USK Course of Action Scenario Response(s)
January 2006
"Panicking Swimmer"

One of your friends is panicking in the water after they did a wet exit. You paddle up next to them to try to calm them down. They freak out, grab you and try to climb onto your kayak. In addition, your bracing skills are not very effective. What is your course of action?

Considerations & actions from Wayne Horodowich:

Givens from the scenario being presented:

They are a friend
They are visibly panicked
They are alive and breathing (because you see them panicking)
They are wearing a PFD because if you are my friend and paddling with me you are wearing a PFD.
You got close enough for them to grab you.
Your bracing skills are limited at best.

Considerations for each of the givens:

Your friend:

You feel a need to help your friend (unless you owe them money)
We usually drop certain guards with friends
We usually are more emotionally attached to friends
There is a greater chance to act emotionally than logically
We know more about friends and their skills
Sometimes we give our friends more credit than they have earned

Visibly panicking swimmer: (See USK article "Panic")

Not rational
Cannot predict what they will do
Too many unknowns for comfort
Working on adrenaline (stronger)
Often goes into self survival mode
Panicking swimmers don’t like going under the water
Panicking swimmers like to get to high ground
Rapid breathing
Seems like they are hard of hearing

Not comfortable with their predicament
Panic is usually a short-lived emotion (possibly wait it out)

They are alive and breathing:

Threat of immediate death not a concern (open airway & heart pumping)
Rapid breathing can lead to hyperventilation
Rapid breathing is potential for choking on water if water enters the mouth
Rushing in to help is not an immediate necessity
They are wearing a PFD
Reduces the urgency of acting (they will not sink)
Keeps their head higher above the water to reduce water in mouth

You got close enough to be grabbed:

You put yourself into this situation
Most basic instruction teaches you to quickly get to the victim
Did you assess the situation before charging into it?
You need to stop the threat if possible
Find external reliable support if you cannot stop the threat

You have limited bracing skills:

Your kayak is not a reliable platform to a swimmer
You are limited in the conditions in which you should paddle

General considerations not mentioned:

Are you both dressed for immersion?
Is the swimmer in contact with their kayak and paddle or are they adrift?
Is there any other help around?
Can your kayak &/or theirs support two?
Are you wearing a spray skirt?
Does your kayak have adequate floatation (internally)
Do you have a towline?
Do you know how to do assisted capsize recoveries?

My general principles when taking actions:

Assess the situation before going into it
Take action if I can be an asset
Feel confident I have the skills to execute my plan
Feel confident my equipment allows me to execute the plan
My plan does not create more victims (especially me)
Non-action (doing nothing) can be the best course of action at times

Courses of Action for the panicked swimmer scenario:

Since you are in the situation and you are being grabbed, your stability is now in jeopardy. Your goal is not to go over and become another victim. Your brace is not reliable so you have limited options. You need to remove the threat of capsize. You either need to get them off or find some support for yourself.

If their kayak is within reach grab it because once you have a kayak to rest upon it is next to impossible to be flipped over. In such a scenario you will not have time to put your paddle float on for an outrigger. If you had a self-inflating "Back Up" device you could use that for support (See USK article "Back-Up Recovery). If you had a reliable extended paddle sculling brace you would have enough support.

If you cannot find outside support you need to get rid of the threat. Reasoning with panicked swimmer is the first option. Engaging them in dialog is the way into their panicking mind. You may have to shout if you cannot get through. I’d rather not use my paddle to push them off of me &/or the kayak but if hard pressed I would. If I were equipped with a spare paddle I would not care if they grabbed my paddle. I can also hand paddle away until they calmed down (unless very strong winds). If they were on my kayak I could also roll over (if I knew I could roll back up). Panicking swimmers try to climb up out of the water. They do not like going under the water. Rolling down will usually cause them to let go for a moment. If you can roll up and get away it is an option worth considering. If you get the panicked swimmer off of you and your kayak you can then do what really needs to be done.

In this scenario you want to get them back into their kayak. You have to break away from the swimmer or convince them to let go so you can retrieve their kayak. Once away from the swimmer I would get their kayak, empty it and tow it back. Then assist as needed to get them back into their kayak. Again, once you have their kayak you have a very stable platform for them and yourself. If I can get them to swim to their kayak it is a great way to get them focused and possibly feel some control over their situation. Since your bracing skills are limited you may not be able to paddle with them on your back deck. (See USK article "Swimmer Assists") After they are in their kayak we will rest on each other’s boats until we are both physically and emotionally ready to go.

After we were back on shore I would try to find out the reason for the panic attack. I want to find out how we can keep this from happening again. Most often people panic when they feel in danger. A capsize should be no big deal if you are properly dressed and have practiced wet exits and capsize recoveries. Perhaps my friend needs more capsize recovery practice in open water conditions. They especially need to do repeated wet exits. In addition we should both practice our bracing skills.

Suggested response to avoid the situation:

Approach cautiously while trying to communicate with the panicked swimmer. Try to calm them down through communication. Be prepared to back paddle out of the situation if they get too close while still in panic mode. If they are not in contact with their kayak and paddle I would have the swimmer focus their attention on getting their equipment if that equipment has not drifted too far away. I have found giving directions and asking a panicked person to perform tasks can help them calm down, but the lines of communication have to be working before tasks are given.

