Ocean Survival Swimming – Part 4

by Nancy Soares on April 20, 2015

Editor’s note: Well, we’re back to subject of ocean swimming. This is the final part of our four part series on Ocean Survival Swimming. Eric wrote this a long time ago (witness the references to the “common” practice of paddling solo and also to buoyancy compensators) but he never deviated from his opinions on this topic. May I say I have practiced many of the drills recommended in this series, and they’re fun and profitable. Thanks to Robert Kendall for being our model for open ocean swimming. Thanks also to my talented sister-in-law Patty Soares who drew the pictures that illustrate the text. Enjoy! 

Practicing diving under waves at Crescent City beach. Pictured: Robert Kendall

Practicing diving under waves at Crescent City beach. Pictured: Robert Kendall

Hopefully, the situation will never be so dismal that you must rely on your swimming skill to survive. But this may happen. Some of the following survival swimming situations can be practiced safely; some can not. Should you decide to practice these, be certain that you are accompanied by a qualified instructor. Also, survival swimming should never substitute for a proficient Eskimo roll or self and group rescue skills. And, swimming competence should not induce you to attempt foolhardy excursions in dangerous waters. Survival swimming skill should augment paddling expertise and sound judgment, not replace them.

The question remains, when is swimming for it the best option? There is no specific answer to give. However, there are certain situations that favor swimming for it. Many people are paddling solo these days. Should you paddle solo (or lose your friends) capsize, fail to roll, and flub the re-enter and roll – you might consider swimming for it. If you add fog, a current sweeping you to sea, no rescue nearby, cold water, approaching nightfall, an injured arm, and a coastline close by – swimming for it looks very promising. If you are ejected from your kayak in surf or rocks, you MUST swim for it. Never attempt a boat rescue in surf or rocks. Let’s look at specific tactics for specific situations, starting with landing in surf and rocks.

This situation can be practiced. Remember body surfing? The situation is the same, only now you have your boat and paddle to deal with. If the surf is huge, forget about your boat. It will probably be waiting for you on the beach, hopefully in one piece. Trying to hold onto a kayak in roaring surf is a good way to get bonked, lanced, and dislocated limbs. You might be able to salvage your paddle.

Kayaker frog kicking to shore while holding a paddle

Kayaker frog kicking to shore while holding a paddle

The paddler in the illustration is swimming correctly in roaring surf. He is frog kicking while he holds the paddle shaft just above the blade. The rest of the paddle is in front of him; thus, he is protected from the paddle. Should the huge wave break on top of him, he will let go of the paddle, dive down, and resurface after the wave has passed. The paddle may be gone, but the swimmer is still there in one piece. A note: it is nigh impossible to dive under water wearing a conventional life jacket, as the flotation prevents you from submerging. This is why a partially deflated buoyancy compensator is the only safe PFD in surf and rocks.

If the surf is rather mild, you can push your kayak and paddle in front of you while you frog kick. NEVER wrap a line or strap around any part of your body in a surf line, or you could lose that limb when the boat is wrenched by waves. It is okay to grab onto a toggle, as this allows you to release your hold when strained.

This can not be safely practiced. Much of the advice in the preceding section applies in this situation. There are two types of rock landings: sea stack landings (large, exposed rocks surrounded by water) and cliff landings (rocky outcroppings extending from shore). In either case, after ejection in pounding surf, abandon the boat and the paddle and concentrate on protecting yourself. As with sandy beach landings, deflate your buoyancy compensator so you can dive under water when necessary.

When caught in surf around sea stacks (say after unsuccessfully negotiating a rock garden through a cape) swim around a rock that looks climbable until you are on the side of the rock facing the shore. As waves break on the rock, dive under and surface after the turbulence has passed. Then quickly swim to the rock and climb on. Be careful not to lose your footing on the slippery rock. Climb high on the protected side of the rock and determine the safest way to get to shore. Avoid climbing on rocks that are inhabited by sea lions or other marine mammals; they are dangerous.

