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Swim-Test Your Gear Every Time You Go Out


Swim-testing is like a pilot's preflight inspection - a last minute safety-check to make sure you're wearing enough thermal protection and that it's working properly.

How to Swim-Test:

The Cold Facts

Do I have to swim-test my gear every time I go out?

That's up to you. It's a very good idea, but no one will force you to do it.

Valuable things you can discover via swim-testing:

These mistakes really do happen. Sometimes they're amusing, sometimes they're merely unpleasant, but every once in a while - if you don't catch them before you get out on the water - they can be fatal.

What if I don't want to swim-test?

That's not a good sign. Swim-testing is no big deal when you're dressed for the water temperature. If you're unwilling to swim-test, it's usually because you're not confident that your gear will keep you warm and/or dry when you're in the water.

Reasons people give for blowing off swim-tests:

On very rare occasions, (ultra-skanky water or a seal launch), you may find it difficult 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 - and next time, try to pick a better launch site.

The real issue for most paddlers isn't 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 out on the water.

How to get an expert "feel" for cold water:

Swim-Testing vs Field-Testing

Case Studies

Case 1: Ogwen River, UK

Case 2: Queen Charlotte Channel, British Columbia

Case 3: Thomas Point Light, Chesapeake Bay, Maryland

Case 1

Ian William Walsh - A Tiny Mistake Proves Fatal
January 15th, 2011 Ogwen River, UK

News accounts described Ian William Walsh, 54, as an "excellent kayaker" whose passion for the sport "had taken him all over the world". When he and long-time kayaking friend Phil Davidson arrived at the put-in, the Ogwen River was very cold and also running high due to heavy rain.

According to Davidson, both men wore drysuits and PFD's, and they checked the river while changing into their gear. "The river was a bit high. It wasn't a new river, we knew the lines down there. We both agreed: 'Let's get on with it'. We realised it was going to be a good trip." He noted that Walsh was a very skilled paddler. "His prowess in a kayak was phenomenal", he said.

As they headed downriver, Davidson capsized several times but rolled up. At one point, he was getting knocked around a bit and when he rolled up, he saw Ian kayaking towards him, in control of his boat, before disappearing around a bend in the river.

Shortly afterwards and two miles downriver, Samantha Lei Murphy, who had been trained in white water rescue as a member of Aberglaslyn Mountain Rescue, was walking along the river with her boyfriend. "The river was running very high", she said. "I saw a hand coming into view. I knew that it was something in the river". Her boyfriend called the police and then, putting themselves at considerable risk, the pair bravely waded into the river to try and rescue Mr Walsh. They were able to reach him and pull him to shore, but were unable to revive him.

Speaking at a subsequent coroner's inquest, Davidson broke down when he testified that Walsh got into trouble because "He had not zipped his dry suit properly."

Case Note:  
Swim-testing would have revealed the zipper problem and saved Ian Walsh's life.

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Case 2

A Close Call for Dan Corrigall
November, 1985 Queen Charlotte Channel, British Columbia
Dan Corrigall and his paddling partner Andy Bennett were hit by katabatic winds during a three-mile crossing of Queen Charlotte Channel north of Vancouver, BC. Dan was wearing a 1/4” (7mm) thick farmer john wetsuit, a wool sweater covered by a paddling jacket, and a PFD. The water temperature was around 50F (10C).

Dan was 6’3”, 200 pounds, and a strong swimmer and paddler with confidence in his roll. Following a capsize, he tried to roll three times before bailing out. Once in the water he quickly felt extremely cold. After swimming a short distance to retrieve his paddle, his arms were so weak that he couldn’t swim 50 feet back to Andy’s boat. Soon he was so weak and his hands were so cold that he was unable to use a paddle float given to him by Andy. The float was then lost. He was rescued shortly thereafter and took 1.5 hours to rewarm.

Case Note:  
Swim-testing his gear would have alerted Dan to the fact that his torso and hand protection was inadequate for the conditions. Lessons

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Case 3

K.P. - A Very Close Call & Miraculous Rescue
January 29, 2012 Thomas Point Light, Chesapeake Bay, Maryland

This is an excellent and candid first-person account of an incident that occurred on the Chesapeake Bay near Annapolis, Maryland on January 29, 2012.

I'm a 48-year-old man who's been paddling for more than 15 years. I've also been a sailor since I was a kid, having grown up with a father who was a career Coast Guard officer. I'm comfortable on and in the water. I paddle almost every week, year-round, and often solo. I've taken numerous paddling classes and have paddled in all kinds of conditions in lots of places. I've done multi-day kayaking trips, ocean paddling, flat water and moderate whitewater. I have (what I thought was) a pretty decent roll and I know a few different self-rescue techniques (though I hadn't practiced in several years).

My kayak is a Necky Looksha IV HV and is constructed of kevlar and fiberglass. It's a great boat. I've had it for 12 years.

