This is a question that likely every lifeguard—and many a parent—has asked at one time or another.
The answer is as simple as it is unsettling: To save the life of a drowning person, a lifeguard has about as much time as it takes to cook a soft-boiled egg, or roughly three minutes.
Drowning, as lifeguards know, takes place in a rapid and unspectacular series of stages. There is no screaming for help, or frantic waving. That’s why there are documented cases of children drowning within reach of a parent, and of friends watching—unaware—as another friend drowns. The untrained person expects drowning to look like it does on TV or in the movies: a dramatic, violent struggle to survive. But that’s a distressed swimmer, not a drowning one, although distressed swimmers are at risk of drowning.