Did you know that if you fall from a great enough height, hitting water can kill you?
It's true. Fall a great enough distance and hitting a body of water will feel exactly like hitting the concrete.
Yet a surprising number of creative works depict characters who fearlessly (or sometimes not so fearlessly) make the call to take the literal leap of faith into water to avoid pursuing badies.
And, not surprisingly, they usually walk away without a scratch.
So how far can someone fall into water without getting hurt?
At what point does such a drop become fatal?
Answering those questions is what todays post is all about.
The first thing to keep in mind is how the person enters the water.
As they say, it isn't the fall that kills you it's the sudden stop. If you can use something, such as your arms to distribute the force of your fall, you have a better chance to come out of it unscathed. (Your feet can have the same effect.)
The physics behind this is a little complicated but let's see if I can explain it.
As you are falling you gather speed, which is basically pure energy. As you hit the water that energy has to go somewhere. What you don't want is for it to get transferred forcibly into you bones and organs. Your arms break the surface and transfer some of your built up energy into the water in a more controlled manner.
However, even then there is still a large amount of energy. And without the right strength (arm, back and shoulder muscles) you'll find that even in the correct position, entering the water from a great height can be painful (and even be deadly).
Platform divers, who are specially trained to enter the water the correct way (and have the muscle from years of practice to do so), regularly fall from boards of 16 feet and up to 33 feet without any problems during competitions. In world championships the platform height rises up to 89 feet. (It is interesting to note that diving competitions often pump air into the pool to create bubbles, which makes the water softer for the divers. This is known as aeration.)
However, there are plenty of accidents in the sport that prove just how dangerous it can be even for trained professionals.
Then again, there are some cases where people have jumped from the Golden Gate Bridge, a distance of 220 feet, and survived.
The human body really is an amazing thing. Knowing exactly what is going to happen to someone in any given situation isn't possible.
But what we can do is look at some real life extremes and see some actual results. In the hope of getting some realistic ideas about what our characters can survive.
REAL LIFE EXAMPLES:
Laso Schaller: Jumped off a cliff and dropped 192 feet - Had a clean landing going in feet first - resulted in a slightly dislocated right hip which was seen to by medics immediately afterward - he was traveling at about 76mph when he entered the water after a 3.58 second fall - prepped the water before hand by pumping air in beneath the surface which aerated the water (as mentioned above) though he missed the aerated water when he entered
Dave Lindsay: Set the record for High dive, 170 feet - entered water hands and head first - sustained a cracked right clavicle
Dana Kunze: current world record holder of the High Dive - 172 feet - entered feet first - the tape he used on his shins was shredded by the impact but he sustained no injuries
Randy Dickison: Tried to break Kunze's record with a 174 foot high dive - fractured his leg in three places
Oliver Favre: tried to break the High Dive record - dove from a height of 177 feet - broke his back on hitting the water
Please note, these are all trained professionals with years of practice and physical fitness to back them up. Almost all of them were injured upon hitting the water.
Here is an example of someone who wasn't trained:
Kevin Hines: attempted suicide by jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge - he fell 220 feet at about 75 mph - landed feet first in a seated position - completely shattered his T-12 and L-1 vertebrae the shards of which were then shot into the rest of his body piercing his lower organs
It is estimated that as of 2012 over 2000 people have jumped from the Golden Gate Bridge. Only 33 have survived. As you can see the odds aren't all that high.
So what could a character do to increase their odds of survival?
Slowing your deceleration rate could increase your odds of surviving a fall. (whether into water or not)
The human body is not affected by speed itself, but by sudden jarring stops or starts. So if a character can slow themselves down during their fall, like with a parachute, then they are much more likely to survive.
As mentioned above, aerated water is also something that could help. In a story, your character probably won't have time to prep for their fall, but they might jump into a body of water that churns naturally.
A lesser factor to keep in mind is the temperature of the water. Hot or warm water has lower surface tension and is a bit more forgiving to anyone falling in.
So what does all of this mean for a story?
Does it mean you can't write a character dropping into water from a thousand feet and surviving unscathed?
Well, no. Like I always say, it's your story. Only you can decide that.
What I am saying is that a character who survives the impossible without even a scratch, might be a bit much for a reader to buy. (Even Superman takes a near fatal hit from time to time, right?)
Just keep that in mind as you write and I think you'll be fine.
What do you think?
Do you think keeping these things in mind is helpful to a story?
Have you heard any awesome survival stories that go with todays theme?
I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments! And be sure to let my know if you enjoyed this post by hitting the Like button!
The following link has some video of the above mentioned divers taking their record breaking plunges. It's pretty interesting to watch.