Ocean Survival Swimming – Part 2

by Nancy Soares on November 3, 2014

Editor’s note: After a short break to talk about the TR retreat and the newest Ranger, we return to the subject of Ocean Survival Swimming. This essay by Eric Soares is published as is. It’s opinionated, funny, and informative. Enjoy.

Eric crawls in through the surf after a swim

Eric crawls in through the surf after a swim 

An old mariner’s maxim. This rule is true in most boat capsizes, where sailors will be rescued by the Coast Guard or another boat. However, in some ocean kayaking situations, swimming for it is the best option because kayakers are capable of rescuing themselves – and their boats. The purpose of this article is to describe survival situations in which swimming is the most practicable option. Specific ocean swimming techniques are provided for each situation.

Swimming for it can only be considered when the paddler is prepared for swimming in the ocean. The first element of preparation centers around ATTITUDE, followed by PHYSICAL READINESS, then EQUIPMENT, and finally, BASIC SWIMMING SKILL. Let’s examine each of these prerequisites.

Many sea kayakers view their relationship with the ocean as two dimensional. They see themselves as being ON top of the water. They do not envision themselves IN the water. There is nothing wrong with this view, except that kayaks are not houseboats, barges, ferries, speedboats, or yachts. Those other boats float on top of the water, but kayaks are almost part of the water. If a three foot wave breaks against the side of a yacht, two drops of water spray the deck. If a three foot wave breaks against the side of a kayak, two feet of water wash over the deck. Big surprise, the kayaker is now IN the water.

If kayakers tip over, they are expected to execute a flawless roll. This is how it should be. But what happens when the roll is flubbed? According to the incidents reported in Matt Broze’s safety column, the usual reaction is near drowning. Simply put, most sea kayakers get in trouble because they were not prepared to be IN the water. As a first step toward in-water safety, kayakers should view kayaking as an in-water activity.

Once kayakers are thinking, “I will be in the water,” they should ensure that they are physically fit to be in the water. It requires much more energy to swim a mile than it does to paddle a mile. Thus, general fitness is a must, as is immediate food energy. Maintaining good nutrition is important. Before the day’s excursion, kayakers should drink plenty of liquid (not alcohol) and eat a hearty breakfast. While kayaking, water and snacks should be handy and consumed regularly, just as in backpacking. Kayakers should carry emergency liquid on their persons, in case of a sudden swim. Ideally, each paddler should carry a twelve ounce container of juice that has an instant carbohydrate complex mixed in. The juice supplies sugar and water, and the carbohydrate complex (available from body building outlets) supplies longlasting energy. The liquid and food energy will stave off hypothermia, and provide the energy needed for a sustained swim. Without energy, swimming is futile.

With a realistic attitude and adequate energy, the sea kayaker must now turn to equipment necessary for ocean swimming. The body must be warm and protected from the elements and from injury. John Dowd, in his book Sea Kayaking, provides good advice as to what to wear for warmth. William Sanders and Derek Hutchinson also list clothing requirements for warmth in their kayaking books. Unfortunately, Hutchinson, a very experienced paddler, asks if the advanced sea kayaker should “…paddle stinking, sweating, steaming and prickling in rubber equipment like an out-of-work frogman? Or is he to dress like a sensibly turned-out hill walker, depending more on his skill and expertise to keep dry, and meet the freezing rescue when the time comes – if ever”.

The implication is that the experienced kayaker should not wear the full wetsuit. My advice is in cold weather or in cold water, wear the full wetsuit and survive “an unlikely capsize”. Diver’s wetsuits are not comfortable but modern kayaking, windsurfing, and surfing wetsuits are. Polypropylene, fleece, or wool underclothing can be worn under the wetsuit for extra warmth. Wool sweaters and spray jackets can be worn over the wetsuit for even more protection. Dry suits (sealed at the neck and cuffs), are comfortable and warm, when worn with proper underclothing. However, dry suits are bulky to swim in, do not allow the swimmer to cool off, and are death traps should they get punctured. Someday, dry suits will be made of kevlar or some other puncture resistant material. In the meantime, do not wear them if you will be far from shore.

A neoprene hood which covers the shoulders should also be worn. The face can be protected and warmed with a wool or neoprene mask. Raw lanolin applied to the skin can help retain body heat. For hand protection, polypropylene or wool liners can be worn under neoprene or leather gloves or mitts.

