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.
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."
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."