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Surprise introduction to the Gasp Reflex

Last night at a skills session, I went for my first unintentional swim in 7 months, thanks to the gasp reflex.

It was warm (mid-60's), sunny, the water temp was around 50 on the dead-flat-calm lake and I was clad in my usual dry suit and fleece. One of the students in the beginner's class I was assisting in asked about balance bracing, so I took the opportunity to do an impromptu demonstration, sans hood or nose plugs. After sculling down, I rested on the suface for a few seconds and all was fine. The water was brisk, but not uncomfortable. To recover, I normally submerge momentarily, set up and do a lazy roll onto the aft deck. No big deal, right?

This time, however, as soon as I went under, I started gasping uncontrollably. I managed to avoid sucking in any water, but became disoriented and felt that insidious feeling of panic creeping up on me. Things went downhill from there in a hurry. A rushed setup and head-up exit resulted in a blown roll. Sculling furiously kept me above water for a few seconds, but I was gasping hard and so far out of position that I couldn't stay up. The partial breath I got wasn't enough and when I submerged again, I knew I was in trouble. The fastest way out would have been to set up and roll as I had originally planned or simply scull to the surface, but reason was overidden by the desperate need to breathe RIGHT NOW, and I grabbed the relase loop and bailed. I even let go of the paddle, something that I almost never do. UGH! How embarassing!

Although my body was warm and dry, I could not control my breathing, having inhaled a bit of water during the wet exit. Since I was swimming, we took the opportunity to demonstate a T-rescue for the students. Even when back in the boat, it took several minutes to get my breathing back to normal.

Lessons learned:

1) The gasp reflex is for real and can strike you even when you're comfortable, relaxed and paddling in benign conditions. I have been swimming and rolling in much colder conditions without problems, but I was always wearing a hood.

2) The gasping is absolutely uncontrollable and can incapacitate you quickly. Self rescue would have been quite difficult until my breathing calmed down. I don't know if I would have been able to execute a re-enter and roll at all.

3) Always wear a hood when playing in 50 degree water. I suspect that it was the lack of head insulation that triggered the gasping.

4) Even a reliable roll isn't 100% reliable. Although I was executing moves that I had practiced many times, the effects of gasping were so overpowering that even muscle memory failed me. Unexpected occurances can disorient you to the point where your skills will desert you.

5) Spend lots of time in the water, especially upside-down, to help aleviate the feeling of panic that can occur if you're not comfortable being submerged. I thought I had licked this, but I was obviously wrong.

6) Regardless of your skill/confidence level, you should not take the effects of cold water lightly. Unless you have gills, it's a foreign environment that can hurt you.

I was never in any real danger, as rescue was close at hand, but this was certainly an eye-opening experience.

Paddle safe.