The Navy SEALS are known for their combat swimming stroke, which they deem as one of the most efficient ways of swimming for long periods of time without wasting too much energy. This stroke is swum on your side with a single-armed breaststroke action and a scissor kick.
(Video: US Navy SEALs Combat Swim)
But you need to know this: A 'Combat Swim' stroke isn't just an advanced tactic of the Navy SEALS for staying afloat or swimming long distances. You're about to learn how swimming can safe your life in a variety of life-threatening situations.
Swimming can help you find food.
Swimming can help you find shelter.
Swimming can help you lose pursuers and evade enemy forces.
Swimming can help you cross wide channels of water.
With 71% of the Earth's surface being covered in water, it is no wonder why swimming is viewed as an essential life skill. As a child, you likely would have been dragged to swimming lessons without question and we'd turn up and learn what we have to learn. However, unless you have a vested interest in swimming as a sport, it's likely you have never really tried to harness swimming as a survival skill.
Annually, in the US alone, there is an average of 3,536 drownings. This statistic doesn't even include drownings related to boating accidents; that would bring the overall number closer to 4000 drownings per year.
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Does it make sense now why being a strong swimmer and able to handle oneself in the water is one of the key factors in being chosen for the Navy SEALs?
Survival Skill # 1 for Any Kind of Current is This:
Think of an ocean current or downward flow of a river a lot like a powerful conveyor belt. If it's strong enough, it's next to impossible for even the strongest swimmers to swim against it at a fast enough pace to make forward progress. So, they are fighting a losing battle and being sucked either out to sea past the breakers (an ocean current called a "rip current" which can form near many beaches), or they are being pulled down river. Quickly they tire from the excessive effort to swim, and many drown.
A rip current can form when the sand beneath the ocean floor is pushed apart by incoming waves (only visible underneath the water), creating a "lane" pointing from the beach to the ocean, and now after the waves have crashed against the beach nearby water finds a backflow within that lane of sand, now flowing in the direction of the open ocean. Anyone swimming adjacent to it or within it can find themselves suddenly in the "rip current" and now being pulled toward the ocean.
It doesn't have to be stormy for there to be a rip current; it can be relatively calm around and they will happen close to shore. Here's a few tell-tale signs there's a rip current:
- Channel of choppy, white water leading out from the shore
- Debris being pulled at a right angle from the beach out to sea
- A split or gap in a wave, where the rip current is moving
- The rip current channel will lead to a head (usually a mushroom shape)
- The water will look foamy or murky The natural human instinct when in danger is to panic. Unfortunately, if you get caught in a rip current, this is one of the worst things to do. You will waste valuable energy trying to fight the strong moving water and will find it much harder to get yourself out of the situation.
Instead, try to think calmly about what your next move is going to be. Rather than thinking about fighting the force and swimming in the opposite direction to the moving water, you should attempt to swim parallel to the shore until you are out of the current. It is at this point you can begin to swim back to the shore.
If you aren't strong enough to do so, let the current pull you out to where it naturally calms just past the surf zone. From here, you should be able to swim diagonally back to land, without too much bother.
Rip currents are most common in the latter part of the year, during storm season. This is when the sea becomes choppier and waves are usually bigger. It is important to keep this in mind so you can plan when to head out. Those bigger waves pound against the shore, making it easier for sand "lanes" to be pushed apart creating the conditions for a rip current as described earlier.
Drownings and capsizing can also happen in tidal currents that occur in those harbor inlets, where the water flows between two sections of land.
Rip tides are not always bad news. Native American tribes who canoe paddle the Puget Sound (where the Pacific Ocean flows past the San Juan Islands and into a large natural bay with additional islands and near Seattle, Washington), take advantage of the rip tides "conveyor belt effect" by simply paddling into the current, and then letting the current (conveyor belt lane of water) pull them several miles in whatever direction the tide is moving at that particular time of the day and where they intend to travel to.
From the coast line, it's even possible for spectators to see a lane of water that is crossing the Puget Sound, carrying a Native group in a hand carved canoe. It is quite a sight to take in.
If you have a book of tidal charts, you can know what time of the day the water is flowing, and use the tides in your favor. (Of course that is for people well familiar with boating and shouldn't be attempted by a newbie who might bite off more than he or she can chew one day).
Even though a river may look safe, there can be incredibly strong undercurrents and flash floods which will not only sweep strong swimmers away, but also move big logs and rocks. This is why you need to weigh up your options before you attempt to cross or swim in a river.
Before you decide to enter or cross a river, first you should:
- Place a log in to determine how quickly it is moving
- Be aware of your own swimming abilities
- Find a narrow, calm stretch of water
- Look out for floating, moving debris which could injure you
- Spot an easy exit point on the other side of the river i.e. a low bank, remembering to calculate the approximate location the downward current of the river will land you at if you swim across it. In other words, because of the river flow, you won't be able to swim across it in a straight line (not unless it's moving slowly) and will end up moving in a diagonal line pointing toward the bank from your entrance point. Have you chosen a safe exit point where you can pull yourself up and out of the river? Have you identified possible hazards that may lie just a few feet downriver should you underestimate how long it will take you to cross, such as low-hanging tree branches, slippery rocks and or white water?
