People Describe What It Feels Like to Drown

What does it feel like to drown? Well, we can't know for sure what it feels like, because obviously, no one can come back from the dead. We can, however, get a good idea of what death by drowning probably feels like by talking to people who have nearly drowned. This list consists of stories from people who almost drowned, describing what their moments underwater felt like.

The average person can hold their breath for 30 to 60 seconds, and once you run out of breath under water, your chances are slim. Reports about what it feels like to breathe in water are varied. But once you get water in your lungs, your chances of being able to save yourself and make it to the surface sink. This list consists of stories from the lucky people who were rescued before oxygen deprivation shut their systems down.

Take a deep breath before you read - and make sure you appreciate it. Some of these stories are pretty grisly.

Photo: FromSandToGlass / via Flickr / CC BY 2.0

  • You're Conscious When You Breathe in Water

    An excerpt from Sebastian Junger's The Perfect Storm: A True Story of Men Against the Sea:

    "The instinct not to breathe underwater is so strong that it overcomes the agony of running out of air. No matter how desperate the drowning person is, he doesn't inhale until he’s on the verge of losing consciousness. At that point there’s so much carbon dioxide in the blood, and so little oxygen, that chemical sensors in the brain trigger an involuntary breath whether he’s underwater or not. That is called the 'break point.' Laboratory experiments have shown the break point to come after 87 seconds. It’s sort of a neurological optimism, as if the body were saying, Holding our breath is killing us, and breathing in might not kill us, so we might as well breathe in.

    When the first involuntary breath occurs most people are still conscious, which is unfortunate, because the only thing more unpleasant than running out of air is breathing in water. At this point the person goes from voluntary to involuntary apnea, and the drowning begins in earnest. A spasmodic breath drags water into the mouth and windpipe, and then one of two things happens. In about ten percent of people, water—anything—touching the vocal cords triggers an immediate contraction in the muscles around the larynx. In effect, the central nervous system judges something in the voice box to be more of a threat than low oxygen levels in the blood, and acts accordingly. This is called laryngospasm. It’s so powerful that it overcomes the breathing reflex and eventually suffocates the person. A person with laryngospasm drowns without any water in his lungs.

    In the other ninety percent of people, water floods the lungs and ends any waning transfer of oxygen to the blood. The clock is running down now; half-conscious and enfeebled by oxygen depletion, the person is in no position to fight his way back up to the surface. The very process of drowning makes it harder and harder not to drown, an exponential disaster curve similar to that of a sinking boat."

  • It's Torture

    Christopher Hitchens on what it feels like to be waterboarded:

    "You may have read by now the official lie about this treatment, which is that it 'simulates' the feeling of drowning. This is not the case. You feel that you are drowning because you are drowning—or, rather, being drowned, albeit slowly and under controlled conditions and at the mercy (or otherwise) of those who are applying the pressure. The 'board' is the instrument, not the method. You are not being boarded. You are being watered...

    In this pregnant darkness, head downward, I waited for a while until I abruptly felt a slow cascade of water going up my nose. Determined to resist if only for the honor of my navy ancestors who had so often been in peril on the sea, I held my breath for a while and then had to exhale and—as you might expect—inhale in turn. The inhalation brought the damp cloths tight against my nostrils, as if a huge, wet paw had been suddenly and annihilatingly clamped over my face. Unable to determine whether I was breathing in or out, and flooded more with sheer panic than with mere water, I triggered the pre-arranged signal and felt the unbelievable relief of being pulled upright and having the soaking and stifling layers pulled off me. I find I don’t want to tell you how little time I lasted."

  • It Burns Like Hot Lava

    "I almost drowned three years ago. Out in the sea, swimming, then oh crap I couldn't move a single muscle in my body. I used my last breath not very wisely as I simply shouted mindlessly as I sank slowly. I was panicking, I was out of control, I tried to wave my arms and my legs furiously but I was solidified, like a statue. I was still breathing pretty fast while I was sinking so I got some water in my lungs. Which seemed like an eternity to me, I was underwater and though normally I can't open my eyes in salt water, I could see the sea and the colors yet as I desperately tried to breathe, I had more and more water swallowed.

