Can you actually swim?

People count too much on their swimming to save them. Swimming often isn’t the best option. In rapids you’re better off floating on your back and backstroking. If you are a long way from shore, swimming to shore may not be safe, especially in cold water.
Not capsizing in the first place is the best option.
Staying close to shore is always safer.
Don’t paddle alone.
Dress for cold water.
Know your limitations.

If the current is taking you where you want to go, the rapid is relatively short, and there is a nice big recovery pool at the bottom of it then the defensive swimmer position (floating on back with nose and toes above the surface) is fine. This is what is generally taught to whitewater raft clients because it is simple, easy to understand, requires no particular expertise, and the swimmers usually get hauled back into the raft before they swim very far.

On the other hand, if you are in strong current at the top of a long rapid or the current is taking you where you do not want to go, like directly into a strainer or rock sieve, you need to swim very aggressively using whatever stroke you know that is most effective to break out of the current and get into an eddy, or to get out of the current seam that is feeding you into the trap. This usually involves turning onto your stomach and using a crawl or breast stroke. Sometimes logrolling laterally into an eddy works best.

If you are about to go over a sizable drop you should “ball up” by drawing your knees up to your chest, feet together, and wrapping your arms around your lower legs. This reduces the chance of an arm or foot entrapment.

If worst comes to worst and you see that you are not going to miss the strainer toward which you are heading, you need to turn onto your stomach and be prepared to use your arms and a strong kick to vault yourself up onto it. If the current is strong and you remain on your back you are probably going to wind up going under it.

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I agree with what you say, mostly. But whitewater is heavily aerated and, unless your are a professional surfer, you are probably going to be pretty helpless to extricate yourself, in a rapid, whether you know how to swim or not. Hence the need for throw bags. Statistically, almost no one drowns wearing a life jacket, and I’m not just talking about white water here. The few that do, probably get hypothermia. I’d argue that the vast majority of people that drown, in boating accidents, are people that consider themselves swimmers and use this as an excuse to not wear a life jacket. Non swimmers wear their life jackets.
My point is this: it’s been stated on this forum than no one that doesn’t know how to swim should participate in paddle sports. That just absurd. I think they should be smart about where, when and how they paddle, but to exclude them from the sport of paddling entirely, when they are probably less likely to drown than a “swimmer” is just nuts. More than half the people in the country can’t pass the Red Cross test for swimming ability. That’s an awful lot of people being told they shouldn’t be allowed to canoe or kayak, and I’m one of them.

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Holes are highly aerated. Rapids in general are not. I am no professional surfer and only a moderately decent swimmer but I have extricated myself from rapids many times without assistance, often dragging a water-filled boat along, and on one memorable occasion two water-filled canoes. Of course I was wearing a PFD on every such occasion. I have certainly thrown ropes and bags to swimmers but I can recall only one or two instances in which I was offered one and caught one despite hundreds of swims.

As for non-swimmers wearing their PFDs I have found that a surprising percentage of non-swimmers do not. You would think that putting one on would be the first thing they would do, but I guess the possibility of winding up in the water never occurs to some. As for whether non-swimmers should participate in paddle sports I see no reason they should not within limitations, moderately difficult to difficult whitewater being one of them, unless on a guided trip with professional support immediately at hand.

Many paddler drowning deaths in the Midwest and East are the result of entrapment and unfortunately a PFD does not prevent that. Paddler deaths in the West are often the result of “flush drowning” in big rapids, and often the swimmer retains their PFD in these events but drowning results from repeated aspiration of water accompanied by laryngospasm and physical exhaustion.

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In the instances you mention, being able to swim wouldn’t have saved them either. They probably could swim and it didn’t save them.
As I said statistically, very, very few people drown wearing a life vest. Instances like you mention constitute a very small percentage of drownings. Most people drown by falling out of a boat in calm water, not wearing a life jacket. Often drunk too.
Listen to this and you’ll feel better.
Dusty Springfield - Son of a Preacher Man (Official Audio) - YouTube

We are talking about paddlers here, not drunks falling off a boat.

Being able to swim in current is what often allows one to avoid swimming the entirety of a long rapid or avoid entrapment in a strainer.

Your comments make it very clear that you have little or no experience swimming in strong current or rapids. If you want to float on your back and wait for someone to throw you a rope to pull you out of the current if you capsize, good luck to you.

I am through discussing this with you.

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I absolutely suck at swimming. Its more of a delayed drowning than anything else, so whenever I’m on water I wear a life jacket. I catch crap about it, but I’d rather be safe. My wife wants me to go to adult swim classes…

Welcome to the forum and you are correct and IMO so is your wife. Being able to swim well is not a reason to not wear a PFD though. I look at it as belt and suspenders. :canoe:

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Do it…
Evidently she wants to keep you around…
Or just maybe she thinks you look dorky in a PFD… :sunglasses:

Do it and enjoy swim classes! Adult swim classes were always my favorite to teach when I was a youngster. Even after swim classes, continue to wear a PFD when paddling.

Just to reinforce the idea of being a swimmer and wearing a PFD, I swim a mile, 2 or 3 times a week including distance open water once or twice a summer, however I always wear a PFD when paddling…doesn’t matter how HOT it gets along the Gulf Coast or how flat the water is. Evaporative cooling is my friend in our summer when I choose to paddle during the day.

