This is the third in a four-part series on cold water safety by Moulton Avery – an expert on heat and cold stress who gave his first public lecture on hypothermia in 1974. He was executive director of the Center for Environmental Physiology in Washington, DC for 10 years and is the founder and director of the National Center for Cold Water Safety. For Golden rules 1 and 2, click here… Golden rule 3, click here…
On January 15th, 2011, a very experienced and skilled whitewater paddler by the name of Ian Walsh drowned while paddling the Ogwen River in Wales, UK. The UK Rivers Guidebook describes the Ogwen as a “true classic Grade 4 trip”, one best undertaken at high water after a heavy rain.
Walsh was paddling with his long-time kayaking friend Phil Davidson and both men were familiar with the river and looking forward to making the five-mile run. For protection, they were equipped with helmets, drysuits and PFDs.
Davidson reported capsizing and rolling up several times during the descent. Walsh doubtless would have done the same – except for a small but ultimately critical oversight: the zipper on his drysuit wasn’t properly closed. That’s precisely the kind of problem that swim-testing is designed to reveal.
What is swim-testing?
Swim-testing is like a pilot’s preflight inspection – a last minute safety-check to make sure that your thermal protection is working properly and that you’re wearing enough to keep you warm. Swim-testing is also is a great way to develop an expert ‘feel’ for exactly how much gear you need to wear at different water temperatures.
How to swim-test:
- Put on your thermal protection, get in the water, and splash around.
- Sit, float, tread water, or swim – whatever works best for you.
- Try holding your nose to see how it feels to get your head dunked.
- How long you stay in the water is up to you – it’s your gear that you’re testing.
Valuable things that you can discover via swim-testing
The following mistakes really do happen. Sometimes they’re amusing, sometimes they’re merely unpleasant, but every once in a while, they can be fatal.
- Your drysuit has a torn gasket.
- You forgot to close the ‘relief zipper’ on your drysuit.
- You forgot to properly close the main zipper on your drysuit.
- You should have paid more attention to the instructions on how to seal your two-piece drysuit.
- All by itself, your drysuit provides about as much insulation as a shower curtain and you need to find some nice warm stuff to wear underneath it.
- The gear you’re wearing on this particular outing is totally inadequate to keep you warm in the water.
- You didn’t burp your drysuit enough, so you feel like a blimp in the water.
- You burped your drysuit way too much and squashed all that fluffy pile insulation down to the thickness of a penny and now it doesn’t feel warm any more.
More valuable things you can learn
- You were sadly mistaken when you thought that a ‘paddling jacket’ was the same thing as a ‘drytop’.
- Your neoprene gloves or the wrist seals on your drysuit are a wee bit too snug. They reduce the flow of warm blood to your hands – which are quickly becoming very cold.
- You need to get a neo hood, a neo hat – or both – to protect your head and neck from that chilly water.
- The 3mm Farmer John and drytop combo that was just fine and dandy at 65F, is not nearly enough to keep you warm at 48F.
- The wetsuit you got on sale is too large. You’re trying to compensate by wearing a thick polypro top and bottom underneath it, but whenever you move, very cold water flushes in and out, causing you to squeal like a little piglet.
Perhaps you should consider reading the last section a second time…
Swim-testing is fast and easy, and it’s no big deal when you’re dressed for the water temperature. If you’re unwilling to swim-test, it’s usually because you’re worried that your gear won’t keep you warm and/or dry when you’re in the water.
Why some paddlers blow off swim-tests:
- They never heard of swim-testing.
- They spaced out and simply forgot to do it.
- They don’t happen to have any cold water gear with them at the moment.
- Their gear is brand new and they’re too nervous to try it out.
- Their nasty, old, worn-out gear is shot-to-hell, and they have a strong gut-feeling that it won’t keep them warm – even during the swim-test.
- Their gear is just perfect for the air temperature, but way too skimpy for the water temperature.
- It’s cold and windy at the launch site and they don’t want to get in the water because they’re worried about getting cold and wet.
- The water is so skanky with scum, oil slicks and dead fish that it’s a major commitment to just put their boat in the water.
On very rare occasions, such as when faced with ultra-skanky water or a perhaps a seal launch, you may find it difficult or impossible to swim-test. That’s understandable. If you’re already very familiar with your gear because you’ve thoroughly field-tested it, just double-check the zippers, seals etc. as best you can. If you can roll, do so as soon as you’re on the water, and next time, try to pick a better launch site.
The real issue for most paddlers is not whether they swim-test every single time they paddle. It’s that they never swim-test their gear and consequently have no idea whether it’s working properly and will protect them if they wind up in the water.
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