Float first

Would you know what to do if you fell into the ocean, a river, or lake? How would you survive if strong currents took you out to sea? Knowing how to respond in the first 60-90 seconds can make the difference between life and death.

In an emergency, panic or cold water shock can lead to drowning or cardiac arrest. Even the strongest swimmers can be affected.

Floating as your first response will increase your chances of staying alive.

Float first is a lifeline for anyone who gets into difficulty in the water. Based on the RNLI’s Float to Live Campaign and research by the University of Portsmouth floating in the first two minutes of cold water immersion has proven to save lives around the world and is recognised as an essential water competency. Unintended immersion in cold water can result in life threatening cold shock response. Floating for one-to-two minutes provides the body time to recover from the shock and would then be able to coordinate breathing and body movements.

If we can teach everyone to Float first, we can give them a chance to live.

Float first survival steps

1. Float on your back

Keep your airways (mouth and nose) out of the water and fight your instinct to swim. Tilt your head back and use gentle arm movements. Keeping your airways clear will stop you from breathing in water.

2. Control your breathing

Get your breathing under control and conserve energy. Your breathing and heart rate will slow down as the cold water shock passes. This takes around 60-90 seconds.

3. Call for help

Call out or signal with your arm to let someone know you are there. If you can phone ring 111.

4. Swim to safety

Look for an exit and only swim if it is safe to do so. If you are unable to get out of the water, look for items that can provide additional buoyancy, take steps to keep warm and continue to float until help arrives. Staying still will preserve body heat.
Download the Float first Survival Steps Facebook post in English, Te Reo Māori, Hindi, Tongan, Samoan and Mandarin.


Float first Learning Resources


Learning resources and activities for children under the age of 5 years old.


Junior Primary

Learning resources and activities for junior primary school aged children.


Senior Primary / Intermediate

Learning resources and activities for students at senior primary or intermediate school level.


Youth and Adults

Learning resources and activities for youth and adults of all ages.


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

SPLASH Holiday Programme

Community water safety education programmes
One day holiday programme for 8-11 year olds to develop water competency

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

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