Landing on cliffs and shore rocks is even spookier than approaching sea stacks. You should avoid this if at all possible. A cliff landing is a life and death circumstance in big surf. If a big wave washes you on the rocks before you are prepared, you will be severely battered by the rocks and lacerated by barnacles. This is bad. If you absolutely must land on shore rocks, follow these steps.

If the waves are small (up to one meter) a seal landing can be attempted that is similar to the kayak seal landing described by Derek Hutchinson in his book, Sea Canoeing. Watch the waves wash over the rock on which you wish to land. Inflate your buoyancy compensator and wait for an ideal wave that is neither too big nor too small. As the wave breaks on the rocks, swim hard and land on the rocks with the wave. Land on your hands and feet and secure yourself to the rock so you are not sucked back into the soup by the backwash. Once the wave has retreated, scramble up to high ground and count your blessings.

If the waves are bigger (up to 3 meters) try this. From a safe distance scope out the area in which you wish to land. Completely deflate your buoyancy compensator. Swim in on the backside of the last wave of a big set. When the backwash tries to take you back out, dive down to the bottom and clutch a rock until the backwash passes. Then surface, swim to the rock, and scurry up before the next wave hits. This requires precise timing.

If the waves are huge (more than 3 meters) do not attempt to land on exposed cliff rocks. Continue swimming up or down the coast until you find a safe exit. You will probably come upon a steep shore lined with stones. Land there. Swim in as you would on a sandy beach with big surf. When you get in close to shore, come in behind a dumper. No problem.

While we are so close to shore, let’s discuss swimming in debris. In this case, debris is operationalized as anything floating in the water that you would not want to run into. This includes driftwood, flotsam, kelp, jellyfish, buoys, and garbage. In general, avoid paddling in debris. But if you end up swimming there, swim the crawl stroke while raising your head high above the water. This stroke is called water polo freestyle and it lets you see what is floating all around you, so you can dodge the junk.

While swimming in large debris, such as logs and flotsam, keep a careful eye on the swell action so you will not get pinned or bashed. Be sure to deflate your buoyancy compensator so you can swim under debris should a collision be imminent. Give a wide berth to buoys and anything moored. Gently move jellyfish out of the way with your arm. Do not let them sting you in the face.

Should your kayak rudder become entangled in kelp and cause you to capsize, swim aft and cut the kelp with your knife. Swimming in kelp is a bit tricky, especially at low tide. The good news is that kelp beds tend to soften wave action. The bad news is that kelp tends to grow around partially submerged rocks. So pay close attention. The easiest way to travel in a kelp forest is to push it down with your forearms while you literally crawl on your hands and knees across it. In the unlikely event that you become entangled, remain, calm, unwrap and/or cut the offending kelp, and continue on.

Kayaker swimming water polo freestyle

Kayaker swimming water polo freestyle

Should you have to swim in fog, rely on your compass and your ears to guide you back to shore. Do not guess which way is the right way to go because you will swim in circles. While floating, check your bearings with your diver’s compass and listen for shorebreak. Although sound seems distorted in fog, it will complement your compass readings. Swimming at night is similar to swimming in fog. Again, use your compass and your ears. Look for shore lights. Attach a chemical light to your person. Use your flares to attract attention.

Imagine this. You are paddling under the magnificent Golden Gate Bridge near San Francisco during ebb tide. Whoops! You are in the drink and are being swept to sea. No boats are in sight. You have exhausted your flares. Now what? Swim perpendicular to the current until you safely reach the shore. Do not dawdle.

If ANY current is taking you where you do not want to go, swim perpendicular to it until you are out of it. The crawl is the best stroke to use in this situation because it is the fastest. Never attempt to swim against a current moving faster than one knot. You will lose. Even if you are far out to sea. Your best recourse is to float and conserve heat energy while trying to signal for help. However, if the current is taking you in the desired course (say back into the bay) go with the flow, relax, inflate the buoyancy compensator and float, eat pemmican.

