How to Survive a Whirlpool

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Whirlpools are the bane of novice kayakers and the exhilaration of well-experienced adrenaline junkies. Found in rivers, tidal waters near their mouths or other areas where currents swirl in more than one direction, whirlpools pose a potential danger of drowning. Survive a whirlpool by familiarizing yourself with the different types you may encounter, devising a strategy for each and remaining calm should you become swept up in one.

Heading Downriver

  • The most effective strategy for surviving a whirlpool is to not get caught in one in the first place. When river kayaking, pull your craft over to the side and walk downstream to spy out any standing whirlpools or dangerous hydraulics. Once deployed in the water, should a whirlpool form unexpectedly in front of you, use strong strokes to propel yourself to the side of the whirlpool that is heading downstream. Use your momentum and additional paddle strokes to break free of the whirlpool's grasp on the downstream side.

Standing Still

  • Standing whirlpools can be the easiest to avoid, but the trickiest to get out of. The largest standing whirlpool in the Western Hemisphere is the Old Sow, found off the coast of Deer Island in New Brunswick, Canada. Old Sow's vortex is up to 250 feet in diameter, with roiling waters, holes and troughs around its perimeter. Though the whirlpool has caused a long list of fatalities, your best bet of surviving Old Sow or other standing whirlpools is to keep your boat from swamping and let the vortex spit you out. Work your way to the outside edge of the whirlpool, moving in the direction of water flow. Once on the outer edge, you can thrust yourself into the flow of the water beyond its reach.

Vertical Whirlpools

  • Vertical whirlpools -- also known as hydraulics -- begin with waves that roll back over onto themselves. Like other types of whirlpools, these can be standing or temporary occurrences. The water thunders back onto itself, creating white water on the surface. Avoid getting caught in this vortex by ducking down beneath the foaming water churning in the backwash. Force yourself down into the smooth water that dips beneath it and keeps traveling downstream. You may need to force yourself down with your arms if you're wearing a flotation device.

Increasing Survival Odds

  • Wear a life vest when boating or kayaking to help you stay afloat should you become caught up in a whirlpool. Don't ditch your craft, as flotation will keep you from becoming pinned below the surface by the force of the water. Getting out of a whirlpool or other hydraulic is usually an exhausting experience, and you will appreciate the flotation once you are free of its grip. Your PFD or kayak also makes it easier for rescuers to spot you and come to your aid.

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