The ACA Swift Water Rescue (SWR) class will teach you numerous rescue skills and I highly recommend this class.  In the Beginners Class, we will only have time to cover a few of these techniques.  We will concentrate on throw rope skills, bow rescues, wet exits, and bull dozing.  The white water roll is the most common self rescue technique and the club offers rolling sessions starting in January in a nice warm swimming pool.  Many of the commercial outfitters provide roll training all season long.

Self Rescue in Moving Current

Lets assume you have just flipped your kayak and don't have a roll, what are the next steps?  The first step is to immediately lean forward and tuck tight.  This action will protect your face and extremities.  It is also the beginning set-up for the white water roll.  If you think there is a good chance for a bow rescue, try waving your hands back and forth along the side of your boat above the water line.  Your hands should be perpendicular to the boat, not flat against the boat hull.  This will protect you from an overly aggressive rescuer pitoning your hand.  Here is a nice article on the bow rescue: Kayak Bow Rescue.  Here is nice video that demonstrates the technique.  Notice that he still holds the paddle with one hand which is excellent technique.  Unfortunately he also has his hands flat on the boat hull and almost gets them harpooned by the rescuer: Kayak Bow Rescue Demo.

OK, you have waited long enough for a bow rescue - now what?  Since you are in the tuck position and still holding onto that paddle, you are ready for a wet exit.  The first step is to release the spray skirt with your free hand.  Simply feel for the grab loop in the front of your cockpit and pull.  Now press with both hands and push off the foot bulkhead to extract yourself from the boat.  This is a lot like taking your pants off.  If the back band gets in your way, simply slide it down off your butt and try again.  Here is a great video demonstration by Janet Cowie of Zoar Outdoors: Wet Exit Demo.  Here is another demonstration filmed under water so you can actually see the technique.  Notice the hands are perpendicular to the hull - excellent technique.  Unfortunately he doesn't use the tight tucked position that a white water boater needs to use.  Underwater Wet Exit Video.

The Whitewater Roll

The pinnacle of self rescue is the whitewater roll.  The roll takes time to learn and lots of practice to keep it sharp.  Our club runs rolling sessions in a nice warm pool starting in January.  All of the local commercial vendors also provide training throughout the season.  There are lots of roll styles but the most common are the Sweep and the C2C.  I really like this instructional video from Expediciones Chile: The Roll Identifier.  Another fascinating site on rolling is from the Greenland Kayak Association: Capsize Recovery Strokes.  I especially like the film clip on hand rolling with a brick - absolutely insane!

Swimming in Current

Now that you are out of your boat, let's work on your fine back stroke technique.  Here is a list of tips for white water swimming:

  • If possible, hold onto your boat and paddle.  This speeds rescue efforts and avoids lost equipment - AKA: The Yard Sale effect.
  • Stay on the upstream end of your boat.  You don't want to be between a rock and a boat full of water.
  • Don't stand up in swift water.  People have gotten their feet stuck in rocks that way.
  • Lay flat on your back and use your one free hand scissor kicks to swim to shore.
  • If some paddlers come to rescue you, do what they instruct you to do.  They can see a great deal better than you can because they are sitting higher.
  • If you are coming up to a dangerous obstacle, for example a strainer or tall drop - ditch the gear and high tail it to safety.  Boats can be replaced, you can't.
  • If you have to swim over a tall ledge or through a big hole, tuck into a tight ball to protect your torso and extremities and open up after the drop.
  • Keep an eye out for a throw rope and grab it if you can.  The rope should be positioned on your tummy side and over the shoulder on the side they are pulling from.  This helps prevent the rope from going around your neck and keeps your face above water where you can breathe.

The following excellent article from Performance Video gives even more tips and is well worth reading: Swimming in Whitewater.

Boat Emptying

Most of the time, we empty our boats on shore.  Most boats these days (Jackson Boats are an exception) come with convenient drain plugs.  If you haven't done so, I highly recommend tying a thin string from your plug to the end grab loop so you don't lose it.  I also highly recommend purchasing a spare plug and even pack a wine cork in case someone else loses a plug.  Carefully unscrew the drain plug.  Now roll your boat over on its side, this should remove 3/4's of the water rapidly via the cockpit.  You can now lift the other end of the boat to allow the water to drain via the drain plug.  Since water weighs 8 lbs/gal and the typical boat weighs 40 lbs, you are lifting roughly 40 + 8*15 = 160 lbs - better get someone to help you.  When you are finished, don't forget to screw the drain plug back in and perhaps mop up the remaining water with your sponge.