Swimming in a trough against a longshore current. This is good practice for open ocean swimming. Pictured: Robert Kendall

Swimming in a trough against a longshore current. This is good practice for open ocean swimming. Pictured: Robert Kendall

Speaking of San Francisco Bay, let’s talk about swimming with sharks and other fine marine creatures. No shark has eaten a kayaker. But many swimmers, especially near San Francisco, have been bitten by white sharks. As a swimmer, you are vulnerable to shark attack. There is no proven way (other than staying out of the water) to prevent shark attacks. No reliable shark repellant is commercially available. Warding off a white shark (or any shark) with a knife is laughable, if not dangerous. Bang sticks are cumbersome for a swimmer to carry and would be useless against a white shark. An Australian study showed that zebra-striped wetsuits scared off sharks, but that is one study. Someone that no shark attacks have occurred in kelp. Still, there are no absolute safeguards against shark attack. Someday, someone will invent a portable sonic device that repels sharks. But in the meantime, to decrease the chance of shark attack, follow this advice:

  • do not thrash about or act panicky
  • do not bleed or carry anything bloody
  • do not wear anything that is colored yum-yum yellow
  • swim smoothly in good form
  • if a limb is injured, inflate the buoyancy compensator and engage in kick or stroke only
  • if a shark approaches too near, swim smoothly toward it

Marine mammals, such as sea lions, whales, and dolphins, should not be approached while you are swimming. They are also wild and dangerous.

Regardless of your paddling skill level, remember to prepare for safety IN the water. Stay in shape, eat right and carry emergency liquid and food on your person. Wear the right clothes and carry your swimming survival equipment with you. Master the basic swimming skills. Study the ocean. Go body surfing and open ocean swimming. Know the survival swimming tactics. By gaining proficiency in ocean survival swimming, you will be a more confident sea kayaker.

Think about this: you know the water will be cold. It will rain and the wind will howl. The fog will roll in, the swells will become huge, you will capsize. Will you survive? The answer is up to you. Take this test: the next time you go sea kayaking put on your gear, walk down to the beach, dive in the water, and swim out two hundred meters. Do you feel confident? If not, you are not ready to go sea kayaking.

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by Joanne and Doug Schwartz

Editor’s note: Always understanding kayaking as a place to be and a way to go, not a transport from here to there, Joanne and her husband Doug have paddled since the mid-1980’s and are still exploring the world, sometimes by kayak. They paddled with Eric, Jim and the Rangers a few times in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s and then got (healthily) caught up in their paddling business in southern California. Nowadays, reading Confessions of a Wave Warrior, bit by bit and over and over, puts Joanne back into those special days, with the spirit of the individual Rangers and call of the sea ringing truth and happiness on each page.

This story of kayak touring along the islands of southern Croatia, in the Adriatic sea, describes one of many coastlines Joanne has explored by kayak. Just spin the globe and pick a line of islands!

Landing on Mljet at Roman Palace, 2nd c. AD, when the sea level was lower. Polace, Mljet Island/NP, Croatia

Landing on Mljet at Roman Palace, 2nd c. AD, when the sea level was lower. Polace, Mljet Island/NP, Croatia

When getting caught kayaking and tenting in the strongest rain-thunder-lightning storm we have ever seen is the worst thing to happen on a two week paddle, we knew life is great!

The Adriatic sea, with Italy to the west and Croatia to the east, is a sea of legends. It offers some quite spectacular coastal touring for those who can handle an absence of giant waves and surf for a week or two. You can explore a Neanderthal cave, paddle up to a second century AD Roman palace, visit the cave where Odysseus lived for seven years because he could not resist the nymph Calypso, and so much more.

Roman Grain

Perhaps a Roman grain crushing bin. Polace, Mljet Island/NP, Croatia

Our paddling adventure began at the Huck Finn headquarters north of Dubrovnik. We contemplated seven days of paddling, but reluctantly returned after twelve. We could have stayed out another two weeks, as there was so much more coastline to paddle, hiking and snorkeling to do, and ruins to explore. In summary, we kayaked north along the western mainland coast, west across to Mljet Island (pronounced “Milyet”) and around its north end, and down the west coast, winding among several other islands, and returned to Dubrovnik. This segment encompassed two of the six weeks we spent in Croatia from mid-May through June.

