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SAFETI Adaptation Of Peace Corps Resources
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Water Safety
SAFETI Adaptation of Peace Corps Resources:
Pre–Departure Health Training Handbook
Water Safety

Adapted from "Water Safety" module, Pre-Service Health Training for Volunteer Binder, Peace Corps Office of Medical Services


Many students find themselves spending a significant amount of time on or near open water. Often students spend hours crossing open seas in the course of their studies; spend some of their free time fishing, swimming and snorkeling in bays, rivers, estuaries and the ocean. No matter what the activity, water-shallow or deep-poses genuine risks to students. Although the sea can be beautiful, it is unforgiving when there is an accident or other serious mishap. The risks students face can be minimized if they know what questions to ask, what conditions to watch for, and what supplies and provisions to take when traveling in a boat or canoe.


Students in many countries have to constantly or regularly deal with effects of exposure-sunlight, sunburn, dehydration, heat syndromes, and hypothermia. Not only is the sun very strong in many countries, but the sun and the heat often associated with it are magnified on or near the water. Those students who study near the water and those who have to travel in boats or canoes should be especially careful to protect their eyes from sunlight and their skin from sunburn. They should also drink plenty of water or other non-alcoholic fluids to allow proper perspiration and subsequent evaporation, which aids in cooling the body and preventing heat syndromes. Since many students have not lived in a tropical climate, they must learn to remain aware of the dangers of the sun and the heat. They can suffer sunburn, dehydration, heat syncope or fainting, heat cramps, heat exhaustion, and even hypothermia in a canoe or boat if it is windy and the student is wet from rain and sea spray. Hypothermia, or lowering of the body temperature, can occur when the student is immersed in water with a temperature below that of the body (about 98.6%).


Although many students are by nature open and trusting, they should be cautious, even skeptical, when deciding about travel by boat. If students are proactive and follow the basic safety steps outlined below, they can avoid most of the risk-laden circumstances and situations presented by boating on open waters.

Before traveling by boat:

  1. Find out the weather forecast.
  2. Tell someone where you are going and when you expect to arrive and return
  3. Evaluate the physical condition of the boat or canoe.
  4. Evaluate the fitness of the operator and crew.
  5. Make sure the vessel is not overloaded with passengers or cargo.
  6. Make sure the vessel is properly equipped, especially with life vests, bailer and paddle.
  7. Ensure that the engine is reliable.
  8. Sit in areas that permit easy exit
  9. Carry an extra spark plug.

During travel on board:

  1. Abstain from alcohol, which can contribute to dehydration and can impair mental and physical abilities.
  2. Wear a hat, sunglasses, sunscreen, and proper clothing for protection form the sun.
  3. Wear an approved life vest.
  4. Carry ample water and a little food.

If there is an accident or mishap and the boat catches fire or begins sinking, students should know what steps to take to increase their chances of survival:

  1. Continue wearing all clothing except heavy boots.
  2. Exit the boat wearing a life jacket.
  3. Carry drinking water and water purification tablets.
  4. Carry waterproof flashlight and whistle if possible.
  5. Stay at the boat even if only a part remains floating.
  6. Get as much of the body out of the water as possible.
  7. Remain and huddle with companions or fellow passengers.
  8. Float with the head out of water, preferably in the knees-to-chest huddle position.


One of the basic safety steps that students should take is to ensure that the boat or canoe is properly equipped. Country-specific policy may determine this list. Ideally, a student should ensure that the following is available when traveling by boat or canoe.


  • Fuel
  • Anchor
  • Tool kit
  • Spare parts (spark plugs)
  • Paddles/oars
  • Bailer
  • First aid kit in waterproof container


  • Life vest (your own if possible)
  • Rope
  • Waterproof flashlight
  • Compass and map of the area
  • Raincoat or poncho
  • Hat
  • Sunglasses
  • Sunscreen
  • Knife
  • Hand mirror and whistle for signaling
  • Line or string and a safety pin for fishing
  • Water bottle-leave air at the top
  • Food, such as nuts or hard candy


Students can take a number or precautions to avoid sting, injury or drowning while enjoying the water:

  1. Abstain from alcohol whenever they are in or near the water.
  2. Swim and snorkel only when accompanied by others
  3. Swim and snorkel only in waters that they know well or have received information about.
  4. Wear protective shoes, reef walkers, or booties when above or near coral reefs.
  5. Avoid touching or grabbing any sea life.
  6. Determine the time of the tides and the currents and select the best time to enter the water.
  7. Limit activities to the level of their physical fitness and ability to swim.
  8. When snorkeling, do not take more than two or three deep breaths before diving under the water (i.e., do not hyperventilate).


Currents are movements of bodies of water. Near shore, currents are generated by (1) approaching waves (and surf), (2) bottom contours and irregularities, (3) shoreline geography, and (4) tides. For these reasons, currents are often unpredictable. Types of common currents include longshore, feeder, and rip.

Rip currents or riptides are particularly strong and dangerous to swimmers. They are frequently encountered where there are gaps in the reef, such as natural or man-made channels. A swimmer caught unexpectedly in a rip should ride the current and swim to the side, rather than try to swim against the current. Outside the rip or surf zone, the current widens and slackens, which permits the swimmer to return to the reef or shore at another location. Rip currents typically dissipate a short distance seaward of the channel or surf zone.

As a general rule, when caught in any type of current, swimmers should initially drift or swim with the current. Then, after evaluating current direction and strength, they should swim at an angle to the current direction and towards their destination. In this way, swimming can conserve energy while returning to the shore or reef at another location.


Before traveling on open water, a student should be adept at certain water skills.

Some of these skills may require instruction and practice:

  1. Evaluating the "seaworthiness" of a life vest.
  2. Putting on a life vest so that if fits properly.
  3. Avoid head and neck injuries by :
  4. never diving into water of unknown depth
  5. always entering the water feet first
  6. Putting on a life vest while floating in the water.
  7. Swimming and floating wearing a life vest.
  8. Getting into a life raft while in the water and wearing a life vest.
  9. Returning to shore and leaving the water while wearing a life vest.
  10. Getting in and out of a small boat while in the water and wearing a life vest.
  11. Righting a capsized boat or canoe while wearing a life vest.
  12. While wearing a life vest, bailing out a boat or canoe that has taken on water.
  13. Drying out an engine that is not working because it has become wet.

Adapted from "Water Safety" module, Pre-Service Health Training for Volunteer Binder, Peace Corps Office of Medical Services