PS: Off to test out the beneficial effects of evaporative cooling for a couple hours!

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During my swift water rescue training class, I was shown a video of a disaster that occurred in southern NY State a few years ago. 3 dead (couild have been more), including “trained” EMTs and a fire chief because they did not fully appreciate the power of a low head dam and highly aereated water. even a high buoyancy PFD may not be enough.

Everyone is a bad swimmer in cold fast water.

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True story

I do plan on wearing my PFD, and anyone that joins me on my boat. Heard way too many stories of people convinced they were fine without because they can swim, dying an easily preventable death. There’s been a rash of deaths in the PNW lately, in rivers and lakes. I’m assuming the cause is obvious


Thanks, good to be here!

We have been getting heavy rain every day here for a week or so and today I heard the powers to be were strongly advising everyone stay off French Creek until the water slows and they have a chance to look for down trees and such.

Looks like one of the lakes this weekend. :canoe:

I’ve never been a real strong swimmer- managed the mile swim several times with the bsa and swam a lot of swim checks that involved wearing shoes in lake waves, “rump bumping” was a program option which involved swimming rapids with Maine High Adventure BSA program

the early wisdom was only run what you are willing to swim, good wisdom for canoe tripping and ww.

I rarely throw a throw rope but I seem to assist with my share of rescues, mostly having swimmers grab the back of the boat, some paddle and boat wrangling- not always effectively on my part though. I avoid rescue vests and prefer not to be live bait. Occasionally I end up unpinning a boat. Getting out of the boat quickly and having the strength to wade in strong current are no longer strengths. I did assist with one strainer pin on this last trip. The paddler used poor judgement. I was already out of the boat walking around the strainer when he pinned. It could have gotten really ugly but fortunately it didn’t.

Truthly, I can paddle a bit harder water (some IVs) than what I now do (class II-III)…but I’m not so effective out of a boat in a rescue situation so I dial it back and stick with class II-III. Just a few days ago, I had a hard time getting a swamped kayak into an eddy on Brown’s Canyon, Arkansas River. The boat floated away while a buddy was scouting. Fortunately, my buddy caught a raft ride down to his boat. On the other hand a couple of other times I was pretty quick to swimmers. You got to take charge. Be explicit with each direction- grab the back of my boat now!, chuck that paddle onto shore, feel with your feet for rocks (in the eddy).

When I swim I don’t panic, but try to use ferry angles to get to an eddy near where the boat will end up. I would have no business at all on the Royal Gorge (Arkansas River) where a swim could be long and continous due to my poor fitness level. I’m also a bit protective of the artificial hips on the rocky stuff and will swim a bit further if I can avoid the rocky stuff.

In rocky ww a tight tuck is real important. Last week in Brown’s Canyon going through zoom flume at low flow I kept thinkin’ “solid bracing- no flipping- lots of rocks and shallow holes but if I do flip then tuck tight!” There’s just some places you don’t want to flip. It was just a few years ago that I flipped in the bottom of a shallow drop and had an impact shoulder dislocation. Pulling the skirt and swimming with one working arm is simply self preservation.

Swimming on the ocean or a deep lake- now that’s just scary, the water is deep and it is a long way to shore. I try to avoid all that.

I can swim pretty well, been on the water my whole life. I can tread water for hours, swim in waves without breathing in water, and I’m fairly good at controlling panic. I can’t swim against curent pulling me under a sweeper, or swim when I’m cold enough I can’t move my arms or legs well. There are some circumstances when not wearing one is probably fine. But anything other than warm calm flat water during the day on the lake I always have one on. If I’m not wearing it, it is as easy available as I can possibly make it, if I take a swim I can grab it immediately. I have fliped a sit on top in class 2/3 rapids with a freshly broken ankle not wearing one, wished I was. I not sure that wearing one saved my life on one occasion, but it sure helped. If you have to think should I put it on, you know the answer.

The Red Cross treatment of this topic is misleading. What a person can do when wearing a bathing suit in a pool is not indicative of what they can do when wearing shoes, long pants, or a long-sleeved shirt; when incurring bodily injury before or once in the water; or in cold water. That’s why many of us who are capable swimmers wear a PFD all the time when paddling.


One of the things we teach in basic classes is the importance of wearing a properly fastened PFD. We have students perform a wet exit with the PFD put wherever they want, behind the seat or bungeed to the deck.

First, did they manage to hold onto the boat. Many people starting out do not, and depending on conditions, it can happen to anyone, although it shouldn’t. If they did not, and it’s a bit windy, there goes the boat faster than they can swim with all their aids to staying afloat.

If they do have hold of their boat, can they get up on the rear deck for a self rescue. A number of people need the extra floatation to do it. If they can, is the PFD just in the way on their boat rather than being worn.

If they find they need to have a PFD on to self rescue, can they put it on while in the water while holding onto their boat, paddle, and any loose gear. It’s harder than you would think and wastes time and energy.

Now imagine all this in the conditions that might have put you in the water in the first place.

We are a sea kayaking club and paddle frequently in big open water.

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