________
  1. Go into the water and approach them directly and try help that way.
  2. Forget to take your cell phone out of your pocket before going to help them.
  3. Make sure you are wearing a bathing costume.
  4. Waste time, but act immediately.
  1. The correct continuum for a rescue is as follows:
  1. Reach, throw, row, tow, go.
  2. Get their head out of the water as quickly as possible.
  3. Call for back up on your cell phone and then swim directly to the victim.
  4. Never go in the water for 30 minutes after a meal because of the risk of cramps.
  1. The correct number to call on your phone to alert authorities to a person experiencing difficulty in the water is:
  1. 112
  2. 911
  3. 211
  4. 119
  1. If you forget everything else, you should remember:
  1. Always colour in the picture before entering it. If it is not green do not enter!
  2. Always “be green” yourself. If you are not green, do not enter. If you feel you are moving away from green get out.
  3. Never exhale if trapped under water.
  4. Learn how to do Blow Tap Talk (BTT). If you see someone floating unconscious and face down, this is your first course of action, and you do it right there in the water.
  5. Always have a buddy. Remember the universal signal for help is one arm waved above your head.
  6. Always wear a lifejacket when you are on a boat, canoe etc.
  7. Call 112 from your cell phone for help in an emergency.
  8. All of the above.
  1. For those supervising water activities one should always________
  1. Determine the rough water ability of the participants.
  2. Explain lifejacket or PFD use.
  3. Allocate a buddy system.
  4. Explain what is required to breathe and how to control it.
  5. Explain the location/hazards, deep end/Rips/etc.
  6. Explain your role as supervisor and how you will control the activity.
  7. All of the above.
  1. Trethrog is a__________
  1. Special kind of frog that lives underwater.
  2. A rescue priority continuum.
  3. A dangerous distraction that can hamper a rescue effort.
  4. An advanced life support unit.
100% you are aware of the dynamic nature of rescue protocol and can be trusted to supervise aquatic activities (barring external factors).
80-96% you have a good understanding of water safety and rescue protocol. You should be able to participate in supervised field activities.
60-80% You have a rudimentary understanding of water safety. You should brush up on your knowledge of water safety before engaging in any form of water activity that is happening in an uncontrolled environment ie outside of a swimming pool and without the direct supervision of a lifeguard.
40-60%. Your understanding of water safety is poor. You are at serious risk of getting both yourself and other people into danger. You are recommended to abstain from engaging in any activities that do not fall under the express supervision of a lifeguard or swimming coach.
40% and below. You are a hazard to yourself and other water users. Do not under any circumstances enter the water until you have developed a better understanding of water safety. 
  1. D.
  2. B.
  3. D
  4. C.
  5. B.
  6. A.
  7. B.
  8. D.
  9. A.
  10. A.
  11. D.
  12. D.
  13. C.
  14. A.
  15. D.
  16. A.
  17. A.
  18. D.
  19. C.
  20. A.
  21. A.
  22. A.
  23. H.
  24. G.
  25. B.