My worst swims and what I learned from them

I have debated about writing this article for a while. With each of these swims came feelings of shame and anguish. But I have had a lot of time to reflect on them all and through these reflections, I have been able to take away valuable lessons. I am not encouraging recklessness but simply highlighting the things I have learned as I have gained more experience. I have written the swims in chronological order of when they happened.

1. Swale – scout scout and scout!

Ironically my first ‘worst swim’ was not a swim at all as I was able to roll up after but it certainly shook me. I had been kayaking about a year and had learned fast. Regular HPP visits will do that for you. Myself and 3 friends went up to paddle the Swale – a UK waterfall classic. It was low but paddlable and I was so excited for a proper ‘big boys’ trip.

I was very excited! And I did do some of the drops well! Photo: Tom Clare

We got to the get on and went to have a look at Rainby – the second big drop. It was intimidating but we discussed the line and went to get changed. The first drop of the Swale is relatively easy and so we went down with no problem. Then came Rainby. The others confidently went before me and I followed soon after. I was so nervous though, I struggled to remember the line. I wanted to get out and look again but was worried I would hold the others up and they might be annoyed they had brought me along. It was not as if we hadn’t scouted it.

So I went down and massively over-edged. I flipped on my way down and had to roll up at the bottom. The impact on my face was huge – but luckily much better than it could have been. I told my friends I was ‘fine’ and finished the river. It was only once off the water when I began to warm up, that my eye really began to swell. The result? I had a black eye for months and haven’t paddled the Swale since.

It was sore!

So what did I learn? To scout for as long and as often as I want! Realistically my friends would not have cared if I had got out again to have another look and therefore had a better line. I was so nervous at letting them down that I let myself down in not acknowledging my gut feelings. I would like to get back to the Swale again – to show that river how much I have improved! And to get over my fear of Rainby!

2. Etive – If there is a hole, make sure to boof!

A year later and I have enjoyed a lovely week in the Scottish highlands with friends. Unfortunately the week before I had split my trusty Mamba. Luckily my good friend Matt lent me his 9R for the week – with his additional 5 seat pads. The levels have been relatively low all week though and so it has not mattered too much to be in an unfamilar boat.

We’ve been enjoying ourselves all week – despite the low levels! Photo: Tom Clare

Our final day arrives and with it – a lot of rain! It has rained all night and when we headed to the Etive for our final lap, the river was pretty swollen. Locals would probably call it a ‘medium’. To me it looked terrifying. We scouted Triple step and were very unsure of whether we should get on. Another paddler arrives and has a chat. He asks if he can go down with us and swaps his RPM for a creek boat. If I had known this was Nick B (a very smooth UK paddler), this alone would have been enough to put me off. I had never met Nick however and so the swapping of boats just seemed sensible to me.

The river booties that followed…. you know where this going!

Half of our group decide to get on but only run the last step of triple step. I go last and as I break out of the eddy into a very fast flowing Etive, I wobble. It’s not huge but enough that in the time it takes me to correct it, I have run out of river and time to get my speed up. I plug the last drop of Triple step and proceed to get destroyed by one very large hole.

Used to HPP, I tried to fight it and ‘paddle out’. The river had other ideas however and not long later I am pulled out of my kayak. I am immediately pulled down and go on to experience one of my scarier swims. The force of the water was so great, I could not fight it. Instead I was pulled down and at the mercy of the river. When I opened my eyes it was completely dark. Weirdly this did not panic me, but instead I felt eerily calm. The river was more powerful than I would ever be and so what use would there be in fighting it.

I was under for long enough that I had enough time to think. I assumed I would be recirculated to the surface at some point and I must not waste the chance I had when that happened. Keeping my eyes open, I waited. As song as I saw light I stretched my hands upwards and they broke the surface before I did. By the time my head also broke the surface, Nick was throwing me a line and I was out.

I owe a lot to Nick that day. He checked I was okay and persuaded me, through his calm reasoning, to get back on the water. If I hadn’t, I would have ended our Scotland trip in a very sad state of mind. Instead, thanks to Nick, I got to end it in my (Matt’s) boat. And the lesson learned? If there is a really big hole – BOOF! And if you are not confident to do that – don’t paddle it!

Photo that Nick took of me once I’d got back on!

3. Twrch – Be honest when you are scared

Roll on another year and I have been boating for 3 years now and am regularly running a variety of rivers. Cue a very wet Autumn day in Wales with 2 paddlers I have only known for a few weeks. We were deciding what to paddle and I am painfully aware of how much better at kayaking both of these guys are. I was the only one with a car however which is how we ended up together. My friend suggests the Twrch as a ‘warm up river’. We park at the get out and go for a walk up the river to see how it looks. It was high and some of the rapids looked a bit scary – possibly not a ‘warm up’ river for me. But my friends seem keen and I don’t want to let fear get in the way of a good day. So we get on.

Sometimes scouting a rapid is the scariest part. Photo: Tom Clare

Having never paddled ‘ditch’ rivers before – this was a very new experience for me. Eddys didn’t really exist – instead you had to cling onto the sides of the bank whenever you wanted to stop. We start paddling and I am a bag of nerves. The water is way too fast for my liking but it is okay in terms of difficulty so I get on with it. Then at some point I seem to get in front of the other two and go around a bend. There is a river wide tree blocking the way. I shout to my friends to get out but have no time to get to the side myself. I end up going ‘through’ the tree. There is a place where the main trunk dips under the water and I squeeze between the trunk and a large branch coming off it. I make it through, roll up, paddle to the side and get out.

