Float first

What would you do if you fell into the water? How would you survive if you got caught in a strong current or rip? Knowing how to respond in the first two minutes can make the difference between life and death.

Panicking, or the effects of cold water shock, can lead to drowning or cardiac arrest. Even the strongest swimmers can be affected. Floating on your back gives you the best chance of survival if you’re in trouble in the water.

Learn how to Float first. Remember: Float, breathe, signal, survive.

How to Float first

Float first

  • Lie back with your ears underwater, chin up
  • Move your hands to help you float
  • It’s okay if your feet sink
  • Ignore your instinct to swim

Breathe normally

  • Relax
  • Slow your breathing to help you calm down
  • Breathing will get easier

Signal for help

  • Raise your arm
  • Shout for help

Survive by swimming or floating

  • Swim to safety if you can
  • Float when it’s not safe to swim
  • Hold onto anything that helps you float
  • Keep clothes on to stay warmer

Float first Learning Resources

Coming soon.
Most adults can’t float as well as they think they can

Our recent study found that most adults think they can float, and two-thirds think they can float for more than five minutes. In-water testing revealed that only two percent could float more than five minutes, with one-third floating for less than 15 seconds (Stanley, 2021).

The dangers of cold water shock
Anyone can experience cold water shock when falling into water, leading to an immediate risk of drowning or cardiac arrest. The average winter temperature of our oceans is 15°C and inland waters like lakes, rivers and waterfalls can be much colder.

When plunged into cold water our first instinct is to gasp for air with an uncontrollable ‘gasp reflex’. Taking on one large breath of water is enough to prove fatal. Our natural response is to swim hard and fight against the shock. This causes people to lose control of their movements and rapidly increases their heart rate, lowering the chances of survival. All this happens in under two minutes.

Can everyone float?

Whatever the age or aquatic experience, learning and thinking about floating as a first response is something we should all learn. The good news is that anyone can float*.

Floating is integral to all DPA educational programmes and is backed by international water competency research (Stallman et al., 2017) as one of the 15 water competencies needed for drowning prevention.

*During a trial of 85 people of different ages shapes, sizes, genders and swimming abilities, the University of Portsmouth research revealed that everyone truly can float, either on their own or with gentle sculling.

Water competencies for drowning prevention

Floating is just one of the fifteen research backed water competencies that integrate the skills, knowledge, attitudes and behaviours needed to prevent drowning. Check out the research behind Float first by reading about the floating water competency.

Learn to float (online or in person)

Teaching floating

Water safety e-learning courses

Online Learning Module for teaching children to float

Learning to float

Water safety e-learning courses

Online learning module for adults learning to float

Water Safety Programmes

Community water safety education programmes
Check out the programmes we offer to develop water competency within our communities


Barwood, M. J., Burrows, H., Cessford, J., & Goodall, S. (2016). “Float first and kick for your life”: Psychophysiological basis for safety behaviour on accidental short-term cold water immersion. Physiology & behavior, 154, 83-89.

RNLI. (2023, July 3). Float to Live. https://rnli.org/safety/float