In Finland, the Finnish Association for Swimming Instruction and Life Saving (SUH) and Statistics Finland (SF) both provide nationwide data on unintentional drowning. The SUH database relies on rapid reporting from a newspaper clipping service and additional local police information, whereas the SF database relies on the later release of the death certificate information, which is based on extensive medico-legal investigation. The aim of the study was to explore the main differences between the SUH and SF databases for drowning and to evaluate the capacity of the former to characterize drowning events in Finland from 1998 to 2000. Computerized files of death certificates tabulated by SF were linked with the SUH database by deterministic methods. SF and SUH databases allowed the identification of 704 and 567 unintentional drownings, respectively, giving an unintentional drowning rate of 4.5 and 3.6/100?000 per year. Of the 704 drownings described by SF, 418 (59.4%) were also found in the SUH database. The SUH database markedly underreported drowning fatalities in certain settings, such as bath, ditch and swimming pool drownings; fall- and land-traffic-related drownings; and drownings occurring in South Finland. The narrative text of SUH drownings contributed limited information to characterize the drowning events. It was concluded that the newspaper-based SUH data provide more timely data on individual drownings but are not representative of all drownings. Conversely, the SF vital statistics data are more accurate but may take up to 2 years to become available. Both SUH and SF data provide little detailed information on drowning events. A multidisciplinary national surveillance system for drowning is necessary to provide more accurate and timely drowning data, analyse risk factors and design follow-up studies for developing and monitoring prevention strategies.