    I must've passed out for I don't remember my friend and dad pulling me up. I remember it burned like lava, the lungs and my stomach(they kept burning for a long time, I hardly breathed for a week) and I remember vomiting a lot while being carried, but nothing else. It was pretty much a near-death experience, was enough to piss my shorts. How did it feel is, again, I can't give a clear answer, for it was happening right there and I was too busy trying to save myself than seizing the moment, so to say. I felt desperate and I kept grasping for air like a baby but hey, still not as descriptive as one might want from a thread like this."

  • It's Either Peaceful or Brutal

    "I've nearly drowned at least once. Depending on the person, it's either peaceful if you accept the fact that you're probably gonna die (which I did) or it's brutal as you struggle.

    I actually realized that I was going to drown so I breathed the water in on purpose to just get it over with. It only hurt when I was coughing it up."

  • Everything Goes Black

    "Drowning is one experience that I cannot explain, and I don't think explanations suffice if you want to know how it feels. All I remember is this.

    I was on top of an inflatable tube (like a raft shape) and was wading my way into the middle while no one was looking. Suddenly, I don't know how it happened, but the next moment I knew, I was drowning. The only things I remember distinctly are that I was not able to breathe, because water was entering my nose and mouth quickly, and subsequently my lungs. Even as a child, I was aware, that I had to stay above water, to be able to breathe again. And I was flailing my hands to stay above water, hoping I could bring my face above the surface, but I wasn't very successful at it. Then I started going down and didn't have any more thoughts. 

    There was no 'I should push my feet on the bottom and try to come up,' or 'The color of the water is so blue.' I just blacked out. I don't remember anything from this point to the point where the lifeguards were trying to get the water out of my lungs, and I choked it out. My parents were pretty scared, I didn't process the thing as too serious at that time, I don't know why."

  • No Pain, Just Comfort

    A mishap during "underwater walking" in Thailand:

    "I don't know whether it's because I'm naturally fidgety, or because my rotten luck and the turbulent seawater concurrently conspired against me, but my helmet somehow got tilted backwards and some of the water came in, into my mouth and nostrils. I panicked and began thrashing my body, and the helmet came off completely.

    The first three seconds were as follows: My body began to float upwards. My mouth was open, and my throat completely contracted. My body was warped in an awkward posture; my torso was arched forward, my limbs were flowing backward, and my eyes were gazing straight up, although I couldn't register anything I was seeing. I heard my sister (who was beside me in the chain) scream my name through her helmet.

    After the three seconds passed, I began to desperately flail my arms and legs, and my head had two simultaneous, continuous thoughts:

    • exhale very, very small amounts of air
    • go straight upwards

    My mouth was open, and I was letting out discreet, minuscule amounts of air through my esophagus, trying to buy as much time as I could before I ran out of air. I could feel my flailing slowly take my body upwards. I had to survive. I had to somehow reach the surface and survive. I didn't want to die.

    More seconds elapsed. I was running out of air. I tried to look up to see sunlight, but I saw none. It dawned on me that I wouldn't make it. I let out another breath of air, this one more copious than the others. My body went limp, my mind went blank and I gave up on all effort. I just let go, and my flaccid body just floated in the water for a few seconds. My lungs had more or less given out, and there was no pain, just comfort.

    A few more seconds later, for some seemingly inexplicable reason (or so it seemed in the moment), I suddenly had a huge burst of energy, and the will to get out of the predicament re-emerged, and so did the desperate flailing. But this time was different, I could feel myself going up faster and with more force. Maybe I could make it. Perhaps I would make it.

    I made it to the surface, and then it hit me that this sudden surge of energy was because one of the swimmers had finally gotten to me. My oxygen-deprived mind was thinking that I was going up of my own accord. After taking in the much-needed lungful of air, a LOT of coughing ensued."