On January 29th I decided to take advantage of the sunny day and the warm-for-winter temps and drive from where I live in Washington, DC, to near Annapolis and paddle out to Thomas Point Light. This is a short paddle — about four miles round trip from my put-in. I've done it 4 or 5 times, and I've sailed in the area countless times.

Route to Thomas Point Light (Note extensive shoal area)

I launched around noon. The weather forecast was for mostly sunny skies, highs in the low 50's, and winds out of the south at 10-15 knots (though building throughout the afternoon.) A small craft advisory had been issued for 6pm and into the night. I expected that, even with some goofing off and photo taking, I still wouldn't be on the water longer than two-and-a-half hours (i.e., back by 2:30pm.)

I was wearing a dry top, neoprene gloves, and I used a skirt (of course). I had no hood, dry or wet pants, or boots (I know, I know -- I will get back to this). I did have a PFD on.

It was a lovely day, but breezy as expected. I would be paddlint southeast so the winds were off my starboard bow. I had a nice paddle to the lighthouse and dealt with a bit of chop just fine. I took some pictures. The winds were definitely building and the growing waves began to make me uncomfortable with having my nice Nikon camera out. I didn't want to get it wet so, with it hanging around my neck and waves splashing the boat, I paddled to the lee side of the lighthouse and then under it to hold onto a dock piling while putting the lens cover on, getting it back in its dry bag and strapping it toth edeck. I drank some water, took a phone call(!) and then took off for the paddle back. Everything was fine.

By this point the winds had built to probably 15-20 knots, gusting higher. The tide was going out (against me) and the winds were off my port stern quarter. With the wind and the tide going different directions -- combined with being right over a shoal -- the wavers were a bit bigger than usual, but still nothing I found alarming. I've handled worse and was actually enjoying the surfing down waves while also noticing the waves were steeper than I was used to. Right around the shoal near the lighthouse the sea was in a bit of a confused state. The waver direction wasn't totally consistent. While on the crest of a wave focusing on balance I reached back on the port side to brace with the paddle when suddenly water wasn't where I expected it to be. The paddle was still in the air where I expected resistance and I capsixed to port.

I immediately attempt to roll back up as waves were tossing around the boat and me. I was not successful and then attempted two more rolls. I really wasn't even getting close. I decide to exit the boat to attempt self-rescue using th eLadder technique (YouTube: I got to the rear of the kayak and began crawling to the cockpit and got knocked over by another wave. I was realizing I was in serious trouble because the cold water was quickly sapping my strength. I tried another self-rescue and was once again knocked over.

I didn't see any boats on the bay. I knew I was in a really bad situation.

I wasn't far from the lighthouse -- a couple hundred yards at most. I thought my best chance was toswim for it and to try to climb up on its dock. I began swimming and immediately realized I could swim the kayak upwind in those conditions. I wasn't making any headway at all. So I made a quick decision to let the boat go, even while know "stay with the boat" is almost a mantra for problems at sea. I didn't think that was an option, thought becuase of the cold water and being nearly two miles from shore.

So I let the boat go and the wind quickly took it. I'll never forget that moment when the thought hit me, "I'm floating alone in the January."

I began swimming on my back toward the lighthouse. I was making mimimal headway against the winds and the waves. The cold water was cuasing great pain at this point, and my ability to swim was rapidly leaving me. During those few minutes I knew I was facing death. I was angry at myself for doing to my father. Just a few months earlier we had lost my mother to cancer -- his beloved wife of 51 years. I remember thinking that at least they will know where to lok for my body because I had emailed a float plan to him and my sister that morning.

I was swimming as hard as I could with whatever strenght I had left and decided to roll over off my back for a second to check to see that I was at least still pointing at the lighthouse. I saw a boat up ahead! It was a classic white Chesapeake Bay fishing boat. I learned later that she is the Audacious, seen here at Thomas Point Light (not my photo):

Thomas Point Light and the Audacious

I began yelling. They couldn't hear me and it appeared, at first, that it would just cruise by me when I realized they were actually slowing down to pull up to the lighthouse. I kept yelling but was growing worried that I wouldn't be able to even yell much longer. I was exhausted. Then the boat pulled up to the doc (positioned exactly as in that photo) and someone jumped off the boat with al ine to secure it. He was now facing me and I yelled again with every ounce of energy I had. He heard me! He looked up, waved and immediately jumped back in the boat and headed my way.

I wasn't going to die.

There were two men and two women on board. They ahd to literally pull me out becuae I couln't help them at all. I weight 200 pounds, was almost dead weight from exhaustion, was obviously soaking wet, and the boat was rocking around because of the conditions. It was really hard for the two guys to pull me up by my PFD, but they were champions and managed to get me on board with some serious effort. I estimate that I was in the 40F water for about 15 minutes.

