by Moulton Avery
On January 15th, 2011, a very experienced and skilled whitewater paddler by the name of Ian Walsh drowned while paddling the Ogwen River in Wales, UK. The UK Rivers Guidebook describes the Ogwen as a “true classic Grade 4 trip”, one best undertaken at high water after a heavy rain.
Walsh was paddling with his long-time kayaking friend Phil Davidson and both men were familiar with the river and looking forward to making the 5 mile run. For protection, they were equipped with helmets, drysuits and PFDs.
Davidson reported capsizing and rolling up several times during the descent. Walsh doubtless would have done the same – except for a small but ultimately critical oversight: the zipper on his drysuit wasn’t properly closed. That’s precisely the kind of problem that swim-testing is designed to reveal.
What is Swim-Testing?
Swim-testing is like a pilot’s preflight inspection – a last minute safety-check to make sure that your thermal protection is working properly and that you’re wearing enough to keep you warm. Swim-testing is also is a great way to develop an expert “feel” for exactly how much gear you need to wear at different water temperatures.
How to Swim-Test:
- Put on your thermal protection, get in the water, and splash around.
- Sit, float, tread water, or swim – whatever works best for you.
- Try holding your nose to see how it feels to get your head dunked.
- How long you stay in the water is up to you – it’s your gear that you’re testing.
Valuable Things That You Can Discover via Swim-Testing
The mistakes listed below really do happen. Sometimes they’re amusing, sometimes they’re merely unpleasant, but every once in a while, as in the case above, they can be fatal.
- Your drysuit has a torn gasket.
- You forgot to close the “relief zipper” on your drysuit.
- You forgot to properly close the main zipper on your drysuit.
- You should have paid more attention to the instructions on how to seal your two-piece drysuit.
- All by itself, your drysuit provides about as much insulation as a shower curtain, and you need to find some nice warm stuff to wear underneath it.
- The gear you’re wearing on this particular outing is totally inadequate to keep you warm in the water.
- You didn’t burp your drysuit enough, so you feel like a blimp in the water.
- You burped your drysuit way too much and squashed all that fluffy pile insulation down to the thickness of a penny and now it doesn’t feel warm any more.
More Valuable Things You Can Learn
- You were sadly mistaken when you thought that a “paddling jacket” was the same thing as a “drytop”.
- Your neoprene gloves or the wrist seals on your drysuit are a wee bit too snug. They reduce the flow of warm blood to your hands – which are quickly becoming very cold.
- You need to get a neo hood, a neo hat – or both – to protect your head and neck from that chilly water.
- The 3mil Farmer John & drytop combo that was just fine and dandy at 65F, is not nearly enough to keep you warm at 48F.
- The wetsuit you got on sale is too large. You’re trying to compensate by wearing a thick polypro top and bottom underneath it, but whenever you move, very cold water flushes in and out, causing you to squeal like a little piggy.
What if I don’t want to swim-test?
Perhaps you should consider reading the above section a second time…
Swim-testing is fast and easy, and it’s no big deal when you’re dressed for the water temperature. If you’re unwilling to swim-test, it’s usually because you’re worried that your gear won’t keep you warm and/or dry when you’re in the water.
Why some paddlers blow off swim-tests:
- They never heard of swim-testing.
- They spaced out and simply forgot to do it.
- They don’t happen to have any cold water gear with them at the moment.
- Their gear is brand new and they’re too nervous to try it out.
- Their nasty, old, worn-out gear is shot-to-hell, and they have a strong gut-feeling that it won’t keep them warm – even during the swim-test.
- Their gear is just perfect for the air temperature, but way too skimpy for the water temperature.
- It’s cold and windy at the launch site, and they don’t want to get in the water because they’re worried about getting cold and wet.
- The water is so skanky with scum, oil slicks and dead fish that it’s a major commitment to just put their pretty little boat in the water.
On very rare occasions, such as when faced with ultra-skanky water or a perhaps a seal launch, you may find it difficult or impossible to swim-test. That’s understandable. If you’re already very familiar with your gear because you’ve thoroughly field-tested it, just double-check the zippers, seals etc. as best you can. If you can roll, do so as soon as you’re on the water, and next time, try to pick a better launch site.
The real issue for most paddlers is not whether they swim-test every single time they paddle. It’s that they never swim-test their gear and consequently have no idea whether it’s working properly and will protect them if they wind up in the water.
For more information, please visit www.coldwatersafety.org.
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