A bit from our kayaking logbook …
The paddle north along the mainland was under clear skies, with no wind and thus perfectly calm seas. We paddled close to the limestone coastline to watch the sea life under crystal clear water. Sponges or corals were visible, as were some cherry red anemones and squid. There are very few coves where we can land, as the limestone is everywhere and comes straight down to the sea. But above, on the hillsides, everything is totally green, with pines and oaks and cypress and who knows what other trees. Where there are no trees, there is dense underbrush.

Mreznicz River, Croatia

Mreznicz River, Croatia

On our third night in Polače (the č is pronounced as “ch” in church) a small village on the NW tip of Mljet island, population about 100, a great thunderstorm came in with terrific rain and great lightning and thunder. We watched it from our balcony until we were too tired to stand. The skies seemed pretty clear on our fourth morning in Polače, but the cumulus clouds were rising all around and we knew there would be more rain. We packed our little kayak and headed out the village harbor and down the west coast for what would be an 8 hour paddle of 20 nautical miles, not counting the many ins and outs of the little bays along the way. Soon the skies blackened and, in fact, we could no longer see the nearby shoreline A thunder and lightening show began and, of course, the rain started. Quickly our environment became truly exciting, alive with sound and bouncy water and steep, following seas. Our bow dove under the waves (the kayak is not as sea worthy as the Feathercraft we have used on so many of our trips) which regularly hit me in the face and chest (the joy of having the bow position!). The highest winds lasted only about 20 minutes, but hard rain continued for two hours. Doug likened it to being under a fire hose focused directly downward on us. The drops were giant and hit the water with such force that they bounced up 2-3 inches before hitting the water again on the way back down. This created a haze on the water which left the sea looking fuzzy. Too, it flattened out all the wind ripples on the surface of the swells and waves making the big lumps seem glassy smooth, even though the sea’s texture was stormy rough. Rain became lighter for a while and the seas calmed down, but soon another set of giant black clouds arrived and we were hit again with a light, sound and water show. After three hours of strong paddling, the sea mellowed and the show stopped, and the day turned sunny and warm. It is funny, the description of Croatian weather in our Lonely Planet guidebook indicates 2 to 3 inches of rain in June. We figure we got 3 inches in each of the 3 storms that day! Yes, we would have sought a landing site early in the day, but steep cliffs prevented any chance of getting off the water.

After 8 hours of continuous paddling, we reached one of the only sandy beaches on our trip, in a little cove at the bottom of Mljet island. We set up our tent, an action which we knew was probably illegal, (laws exist because of “fire danger”, but we were very tired), and were soon visited by a fisherman and his nine-year-old son who informed us that we could not camp there. But, of course, we could stay at his home and he would prepare us dinner, for a price. When we agreed with smiles and enthusiasm, he waived the part about not camping and he left his son to guide us to his home up on a hill, after we completed setting camp. In their garden yard the mother prepared a fantastic dinner. The man caught fresh fish and had home-made rachia/rakia and wine, of course. The mother had made the bread, olives and goat cheese, and picked for us a zucchini from her garden. Perhaps the only part of the entire dinner that they did not grow, catch, raise or make were the pickles on the cheese plate and the flour for crepes at the end.

Immediately after we returned to our tent, the skies again provided another fantastic light show. Normally we count the seconds between light bursts and sound so we can estimate the distance from us to the lightning, but there were often several flashes each second, and many dozens each minute, so distances were meaningless – we knew the thunderhead was immediately over our heads. Often a thunder clap would start to our right and roar and crack continuously until it reached our far left! Fortunately our new light-weight tent held up and we slept very dry and well … after three hours of being stunned by this show.

