Swim Safely in the Ganges
Posted June 7, 2007
I have quite a knowledge of strong currents and was trained in saving people swimming in strong currents. I received a Red Cross Life Saving certificate, which included a mock rescue of my 240-pounds swimming teacher and hundreds of hours of swimming lessons. My stepfather, an Atlantic City lifeguard, showed me many things about reading dangerous currents and how to swim in them.
As Atlantic City is dependent on tourists they go through great efforts to keep tourists from drowning. One thing that saves many lives in Atlantic City is that except for surfers it is illegal to swim in the ocean out of sight of a lifeguard. The lifeguards try to make sure that no one goes out farther than the lifeguards can reach them.
Sometimes the undertow of a large wave can pull people under, sweeping them out as much as a mile into the ocean beforethey resurface. When going into strong currents it is never advisable to go far from the shore. I have three brothers (all with lifeguard certificates), and I never saw any of them go out longer than a minute in water deeper than they could touch bottom unless they wore a flotation device.
Sometimes one of us would see someone swimming out deep in the ocean; we joked that he was more stupid than brave. A person swimming in a lake or pool depends mainly on his own ability but in the ocean is at the mercy of God.
When I first saw the Ganges in 1981 I was amazed athow large it was and at the speed of the current. I traveled to many places around India and bathed at many holy places and rivers. Nowhere did I ever see a place as impressive as the Ganges in Mayapur.
I have heard about several devotees drowningor almost drowning while swimming in the Ganges. One devotee woman, seeing another devotee beginning to be swept away by the strong Ganges current, entered the water and pulled her out, but regrettably was swept away by the current herself, drowning in the process. Another devotee, in deep water between the riverbank and a sandbar island, started drowning. A second devotee swam out quickly, got a cramp in his leg and had to be saved from drowning himself.
It can often be extremely dangerous to save someone. I was trained that there is no point of swimming out to save someone if you do not have the energy to save them when you actually reach them. When someone starts to drown a great deal of adrenalin is shot into their system, which means that if you reach them too quickly they may still be extremely strong and desperate, so the first thing you do when you get close to them is to stop about 3 metres (10 feet) from them to see if they will lunge at you.
If they do, swim back to shore and keep going until they weaken. This tires out the drowning person so that he does not have the ability to do any harm to you; if you are really lucky he may swim all the way back to shore on his own. There are many other techniques to be used such as what to do if the person sinks under the water, etc.
Often a current will not maintain its strength for a long distance; it may just end for no apparent reason. As long as you can keep your head above water you will not die, so the most important thing is not just to get back to shore. If you realize that you will most likely not have enough energy to get back to shore, it is much better to use the energy you have left to keep your head above water; the current may suddenly end or a devotee or local person may save you.
Another danger of the Ganges is that it often it can be extremely muddy near the shore. If you swim poorly or are elderly, you have to be careful when wading that you do not get stuck or fall into deeper water with a strong current that will pull you downstream very quickly, out of reach of someone who could save you.
Before going to the Ganges you should ask advice of locals as to where they feel it is safe to swim. Swimming aroundpeople should mean always swimming near other people who are close enough to save you. This also means that you should as much as posilble swim upstream from stronger swimmers because if you get caught in a strong current a person downstream from you could potentially save you. If you enter the water downstream from others and get caught in a strong current, potential rescuers will have to run ahead and then swim out to catch up to you; if you panic or cannot swim they may not be able to reach you in time.
If you experience a problem donot hesitate to call for help immediately, as the longer you wait the harder it will become to solve the problem. The sooner you call out,the more likely you are to be saved. The common signal you should give is to raise one of you arms and wave to get the attention of someone to indicate that you are drownng.
If you do not know how to speak English it is a good idea to learn at leastone word: "Help!"
To avoid the many potential problems at the Ganges I would suggest a few things.
1. During the Mayapur festival at least three lifeguards should be available who have advanced swimming skills, including swimming in the Ganges and certified experience at saving drowning people. Each lifeguard should have flotation devices with ropes attached.
2. It is an excellent idea never to swim alone. Usually, the larger the group the better, but not all groups are the same. Once as I approached the Ganges a group of local devotees really looked like they knew what they were doing. I followed them so I could swim with them. You are much safer swimming near good swimmers (especially young local ones) than near a general group of inexperienced swimmers. It is a good idea to keep a strong swimmer downstream from you.
3. The general rule is that the better swimmers are more likely to drown than people that are less experienced, because they take more risks. The general rule is not to go so far from other people that no one can save you.
4. It is a good idea to watch the local devotees and swim where they swim, as they are much more likely to know the safer places. Another advantage is that you are swimming near a devotee experienced with swimming in the local Ganges currents.
5. Just because you are experienced in swimming in currents does not mean you are safer than other swimmers in the Ganges. I lived 15 years of my life not more than three blocks from the ocean, but I almost drowned while swimming in the ocean at Kovalam. A local lifeguard blew his whistle at me; instinctively I lunged toward shore but was caught by a strong undertow pulling me out. When I tried to swim close to shore I still could not touch the ground. As I tried to swim more vigorously I soon became exhausted.
Making no further effort to move towards shore, I just tried to stay above the water. Two local teenagers jumped out, grabbed my hand and pulled me in another three feet so that I could touch ground. During this time the two lifeguards on duty entered the water to save me. One of them had a flotation device attached to a rope. He threw the flotation device to me; the two of them then used the rope to haul me in.
A few lessons can be learned from this. Firstly, I entered the water in front of a lifeguard. Secondly, when I heard the warning of a person experienced with local waters, I immediately tried to return to shore. When I realized that the current was too strong for me to return by my own efforts, I used my remaining strength to stay afloat, which is only about 1/20 of the effort required to swim against the current. Finally, I was swimming near people who were able to help me.
When swimming in the Ganges, if you are caught by a strong current don't panic and try desperately to get back to shore. If you feel there is no way you can swim back it could be a good idea to just ride the current and float until the strong current subsides and you can easily swim back to shore. When in doubt, do try to get back to the shore.
It is a really good idea to swim a bit upstream from stronger swimmers,
especially if they have experience swimming in the Ganges. Also it is a
good idea, if possible, to swim around young swimmers in their late
teens or twenties, as they will usually have much more physical
strength than younger or older people.