Considering the earth is nearly 72% covered with water the chances of having to deal with a water survival situation is astronomical, yet unless we live near a lake or an ocean, we tend to overlook this fact. The old out of sight…out of mind syndrome.
Statistics show that nearly 4000 people in the US die from drowning every year, but unless it’s a local death, it’s not newsworthy and we hear nothing about it. Seems as if unless we have an interest in swimming as a sport we never really try to master swimming, nor view it as a survival skill. Here’s a Ripley Believe it or Not fact. Do you know more people die from drowning in the desert than from dehydration? Flash floods, quick sand and sand storms (you can drown from inhaling sand) are the main causes of the deaths, quite likely because they strike with lighting speed. Regardless … drowned is drowned.
Changing our mindset: The military always produces heroes, and rightfully so, we wish to emulate because they represent strength, bravery and high skills. In the 1940s Rangers were the chosen branch, 1960s – 70s the Green Beret, and currently the Navy Seals are on the pinnacle. Where do the Seals train? In the water. And not only for the reason you may think. Hint: If you can master a skill in water, whatever skill … you can perform it anywhere. On that note, learning to swim should not only be regarded as a get from point A to point B or out of danger survival tool, but also as a proactive skill for hunting food and other things.
Learning to Survive In Water:
The First Cardinal Rule of swimming in rivers, and other areas as you’ll see, is “Don’t Fight the Current!” Understand it … use it in your favor, but never fight it. It’s a losing proposition.
Rivers with undercurrents: Rivers are a natural place to set up a camp, as it provides access to drinking water, bathing/cooling off and a source of food. However, they can also be a place of danger, the degree depending on the native wildlife, such as are there crocodiles and poisonous snakes about.
Never take anything for granted when dealing with a river because they are an ever changing beast. Unknown events upriver can create changes which were not present the last time you were there, and unknown rivers must always be treated with respect.
Undercurrents are inherently dangerous even for an experienced swimmer because they are hard to identify and the swimmer is caught up in it before they realize it exists. You can sometimes recognize an undercurrent by the reaction of the water around it. Normally the water in the area appears calmer and there will be gaps in the waves created by the water movement underneath.
You may be able to see the water under the surface moving quickly or rippling and possibly dragging debris along the bottom. This may cause the water to appear slightly different in color than the rest of the river.
If you discover yourself caught in an undercurrent, do not panic. Begin swimming at a 45 degree angle towards the river bank, which is the quickest and most efficient method of getting out of trouble and back to safe waters. If for some reason you aren’t able to swim or are not strong enough to swim out of the undercurrent, lie on your back, naturally keeping your face out of the water, spread your arms and legs, which will help you slow down. This method will keep you alive until the water pulls you into calmer waters.
The best way to deal with a dangerous situation is to never get into it in the first place. Even though a river may appear safe, looks can be deceiving. Before deciding to enter or cross a river first analyze the situation.
Throw a stick or small log out into the river and see how fast the river is moving. Moving water can be deceivingly fast and difficult for our minds to compute, watching a known fixed object is much easier for the mind to analyze the actually speed of movement.
Don’t overestimate your swimming abilities. This is no game. Get to the middle of the river and realize you’re not capable of making it to the other side, or back, could cost you your life.
Try to find a calm stretch of water, at least calmer, and as narrow as possible. Reducing the distance you must swim increases the odds of living through it.
Pay attention to debris in the water. If there are large limbs floating by most likely there was an event upstream that created a large amount of debris being dumped into the river. Being hit by a wad of tree roots as you are crossing could be catastrophic, if not causing you to drown, it most certainly will result in injury. Injuries and survival in the wilderness do not go hand in hand.
If you can swim straight across the river then it’s probably shallow enough to walk across, otherwise it will have a current of some degree and that current will force your path down river. Therefore, always estimate where you believe you will exit the water and make sure there is a safe exit point. You don’t want to exit the water to find yourself faced with a steep muddy incline to scale. If there’s no safe exit point, move up or down river until you locate one, and make sure it’s a large exit area to allow for miscalculation as there’s no guarantee you’ll end up exactly where you want to. Check the area down river for possible problems of low hanging limbs, whitewater or boulders which could be trouble if you miss your exit point.
Never cross a river anywhere close to a bend which restricts your view of what’s down river. If you miss your exit point and are swept around the bend you’ll have no idea what dangers may await. It could be a mistake you won’t live to regret.
Take your time and do your due diligence before attempting your crossing. Unless someone is shooting at you there’s no rush. Better safe than sorry.
Swimming in the Ocean: The ocean also has currents, but these currents are different from the traditional river current. Rip currents form near beaches and are created by the sand on the ocean floor (invisible above water) where it digs a lane in the sand pointing from the beach to the open ocean. When the waves crash against the shore they will curl backwards (back-flow) into that lane and quickly flow in the direction of the open ocean. A swimmer caught in this flow will be pulled along with it into the oceans open waters.
Most swimmers instinctively panic and begin swimming against the rip current in an attempt to get back to shore, but this is the worse thing to do. You can not successfully swim against the water and you’ll only become exhausted making it much more difficult to get out of the situation. Instead, begin swimming parallel to the beach being pulled along by the rip current, until you exit the rip current and can swim safely back to shore.
Recognizing potential drowning dangers: As I previously stated the best way to stay out of trouble is being aware of where trouble lurks. Rip Tides is a type of current that forms between islands, estuaries, harbors and bays and is extremely dangerous, as they can change or disappear without warning depending on the time of day, as well as which direction the tide is moving. The moon’s gravitational pull on the oceans waters creates tides, which in turn create currents. Being totally unaware of the potential danger people in boats can be capsized by converging currents while boating around in areas prone to these natural phenomenons. Be aware of your surroundings.
Technique and Breathing: Looking at Olympic swimmers and it would be logical to equate swimming with strength, but actually the muscled bodies is a result of countless hours of swimming, not swimming because of countless hours in the gym.
Technique is more important than strength in survival swimming. You don’t care how fast you get to the shore … you just want to make it without drowning. There are many techniques of swimming, which we won’t get into here, but I do want to explore how to properly breath.
Far too many people concentrate on what their arms and legs are doing and totally ignore how they are breathing. Most people, unless taught better, hold their breath as they swim with their the face underwater. By breathing like this you must exhale and inhale when your face is turned out of the water. This makes for clumsy labored breathing, allowing water into the mouth if the timing is not correct, inciting panic.
Learn to slowly exhale as your swim forward, face under the water. Then when you surface your exhale is short and your inhale is long. This saves energy and results in more stamina to complete the long distance swim.
This by no means is all-inclusive of survival swimming, but you must start somewhere and the knowledge you just gained here will support further learning.