White Water Swimming Skills
If you are into white water rafting safety, open water swimming, and other white water adventures, this article is for you.
In it, you will learn white water swimming skills and how to overcome swift water obstacles. If possible, it is best to practice these techniques in a controlled environment. Use a white water park or white water swimming pool.
Important: It is best to have a white water lifeguard present when training in these techniques.
- White Water Swimming Skills
- The Defensive Position
- The Aggressive Position
- How to Negotiate Obstructions in Swift Water
- Sweepers and Strainers
- Undercut Rocks
- Water Debris
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White Water Swimming Skills
Before you can overcome obstacles in white water rapids, you need to adjust your swimming style depending on the situation and what lays ahead.
The Defensive Position
In most cases, the best thing to do when experiencing trouble in the water is to tread water and signal for help. When in swift water treading may not be practical as the current will drag you away.
When you first fall in swift water, e.g., out of your white water kayak, adopt the defensive position. Get on your back with your feet up so you can see your toes. Float downstream feet first.
This position will enable you to see the path ahead. Guide yourself through the safest route of passage. If you meet any obstructions you can absorb the impact with your legs.
Keeping your feet up ensures they don’t get caught in obstructions beneath the surface. Never try to stand up in river rapids that are deep enough for you to float in.
When you see an obstruction you want to avoid, angle your body so that your feet point towards the obstacle. Aim the top of your head towards your destination and use a modified skulling motion to get there.
The Aggressive Position
If you see an opportunity to get to safety, and it is deep enough to do so, you can use an aggressive position to get there. The aggressive position is doing freestyle while keeping your head out of the water.
The aggressive position is very tiring so reserve it for when you need short bursts of power. You could also use breast or side stroke. They will be slower but with better visibility.
How to Negotiate Obstructions in Swift Water
An obstruction is anything in the water which changes the normal flow (current) of the water. Almost anything in the water will do this, such as rocks, branches, etc.
A drop is when water drops straight down. A waterfall is an obvious example.
Never go in the water upstream from a drop. Even if the water is shallow and appears calm before the drop, it is still very dangerous.
When going over a drop is unavoidable, ball up and try to land feet first. Landing feet first is best to protect your head. Balling up will lessen the possibility of getting caught in a foot entrapment.
If it is a high drop, as you go over the edge adopt the high-level entry position.
Eddies occur when water rushes around obstacles and the current comes back on itself. They are often a safe-haven since the water in the eddy is generally calmer.
The barrier of separation between the upstream and downstream water is the eddy line. Problems can occur when crossing this line, especially if the flow is fast. Unless you are in a craft that can capsize (like a kayak) you shouldn’t face much danger.
You can break through the eddy line with barrel rolls.
As you approach the eddy, place your closest hand into the upstream moving water inside it.
Scoop the water with this hand as you roll over onto your stomach. You are now in the aggressive swimming position.
Continue to roll until you are back in the defensive swimming position.
You may need to barrel roll a few times to get into the eddy. You can finish in either the defensive or aggressive swimming position.
This image is a demonstration of using defensive and aggressive swimming to get out of a river.
Sometimes an eddy can create a whirlpool effect. This is when eddies become dangerous since the whirlpool can suck you down. In this case, you should stay clear of them.
An entrapment is anything that you can get snagged on, e.g., your clothing snagging on a branch underwater.
To prevent this make sure all your gear and clothing is a snug fit.
A foot entrapment is when you get your foot stuck. It is very dangerous as the force of the water can hold you under.
Holes occur when water flows over a ledge (such as a rock). This creates a hydraulic flow (water circulating on top of itself) which can trap things. It is like a vertical eddy and is very dangerous.
Dams and dam-like structures (weirs, spillways, ledges) have severe hydraulic action. Keep away from their downstream base.
If caught in a hole you need to relax and swim out the bottom (where the slower current flows out) or to the side.
When a rock is close to the waters surface the water hits the top of it, forcing it upwards. This creates a “pillow” of water downstream of the rock.
The more submerged a rock is, the further downstream the pillow will be. If the rock is very close to the surface the pillow will be right on top of it. With enough experience, you will be able to tell when a rock is close to the surface or not by the type of pillow it creates.
If the rock is out of the water then the pillow becomes a cushion. This is due to the water flowing up against it. When the current is strong enough, it may form a series of compression waves.
A rapid is a turbulent section of water created by faster flowing water over obstacles, such as rocks. These obstacles may or may not break the water’s surface. This faster water is due to an increased gradient and/or a constriction in the channel.
To negotiate a rapid, look for a downstream “V” in the water (the bottom of the V pointing downstream). This indicates an unobstructed flow of water. In most cases, it will be the preferred path of passage.
Apart from being a cause for other types of obstructions, the rock itself can present danger. Avoid these obstructions altogether by entering the water downstream of them.
Walking on slippery rocks (or any slippery surface) near water is never a good idea.
Rocks under the water’s surface can become foot entrapments. It is very dangerous and is one of the main reasons to keep your feet up in the defensive position.
When in the water heading towards a rock, use the defensive position as described before.
If you get pinned up against a rock, lean downstream to get loose.
Rocks are not all bad. They may serve as a lifeline to hold onto. They can also create eddies which can be safe havens in turbulent waters.
Sweepers and Strainers
Strainers are objects in the water that allow water to pass through them but not objects. They can be natural like branches, or artificial such as wire fences.
A sweeper is a strainer that hangs low over or into the water.
Both of these things can impede your safe passage, and they often double as entrapments.
When swimming into a strainer is unavoidable, maneuver into the aggressive swimming position. Swim hard to launch yourself up and onto (or over) the obstruction.
When forced below the surface swim downstream using your hands in front of you to part the branches.
If your legs get tangled in long weeds swim downstream using only your arms.
Like friendly rocks, sometimes sweepers (not strainers) can serve as a lifeline. You might be able to use them to climb to shore.
An undercut rock is one where the water flows below it as opposed to around. The water’s current can drag the swimmer underneath it and pin him there.
Normal river features acting strangely are good indications of an undercut rock, e.g.,
- The pillow or cushion is missing
- There is a boil (where the water is not flowing down or upstream) on the downstream side of the obstacle.
- The eddy has weak (or missing) lines and/or an abnormal current flow.
Water debris is anything floating in the water. It can be either natural or unnatural, such as seaweed, logs, trash, etc.
Keep an eye out for these things and avoid them as they can become entrapments.
If there is a lot of debris, such as lots of seaweed, try to avoid it. If you must go through it then crawl over the top by grasping at it with overhand movements. When you are in a group put the strongest person first. He will create a path through the debris for the others to follow.
Manmade pools created behind dams often have many stumps lying below the surface. This is due to the cutting of trees before the flooding of the lowlands.
Other people can be a hazard, although more often they are a good thing in a survival situation.
When in open water there are more recreational hazards. Surfers, jet-skis, boats, etc. Stay away from areas in which these activities take place. If available, use the designated swimming areas instead.
Another by-product of people is pollution. Water systems are often used as a dumping ground for all sorts of human and industrial waste.
Swimming in polluted waters may not have an immediate effect, but it could result in illness later.
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I covered a lot of white water swimming skills in this article. From general swimming to overcoming specific obstructions. While white water training can be a lot of fun, it can also be dangerous if you are complacent. Please practice these techniques in a safe environment. White water pools are good. If one is not available, try joining a white water swim club. That way, you can improve your white water rafting swimming ability with experienced people.
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