We're all between swims

ca139 thanks for sharing your experience, a good reminder for the rest of us to stay vigilant with pfd use and dressing for immersion

IT happened so quickly I didn’t have time to even brace. Actually I tried but the paddle got stuck in the underwater branches. Just like that but thankfully I was prepared.

I believe 75-80% of paddling deaths are from lack of PFD alone. The rest are all the usual bad actors, intoxicants like alcohol, exposure, paddling in conditions above your skill level. Almost all paddling deaths are very easily preventable and while I knew all this before, it was shocking how awful it could have been, yet how simple it was to bail out of such a sticky situation. I wanted to share just how useful having a PFD and immersion gear was JUST 25 FEET FROM SHORE!!!

For those of you on Facebook, this got shared in one of my local whitewater groups.


Couple of observations:

  1. It always amazes me how few accidents there actually are for recreational boaters – according to this 57 for 2022
  2. It always amazes me the great variety of situations that cause accidents. With the source of this being American Whitewater, you would think that the accidents would all arise from big water paddling, and that is not the case. There is some relatively mild water in there – a couple of pins, and a couple of strainers, couple of flush drownings, lots of tubers.
  3. How many accidents involve 50-60 year old men – yikes, I’m in that group.
  4. And of course, how many victims weren’t wearing PFD’s. PFD doesn’t save everyone, but I have to wonder about those tubing accidents in milder water. I’ll bet a PFD would have made a huge difference there.

The likelihood of an experienced paddler being involved in a serious accident is low, but that is usually due to experience and training. One bad decision (we all make them) and who knows what can happen. Best to practice before it happens.

Thanks to Charlie Walbridge for making this information available.


My own warped perspective
I don’t take anybody too seriously who says they never swim. They are either really good and totally out of my league (think Dane Jackson) or found success by staying within their own limited skill level and a familiar environment.

Personally, I would rather avoid swimming or even rolling but it is a necessary part of the sport. In fact, a lot of dry hair days in a row can be an indication of not pushing yourself. So I don’t view swimming as “good” or “bad” but I do know I personally want to avoid a beatdown or becoming an aw statistic. In general most ww boaters want to avoid swims but understand it is a part of the sport.

I sometimes start paddling instruction with a swim in a swimmers rapid so individuals can practice the safe swim positions, learn to time their breathing, and in general, folks feel more at ease on the water. The goal is to make the sport enjoyable and it is hard to do that if you are scared of flipping over or swimming in a rapid. So for folks who are fearful, I do this early on so that their time in the boat is more enjoyable and productive. We all need to learn to clean up our messes: emptying the boat, getting it to shore, hanging on to paddle.

So what am I really thinking as a ww paddler? When someone says …

“I’ve never swum.” I’m thinking you’re clueless and have limited self rescue skills. You haven’t paddled diverse environments or encountered abnormal conditions or you are in fact Dane Jackson.

When someone says “It was a good day, I only swam 5 times!” I’ve heard or read this from boaters after running the New or Gauley for the first time. Here’s what I’m thinking. You spent last night staying up late partying with friends; you showed up to put a notch on your belt (pfd, personal first descent), because you’re slightly more experienced friends said you were ready but you really weren’t. I will be far more impressed if you admit that you got “worked” and want to acquire some new friends. I hope you saved some energy for the drive home and work on Monday morning after all those swims.

Swimming your way down the river is less than optimal, very tiring, and puts everyone else at added risk. If you are open boating and swimming that much then I’m in awe of your physical prowess (pushing and towing the canoe to shore) but I am still thinking you are clueless.

If I’m the one swimming- an immediate reminder to keep it real (feet up, swim hard for the eddy, use the river currents and features while swimming.) Afterwards, I’m thinking how important your friends are, and am I getting too old for this s##t ? Maybe it is time to dial it down? Definitely don’t want to swim again so I’m thinking I need to stay focused. Did I mention staying focused? During the wet exit, during the swim, after the swim, getting back in the boat, focus, focus, focus. Some folks want to panic. Don’t. Use all your boat smarts to get to shore while swimming.

more personal thoughts…

class I- likely to meet nice folks who are enjoying (floating and socializing) but are totally clueless about any dangers- often not wearing a pfd, have inner tubes tied together, and have lost at least one flip flop. Thankfully this environment is often beginner friendly. Sometimes “I’ll just stand up” is a workable strategy in a benign environment.

class II- lots of scraping sounds as boats ground out on gravel bars and get caught on rocks, at least a few people with some common sense- some wearing pfds or at least making sure the kids are wearing one. Class II streams can provide high entertainment for the spectator and a good place to pick up river salvage (paddles, beers, coolers). Be wary of assisting swamped rec boaters who lack flotation or try to drag the boat up on shore first before getting the water out. It can be hazardous for your feet and hands (much like a pinning situation).

class III- by this point almost everyone has on a pfd, except fishermen in dories and in commercial oar rafts who are exempt from drowning. Pfds are not worn but remain in the boat (legal requirement) for these special fishermen who are actually descendants from the ancient city of Atlantis. Everybody else has the good sense to wear a lifejacket.

class IV- you’ve developed your own special kind of stupidity if you are not wearing a pfd at this point. If you are successful on class III, but swim on IVs, it is because you haven’t developed a reflexive brace and are concerned with running clean lines. What you need to do is boat more crappy class III lines on the fly, hit more rocks, and run more stuff backwards. Scouting longer at the top of a rapid won’t help you run that class IV rapid that has become your nemesis but paddling more often will help. Swimming class IV rapids isn’t much fun so folks either lay off the IVs or start paddling and pushing themselves on IIIs a whole lot more to prepare for the IVs. In general most folks don’t like swimming class IV rapids.

class V boaters- nobody wants to swim class V rapids (except a young Jim Snyder) so it is best to have it “dialed in” and be with a supportive crew. A bomber roll is what you’ll need if you flip. You can acquire this playboating on class III and IV streams.

class VI boaters- do a disservice to the rest of us by running extreme stuff, swimming is not a viable option, and these skilled individuals make it look easy, when in fact it is totally crazy and insane and dangerous but it makes for a great magazine cover.

There are three kinds of men: The ones that learn by reading. The few who learn by observation. The rest of them have to pee on the electric fence and find out for themselves.

I’ve never peed on an electric fence but I have taken some interesting swims. S##t happens so stay safe.


Funny stuff. LOL! Nicely written. :clap:


I’ll never be a WW paddler but also enjoyed your descriptions.

well sing I’m glad you weren’t offended by my ww perspective. I like to keep things real, at least for me. Not let egos get in the way. Often our perspective on paddling is determined by the environment and type of paddling that we do. That’s a pretty fluid concept and the view can look quite different depending on the type of boat and location. The more places I go the more I realize how little I know. I respect your own ocean play (surfing) although I can relate best to your ww experience. Put me in one of your long skinny boats in the surf and I’ll be crying for my momma before I hit the beach.

eck, I have no idea how dangerous ww paddling is overall or how it compares to other sports. I think in general terms the international whitewater scale has it right. More difficulty usually means more danger. The good thing about this year’s aw accident list is that I don’t personally know anyone on it. The Mike Edwards fatality shook a lot of folks I know locally. I didn’t know him but paddle with some folks who did work with him on the river (he was an adventures on the gorge raft guide). He was well respected locally. I know who led the recovery effort and that there was fallout over acceptable water levels for the recovery. Also where the fatality happened is kind of surprising. Not “at around the world” or “the weir”, the most notable trouble spots on the upper meadow but in a lesser known spot. That is the first paddling fatality on the upper meadow that I know of. The middle and lower meadow have both had their share.

The sinks (little river) fatality doesn’t surprise me. I scouted but never ran that rapid. Opted to put on below the elbow. There is some problematic stuff that could have consequences if you don’t nail it. It has a history.

Interesting to note the Dead (Maine) was a highwater release commercial rafting fatality. I am wondering if a wetsuit was worn, and if that would have helped with a long swim on a continuous stretch of water in Sept or Oct. and what kind of physical shape the paddler was in. When I see the yough and description says “crack or sieve” I immediately think dimples or rivers end. I will wait for the full report to come out to learn more on that. Both the pigeon and snake fatalities look on the surface as being totally preventable with a pfd. I am surprised at two fatalities on the raccoon river in Iowa. Never boated it but wonder about the circumstances given the forgiving nature of other rivers in the area. Thanks for sharing the link eck.

On a more personal note, when Charlie Walbridge comes to boat the lower Gauley I know I’ve lost one of my paddlin’ buds for the weekend, as she often runs safety for Charlie who still does an annual lower gauley trip (last couple of years in a raft). Back in the 80s Charlie was often the only other c1 (an old hahn) I would see on the river. I can’t say we were friends but used to say hello to each other. I was busy chasing rafts (videoing) and headed to my next stop on the rocks. Charlie was always more chill, there to just enjoy. See, he taught me well, now I relax a bit.

1 Like

I pulled up the AW report. It seems to be a foot entrapment between Dimples & Swimmers per a report:

From Walter Augustine: It was a female that was foot entrapped below dimple but above swimmer’s (near where the guides stand to use throw ropes) What they call the poop shoot. She was down for around 40 mins before they were able to get her out. Once on shore they started CPR, got her in the stokes basket that is kept at swimmer’s and attempted to use the AED, she was carried to the top of the trail where the ambulance was waiting, they continued with the resuscitation efforts and she was transported to Uniontown Hospital, where they continued for approximately an hour before they pronounced her dead.

Woman dies Saturday in Ohiopyle rafting accident

TRIBUNE-REVIEW | Sunday, Aug. 14, 2022

Sad and somewhat understandable. GAuge is listed at 1.86 so fairly low. I’ve swum that stretch several times & there is a lot of stuff underwater. It takes some practice to learn to chill out during an OBE. Your brain is screaming at you “I want to just stand up & be safe”. We open boaters do get some practice and swimming rapids.

rival51 thanks for sharing that. That shines a light on the doom and gloom. We can learn from it. Why could they only attempt to use the AED but not actually use it? Is this a private, self guided, or guided trip participant? What event caused her swim? What was she wearing for footwear? How familiar was she with river hazards, specifically foot entrapments?.

I appreciate your wry but astute observations. :+1: I chuckled because it reminded me a bit of the substance and illustrations of the late William Nealy in his various books:



There is more info in the AW database.

It was a BIG guided trip through Whitewater Adventures. 71 people in 17 fafts. Hers was the only raft to flip at Dimples.

@tdaniel to your last question, here is a quote in the db from a park manager:

“All participants are issued appropriate safety gear, undergo a safety briefing, participate in a practice session in a calm pool near the launch before heading down the river and are given instruction while on the river by the attending guides.”

My guess is (and you likely understand the population better than I) that the level of attention paid and understanding made by the customers is not real high. I seem to recall that there is a video loop running in the visitors center that covers swimming rapids and foot entrapment. And, even for those who may have paid attention, it is easy to panic when you go in an instant from being in control and having fun and being dumped into a chaotic low O2 environment.

1 Like

Great posts - always appreciate your thoughts.

I guess - if it goes wrong, it goes wrong worse in bigger water. Having said that, for someone paddling at their skill level I don’t know that it is all that much more dangerous. Other than adrenalin-junkies and waterfall-runners, the whole point of whitewater paddling is to safely navigate the river while avoiding the most dangerous hazards. Sh*t does happen though…

Yes - that one hit a little close to home. I had a swim on the Dead at a class III level that I would rather not repeat. My boat filled up with water and I dumbed half way down Mile-Long rapid. Fortunately I had been working my way close to shore to dump the boat when it happened, so I didn’t have that far to swim. This is what I wrote at the time:

My only swim was in a long rocky rapid known as “Mile Long” - you can guess why it has that name. About half way down, I went over a rock into a hole filling my boat with water. Now it’s possible to paddle a swamped canoe, but it’s difficult. My options were to try to bail out the canoe while bouncing down the rapid, or try to work my way over to shore. I decided to paddle over to shore, and got about 15’ before I dumped and took a swim.

Once in the water I grabbed my boat and tried to swim to shore, but in the fast moving water, I wasn’t making any progress. Looking downstream I could see that I was approaching another set of rapids, so I abandoned the canoe and assumed the safe swimming position - on my back with my feet downstream.

Swimming through rapids is something that I try to practice, but it doesn’t match the real experience. First, I swam though a series of “haystacks” or standing waves where you breathe in the trough, and hold you breath as you go through the wave - breathe, glug, breathe, glug, breathe, glug. If this continues long enough, it can be though to catch your breath. Fortunately, it was a short set of haystacks.

