As regular land-dwellers, people don’t often encounter whirlpools unless they spend a lot of time on a large river or boating along the coast. The most experience casual outdoors enthusiasts have with whirlpools is what they’ve seen in movies, and that’s far from preparation for the real thing.
Even if you’re only planning a fishing trip upstream for a few days, it’s still important to take a few minutes and familiarize yourself with how to survive a whirlpool.
What is a Whirlpool?
Whirlpools are a fairly common occurrence in lakes, rivers, and large streams. A whirlpool occurs when two currents running opposite directions meet, causing a circle of rotating water. Alternatively, whirlpools are also created when a strong current interacts with a stationary object, like a large boulder, dams, or an uneven riverbed.
Whirlpools come in many sizes, ranging from the minuscule whirlpools you see when you unplug your bathtub, to the ship-eating whirlpool Saltstraumen in the Arctic Circle. The largest whirlpools, the kind found at sea, are referred to as maelstroms.
Throughout history, whirlpools have been a point of interest for many cultures. In Greek mythology, the massive whirlpool monster Charybdis consumes lost ships, sending them to the bottom of the ocean.
But, in almost every culture, the whirlpool is regarded as dangerous, and for good reason.
It’s not often that you hear about people being swallowed whole by whirlpool, but it does happen, and it’s important to be prepared.
How To Escape a Whirlpool
Picture this: you’re out on the river with your friends for a casual weekend kayaking trip. You are a good distance in front of your friends and hit some rapids. At one point, the rapids meet up with a large outcropping of rock, forming a swirling vortex — a whirlpool.
Your kayak gets caught in the rapids and you flip out, getting sucked toward the whirlpool. You have a life-vest on but you’re not a strong swimmer, and you’re struggling for air as you’re getting pulled farther down.
So, in this situation, you might be wondering, how do you escape a whirlpool without any swimming experience? Aren’t the strongest swimmers the ones who stand the highest chance of survival?
While it’s a reasonable assumption, it’s not entirely true.
The currents of a whirlpool, especially if it’s in a river or a larger body of water, will always be stronger than even the most proficient swimmers.
But that’s not a reason to give up hope and make peace with your watery grave. Here’s what you can do to improve your chances of survival when facing a whirlpool:
Step 1: Remain Calm
While it may be a challenge, keeping your cool is the most important part of surviving a whirlpool. If you let fear and panic overtake you, you’re going to kick your brain into fight or flight mode.
That big adrenaline rush is going to want to make you want to try as hard as possible to swim against the current, and as we said, you won’t win a battle versus the elements.
All panicking will do is wear you out. After you’ve exhausted your big adrenaline rush, you’ll be fighting not just against the water, but against exhaustion.
When you’re in imminent danger from a whirlpool, take a deep breath and be patient. Freaking out will only cause you more harm.
Step 2: Wait For Your Moment
Once you’ve reached your zen, or relative zen, you have to bide your time. Now, that might seem counterintuitive, since you’re literally being pulled into a whirlpool.
But the currents that fuel these whirlpools are constantly changing. So the strong current pushing you down might only last for a few seconds, and you’ll be able to escape simply through swimming with the new current.
Of course, for larger whirlpools, this might not be an option, so here are a few other tips.
Step 3: Find Purchase or Rely on Your PFD
If you’re in a river or a stream and get caught in a whirlpool, one of the best things you can do is find some kind of purchase.
Stones jutting out of the water, tree branches hanging over the water, etc. Having something solid to hang on to makes it easier for you to wait out the whirlpool or until help arrives.
Some whirlpools pop up in relatively shallow water, so you might even be able to stand up straight. Just make sure you try to find good footing and keep your head above water.
In our kayaking example from above, the victim was wearing a life jacket, or a personal flotation device (PFD). While whirlpool currents couldn’t care less about your life jacket, you’re going to need it once you manage to escape.
You’re going to be tired, and having something to keep you afloat will save your life after you’ve escaped the whirlpool. It doesn’t matter if it’s your life vest, your kayak, or a log floating along the river, anything you can find to keep you afloat will work.
Read Up To Survive A Whirlpool
If you’re planning a fishing trip or a kayaking excursion, take a little bit of time to do your research. High-traffic spots will often have whirlpool advisories or restrictions on where you can go.
Other outdoor enthusiasts will in your area probably know about the region too, so asking friends, family, and fellow outdoorsy folk can help you know which areas have whirlpools. If all else fails, contact a local park ranger or coast guard official, as they’re bound to have information about dangerous areas.
And you’ve already read this article, so you know how to survive a whirlpool if you end up encountering one despite your research!