Survival Swimming

There’s a thread going on use of PFDs, and I have to be honest, I stopped following it after about 50 replies because it’s getting rather long. But it got me thinking that even before considering the risks of wearing or not wearing a PFD, every paddler should really think about how to swim to maximize your chance of survival. In my case, I’m talking about knowing the elementary backstroke. It’s a swimming stroke intended to keep your mouth above water while expending the least amount of energy possible. I learned it over 40 years ago in Boy Scouts, so there may be other, newer techniques, but the concept should be the same - know how to swim to maximize your chance of surviving.

I actually credit my knowledge of the elementary backstroke with saving my life. Back in teenage years, some friends and I drove to a deserted Atlantic beach (Jones beach, NY) on a dreary summer weekday. Being a dumba$$ kid, I got swept out by an undertow. But then fortunately, smart kid kicked in and instead of panicking I started very slowly backstroking and pointed myself toward shore. I didn’t worry whether I was actually getting closer to shore, but kept at it while the side current slowly swept me down the shore. I eventually got out of the undertow current and found myself back on shore, about a half mile down from where I had started. If I had panicked, tried to dog-paddle or swim faster, worried that I wasn’t getting closer to shore, I expect I would have become exhausted and drowned.

So please learn a low energy, survival swimming stroke, and get lessons for your kids too. OK, I shall step off my soapbox now.

agree… read this

while more about extreme kayaking it still applies in degrees to all.

Stroke choice
Yeah, the tsunami rangers article is worth reading, as are the associated comments.

A couple of things I’ve learned from swimming in rough water are that swimming (like all skills) is useful up to the point where conditions overwhelm ability. Sure, I could swim 1000 yards with ease, keep myself afloat for hours, play 6-8 water polo games in a weekend, but open ocean conditions can overwhelm the best swimmers and rocks/rough coastline/coral/ etc. can defeat anyone who doesn’t take them seriously.

I also learned that cold water can defeat ability in a remarkably short time. Often swimming in cold water isn’t always the right choice (it expends energy, wastes necessary heat, and may cause fresh cold water to circulate along the body).

Strokes, as Eric points out in the article, have different strengths in different conditions. One thing I would add is that a strong kick, particularly the water polo eggbeater kick, is a huge advantage in almost all conditions. If I were to rate survival skills in order of importance, this would be a the top of my list.

On a side note, Eric, sadly, is no longer with us due to a dissected aorta. I only communicated with him through the website and email, but he seemed a truly interesting, friendly, and fun loving guy. He was, by all accounts, an amazingly skilled kayaker.


Eric passing?
How sad. I didn’t know that.

He gave a talk at one of the BASK meetings. It was quite a lot of fun to hear him talk about his paddling experience and lesson learned.

I knew he had that aorta issue. But it didn’t slow him down (that was 2005). Sad to hear the issue claimed his life.

Good post
I agree that a good, low-energy swimming stroke is an excellent skill to have. For myself, I find the side stroke to be the easiest to maintain over long time periods. A backfloat with minimal sculling strokes is a good option too, and can be done while wearing a pfd, too.

Back in antiquity when I did some life guard training, we were required to be able to swim a mile (no time limit) and to remain afloat for an hour in deep water, both of which are useful for a kayaker.

Best to learn a few strokes

– Last Updated: Aug-09-12 4:05 PM EST –

Back in my almost-a-nonswimmer days, I was actually really good at the elementary backstroke (I just couldn't do anything else). I found out in short order that it's very difficult stroke to use in choppy conditions (being in a face-up position when dunked by waves leads to lots of sputtering), and if a person is far from shore where the need for a long swim might become necessary, I think one is more likely to end up in the water in choppy conditions than calm. Anyway, even though one's PFD is the biggest survival aid in such a situation, being able to do a few stokes well surely is a good thing.

By the way, I had a really close call at Jone's Beach myself when I was 18. I was there with relatives, and I followed my cousin (an expert swimmer) into the water but had no intention of going in more than waist-deep. The waves were pretty big and before I knew it I wasn't touching bottom and had no idea where my cousin went. In another minute I was so far from shore that the people there looked really small, so calling for help was pointless, though I tried a little bit. The lifeguards, having a trained eye for such things, spotted the riptide long before they saw me or my cousin, and spotted us with binocs as they looked to see if anyone had been swept away. So one life guard went out to get me while THREE went to get my cousin (unlike me, she was swimming just fine, but I guess she was a lot cuter). Anyway, being a former Boy Scout, I'd seen pictures of how to do a "tired swimmer rescue", and I think the life guard must have been surprised that a non-swimmer on the verge of drowning got into position for that rescue method without being told what to do.