They got me inside the small cbin and began drying me off and warming me up. While I was in there they retrieved my kayak and paddle, which must have been a half-mile downwind at that point. My camera in a dry bag was still secured to the dec, which is why I have the photos.

I'm not being overly dramatic when I say they saved my life. I have no doubt that this is true.


  1. I should not have been paddling solo in the winter on open water like the Chesapeake.
  2. I should have been wearing pants, shoes, and a hat made for cold-water immersion. I couldn't find my wetsuit pants that morning and went anyway.
  3. I should have had a submersible VHF strapped to my PFD, as well as flares and/or a smoke signal device.

Solo winter paddling in open water and not wearing pants/shoes/hat for cold-water immersion were total rookie mistakes. "Dress for the water, not for the air." I know this and ignored it. I nearly paid for my mistake with my life.

Other lessons: I must work on my rolls and self-rescue techniques every year, and practice in conditions closer to what could be expected in a real life emergency.

I was clearly complacent and over confident in my skills. If there are other paddlers out there, no matter how experienced, who might be taking on needless risk like on did I hope this story will change their behavior.

I want to publicly thank my rescuers Henry and Chris Gonzalez, and Captain Howard and Cathy Lewis. Henry is the lighthouse keeper for the Thomas Point Lighthouse ( and vice-president of the U.S. Lighthouse Society ( Howard is the owner and skipper of Audacious, and I understand he lends his time helping out with the lighthouse.

They were on the water that day — the ONLY boat in the area at that time — to do their annual winter check on the lighthouse. In all the years I've paddled and sailed near Thomas Point Light I have never seen a boat pull up to it. The long odds of them being there at that exact time and within earshot defy description.

Case Note:  

Swim-testing his gear would have vividly demonstrated to KP that that he was not dressed for the water temp. Summary of key points:

Paddling Solo
Two-mile open water crossing
Small Craft Advisory forecast

Water temp 40F – painfully cold
Shoal area water depth 2-8 feet
Wind building throughout trip
Wind against tide on return leg

Thermal Protection
Inadequate thermal protection for torso
No protection for head and neck
No protection for legs and feet.

Communications / Signaling Gear
No cell phone, VHF radio, air horn or flares
Whistle on PFD not used
Unable to signal by waving paddle

Skills / Techniques
Inadequate for conditions
Brace failed
Roll failed
Self-rescue failed
Let go of boat and paddle
Unable to use paddle to aid swimming.

This trip was far more dangerous than KP realized and his complacent attitude was likely due to non-eventful previous trips, his long familiarity with area, and his lack of personal experience swimming unprotected in 40F (5C) water. Using the Sea Conditions Rating System (SCRS) would have given him a more realistic perspective. Paddling solo greatly magnified his risk. It guaranteed that in the event of trouble, he would be on his own. Any attempt at self-rescue would be unassisted and therefore more difficult and with a higher probability of failure - particularly in rough water.

His thermal protection was totally inadequate for 40F (5C) water. Although it delayed cold shock, his drytop did nothing to protect his upper body from the debilitating effects of cold water.

Without the addition of warm clothing, a drytop provides about as much insulation as a shower curtain. To protect you in the water, a drysuit or drytop must be watertight, not excessively burped, and have sufficient warm clothing to insulate you from the cold. It is not enough to simply “wear a drytop”.

No protection for his lower body made the situation even worse and further compromised his ability to swim. Loss of strength happened very quickly. "I was realizing I was in serious trouble because the cold water was quickly sapping my strength". "The cold water was causing great pain at the point, and my ability to swim was rapidly leaving me".

No head and neck protection very likely contributed to his repeated failure to roll both because contact with the water was painful and cold water entering his ear canal would have been disorienting.

Shoal area: A shoal is a shallow area surrounded by deeper water. Depending on things like current, wind, and wave conditions, shoals can quickly change from tame to extremely rough with breaking waves. The reason there’s a lighthouse 2 miles off Thomas Point is because the area between the light and the point is very shallow (as his chart shows) with a mean low water depth between 2-8 feet for his entire route. Tidal range in the area is approximately one foot.

Wind and Tide: Conditions on the water were deteriorating rapidly. Waves are created by wind. When his trip began, the wind speed was 10-15 mph; 60-90 minutes later he estimated 15-20 mph and gusting higher. The Small Craft Advisory predicted winds of 25-38 mph within several hours. When he started back, the wind direction was also in opposition to the tidal flow, resulting in much steeper waves and rougher water. Wind was from the south, so fetch was essentially unlimited for the Chesapeake Bay.

Regardless of a paddler’s level of experience, 40F (3C) water isn’t just a little more dangerous than, for example, 55F water. It’s more like the difference between a Siberian Tiger and a pussy cat – many orders of magnitude more dangerous. If the paddler is solo, as KP was, the risk simply cannot be overstated. As many incidents have demonstrated over the years, those are circumstances in which even a small miscalculation like missing a brace can get you killed.

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