Another method that works is the T Rescue.  This is great on larger bodies of water and can save a great deal of time.  Basically, you have a friend drag your boat upside down over theirs to empty it out.  Here is a nice video from REI on this  technique: T Rescue.  This video also demonstrated the heel hook for climbing back into the boat in deep water.  Here is another example from Fergus Coffey of Zoar Outdoors: T Rescue.

Rescuing Swimmers

Rescuing swimmers can be somewhat challenging.  It is far more difficult in today's really short and small volume boats than when I started this sport 30 years ago.  Many great guides paddle long boats for just that reason.  Picture towing a 200 lb. weight behind your tiny play boat and you get the picture, this isn't always easy.  If you are being towed, it is really important to help out in any way you can.  Simple scissor kicks will go a long way in providing some extra horsepower.  It is also important to listen to the rescuer and do what they ask you to do.  If they ask you to break off and swim to shore, do so.  If you have a larger volume boat with pin bars, you may be able have the swimmer pull his torso on the back of your boat.  This will make you far more streamlined.  One risk with this approach is they may grab your waist, something you want to avoid.  Always talk to the swimmer in a calm manner explaining your plans and how you want them to help out.  I also recommend reminding them to keep their feet up on the surface of the water and not to stand until they are in a really safe place.  Here is a nice video on this topic by Fergus Coffey of Zoar Outdoors: Rescuing Swimmers.

Rescuing panicked swimmers is even more challenging.  This can happen to boaters after a long nasty swim or beat down in a hole.  It is quite common for paddlers that haven't had adequate training in safe boating and whitewater swimming techniques.  A good example is first time rafters falling out of their boat in intermediate whitewater like Entrance Rapid on the Lower Yough.  Many rafters and some paddlers don't know how to swim which really raises their fear of the water.  Often, they panic and will try to use your waist to climb to perceived safety on your boat.  You can't exactly paddle with someone holding onto to you, especially from the side.  If possible, be very calm when talking to them to help relieve their fears.  Keep them in front of you where you can keep a close eye on them and control them and your boat.  If they adequately calm down, you can direct them to the back of your boat and rescue as described above.  If not, keep them in the front of your boat facing upstream with the feet at the surface where they are very safe.  Ask for extra help if you need it from your fellow paddlers.  Look for a close by mid-stream eddy that you can safely get them into and have someone get a throw line to them.  Stay with them while they are swung into shore on the end of the throw line to act as a safety boater.  Here is a good video on this subject by Fergus Coffey of Zoar Outdoors: Panicked Swimmers.

Rescuing Tired Swimmers

Swimming in whitewater can be very exhausting.  Often the water is cold and many paddlers fail to dress properly.  This combination can be quite deadly.  If someone has had a pretty decent beat down in cold water, forget the boat and get that person to shore ASAP!  You must assume that early stages of hypothermia have set in and they will not be of much assistance in getting to shore.  They may even be incoherent.  Here is an article on tired swimmer rescues: Tired Swimmer Rescue.

Bulldozing, AKA: Bumping

Bumping and what I like to call bowling & tossing can be very effective ways to quickly get gear to a shore side eddy in a very safe manner.  If you are rescuing gear only (someone else is taking care of the swimming boater), try using your boat as a battering ram to quickly push the capsized boat to shore.  I also like grabbing a boat end with the palm of my hand and giving it a forceful sliding push in the direction I want it to go.  This is even faster than bumping and much easier to control.  As for the paddle, try picking it up and toss like a spear or javelin towards the shore.  This will enable you to concentrate on the boat.  It is a really good idea to communicate with others to have them keep an eye on the paddle you just tossed so they can ensure it remains in the eddy or bring it to the paddler that just flipped.  Here is a great video demonstration by Fergus Coffey of Zoar Outdoors: Bumping.  Here is another nice article from Performance Video: Bulldozing.