- Never cross a river where a log jam or river bend occur just down river; if something goes wrong during your crossing, and you get pulled down stream into that log jam, you may drown. Or there may be invisible hazards just below the waves down in that river bend (or elsewhere in that river -- always study it closely and be confident of your crossing ability before making any attempt. Patiently take your time to find the best location for a crossing).
Other times, you might actually be able to see the water under the surface moving or rippling, dragging along debris. This can also cause it to appear a slightly different color than other types of water in the river.
Just like getting caught out in a rip current, it is important not to panic. If you are capable, you should always attempt to swim at a 45-degree angle towards the river bank. This will be the quickest and most efficient way of getting out of trouble.
If you simply aren't able to do this, lie on your back, keeping your face out the water and wait for you to be pulled to calmer water. If you spread your arms and legs, you should be able to slow yourself down.
First, as well as being able to help yourself, you are a much greater asset to a team if you are a strong swimmer because you will also be able to help others if they get into danger. Be careful though, as you can often put yourself in danger by trying to help someone else.
Think about the Navy SEALS, for example. SEALS and military swimmers also need to be confident at treading water for a long time, while holding a weight. This realistic style training will mean that they are well prepared for any kind of rescue mission they will have to do.
Being a strong swimmer will mean that you have the confidence and know-how to complete a successful hunting mission in water. Not only can you hunt fish and other species of sea life (such as crabs, shellfish, crawdads / crayfish), but you can also forage for seaweed, which is a good source of calcium and iron.
Although you can't drink sea water, fish contain valuable liquid in their eyes, flesh and spine, which can be obtained by cutting them open and sucking it out. Make sure it's a fresh fish to avoid illness.
The single biggest way to become a stronger swimmer is to work on your technique, before worrying about any sort of distance traveled. The smoother and more streamlined your swimming technique is, the more efficient you will be, thus wasting less energy. Remember that video of the Navy SEAL combat swim stroke? Rather than focus on the fitness aspect of swimming, just get started by fine tuning the technique. The fitness will come in time; getting the technique down on the other hand is more likely to be the life saver.
Due to the fact humans are not naturally fantastic swimmers, it does take regular practice. If you are serious about improving your swimming, it is recommended to take up some lessons as a professional coach or teacher will know exactly how to help you out.
Working on your breathing will also help you if you get into danger because it will keep you calm under a stressful situation. A poor breathing technique can waste vital energy. So, working on that breathing and then perfecting the combat swim stroke used by Navy SEALS can help you be a strong, long distance swimmer, if the opportunity or need ever presents itself.
And one day it just might.
- Hood or waterproof cap (for colder waters also)
- Wet suit boots
- Wet suit gloves
- Goggles or face mask to allow underwater swimming and foraging for wild edibles.
- Diving fins
- Snorkel (for practiced swimmers and divers)
- As a survival skill, snorkeling enables a person to study the bottom of the ocean, river, or lake in an effort to find wild edibles, which can be easily obtained in many shallow water bays. There may be a large assortment of easily obtained food just below the water's surface or a few feet down on the bottom floor; being able to snorkel for it may be just what saves the day and keeps you and your family well fed in an extended survival emergency (i.e. collapse).
- Want to exert less energy snorkeling for food? From the shore (or a boat), pick up a large rock and let the weight of the rock pull you down underneath the water and to the floor (but don't go too deep -- not without some training in deep water snorkeling due to the need for holding your breath longer and also the pressures that are exerted at deeper depths that can injure the untrained).
- While diving fins can enable much better swimming with practice, they are not a requirement.
- People in northern climates would be wise to invest in a wet suit ... it enables cold water swimming for a long duration of time though even colder waters may call for a "dry suit." A wise move would be to learn about the merits of a wet suit vs. a dry suit and vice versa and then decide if your climate or location calls for either. In other words, it is possible to swim / snorkel for food in colder waters, without a wet suit, but only for a shorter duration of time (you don't want to risk hypothermia by spending too much time in cold water); having a campfire built close by on shore would mean that you could warm up quickly and then resume your snorkeling activities and that search for wild edibles beneath the water's surface.
- Need to cross a wide channel of water? It is possible to swim with a life vest on; when it's all said and done, packing a life vest may be the smartest way to get yourself across a body of water. Though it may take more time than swimming without a life vest on, it can keep your head above the water even after you've exerted all your energy, helping ensure that you don't drown and live to see another day.
About the author: Connor Mollison is a former elite swimmer, having been ranked within the top 20 in the UK and training partner with current 2016 Olympic swimmers. Now retired, Connor teaches children and adults how to swim and runs his own outdoors website over at Sniff Outdoors.