A necessity on the water

– Last Updated: Aug-09-12 8:56 PM EST –

I lived on a small lake in an apartment complex.
Repeatedly, folks were amazed that I swam/floated,
without a PFD for 2 or 3 hours never touching bottom.
I am not a triathlon or pentathlon type guy.

Floating on your back, taking a breather/resting,
conserving energy are all important skills on water.
Waves and Current make it even more challenging.

Swimming a mile with a PFD on can be quite tough.
It adds a lot of drag, slowing you down tremendously.
BUT you can't beat them for floating next to your boat.

Link to article on Eric

Here is the link to the article about Eric’s passing. He was out having fun to the last and was skiing at Tahoe.


Wisdom is knowing when to be passive and conserve energy and when to exert a lot of energy and be aggressive. Analyze your situation and decide can I get to a safer place in a hurry or should I conserve energy.

In whitewater, you have to do both to avoid wearing yourself out and long swims. I’d almost rather see someone a little to aggressive than too passive – the passive swimmer can stay in the current for hundreds and hundreds of yards.

It applies to rip currents as well. If you can swim 20 feet sideways and get out of the current that’s much better than a passive swim that keeps you drifting half a mile down the beach.


Hold on to your paddle
I swim a lot in the surf. Sometimes to take pictures. Quite often it is because of my poor surf kayaking skills. I have never felt the backstroke was useful, but maybe I never learned it right. I always got a nose full of water.

For me what works best is surges of energy to place myself in the wave to catch it or miss it as needed. When I’m doing it on purpose swim fins really help. When swimming accidentally a paddle helps about as much as swim fins.

I highly recommend swimming with your paddle regularly.

Adaptive paddling
Swimming skills certainly are a good thing to have. However, there are people who can’t swim much due to various anatomical problems but who nonetheless kayak safely. The field of adaptive sports includes kayaking. Swimming is not a requirement for kayakers with disabilities.

Swimming with kayak

– Last Updated: Aug-09-12 7:40 PM EST –

I, too, prefer the sidestroke. It allows me to see what's going on 100% of the time, can be done at a relatively low level of exertion, and I can hang onto my kayak while doing it. Holding the kayak compromises the stroke some, but that would be the case for any stroke.

Another advantage is that it can be done on either side, so you can switch sides for a long swim. Yet another is that it's not degraded too much by wearing a PFD. Ditto for the form of backstroke that you DON'T see in the Olympics. In my experience, swim strokes that use a pulse-then-glide pattern work best when wearing a PFD.

Swimming regularly (and in cold water) is on my to-do list starting later this year. Don't know how much of it I can stomach...guess I'll find out soon.

Swimming with paddle
I concur. I was skeptical when I first read of this and tried to do it crawl. It wasn’t very effective, but when I converted to backstroke, low and behold, I was suddenly fast. The paddle makes a better motor than my body does a boat, but it works, is faster than swimming, and for short distances, can get you where you want to go.

I did an experiment once and was even able to do this while towing the boat with a paddle tether (yeah, the boat/legs interacted when doing this, but you don’t really need to kick when doing backstroke with a paddle).

Should one get separated from the boat, it would be a quicker way to attempt to catch up to it (provided it’s floating and you can paddle faster than the current/wind is moving the boat). It’s actually kind of a fun technique, so it’s worth learning.


Splain, please
What exactly are you talking about?

It looks like just an indent issue
My read is that this person is responding to the original post.

While I am here, my take is that the OPer is trying to share their experience with the most energy saving stroke they have found should someone end up in a swim. (It matches my own experience but I wasn’t going to bother with a post about it.) That is generally helpful advice IMO, and would serve anyone who was able to execute it.

The value of practicing swimming in its own right is a further step. That seems like it’d be uncontroversial on a water sport board, but these days on pnet…

Swimming with a paddle

Is a video showing swimming with a paddle. The stroke mechanics could be improved, but it gets the point across. Skip to a couple of minutes in to see the practice.


another Eric article

– Last Updated: Aug-10-12 10:08 PM EST –

Eric also wrote an article on swimming in the Summer 2011 issue of California Kayaker Magazine. All issues (including the one with his article) can be read online for free at

To go right to his article, use this link: