It’s Time to Rethink Swimming

With more and more people becoming involved in whitewater, it’s time to rethink swimming. Many steepcreekers have been swimming differently for years, and their experiences can improve the swimming techniques for both those who take a once-a-year commercial raft trip and the average weekend paddler of Class II, III, and IV rivers.

During recent years there has been an increase in drownings and injuries among even experienced boaters as well as casual rafters, which could have been avoided, had they swum differently. Of course we all go out there thinking and hoping we’re not going to fall out of our rafts or come out of our boats. But let’s face it: sooner or later we will all swim, and swim again. Swimming is an integral part of whitewater, and just like combat rolls and eddy turns, it should be done properly and safely. It should even be practiced.

Swimming aggressively instead of floating passively is the key. A number of paddlers have been killed or injured in a variety of river conditions from long, continuous rapids to fairly small rapids. There are numerous cases of flush-through drownings where boaters were swept for extended periods while maintaining the old float-with-toes up position.

Earlier this year in a different type of incident a tandem open boater drowned in Nantahala Falls, a Class III rapid in North Carolina. He and his partner had quickly gotten into the traditional swimming position: toes up, head upstream, floating on one’s back with the arms out to slow one down. His partner shot along the tongue of the falls to safety, but he dropped over a ledge in the steeper section and pinned. His feet and lower legs became entrapped in a crevice, and he drowned. In the same incident, a would-be rescuer also trapped his foot in the same spot and nearly drowned as well. It is likely the victim would be alive today if he had swum aggressively.

What is aggressive swimming? The swimmer needs to look around and immediately assess the situation. Is it a fairly short, open rapid with a good recovery pool? Are rescuers moving into action nearby? If so, it might be a good idea to hold on to one’s gear  and ride out the rapid with head upstream, toes up, and upturned boat downstream. Even so the swimmer should try self-rescue: backpaddling toward shore or to a rescue raft. In long, continuous rapids, holding onto one’s paddle and boat can guarantee a long, continuous swim. You will be swept along with your gear. Equipment can be replaced; people cannot. Junk the gear and stroke for shore. That means turning onto your stomach and slamming through the water.

Often you will need to swim on an angle to ferry across the current. Keep an eye out for strainers and rocks and holes as well. Be prepared for changing situations as you are swimming. You might want to stop stroking, roll back onto your back, put your feet up, and bounce off a boulder, then back over on your belly and whale for the eddy.

One needs to be aware of breathing. It is hard to catch your breath while swimming irregular, choppy water as opposed to smooth, even wave trains. In big water or floodstage rivers with crashing waves, swim and kick up through the waves for air. While you’re on your belly flailing for an eddy, you may bop over rocks beneath the surface of the water, but that is far preferable to floating forever and through monster rapids and swimming blind waterfalls.

Waterfall swimming is an art in itself. If one floats in the traditional manner, one runs a big risk of foot-and-leg entrapment. As one drifts over a drop on the back with legs out in front and toes up, one is turned into a vertical position, and pitoning can result. So try, if possible and if you are familiar with the drop, to swim toward the main tongue or the far edge and curl up in  a ball. Balling up may mean caroming off rocks, but at least you’re protecting your soft vitals as well as lessening the risk of entrapment. If the canoeist who drowned on the Nantahala had paddled toward the main tongue and then balled up, he would probably have washed safely through. If those involved in flush drownings had stroked toward shore, maybe more of them would be alive.

The combination of high water and growth in the number of paddlers in recent years has seen a rise in tragedies. It is time to rethink swimming.

The Nantahala Outdoor Center, for example, has begun teaching aggressive swimming. Gordon Grant, head of NOC’s instruction department, agrees it’s an issue all paddlers should address. Grant breaks it down: assess the situation, be prepared to abandon gear, ball up going over drops – even small ledges, and stroke for shore. It will save lives, maybe even yours.

Back in the Spring of 1987, I once took a mile-long swim down an icy Washington State creek in floodstage. I steadfastly held onto to my boat as I caromed down continuous Class IV rapids floating through snowmelt with my toes up. Eventually I was forced to abandon gear and stroke for shore. I almost didn’t make it. I learned the hard way.

Swimming aggressively has nothing to do with being cowardly or macho. It’s just plain common sense. Get the hell out of the river as fast as you can. It won’t guarantee a safe swim, but you have a better chance of surviving intact getting to shore instead of lounge-chairing down through ugly rapids.

Now for those who suit up in swim flippers and elbow pads for a pleasant bash down the Gauley, well, that’s a different story.


William Dudley Bass
Nantahala Outdoor Center
Wesser, North Carolina
September/October 1990
Republished with slight revision
Thursday 25 October 2012
Shoreline/Seattle, Washington

NOTE: This article was first published in River Runner Magazine, December 1990 with Rand Green as “Retiring Editor.” At the time I went by “W. Dudley Bass.” It appeared in the “Strokes” section under “Swim for Your Life.” That gem of a whitewater magazine, once so eagerly plucked from store shelves and devoured in the pre-Internet, pre-digital age, soon went defunct in the next few months.

In a follow-up letter to the editor of River Runner, Casey Garland, a Washington State boater and rescue instructor, attested to the icy waters of Northwestern rivers, agreed with most of my article, and made strong points toward conserving one’s energy to exit the river at an appropriate point so as not to overexhaust one’s self. I agree. It’s good to have choices we can mix and match and use as needed. It’s how I survived two more scary and challenging flush-drowning swims in the Pacific Northwest as I got freight-trained down two flood-stage rivers 14 months apart. One was a wintry flush for a mile in January 1992 and a half, and the second was determined to be about two miles in the Spring of 1993.

The original article was reprinted in the bulletin and magazine of the Blue Ridge River Runners in early 1991. BRRR was a large paddling club based out of Lynchburg, Virginia, back when I was a member for a few years

Thanks to everyone for all of your contributions.


Copyright © 1990, 2012, 2014, 2016 by William Dudley Bass. All Rights Reserved until we Humans establish Wise Stewardship of and for our Earth and Solarian Commons. Thank you.



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