Strategies to conserve energy including positioning, short aggressive position sprints and “porpoising” for in-water scouting
When swimming in very pushy water, we need to keep our wits about us. All your river running skills still apply except you are now using your swimming skills to ferry, catch eddies, and run drops. Since your head is just inches above the water, you need to time your quick peeks for the tops of waves and look side to side as well. A body doesn't make the best boat so it is essential to use river currents and features to do most of the work for you. Plan your moves well ahead of obstacles so you can work with the current and eddies to make the move. If you see a good mideam eddy you can quickly catch, position and use aggressive swimming to catch the eddy. Once in the eddy, you may be able to climb up on the rock. The nice part is you now have a break to catch your wind and plan the next move.
Canoeists often stand up in the boats in the flats above rapids so they can take a quick peak at the rapids below. Swimmers can quickly lift their heads out of the water for a better view. You can do this occasionally while aggressive swimming as well, much like a porpoise cresting waves.
In large wave trains, you are going to get dunked - even with a good lifevest. Hold your breath, relax and don't panic. Deep water waves are pretty safe and you will resurface soon enough. Once you surface, grab a quick breath and try to predict when you may get dunked again. Once you have crested the wave, you have a great opportunity to scout. Here is a great video demonstrating swimming in exceptionally high water and conserving energy: Staircase High Water Swim.
Defensive and aggressive swimming
Defensive swimming conserves energy. Basically float on your back and use backstroke techniques to navigate to shore. Keep your feet on the surface and use them as shock absorbers to bounce off rocks. If you are about to go over a large drop or falls, curl into a ball so your feet don't hit the surface first and potentially become entrapped. It is important to grab breaths of air when available. If you are heading into an exploding wave, over a drop, or into a hole - grab a deep breath before getting submerged. The laid back position is perfect for holding on a throw rope as well. This article provides a lot of guidance for both defensive and aggressive swimming techniques: Swiftwater Swimming. Here is a good video on defensive swimming: Defensive Swimming.
Aggressive swimming is used to get from point a to point b as fast as possible. Perhaps there is a big drop below or you are floating towards a strainer. Flip from your back to your belly and kick it into high gear with an American crawl. Pretend you are a boat and set a ferry angle to cross fast moving current without floating downstream too far. To break an eddy fence, barrel roll over it. Another special form of aggressive swimming is when you can't avoid a strainer. Turn around and go head first towards the strainer as fast as you can. When you reach the strainer, push down on it and dive over the strainer. Here is a good video on aggressive swimming techniques. This is a video on how to swim over a strainerr. This is a good video on dealing with eddies and the barrel roll technique: Swimming into an Eddy.
Safe eddy rule, don’t try to stand in swift current
After a long swim (and beat down), you will be very tempted to stand up when you get close to shore. Think before you stand. If the water is moving quickly and deeper than your knees, you could slip and fall. Worse yet, unstable footing can lead to foot entrapment. Wait for still water like an eddy. Always take your time standing and make certain you have decent footing. Here is a decent video on the subject: When to Stand.
Essential self-rescue and access tool
Once out of a boat, you become the boat. The first step is to ensure your PFD is up to the task. Once each year, test your PFD for adequate buoyancy. When immersed in deep still water, does your head stick out of the water or have you sunk to your eyeballs. Some PFDs lose their buoyancy over time and you definitely don't want that kind of surprise when you really need to float high (like swimming a rapid on the Gauley).
If the PFD checks out, how should you swim with equipment? In general, hang on to that boat and paddle. Many paddles are black in color and really blend in well with water. I swear this is a conspiracy - LOL. Add bright stickers or some light colored duct tape in the middle of the shaft so you can easily spot a lost paddle. The boat can be an asset in big turbulent water as it provides extra flotation. Always keep the boat below you so you don't get sandwiched between the boat and a rock. When close to shore, toss the paddle on shore like a spear. You can also push the boat into shore and swim after it.
Mixing defensive and aggressive swimming techniques allows you to get yourself and equipment quickly to shore. Judicious aggressive swimming (pretending you are a boat) along with rock scrambles and wading can get you to places in a rapid that are very difficult to reach by boat. Set-up time is nil in most cases so it comes in handy when you need to get someone on a trapped boater quickly.
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