To protect yourself from the sun, wear a crushable jungle hat with neck cord. The jungle hat can be worn over the helmet and scuba hood, if necessary. Sun cream with a sun protection factor of 15 or more should be applied to exposed skin. Glacier glasses or ski goggles with a strap can be worn for eye protection against the sun.

Other equipment that will aid a swimmer include a watch, diver’s compass, floating survival knife, signal gear (flares at least), and a personal flotation device (PFD). The PFD should not be worn just to keep your head above water should you become unconscious. It should help you float when you need to float and not impede you when you need to swim. The ideal PFD can be inflated orally or with a CO2 cartridge. Diver’s buoyancy compensators are the best PFD’s, although they are expensive. Optional swimming gear includes Audrey Sutherland’s finsmasksnorkel (FIMS), nose and ear plugs, and swimming goggles. This gear will aid the swimmer in any survival situation.

Eric demonsrates his frog outfit

Eric demonstrates his frog outfit

The photograph shows a sea kayaker completely outfitted for survival swimming. In addition to resembling an extraterrestrial being, the kayaker is prepared to swim two miles in 45 degrees air temperature against a 15 knot wind, in 50 degrees water temperature. He is wearing winterweight polypropylene underwear, socks, and glove liners beneath his surfing wetsuit, booties, and rosin-coated neoprene mitts. His head is protected by his shoulder length neoprene hood, crash helmet, jungle hat, and neoprene mask. His buoyancy compensator is half inflated and contains flares, a chemical light, a pemmican bar, and a signal mirror. He is also wearing a diver’s wrist compass, watch, survival knife, and a half filled water flask. This paddler has the right equipment for average ocean conditions. He would adjust his equipment to paddle in tropical or polar conditions.

Once attitude, physical readiness, and equipment needs are met, sea kayakers must make sure that they possess the basic swimming skills. Amazingly, due probably to the on-top-of-the-water attitude mentioned earlier, many sea kayakers are lousy swimmers. Some people may feebly argue that swimming expertise and stamina are not needed in a river with the shore so close, but no sane person can state that swimming skills are unnecessary in the ocean, with the shoreline on the horizon. Basic swimming skills are a must.

The basic swimming skills that paddlers must master in a pool before learning ocean survival swimming techniques are:

  • float on back for five minutes without flotation (to recuperate)
  • tread water for 30 minutes (to eat, think, plan, observe, navigate, recuperate)
  • in 14 minutes, swim 500 meters of side stroke. Repeat for the other three basic strokes (breast stroke, crawl, and back stroke) (to have a swimming style for varied situations)
  • in 14 minutes, swim 300 meters of side stroke, kick only. Repeat for the other three strokes (to possess a swimming kick for varied situations)
  • in 14 minutes, swim 300 meters of side stroke, arm stroke only. Repeat for the other strokes (to possess an arm stroke for varied situations)
  • swim 1 mile in 45 minutes (to build stamina)
  • swim 25 meters underwater in three breaths (to build lung power, to swim under obstacles)
  • do five underwater forward rolls in one breath. Repeat, doing backward rolls (to master turbulence)

At this point you may be wondering, “How do I master these so-called ‘basic’ swimming skills?” The answer is training in a swimming program. You must begin and maintain a swimming regimen. This program can be taught and coached by you. All you need is a book on swimming and a pool. Swimming books can be found in libraries and bookstores. Most cities have pools and times for lap swimming. If you elect to train yourself, the following progressive schedule is recommended:

  • learn and practice the four basic swimming strokes. Emphasize form. Practice kicks and arm strokes until you master the elements. Practice each until you are tired. Work for distance
  • once the strokes are mastered, practice until you can comfortably swim the 14 minute 300 and 500 meter swims. Rest by floating and treading water; do not hold the side of the pool or stand up
  • once the basic distances are achieved, graduate to swimming 1,000 meters in 30 minutes. Again, rest by floating or treading water
  • after swimming 1,000 meters becomes easy, swim a full mile in 45 minutes. Remember to float or tread water to rest
  • your final workout will consist of swimming a mile, alternating among strokes. After the mile, practice swimming 25 meters underwater. Practice forward and backward rolls – plus whatever else you wish

When the final workout becomes routine, you will be more than ready to handle calm seas and lakes, and you will be ready to learn ocean survival swimming.

As mentioned before, basic swimming skill can be learned without help. However, swimming is learned much more rapidly through competent instruction. The Red Cross, YWCA, YMCA, colleges, and communities often offer inexpensive swimming lessons. Check these out. Also, you may wish to join a Masters swimming club and swim laps with others. Basic swimming is an excellent way to maintain fitness, and it complements paddling by strengthening upper body muscles and increasing endurance.