Hill-Top Forts Everywhere, Fortification on fence and gun slot Sipan Island, Croatia

Hill-Top Forts Everywhere, Fortification on fence and gun slot Sipan Island, Croatia

All was calm and sparkling the next morning. During a crossing we passed two dolphins in the channel, not common here. Too, we passed a tiny channel known for the fierce sea battle between Caesar and Pompey in 47 BC. History is here, everywhere! We went to enjoy a couple of days on Šipan Island (pronounced as “Sch” as in Schwartz), biking all over the island, including to the only other village and many buildings dating from the 15th century. Again, great wandering! Our home is a harbor-side apartment recommended by four Israeli kayakers who were launching as we first landed. We have encountered them and six British kayakers here and on Mljet, all decked out in proper touring kayaks! A fine place to paddle!

Exploring Sipan Is, Croatia where the forest is retaking an ancient building.

Exploring Sipan Island, Croatia where the forest is retaking an ancient building.

Kayak Touring
Generally people paddle in Croatia in guided groups, but independent paddling is possible if you have your own kayak (perhaps a Feathercraft) or can convince an outfitter that you are skilled enough to rent a kayak and proceed on your own. Be gentle, as that is not normal in their business and the Adriatic sea conditions can be rough. To arrange a kayak and side trips sailing, biking or river kayaking, contact
Zeljko  Kelemen, Huck Finn Adventure Travel  at www.huck-finn.hr or zeljko@huck-finn.hr

River Kayaking
There’s no other way to see the dense forests along the rivers than going on a guided river trip, to say nothing about managing logistics in remote mountain regions. We rolled our eyes at the thought of running rivers and waterfalls in double sit-on-top kayaks without seat backs or thigh straps (wash-deck is too nice a term), but were delighted at what the doubles could do. Too, we never imagined taking novices over 3-foot to 6-foot tall waterfalls in these boats. Yikes, that would probably never happen at home, but, we do admit, it worked surprisingly well! Rafts and a couple of traditional river kayaks were sometimes available, depending on the river. Our favorite rivers were the Mreznica, Zermanja and Dobra. Don’t miss the first two.

Zrmanja River, Croatia

Zrmanja River, Croatia

On each of the islands (and certainly on the mainland) is more hiking and exploring than one could do in several weeks. We found many paths (some quite ancient) through agricultural areas, past ancient ruins of churches, forts, dwellings, wells, caves and more. There seemed to be no restrictions for walking, except in mountainous mainland areas still littered with land mines from the mid-1990’s war.

The rest of our Croatia Visit
We spent a couple of days visiting Plitvice Lakes National Park and UNESCO World Heritage Site (do not miss it!), and several weeks exploring rivers, mountains, small communities and farms. We biked back roads through vineyards and along coastal headlands, snorkeled (not a tropical paradise, but certainly fascinating). We spent a few days in Pula, Istria, in the north of the country, exploring a major coloseum and other ruins. Yes, we wandered the cities and museums of Zadar, Dubrovnik and Zagreb. We really kept moving to enjoy this small country in six weeks!

Natural History
We found endangered orchids, flowers we still have not identified in botanical guides, and several glass snakes, properly the Legless European Lizard, Pseudopus apodus. Add some cool birds like Red-backed Shrikes, White Wagtails, Hooded Brows, Great Spotted Woodpeckers and many more.

There are a few European style, family-run car campgrounds, well-listed on web sites, but camping outside of these is unlawful. Fortunately, everywhere we paddled were small towns of perhaps 100 people, each with several families earning additional income by running what we call B&B’s. Without reservations, it was a quick task to ask around and book one of these near wherever we beached our kayak. The high season of July and August might pose problems without reservations.

Bus and van transportation was very inexpensive, comfortable and reliable, but you must get advice on finding the route and schedule you want. We found no reason to rent a vehicle, although that is certainly possible.

Croatian is a very odd one to begin to learn, especially if you have never spoken an Eastern European language, as many sounds are strange to us. Many locals, but not most, spoke enough English for us to get by. Our Lonely Planet book offered a helpful start and we got better over the weeks.

The Local Folks
Wonderfully warm without exception! Fair, peaceful, respectful gentle and helpful … the kind of folks you treat with honor and want to compensate fairly for their assistance.

Photo Resources
Our gallery – see Croatia section of http://ExplorerDJ.smugmug.com

Flip through the many images on the Huck Finn site to discover what most interests you about Croatia.
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