Cold Water Safety – Golden Rule #4: Swim-Test Your Gear Every Time You Go Out

by Nancy Soares on April 15, 2013

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.

Ogwen Bank Falls - photo by Tim Campbell

Ogwen Bank Falls – photo by Tim Campbell

Ogwen Bank Falls - photo by Robin Jones

Ogwen Bank Falls – photo by Robin Jones

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.






An easy mistake to make.

An easy mistake to make.

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.
Rita Scherping demonstrating El Blimpo in very cold water

Rita Scherping demonstrating El Blimpo in very cold 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.
Overburped: Rita demonstrates the Freezing Otter - Yikes, now, it's cold!!!

Overburped: Rita demonstrates the Freezing Otter – Yikes, now, it’s cold!!!

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.

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Tony Moore April 19, 2013 at 4:26 pm

Moulton, great advice as usual. I never thought of expelling too much air from the dry suit, thereby flattening the undergarment and rendering it less thermally protective.
With spring already here, we are entering what I consider the most dangerous time for kayaking, from a thermal standpoint, especially for newbies. People get into trouble by considering only the air temperature, which can be quite high this time of year. But it’s the water temperature that can kill, and that water temperature is still cold (at least here in New England).


Nancy Soares April 24, 2013 at 9:53 am

Thanks for another great and informative post, Moulton. I just spent 5 days in the desert visiting hot springs. Pretty unstable weather, cold and windy. The warmth of the various springs, creeks and rivers I visited varied a lot and when one of us fell in a creek and got completely immersed, wind chill became an important factor. This was an exploratory trip and I returned having decided that some of the springs were great for hot weather, others for cooler temps because of elevation, exposure, and water temperature. And what to wear and how well we were prepared was a real issue when it dropped to 17 degrees one night. Whether on land or in water it’s really important to take safety seriously and be prepared by dressing accordingly.


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