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River Wild: How To Survive Being Swept Away in a Strong Current

While many are planning exciting summer outdoor water adventures like kayaking and whitewater rafting but it’s important to plan for things to not go exactly as planned.

While many are planning exciting summer outdoor water adventures like kayaking and whitewater rafting it is equally as important to plan for things to not go exactly as planned. Sometimes, even the most experienced rafters, kayakers or even those enjoying a day by the river can fall in and find themselves in a very dangerous situation, and an exciting day filled with adventures on the river can have fatal consequences.

Statistics indicate that far more drowning victims are male than female. Perhaps this is so because, worldwide, more men than women participate in water sports or are near water in their work or recreation. Men may also take more and greater risks, or tend more often to overrate their swimming abilities.

Worldwide, most drownings occur to people in three age categories:

    • 0 to 5 years old
    • 20 to 25 years old
    • over 60 years old

All over the world, infants and toddlers drown more frequently than people at any other age. In this age group drowning is the leading cause of death, followed by accidents in and around the home and road traffic accidents. Inadequate supervision, an inability to swim, and lack of barriers separating toddlers from pools and other water are the main causes of drownings of small children.

Older children drown less frequently but still in large numbers. They generally drown because of their parents’ inadequate supervision. Parents may have unrealistic expectations about how well their children obey their safety rules when not directly supervised.

Frequent participation in water sports as well as a tendency to be more reckless could explain the high drowning rate among those 20 to 25 years of age.

The high drowning rate of older people may be related to difficulties managing emergency situations. Many older people have never learned to swim. They also are more likely to have health problems that can cause loss of consciousness while swimming, such as a heart attack or low blood pressure.


The vast majority of drownings occur in open water” the sea, lakes, ponds, rivers. In one report, drowning is the number one cause of injury death for children 1-4 years of age. Roughly 38 percent of open water drownings among children occur in a lake. About 24 percent occur in a river, and 20 percent in a pond. Only 3.8 percent of open water drownings occur in the ocean.

In many parts of the country, the snow caps on mountains are melting and feeding rivers. With that comes unpredictable river currents that can easily sweep you downriver. Therefore, water safety is important especially around moving bodies of water. One woman’s ordeal of being swept away by rapids documents the fear, confusion, and shock of this type of accident.

Wall after wall of freezing water hit me and the iciness took my breath away. The force of the water rammed the oars into our bodies. My brother, sisters and I were screaming, Dad was shouting at us that it would all be OK, while Mum yelled at us to hold on. We had no time to come up with any plan other than to hold tight.

It felt as if we were stuck for hours, unable to think or breathe, but it was probably only a few minutes. Then, all of a sudden, I was swept out of the dinghy. I felt a split second of horror, which was replaced by an even greater terror when I realised I was going down the rapids without a boat. I was spun around, bounced off rocks and plunged under water: it’s what I imagine being trapped in a washing machine is like. There’s no sense of up or down; you just gasp for air when you can. I remember thinking, “This is it. I am going to die.” It felt as if my death was inevitable, and I felt a kind of peace.


Physical Dangers of Cold Water Immersion

It is vital to understand how your body will react to cold water in order to react faster to the situation. Cold water immersion over a prolonged period of time can be fatal.

  1. Cold Shock – Falling into cold water provokes an immediate gasp reflex. If your head is under water, you’d inhale water instead of air and it is unlikely you’ll resurface if you’re not wearing a life jacket. Initial shock can cause panic, hyperventilation, and increase heart rate leading to a heart-attack. This stage lasts 3-5 minutes and at this point you should concentrate on staying afloat with your head above water.
  2. Swimming Failure – In just 3-30 minutes, the body will experience swimming failure. Due to loss of muscle coordination, swimming becomes a struggle and the body tends to go more vertical in the water making any forward movement increasingly difficult. That’s why it is not recommended to swim for help, but remain with the boat or something else that floats while keeping your head above water while awaiting rescue.
  3. Hypothermia – True hypothermia sets in after about 30 minutes. Most victims never make it to this stage since 75% of individuals succumb and die in the earlier stages of cold water immersion. At this stage, regardless of your body type, size, insulation of clothing, acclimatization and other factors, your body’s core temperature gets dangerously low. Your survival chances are greatly lessened at this stage. Victims are usually rendered unconscious in this stage.
  4. Post Rescue Collapse – A rescued victim must be handled very carefully. When a person is removed from cold water, the body will react to the surrounding air and the body position. Blood pressure often drops, inhaled water can damage the lungs, and heart problems can develop as cold blood from the extremities is released into the body core. Proper medical attention is essential to re-warm the body safely.


How To Survive Being Swept Down River

If you find yourself in the water and you fall in, it is imperative that you know how to self-rescue. If you are wearing a flotation device, use these tips for a self-rescue:

  1. Flip over on your back to create buoyancy.
  2. Float downstream with your feet in front of you and use your feet to absorb the shock and bounce off any rocks.
  3. Look for a place in the water where the water is slow and your are away from the current to climb to safety.

This article offers more details on whitewater rescue:

The first step of a swimmer’s successful whitewater rafting self-rescue is getting in the whitewater float position. The whitewater float position is a defensive position in which a swimmer moves in the water to float on his or her back with arms outstretched, feet up, and feet facing downstream. Once in the whitewater float position, be sure to keep face and toes out of the water. The whitewater float position allows swimmers to get oriented for optimal situational awareness and push off of any river obstacles that may get in the way. The whitewater float position also minimizes the risk of foot entrapment, which can happen if a foot gets trapped dangerously beneath a rock or other river obstacle.

Whitewater Rafting Self-Rescue

Next, after taking a brief moment to gain situational cues about your surroundings while in the whitewater float position, transition quickly to a swimming position. Roll over while maintaining a flat profile on the surface of the water, and then aggressively swim to the location where your guide is directing you, either back to the raft, toward a throw rope, or to the shore. The key to whitewater swimming is to swim aggressively, putting quick and sustained effort into swimming with the full body. Swim like you mean it: pull hard with your arms, and put full strength into kicking your legs to reach the desired location as fast as possible.

If you are not wearing a life vest or flotation device, swim as fast as you possibly can to the closest area of land.

The following video offers some great tips on how to get to safety if you find yourself in the water.

The idea of water rafting or kayaking down a river with the family sounds ideal and a wonderful bonding experience, but there are dangers involved and understanding how your body will react to cold water, the symptoms of hypothermia, and ultimately, how to self-rescue could save your life.


This article was originally published at Ready Nutrition™ on June 9th, 2020