Swimming in Whitewater: What Suzie the Swim Coach Forgot to Mention

As whitewater boaters, our goal should always be to stay on line, and keep ourselves, and everyone else IN their boat(s).  A swim can be much more strenuous and dangerous than we expect, and can not only lead to exhaustion and hypothermia, but also puts us right on top of all the hidden obstacles just under the water.  It should always be our priority to avoid unplanned swims.


Unfortunately, we are not perfect, and often times the little bump on the rock, losing a paddle, or a big wave sends us on an unplanned swim into whitewater.  When this happens, our strategy, and that of our companions, becomes critical, and can mean the difference between a pleasant, or very unpleasant, rest of the day.  Having a strategy is critical.  Here are some tips to keep in mind when Swimming in Whitewater.

Know before you swim:  Have a picture in your mind of the rapid, and where things may go wrong so you will have a strategy.  Rafters are generally better off on top of, or in their boats. Have a plan. If you can’t swim out, don’t run the rapid unless you KNOW you will stay in the boat.

Ball up: When you are falling from an IK, raft or Cat boat; or going over a drop, Keep your feet close into your body, so you will not be tempted to push off the bottom, and thus minimize the chance to entrap one of your limbs.

Get out of the water as fast as you can:  It is hard to see, and easier to get snagged on underwater obstacles.

When swimming: Conserve energy and use strategy, do not allow yourself to get more winded. Basic mind set: Swim smarter not harder.

-The leg muscles use lots of oxygen!  Consider only using your arms for movement.

-Look where you are going, and pay attention to your angle.

-At higher water flows, you will need to swim more aggressively to get across eddy lines.  This is where a technique like the “barrel roll” can keep you on the surface and keep your momentum going.


Be prepared – For self rescue, but this is the time where everyone needs to be ready to react. Being in the right place with the right skills may be the only thing that assists someone out of the water.

Choose Wisely – Boat with folks that will know you are in the water, and are doing everything they can to safely assist you, and others, in getting out of the water.