Five Tips for Divers From a Navy Aviation Rescue Swimmer

There are roughly 500,000 US Navy military personnel deployed all over the world in elite task forces and laborious jobs on and in the water.

This past weekend, I had the privilege of reconnecting with former Navy Aviation Rescue Swimmer (AIRRs) and old friend, Alan Kipping-Ruane, in an interview that inspired this article.

Alan was selected to join an elite squad of the AIRRs department. As Crew Chief of his squad, Alan has years of experience as a professional swimmer and rescuer. And just for clarification, as an AIRRs, your daily job is to fly into dangerous situations via Navy helicopter, then leap from the back of the chopper into rough waters to try and rescue people — stressful and demanding to say the least.

After recently completing his 5-year term with the Navy, Alan is now the founder of TriGuy Multisport Coaching and an incredibly experienced triathlon coach. Drawing from his AIRRs background, Alan had some great insights and tips for being prepared to deal with all types of water situations.

Here are his top five tips for scuba divers:

1. Be comfortable in the water (whether rough, calm or low-vis conditions).

Alan recounted how disorienting it could be to leap out of helicopter without your mask/goggles. Hitting choppy, open waters can be scary. The best advice Alan can give to swimmers, divers and boaters is to be comfortable in the water. Have strong swimming skills and be sure you are prepared for both the best and worst ocean conditions. “It’s about being prepared physically, but more importantly, mentally, to deal with that fear,” said Alan.

2. Build a strong kick and flexible ankles (preparation for currents & waves).

Triathletes often use short, flexible fins to train, but with a background as a rescue swimmer, Alan makes all his triathletes train with the big, sturdy fins that a scuba diver would use. Why?

Alan says, “When you add a fin that flexes less, it gives your legs and hip flexors an incredible workout. When you put on the small fins that only make you quicker, you don’t develop any power in your kick.”

Exercises that strengthen your calves, ankles and feet are imperative for developing a steady kick. Diving regularly with your scuba fins will keep your lower half in great shape for swimming.

3. Cover-up with the proper gear (covered skin fights the chill)

A rescue swimmer without the proper attire can easily have the breath knocked out of him jumping into 30 to 40-degree water, but because rescue swimmers must also be as hydrodynamic as possible, simply adding a thicker wetsuit often isn’t an option.

Alan’s tips for staying warm and maximally streamlined are to minimize wetsuit thickness and maximize skin coverage. So instead of donning a 7 mm wetsuit and leaving your hands and head exposed, opt for a 4 or 5 mm wetsuit, in addition to gloves, hoodie, proper boots and a full mask. Covering every inch of skin will ward off the bite of chilly waters.

4. Perfect your swim technique (think high elbows and streamlined body).

If you want to be as fast and as strong as possible in the water, you’ll need to put in some pool training. Simply swimming a few times a week will keep your body strong and flexible for scuba diving. Alan mentioned how critical it was for AIRRs to have perfect swim technique.

“Even a scuba diver could benefit from some basic swim-technique training so they have the confidence and proper skill to handle swimming in rough surface waters, ” said Alan. I personally had a few sessions with a swim coach just to get his advice on improving my swim strokes and I’ve found it really beneficial when I’m scuba diving.

Most importantly, when swimming on the surface with your gear on, keep your elbows high out of the waves and be sure to turn your head to breath in a rhythmic pattern. Alan has more swimming tips here, if you’re interested.

5. Increase your lung capacity (hypoxic training & gadgets).

Alan recounted an extreme training technique his Navy instructors would have him perform called hypoxic training, which involves underwater sprints wherein you push off one pool wall and swim underwater all the way to the other side, without breathing. These exercises hurt and can cause an inexperienced athlete to pass out underwater. However, hypoxic training trains your lungs and heart to be the most efficient.

**Editor’s Note: Hypoxic training is quite dangerous. Be sure to have a lifeguard on duty with oxygen, and a friend in the water supervising you while you complete these to prevent shallow-water blackout.

For those of us who want to increase our lung capacity but don’t find the possibility of underwater blackouts particularly appealing, Alan recommends getting a breath trainer, such as the PowerLUNG device. “Simply exercising the respiratory muscles by breathing against the slight resistance of one of these units can increase your lung capacity,” says Alan. I must say that I personally have used one of these and seen a marked increase in my ability to hold my breath longer and inhale deeper.

Final Thoughts:

Although all these tips can help your swimming and diving skills tremendously, be sure that before trying anything, you’re very comfortable in the water and always have someone supervising you (whether in open ocean or the pool). And, of course, have some fun!

I’d love your feedback on this article and Alan from TriGuy Multisport Coaching has agreed to personally answer any questions you may have for him.