Class 2 Whitewater Swimming: Where’s My Skirt?

I play golf.
I kayak.

There are some similarities – more about that in another post.

The similarity I noticed Sunday was that I need a skirt to kayak.

In golf, wearing a skirt means you get to move from the back tee boxes to the shorter tee boxes. When my golf-playing partners suggest I wear a skirt it is not a good thing.

But wearing a skirt while running whitewater is a good thing. Putting a skirt on means you are tackling rapids and challenging the river.

As a matter of fact, running whitewater without a skirt is really stupid.

I learned the hard way Sunday, neither my rec-yak or I are suited to run whitewater when it is 38 degrees and the rapids are Class 2.

Class 2: sounds important right? Except it’s on a scale of 1 to 6, with 1 being waves on a kiddie pool and Class 6 being “danger to life and limb” for expert paddlers.

Class 2: Some rough water, maybe some rocks, small drops, might require maneuvering. (Skill Level: Basic Paddling Skill)

Basic paddling skills. Yeah, I got those. (Not – I learned.)


This is not the kayak for whitewater. This is a kayak for floating the current and enjoying scenery and telling lies to fellow yakkers.

This is a kayak for whitewater:

Kayak Skirt

See that cover? It’s a skirt.

No skirt? Waves come into the kayak and you sink.

Multiple questions came up Sunday.

1. It was 38 degrees when I left the Hacienda De Blub Blub. No sun. What the hell am I doing kayaking whitewater?

Answer: This whitewater is the only whitewater close to Smallburg. It’s Class 2 only when the spring rains raise the river level to 2.5 to 3.5 feet on the gauge. It was 3.5 on Wednesday, it rained Saturday and Sunday was forecasted to be mid 50s and partly sunny.

2. The water level gauge was under water. What the hell am I doing kayaking whitewater?

Answer: The two guys who went with me were young experts. They said I should take a look and if I didn’t want to do it, they would take me back to the car.  Here’s what I heard: “If the old guy chickens out, we’ll ditch him.”

3. I had a recreational kayak with no skirt. What the hell am I doing kayaking whitewater?

Answer: Because I was there. Because it was there. Because standing on a bridge looking down at the whitewater it looked like a helluva lot of fun!

Scott and Paul couldn’t have been nicer and more patient. Scott had an inflatable and Paul had a true whitewater sport kayak.

Scott said not having a skirt was not a deal-breaker. It just meant that I probably would have to dump water out of my kayak “a couple times.”  He said I would take on water as I ran the rapids (gawd, I LOVE the way that sounds.)  He said I should not worry because they would be there to help.

Bombing down the river.

What the hell am I doing kayaking whitewater?

We put in just above the Class 2 whitewater. Scott said “what you see now is what you get – this is it, after we run this section, it’s a float. Make sure your PFD is on tight.” (Personal Flotation Device)

What I heard: “This is the whitewater. What you can see now. After the bend, it ends. We’re gonna pull you out by your PFD, so snug it up.”

Before we caught the current, I told them I was just heading down the river and if they wanted to “play” that was fine with me, but I wasn’t.  I was back-paddling furiously as Scott said: “Run the water you can see and look for eddys to rest.”

Wait. Whuck? Huh? Water I can see? Rest? Whuck?


As soon as I hit the first wave in a series of waves as far as I could see and water came over the bow of the kayak and drenched me, I knew I was screwed. I remember from running whitewater on the Arkansas in a raft and the Nantahala in a single-person inflatable, that when in doubt lean forward and paddle like hell.

I did.

I made the first set of rapids. And the second.  But the kayak was now 1/2 full of water. I had rounded the bend (the spot where I thought the rapids ended)  – and in seconds the third set of rapids was coming.

I was ready for it to be over. I knew I was in the wrong boat with a lack of paddling skills.

Lesson: floating the current and keeping the front of the kayak heading downstream does not mean one has “basic paddling skills.

What the hell am I doing kayaking whitewater?

Lesson: when you lean to the left to keep water from coming in on the right, all that water is gonna move too. Suddenly. This means the left is going to dip below water level.

After the third set of rapids, I was swimming. I knew it was gonna happen and was helpless to prevent it. I was going swimming in 60 degree, fast-moving water, when the air temperature was 40ish.

It wasn’t bad!

I trusted my PFD, recalled from earlier whitewater training “nose up and toes up” (keep your head above water and your feet up to avoid getting snagged) and floated through an eddy to the bank with my kayak right beside me.

I sat on the river bank, pulled the kayak onto my lap and used my brand new bilge pump. After a hundred pulls on the pump (which was taking out just about a quart of water at a time) I was pooped.

Many minutes later, Scott appeared and asked if I was OK.

“Did you swim?”

I admitted I did.  He said,

“don’t go bombing down the river. Have a plan. Look for water you can see. Stick with us, if you get in trouble and we’re way behind you, we can’t help.”

What I heard “don’t go bombing down the river dumbass.

When I said I was pooped from pumping. He drew upon his vast knowledge of whitewater river guiding and said I should pull the boat on the bank and just dump it out.

Much easier!  Bilges should be used to pump the last few remaining quarts of water, not the first hundred.

Breaking Paddles

When I climbed back in the yak, we were finally in just fast running flat water. Scott explained that “running the water you can see” means if the river has waves that make a horizon – don’t go there. Look for water you can see past the waves. Go there. He didn’t have to explain “look for eddys to rest.”

What the hell am I doing kayaking whitewater?

There they were. Another set of Class 2.

Scott said he would go first and point out a path. “When you think you are in trouble, lean forward and paddle.” How this is different from “bombing down the river” still escapes me. I guess it’s the “plan” part that is the difference.

Within seconds, I was taking on water. It didn’t help that I had just watched White Squall.

White Squall Movie Jeff Bridges

Visions of The Albatross danced in my head as I slowly rolled my kayak to the right in the middle of a train of waves and calmly announced to Scott beside me

“I’m going swimming.”

Scott has a helmet cam. There’s video.

Part 2 of Class 2 Whitewater Swimming: Where’s My Skirt? tomorrow.

  • Video of my slow roll
  • I swim to the bank
  • My kayak is not with me
  • I swear a LOT
  • I walk
  • I break my paddle
  • I swear a LOT more
  • I’m ready to walk back
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Class 2 Whitewater Swimming: Where’s My Skirt? — 8 Comments

  1. OMG, I can hardly wait to see the video! I had forgotten how well you write, but I can only imagine how well you break paddles as I have seen you break golf clubs…I see similarities there. I had a great time reading your account of this adventure.

    • Thanks! I forgot that you have witnessed my golf club breaking ability!!! 🙂 The breaking of the paddle was from sheer stupidity, unlike the golf club which was anger/stupidity.

  2. Sandra-I agree-its very well written. I hope and like to think that’s where I inherited my writing skills from.