Paddle Rescues

Paddles can be a real challenge to rescue and often very challenging to find.  Most paddles these days are dark in color.  I swear this is a plot by the manufacturers to sell more paddles (just kidding).  A dark colored paddle does a excellent job blending in with the water.  Paddles by their very shape are rather adept at getting stuck in rocks and crevices as well and sometimes difficult to dislodge.  Since paddles often cost between $300 - $400 new, some simple precautions are certainly warranted.  The first step is to mark your paddle with your name and contact information.  This will not only help others to return it to you if you lose it on the river, it also helps clearly identify your paddle at the end of the paddling day when unloading the shuttle vehicle.  The next step is to break down that camouflage by wrapping some bright tape around the middle of the shaft.  The tape can come in quite handy for riverside repair work should that be necessary.  If you have some light colored stickers like the free ones from vendors or nifty river maps, add them to your paddle blades.  Now your free paddle will be very easy to see underwater if you lose it.  Another wise precaution is to hold onto your paddle when performing a wet exit.  Your rescuers will greatly appreciate this courtesy.

As a rescuer, there are several techniques for getting that paddle to shore.  One of these techniques is to toss it like a spear or javelin and this is the one I use the most.  Sometimes it takes a couple of tosses but this method is very safe and fast.  In easier water, you can try paddling with the two paddles together.  This can be somewhat clumsy but it does work most of the time.  If you have a rescue vest, the carabineer is typically large enough to slip over the paddle shaft and you can tow the paddle.  As mentioned elsewhere, forget about towing until you have completed a SWR class.

Towing - Only with SWR Training!

These days, many outfitters are selling rescue vests.  They are a great tool and enable experienced SWR trained paddlers to quickly tow a boat in a variety of river situations.  The key feature of a rescue vest is the quick release system.  Without this crucial safety feature, the towed boat could get stuck leaving you hanging or drag the rescue boater into unsafe places on the river.  Given a choice between simple bumping as described above and tying in to tow, I prefer bumping because it is safer and faster to execute.  Here is a nice demonstration from Fergus Coffey of Zoar Outdoors: Towing.

The "Hands of God" Rescue

The Hands of God rescue technique is an excellent and safe maneuver.  The person remains in their boat, no emptying necessary.  It even works well on am unconscious boater.  This rescue takes some time and practice to learn and can be more challenging if the victim is much larger than yourself.  Most people that have troubles with this skill simply tug on the outside portion of the boat.  You really need to push down forcefully on the inside edge of the boat at the same time.  It is far easier on a loose person than a stiff person.  You are basically performing a hands assisted kayak roll, the head should leave the water last.  Here is an excellent video on this technique by Fergus Coffey of Zoar Outdoors: Hands of God.

Use of Throw Ropes / Bags

The throw rope is one of the handiest rescue tools out there.  All intermediate boaters should carry one on their person or in their boat whenever paddling.  This is why I require everyone to carry one in the Little Falls Workouts where I teach intermediate boating skills in an informal one day training session.  All intermediate boaters should also take one of the local SWR classes and it doesn't hurt to get a refresher course every now and then.  In between SWR training classes, I highly recommend throw rope practice to keep this necessary skill sharp.  All too often in real rescue situations, paddlers discover that they no longer know how to accurately toss a throw rope - OUCH!  Let's begin with packing the throw rope.  It is really important to stuff the rope into the bag several inches at a time.  Try not to simulate the TV character Monk and make little tidy loops and place into the bag - this method will jam when thrown (Oh how embarrassing).  There are 3 basic ways to toss the rope:

  • Underhand - The most common and great for large throw ropes.
  • Overhand - Throw like a baseball pitch.  This is good for small 50' throw bags.  Also may be necessary when throwing waist deep in water.
  • Side Arm - Good for keeping the rope from getting snagged in an overhanging branch.

The next concern is bracing.  Many smaller paddlers assume they can't man a throw rope and that simply isn't the case.  Anyone manning a throw rope will need to pick their location carefully though to avoid getting pulled over.  I like to look for solid rocks to brace myself, especially when I sit down.  Also look for a good safe eddy below you to swing the swimmer into.  Pretend you are a rock climber and draw the rope behind and around your waist.  Whatever you do, don't tie yourself in.  Ensure you can quickly release the rope if necessary.  It also helps to have a strong person to press down on your shoulders to aid in bracing, don't hold the shoulder straps though.