After the waves, I could see a horizon line downstream indicating that I was approaching a rock with a hole on the other side. I tucked into a ball as the pour over pulled me down into the hole. When I came out the other side, I swam hard toward shore. Fortunately, Pat had been working my boat toward the same spot. It was just a short time before I was back in my boat

I was paddling in a 3500 cfs release that is generally considered to be class III - swimming in that was hard enough. (My max is now the 2400 releases, and I am happy at 1800.) The big water rafting releases are 4000, 5000, or 6000 cfs. The Dead doesn’t have huge waves like the Kennebec, but the water moves fast and it would be real difficult to swim out of it. Looks like this guy had some medical issues, but if you swim at the wrong place at that level it might not matter…

p.s. - open boaters paddling big water usually put an electric bilge pump in the boat to empty it out when it gets swamped. Other than the Dead, I really don’t paddle places where it is an issue, so I have never bothered.

1 Like

Never had to swim in a kayak.

typically I swim from a canoe or kayak and if I’m lucky I can swim the boat to shore myself, using the push/shove and swim to the boat and push again method. Never actually tried to swim while in the boat. I have paddled a few swamped boats to shore with some success and failure.

I consider boating a wet activity. Feet typically get wet either entering or exiting the boat. About the only time I really try to stay dry is on a cool winter day. It is better to not have cold water sloshing around in your boat with your feet falling asleep from the chill. Not a fan of duckies on a cold day.

In general, if I get wet I don’t melt. Anytime I’m on the water I look for an exit strategy in case something happens. I tend to take for granted that everybody does that. Another thing to do is to practice wet exits and practice swimming the boat to shore, or the edge of the pool. In general if you are doing any skill and you’ve practiced it then you are more likely to be successful.

Staying near shore is a good mitigation strategy. The shoreline topography, wind, waves, current, and tides can all limit the effectiveness though. We all get to determine when and where to go and make our own decisions.


Re: attempting but not using AED: After 40 minutes under water most likely attaching the AED would reveal asystole, for which defibrillation is not possible.

thanks, I understand the odds of anything working successfully after being submerged in the water 40 minutes is extremely low (mammalian reflex) to not at all. I thought the purpose of the AED was to shock the heart when there was no heart beat or a very weak or very erratic heart beat . I assumed the unit was non functioning or that they were unable to use it , thinking perhaps it was too wet, batteries were dead etc. I don’t know much. Only what you might be told in a red cross cpr class.

You WW Elitist You !!! LOL

(In my book a dumb luck clutzy capsize, while not paying attention in 4’ of 72 degree water, is a wade, not a swim.)

Somehow by the grace of god,
or something odd,
within this sod,
grown here of earth a son, a daughter,
runs through its reign,
returns to water.

Between a swim
and a hard place
to be taking stand
in the current situation
up a creek
without a paddle
till with creek
and groan
and chilling exclamation
an exit pole
denies the between


I haven’t gone swimming yet… in my Sea Kayak, or any of my RecBoats yet, I’ve come close once or twice and even though I shipped water in my cockpit (didn’t have the dress on.) I managed to come close once or twice.

then again I did cut my teeth on Class 4 WW, and there I went swimming enough until I got the roll finally down then I gut the swim-time a lot.

I don’t do that anymore too old too fat and not flexible enough.

And well so far I haven’t had the Touring Kayak in anything that rough out in the ocean, or on some of the waterways. though in the channel the occasional container ship does produce enough wave to get me shipping water and bracing like mad if I don;t have the skirt on.

So I guess I fall into, the don’t go out in anything anymore beyond my skills. even though I do realize that one day I’ll go for a swim probably a some event, either getting into the boat or out of it. (that’s why I still practice high dock dry entries. even though the nearby lake has a dry launch I could use. the ability to stand up in your sea kayak while holding onto the dock is a good skill.)

1 Like

My wife’s a year-round swimmer in Lake Michigan; I love water but prefer my relationship with it be mediated by a boat. Anyhow, I just recently got my hands on a new-used drysuit and, for the first time in my life, got a whole bunch of warm clothes on and jumped into 34º water. The drysuit passed the immersion test with flying colors, and I’m feeling a helluva lot more confident in the equipment and ready for winter paddling.