We hope you have enjoyed the Four Prerequisites to Ocean Swimming. The next part in this series will explicate Ocean Swimming Training: Studying the Waves, Body Surfing, and and Open Ocean Swimming. We welcome your comments!

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{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Rainer Lang November 6, 2014 at 5:15 pm

I enjoyed the article.
Obviously it’s way more information than most sea kayakers would integrate into their maritime endevors.
I can’t tell you how many people I know, don’t dress for immersion and have never considered swimming in the ocean, lake or river.
I’ve been a Safety Boater for some local Triathlons for the swim component. It surprised me that a few people I talked to were hot stuff in the pool; but freaked out when there was no edge to swim to and they couldn’t reach the bottom. Is there some part of “open water” you’re not getting?
I believe the points Eric was trying to get across are: if you’re really committed you’re going to have to be prepared, physically and mentally. Only by going through some form of training, experimentation, and play will you find out your strengths and weaknesses, and how good your gear is.
Sure it’s nice to stay in the boat, but that may not be an option. I’ve had my skirt implode during a high brace and the boat was stripped off. Getting a beat-down in the impact zone is pretty humbling, if you’re prepared it won’t be the end.



Nancy Soares November 9, 2014 at 9:01 am

Yay! Glad you enjoyed the article. There’s more to come…I have to say I’m getting a big kick out of reading Eric’s old writings, and may I say he never deviated from his opinions on this topic. And whether it’s overkill or not, if everyone followed his advice I’m willing to bet there’d be a lot fewer fatalities in the water sport world.

Rainer, you are absolutely correct about the points Eric was trying to get across. The ocean environment is formidable and even on a “calm” day can change in an instant. By following even some of his suggestions for mental and physical preparation that environment can be safer and more fun for everyone.

Your point about pool vs. open water is well taken as well. Training in a pool is no substitute for training in the ocean. This can not be overemphasized.


Tony Moore November 7, 2014 at 9:40 am

Wow, Eric really got down to specifics concerning training! I especially liked his emphasis on mastering more than one stroke, and also being effective with just the kick. All of these points address real situations that can, and do, occur while out in the ocean. It’s not just the swimming ability, but where, and under what conditions you find yourself in. I remember several years ago, a friend of my youngest daughter came along with us to Newport, to jump / dive off of some rocks. She was a competitive swimmer, but had never been in the ocean…it was a real awakening for her, starting with the water temperature, then the surge and waves, the seaweed, etc. She learned pretty quickly that the ocean is no swimming pool! Too many people today go out on the water and fool themselves into believing that they are O.K. because they know how to swim…in a pool. Just ain’t the same!


Nancy Soares November 9, 2014 at 9:10 am

Thanks for your story, Tony. Learning from stories is, I think, one the most effective ways to learn anything. Rainer mentioned the pool vs. open ocean thing as well, and it is so true. A few years ago I went to Maui with my sister-in-law. She’s a damn good swimmer – better than me in a pool by far. She was on swim team and at one time suggested that she and I swim in Master’s competitions (she would have cleaned my clock). But when we went into the ocean the first time on Napili Beach she was a little apprehensive. She just wasn’t used to waves. It didn’t take her long to adapt but her initial hesitation took me by surprise. And then of course there’s the story about me and Denise in the Tsunami X-3 on Miramar Beach. As I’ve said before, that was a huge learning experience for all of us and even Eric had a major eye-opener. No, Tony, you’re absolutely right. Pools and oceans – they just ain’t the same!


paddler November 24, 2014 at 4:10 pm

Hi Nancy,
Do you have a link to Part 1? How many years ago did Eric write this?
I took the liberty of linking to it from Kiwi Association of Sea Kayakers FB page


paddler November 24, 2014 at 4:14 pm
Nancy Soares November 24, 2014 at 4:32 pm

No problem, paddler. Thanks for linking with KASK – we love to be shared, and we love Kiwis 🙂 Eric wrote this in the mid-80’s right about the time he was forming the Tsunami Rangers. I don’t have an exact date but if I were to guess it would be 1984 or 1985. Eric was a super swimmer – he swam for his high school and played water polo, not to mention all his swimming in the creeks and rivers that abound in Northern California. His ability to swim was a huge influence on his kayaking. We’ll have another part coming up in January, so stay tuned! Thanks for reading and commenting.


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