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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Paul McHugh August 12, 2015 at 9:51 am

Good stuff. The only thing I’d add is if the surf is not too strong and you DO choose to stay with your overturned boat (perhaps because you will need its cargo to survive on shore), the safest way is to turn the boat sideways, with the boat between you and the beach, and wrap yourself loosely around the hull at the cockpit. Then when it is snatched up and hurled onto the sand, you just ride along with it. Keep your grip loose enough so you can let go or be wrenched off if there’s a problem; but tight enough so you can ride it up onto the sand if there is not a problem. As soon as you arrive: make sure the hull is parallel to the beach and the cockpit is upside down to assist in draining; dig your feet and knees into the sand to help keep the boat from going back to sea on the wave backwash. Wait there for an even bigger set wave to drive you further up the beach. Once you are sure you and the boat have been washed up as far as you can be, roll it over, pump out remaining water, drag it up further.

Nancy Soares August 12, 2015 at 1:53 pm

Thanks for your comment, Paul. You’re absolutely right. It’s a lot easier to use your boat to ride the surf in to shore than to swim in yourself – as long as the surf is not too strong and you can hang on as you say, otherwise you may get ripped away from the boat and hammered with it. It’s also a good point to dig your feet in and not be in a rush to stand up – much safer and more efficient. Great advice! Good to hear from you 🙂

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