I go over to my friends to reassure them that I am okay. They are understandably worried – seeing as I just went through a strainer. They look at me concerned – ‘your face’. It is only then I realise I have slashed my eyebrow and there is blood now dripping from my face. I insist I am okay however and we continue. I am utterly relieved when we get to the get out.

I am mortified that I have paddled ‘so badly’ and apologise multiple times on the way home. We get back and I insist that I will cover the petrol costs to make up what a bad day of paddling I must have caused them. It was only a couple of years later when my friend told me how bad he felt for that day that I realised they didn’t hate me for being such a beater. I had been so embarrassed at how ‘terrible’ I was, that I had not considered they would think differently. That they just felt bad I had had a horrible day and had been worried about me. I regretted not telling them I was scared and that the river was too hard for me. That was the lesson I learnt from this day.

4. Upper Dart – Communication is key

Another year later and we are enjoying a very wet day in Dartmoor. Having had a great time on the loop in the morning, we head to the get on for the Upper. It is higher than I anticipated and I am very hesitant about getting on. Eventually I reason that it is high but my skill set should be enough to match it. I may find it pushy but I was surrounded by very capable friends and therefore it wasn’t a bad place to push myself.

Dartmoor is a beautiful place! Tom on the river Erme

We get on and it is full on from the go. I have run the Dart before but never as high as this. When we start the mad mile, I am enjoying myself but also finding intense. I go over and fail a roll. Not to worry – try again. I come up, relieved, only to fall sideways straight into a massive hole. No breath and taken by surprise, my rolls fail. I swim and undergo one of the more unpleasant swims of my life. Afterwards I describe it as ‘being a pinball in a pinball machine’.

My friends get me to the side and 2 others chase my boat down. I get out and immediately start to try and follow them down the bank to help with the boat. Only it isn’t easy. The bank is steep, muddy and full of obstacles. Eventually (and a long way down the river) I catch them up and amazingly my boat and paddles are in an eddy! I catch my breath, thank them and we wait for the others. But they don’t come.

I walk back to find the others and let them know I am okay. To find out my boyfriend has left his boat on the other side of the river and walked down to walk out with me – as he assumed my boat would be unrecoverable! He now has no way to get back to his boat.

We went back to Dartmoor not long after for some redemption and had one of the best days kayaking ever!

To cut a long story short from this point. We then had a huge argument (2 very stubborn people) which resulted in us both walking out of Dartmoor to the get out, me with carrying a boat on my back. We went back to retrieve his boat later on. I was exhausted and furious. It is definitely one of the worst days of boating I have ever had. Not because of the actual boating, but because of the carnage that ensued after my swim!

My lesson learned? Communicate! If I had stayed for a few minutes to communicate with the others about what to do after my swim, it might not have gone so spectacularly badly! Luckily we made up soon after but the ‘Dartmoor break up’ remains my friends favourite entry in my paddling log book!

All’s well that ends well! Photo: Jack Grace

5. Orchy – Plan for the unexpected!

This was is my most recent swim (5 years of paddling under my belt) and perhaps my least preventable. I was enjoyed a lovely Scottish week with friends over Christmas. I was paddling well and we were enjoying some great levels. On the Orchy I capsized mid rapid. Not to worry – I can roll!

Unfortunately, despite the relatively calm water, something happened to completely freak me out. I got my head stuck between 2 rocks. I’ve never experienced entrapment before and it is not something I want to experience again any time soon.

Paddling on the Orchy – Photo: Tom Clare

Whilst getting ready to set up for a roll, I am suddenly stopped and was unable to move my head. I freaked out at this and let go of my paddles. In doing so, I was able to push myself free from the rocks. But my hand roll is not 100% and I was still shocked by the experience. I couldn’t hand roll up and ended up swimming. I got myself to the side and my friends got my boat.

So my learning experience from this one – prepare for the unexpected! Afterwards I talked about this at length with friends about the experience and discussed what they might have done. Sometimes it is good to play ‘scenarios’ even if you think they are unlikely!

It had been an excellent week of Scottish boating otherwise! Photo: Tom Clare

So there you have it. These are not moments I am proud of or moments which I think of fondly. But they are key moments in my kayaking development nonetheless and ones I have reflected on immensely. At each of these swims, it led to a change in thinking for me and as such I think has made me a better and overall safer paddler. I am sure that you will have experienced your own bad river days and I only hope that you too were able to gain something useful from those experiences. However unpleasant they may have been at the time.

4 replies on “My worst swims and what I learned from them”

like always you always right a good article on your experance .i have to say the thing with the boot goes right back to 2004 (Jonny vagus 18 stone of idiot on channel four ) i never though i would ever see this done again . if its channel four its always going to catch on . but its part of the sport the knocks and bruses . you will get this with any sport . been there done that got the t shirt . but keep these articales comeing .you are a good writer in what you do on these articals

I love that you wrote this article (not least because you are very kind to me in it!). It is very honest an courageous. The truth is that we all have the moments we have ended up swimming or where we have made decisions that revealed how much we had to learn. Most of us are not brave enough to share them.

Awww Nick – what a lovely comment for you to leave for me. I have always held you in such high regard so your praise really does mean a lot. Thank you for taking the time to read this and leave such kind feedback. See you on the river at some point!

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