Now it is time for targeting.  In moving water, aim a couple of feet in front of the swimmer (just like skeet shooting).  Yell or blow a single whistle blast to get their attention.  Bulls-eye is anywhere they can reach the rope, about an arm's length in front, behind, or right on top of them.  Once they grab the rope, be prepared for the sudden tug.  This is where you need to be carefully braced for impact.  Now you can carefully swing them into shore or let go quickly if they are tangled in the line (shouldn't happen if they follow the correct technique).

If you miss quickly gather the rope at your feet, don't bother to restuffing.  Consider dipping the bag in water to give it some weight or coil 3 - 4 loops to give it some weight.  Step on the end of the rope and quickly toss again.  The rope should fly freely over the swimmer and you will need to quickly set your bracing position once again.  Here is a nice video demonstration by Tom Westwater: Throw Rope Demonstration.

Pinned Boats

Being in a pinned boat can be a bit unnerving.  Fortunately, today's boats are far more safe than when I started boating.  One of the best safety features is the much larger cockpits these days which allow you to slide your knees free.  Most boats also come with integrated center pillars to keep the deck from collapsing as well.  Prijon and Eskimo use a very rigid plastic that stands up to incredible force to keep their hulls from collapsing under pressure which is why they don't have a center pillar.  If you get stuck in a heads up pin, you usually have time to think and assess your situation.  Since we always paddle with others, blow on your safety whistle if you can do so safely to get some help.  Try to resist the urge to pop the spray skirt which typically fills the boat with water very quickly and further lodges the boat.  Check the rocks around you, perhaps you can get a decent hand hold to loosen the boat.  If help is on the way, sit back and wait as they can perform the rescue much safer than you can on your own.  If you are in an unstable position, try using your paddle as a brace.  Please note, this can be very tiring and you will need help soon.  If you flip upside down and don't come free, pop the spray skirt and get the heck out of there ASAP.  Here is a nice video on self rescue pin technique by Fergus Coffey of Zoar Outdoors: Hands of God.

When rescuing a pinned boat, make a careful assessment of the situation.  Is the person still in the boat?  Are they heads up or down?  If heads up, are they stable?  If the person is stable or you are simply rescuing a boat, your have plenty of time to plan your attack.  If they are in jeopardy or heads down, you need someone to get to the victim ASAP.  Having a free body with the victim makes a huge difference since they can prop them up and often pull them free.  Unfortunately, this is often a more dangerous undertaking as well - use your judgment.  OK, this is a good time to weigh your options, AKA: Principles of Rescue.  Anytime ropes are involved, you need to warn paddlers off from upstream and set safety below.  This isn't a bad practice on any rescue effort.  Try to free the trapped boat using KISS (Keep it Simple ...) principles, easiest to the most complex.  Initially, see if you can rock the boat to loosen it up.  It generally makes sense to carabineer a line on the free end of the boat and have someone hold safely on shore.  If the boat becomes free, it is heavy and needs to be brought ashore quickly.  If you can rotate the boat upside down, this will empty water and and make it much lighter which often can make it easier to free.  The next step is to try pulling on the free end via rope.  Try without mechanical advantage (simple pulling) first as this is much safer.  If you are unable to get enough people to pull the boat free manually, try mechanical advantage via a Z drag.  If still unable to free the boat, record its location and let others know - especially the local Fire Department.  They will greatly appreciate the notification since it isn't uncommon for them to waste precious manpower looking for a potential dead body.  Some streams are dam controlled and have limited release schedules.  The Savage River is an excellent example.  Often, you can simply wait for the water to drop which makes rescue much easier.  Whatever you do, don't put people in severe danger just to rescue a boat - it just doesn't make sense.  Here is a nice video on unpinning a kayak by Fergus Coffey of Zoar Outdoors: Unpinning a Kayak.  To get an idea on why we try other methods before resorting to a Z Drag, here is a short video on a Z Drag set-up: Z Drag Demonstration.  Here is an interesting video on a run in British Columbia where they chose to use a Z Drag to rescue a boat.  The film also has captions which describe some of their concerns.  The Z Drag rescue starts at the 2:20 minute point of this film (warning: a small amount of colorful language is present): Real Z Drag Rescue.