We are all Between Swims–What happens if I Flip?

Safety Tips Series–By Eric Fleming (with tips from Paddling.com)



I have been asked what I would have done if someone swam yesterday with the cold water.

I don’t claim to be an expert. This is just what I would have done on a fresh Flatwater paddle close to shore like we did recently. This information does not apply in a current or for ocean paddling without taking further precautions.

Dress for a swim. Depending on conditions a wet or dry suit, or in milder weather at least non cotton clothing, as cotton absorbs a lot of water and is not quick drying.

Other suggestions welcome.

Any self or assisted water rescue when a boat flips is difficult, tiring, and time consuming. It’s much worse when the swimmer has layers of water soaked clothes, and the cold water affects your muscles so that you have no coordination or strength.

My plan is to use the throw ropes that the whitewater paddlers use to rescue swimmers in rapids in reverse. Instead of holding the rope at the top end of the bag and then throwing the whole bag I hook the bottom of the bag behind my seat as in photo 1.

If someone flipped I’d forget about trying to get them back into their boat and get them to shore ASAP. Flip the boat over if possible and hook the carabiner from the top of the bag onto the front of their boat, have them hold onto the back of their boat and paddle as fast as possible to the nearest land.

Towing a person who is upright in the water is very hard, slow, and tiring. By hooking them to a throw rope I’m not actually pulling them. The rope just unwinds from the bag, and when I get to shore I just reel them in.

A rescue belt with a quick emergency release should be worn, or at least use a carabiner rather than a knot. Never tie yourself to a boat, and always carry a knife when using ropes. Since there is only 70 feet of rope in a bag I have two bags hooked in tandem to give me 140 feet.

If you’re going to be paddling further than 140 feet from the lake bank in cold water conditions you’ll need a wet or dry suit, or know how to roll your boat back up.

A Navy SEAL died paddling by himself in Chesapeake Bay last week when his boat flipped. With all his training, and that he was from N Dakota makes you wonder how that is even possible, but overconfidence has killed many a person.

I carry extra dry clothes. Get the person changed, the water out of their boat, and then tow them back to the ramp so that they don’t swim again.

This should be done with their boat far enough back so as to not to interfere with your paddling, and them holding on to your deck rigging so that they don’t swim again.

If you are paddling by yourself (which I don’t recommend) in warm water (you can’t swim in cold water) I still recommend staying close to the bank and hooking a throw rope to your front carry handle, as in my second photo. If you flip try and get the boat right side up if possible, and then hook the rope around your upper arm and swim to the bank. This way you don’t have to hold onto your boat and you don’t have to drag it. Just reel it in when you get to land.


Below is a summary of an article on cold water dangers. The full article link is at the bottom of the page.

They claim that it is impossible to die from hypothermia in cold water unless you are wearing a PFD, because without flotation you won’t live long enough to die from hypothermia. You’ll simply drown.

Problem 1. Cold water immersion shock response with uncontrolled gasping.
People panic and gulp water if your PFD isn’t keeping your head above water, and the shock can trigger a heart attack. Surviving this stage is about getting your panic and breathing under control. 20% of cold water deaths are within minutes.

Problem 2. Cold Incapacitation.
The veins in your extremities constrict to restrict blood flow to vital organs and you can’t control your muscles. You lose body heat 4 times quicker than you can replace it in Flatwater, and much more quickly in fast moving water. Within minutes you won’t be able to tread water, swim, or pull yourself out of the water. 50% of the deaths occur this way because of not wearing a PFD.

If you can stay afloat with your PFD you have an hour before possibly dying from hypothermia in most cases. If you do suffer from hypothermia you need to stay still afterwards till you’re checked by a doctor, as your body will be going through many changes, including heart rate fluctuations until you get back up to normal body temperature.


Happy and Safe paddling,
Eric Fleming.