If they cannot get to their equipment I would get it for them. I would get the kayak first because it can get blown away faster and it provides a good support for the swimmer. A towline is a necessity when kayaking. I also have a cowtail on my PFD, which is perfect for these short distance transfers. I would empty the water from the kayak and then tow it near the swimmer. I don’t want to get caught of guard when emptying water and allow them the opportunity to get a hold of my kayak and me, so I will empty the kayak away from them. I try to keep their kayak between me and them so they could use their own kayak for support while they are in the water rather than grabbing mine. A good point to remember is, once I have their kayak in hand it becomes very difficult to tip me over. Their kayak becomes my support. When ready I will stabilize their kayak and assist them, as needed, in getting back into their kayak. As mentioned above we will rest on each other’s boats until we are both physically and emotionally ready to continue.

Main lessons learned from this scenario:

Don't rush into a situation
Paddle with folks who dress properly and wear their PFD
Develop a reliable brace
Always carry a tow rope
Practicing emergency skills reduces the chance of panic


As an instructor (ocean & whitewater) and guide I have seen my share of panicking students and clients. It took me a while to learn how to deal with the different ways I have seen panic manifest itself. The scenario above is a variation of a real incident that happened to me early in my kayaking career.

What really happened?

I was eager to be out kayaking no matter what the reason. When I heard that kayak support boats were needed for an ocean swimming race along the Santa Barbara coast I volunteered immediately. I found it interesting that the race organizers never asked how qualified we were as kayakers. In addition, there was no mention of how to handle a problem. The only instruction we were given was, if you need help wait for one of the motorized support boats that will be patrolling the eight-mile race route.

It was a beautiful day and the water temperature was in the mid 60’s. I was paddling along with a group of swimmers at the six-mile mark. One of them said he was getting cold and he needed to get out of the water. I looked for the larger support boat but it wasn’t anywhere in sight. Seeing he was shivering violently meant I had to do something because it was obvious he was hypothermic. I knew he had to get his body out of the water. I told him to climb on and lie on the back deck of my kayak. At that instant he quickly climbed on but did not lie on the back deck. He sat up right behind me. As he started to sit up I shouted for him to lie down or we will tip over. At this chapter of my paddling career I was not confident in my bracing skills and not aware of the extended paddle sculling brace.

The incident got worse. As I tried to keep us upright with my limited bracing skills I kept shouting to him to lie on the back deck. Instead of following directions he began to put his arms around me because he felt us moving from side to side. I guess he thought I was some type of stability for him. I could feel him shaking from the cold. I instinctively went into my former lifeguard training when I took my WSI class years ago. The thought of him putting his arms around me and pinning my arms to my side was not going to happen. One of the techniques I learned was to take the victim down under the water to get him or her to release you. They want to be on the surface holding something secure. That is why they grabbed you in the first place. I thought fast and rolled to my left side hoping he would let go of me and end up floating on the left side of my kayak allowing me to roll up on my right side (my on-side roll). As I went over he let go as expected. Then I rolled up as quickly as possible hoping he wouldn’t have time to get a hold of my kayak while I was upside down. If that had occurred I knew I would have to wet exit. (Then we would have been in a different scenario.)

I rolled up without interference (thank goodness). As soon as I came up I paddled away from the swimmer as quickly as possible. I then turned and called out telling him that I will not come near him unless he listened to me about lying on my back deck. When he was able to communicate calmly (repeat to me what he was going to do) I came back and let him back on my kayak. I realized I was more stable paddling forward than just sitting in one place. I paddled both of us for about ten minutes before the motor boat came by and relieved me of the cold swimmer.

The days following that incident were spent doing a great deal of reflection. I thought about what happened, what I did, what could have possibly happened, what was effective and ineffective, how I could have avoided the situation and what skills I need to work on to be more prepared. I often tell this story because it is not too uncommon to end up having to transport another. This true story is also a good warning to those naive paddlers who volunteer to be support kayakers for events not having the proper skills to handle emergencies.

Responses from our readers:

Gary from California writes:

In any critical incident, whether in kayaking or any other situation, the first priority is not to become a second victim. That only complicates the problem for both parties. Particularly if my bracing skills are questionable, the first step is to disengage from the swimmer. Clouting him with a paddle is probably a little severe, but shoving him off of me and back paddling out of reach before he pulls me over is a necessity. I know I'm wearing my PFD and my friend should be wearing his also. If not, shame on him. Supposing that he has made the choice to wear his PFD, he's not likely to drown at this point

After disengaging, I'll have to keep communicating with the swimmer firmly but calmly to both deescalate his panic and to demonstrate that I am in control of the situation and that he can trust me to rescue him. When I feel confident that he has calmed down, I would approach him with my bow. That approach makes it easier to control his actions and maintain my balance. Assuming his boat has not drifted too far away, I can paddle him to his boat with him holding onto my bow.

Once he has rested a bit and we're ready to continue with the reentry, a T rescue would probably be my choice. Being one of the first rescues taught, it should be familiar to him and easy for him to follow. It also lets him to hang onto his boat the majority of the time and allows him to help somewhat. This gives him a measure of reassurance and also helps to occupy his mind until he's back aboard with his boat pumped out and ready to go.  This response presupposes 2 kayakers in calm conditions. Wind, waves, rocks, currents, or sea monsters would add further complications. 

Steve Holtzman from California writes:

If I couldn't get him to let go of me, I would lean on him and push him under. This will usually cause them let go. I would then paddle a way a few feet away and let them know that if they want an assist back into their boat, they have to calm down some, listen to and follow instructions, or I will leave them. This has worked in the past.

After getting this person back to shore, I would seriously think of taking a bracing class, especially from USK. Then I would practice bracing while someone is trying to capsize me.


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