‘What happens if you fall over?’ is a question I am often asked when trying to explain what whitewater kayaking is to non-kayaking friends. I would usually respond by describing what a roll is. Of course rolling back up after capsizing your kayak isn’t the only possible outcome. If you are wondering what another option might be, it is of course the swim! For a water based sport, I have always been surprised by the variation in attitudes when it comes to swimming out of your kayak. As someone who has had many, many (I’m really not exaggerating), many swims, I feel I should share some of my thoughts on the matter.
Swimming as a beginner
Most experienced kayakers will tell you that the hardest part of learning to roll is being able to transfer the roll you can do in the pool/on flat water onto moving whitewater. When you practice your roll, you are normally focused, set-up and expecting to go over. On the contrary, rolling on whitewater tends to be because you have unexpectedly capsized. To top that, it is likely to be in cold, moving water with a few rocks for you to find with your head whilst upside down. What I am trying to say is, unless you are experienced and your roll is instinctive, in those conditions it is expected that someone inexperienced may swim. And guess what – nobody cares! Of course, you will be concerned for the swimmer but once you have established they are okay and reunited them with their kit, the swim itself is forgotten about.
Another thing that experienced kayakers will tell you is that a solid whitewater roll comes with practice. When I started going to HPP, I could roll in the pool but had never rolled on a river. In the early days, I would have as many as 5 swims in a session. After each swim, I would run down the course to collect my gear, walk back up and get back on. Every time I went over I would try to roll repeatedly until I ran out of breathe and only then I would pull my skirt. Eventually I rolled back up. The first time I went to HPP and had no swims is still one of my proudest kayaking days. I had rolled 16 times in that session but had no swims. It took close to 50 swims at HPP before I got to that point. (See what I mean – I wasn’t exaggerating!)
The important thing is that I did not let swimming stop me from trying. I am lucky to have had a couple of close friends in particular who spent a huge amount of time fishing me out of HPP and I owe them a lot. (As a thank you I would bring cookies for the end of every session we had together.) So as long as it is in a relatively safe environment, swimming as a beginner really is not a big deal!
Swimming after you can roll
Once you have achieved a fairly reliable white water roll, this does not mean that you stop swimming. (Again, I have a lot of experience in this department!) Everyone in kayaking will tell you that we are ‘all between swims’. However I find it interesting that there seems to be some negativity about more experienced kayakers swimming. Don’t get me wrong, swims if you paddle more challenging whitewater can have higher consequences. There is more chance of injury, losing kit and it is likely to be generally more unpleasant. But if the swimmer is okay and the kit is recovered, then why the negativity?
I had a conversation recently with someone who said that his paddling group would allow ‘one day of sulking’ after a swim before they had to get over it. All I could think was why would anyone sulk for a whole day!? As my paddling and my roll has improved, my swims have decreased in number but increased in unpleasantness. But once I am out and have been reunited with my kit, all I feel is relief and gratefulness to the people I am with. Then I will collect myself and get back in my boat to enjoy the rest of the river (or sometimes to re-run the rapid). If I swim, I will reflect on it later and try to take some learning points away from the experience. I think one reason people get upset when they swim as a more experienced paddler is perhaps from embarrassment. It is understandable that people might feel this way but honestly, there is nothing to be embarrassed about! Sometimes it is better to just laugh it off.
I had a ridiculous swim last Summer at Tryweyn festival – it was the king of silly swims. I love the Tryweryn and had not had a swim there in years. If you know the Tryweryn, you will know that there is one rock in the middle of the river on the flat section at the top which is popular for splatting. My friends were all going for rock spins so I thought why not. What proceeded to happen however was me getting myself pinned across the rock, facing upstream and halfway capsized. I tried to put my paddle down on the river bed to push myself off. Unfortunately I got my paddle caught and let go of it. I ended up swimming and only 50m before the whitewater even started. And you know what – I came up laughing!
As long as you are making safe and sensible decisions on the water, then swimming isn’t that bad. As a rule of thumb, if you think you are going to swim, you probably shouldn’t be getting on. But if a swim happens on a river you have otherwise been comfortable on and everything works okay, then never mind! Take it from an experienced swimmer – everybody swims.