How to Swim in Whitewater


My whitewater kayak students often hear me say ‘we’re all in between swims,’ and I’ve had the recent opportunity to prove myself right. Since September I’ve had three swims in three months and before that I hadn’t swam in four years. Two of the swims were in Class III where I got too cocky with boofs/holes in an RPM on the Main Salmon in Idaho. It felt extra embarrassing because it was a GAP trip and I was setting safety and guiding. Everyone on the trip had solid paddling and reading water skills and there were many safety craft so that gave me a lot of freedom to play around and boof as many rocks and holes as possible. So I did and I got sucked into some sticky spots! Even though swimming in front of clients was super humbling, it offered a wonderful ‘teachable moment’ in being an active participant in your own rescue. They were amazed at how efficiently and effectively I could get my boat and paddle to shore with me.

When I swim, I swim. What I mean by that is I don’t waste time floating on my back in ‘safe swimmers position.’ I look to the nearest, most accessible shore and get my butt there. In Class III it’s easy for me to stay calm and collect all of my own gear because I know that the consequences are relatively low and I’m accustomed to performing rescues in that class of water. In Class IV-V I still remain calm, AND swim with urgency to the nearest eddy, shore, rock to get myself out of the water before the next drop or rapid. Remaining calm and quickly assessing your surroundings is key to a successful self-rescue. It’s easier if you know the river well and know exactly what direction to swim. In an ideal world I would keep my gear together in Class IV-V swims too, but my gear is definitely secondary to getting myself to shore. This is true in all class of whitewater – gear is replaceable, people are not.

In the past I’ve put emphasis in my beginner classes on ‘safe swimmer’ position which is floating on your back with your nose and toes up with your feet facing downstream. This position is designed to keep people from trying to stand up and avoid foot entrapment. It can be useful in some situations, but aggressive swimming also keeps your feet at the surface and is much more useful in actually getting you to safety instead of floating at the whim of the water. I’ve come to feel that teaching ‘safe swimmer position’ is teaching people to be victims instead of teaching them to be rescuers. If you act like a rescuer your rescue will be much more effective, and if you paddle you are a rescuer – you never know when you’ll have to rescue yourself or your friends. Taking a Swiftwater Rescue class is very helpful in gaining experience swimming in whitewater and I highly recommend all paddlers at any skill level take a class.

I have two of the swims on GoPro and Andrew (my hubby) encouraged me to share them as examples of being an active participant in self-rescue. One is out of a hole on the Main Salmon into relatively calm water and the other is at Frankenstein on the Green at 200%. This one was a function of approaching the rapid like it was still 100%. Frustrating, but in whitewater kayaking stuff happens and being able to implement plans b, c, d, e, f is key.

The last thing I want to say about swimming is remember that sometimes the outcome of taking risks is to ‘fail.’   I recommend distinguishing between experiencing failure and being a failure. Just because I experience failure doesn’t mean that I am a failure. See the difference? Experiencing failure is usually a result of playing big on the court of life and when we play big we don’t always win. Learn, let it roll of your back and get back out there !

I hope this video clips are helpful and please post any comments below. I would love to hear what you think or any questions you have. If you’re interested in getting coaching and support in confidence, courage and skills check out my new community coaching program! CLICK HERE!