Sam has just pinned his boat in the rapid above.  He is really stuck and a lot of water is rushing around him.  Do you know what to do?  The ACA Swift Water Rescue (SWR) class covers this scenario and many more.

Priorities: First People, Then Boats, Finally Other Gear

Before you put a rescue plan in motion, think about your recue priorities.  A very seasoned fire department professional I know from the Parsons Volunteer Fire Department - Tom Klus - says the following "A good rescue is when the rescuers come home safely.  A great rescue is when the rescuers come home safely as well as the victim".  This may sound heartless but it makes a great deal of sense.  Rescuers shouldn't take unnecessary risks to rescue others.  Doing so often adds to the carnage and makes overall rescue much more difficult.  That said, here are the priorities:

  1. Yourself - Avoid becoming an additional victim
  2. Fellow Rescuers - This is very similar to number 1
  3. Your boating party - If you are a trip leader and become injured, who is going to get the rest of the party downstream safely?
  4. Bystanders and other groups - This requires some judgment.  Rescues take time and daylight may be getting short.  There may be some quick things you can do to help out but don't risk your paddling group in the process - they are your first priority.
  5. The victim - OK, we finally get to the victim.  We have taken all of the necessary precautions and have formulated some sort of plan.  It is time to implement the rescue.

Once we have decided to perform a rescue, are there any additional priorities?  We have a term for common river carnage - a yard sale.  The paddler goes one way, boat another, paddle and gear quickly become separated.  Boats and paddles are expensive and we really hate to lose them.  Lunch, sponge, etc. are less so.  How should we decide what to go for?

  1. People are always Number One!  Gear can be easily replaced, people can't.
  2. Boat - We really need some way to get this paddler down the river.
  3. Paddle - It would be really nice to recover that paddle as they probably need it to safely paddle downstream.  If not, we should have a spare paddle in the group.
  4. Other gear - this gear typically isn't critical to making it downstream safely.

Victim Responsibilities

If you are a victim, try to maintain your cool, don't panic.  Assess your overall situation.  If you really need help and need to get others attention, use your whistle if this can be done safely.  Use hand signals to communicate with your fellow paddlers.  A simple "I'm OK signal" when stuck in a pin greatly reduces everyone's stress levels and allows your buddies to take their time and effect a safer rescue.  If your boat is unstable and you are afraid of a hull collapse, leave the boat ASAP - it can be replaced.  If swimming, try to hold on to your gear if this doesn't put you in additional risk.  When being towed, kick your feet to help out in reaching shore quickly.  Do whatever the rescuer tells you to do when being towed - they can see better than you since they sit higher.   Always respect the rescuers safety requirements.

Prepare for Swims

There is a great blog on the internet called "In between Swims".  Nearly all great paddlers swim from time to time.  Since swimming will happen sooner or later, we need to prepare for that eventuality.  Please mark your gear, especially boats and paddles with your name and contact information.  Whitewater kayaks should always have flotation (air bags).  This flotation keeps your boat from filling with very heavy water and may save that $1,000 dollar piece of equipment, especially if it gets stuck on a rock or caught in a strainer.  Add brightly colored tape around the center paddle shaft and perhaps a white colored sticker on the paddle blade.  Many paddles these days are black in color and nearly impossible to see under water.  Clip all gear in your boat so it will not come loose, especially throw ropes.  Use proper judgment and try not to get into situations you are not comfortable with.  Dress to swim or rescue.  Even if you don't swim, perhaps someone may need you to rescue them.  A dry top and short pants in winter paddling may work if you don't swim but is totally worthless if you need to wade out and rescue someone.

Rescuer Responsibilities

Just like doctors, do no harm.  Review the priorities above.  Think before you act.  If you don't feel comfortable performing a difficult rescue, tell people and help out in some other manner - perhaps by going upstream to ward off other boaters.  The ACA SWR class theaches the acronym RETHROG which leads the rescuer from the least risk options to the highest risk options.  Lets look at RETHROG on terms of various Little Falls trips I have seen over the years.

  1. RE - Reach - People often get stuck in that hole below the last drop in the Z Channel.  Since it is right next to shore, it is easy to grab their bow loop and pull them free.
  2. TH - Throw - Someone swims at Little Falls itself and ends up hanging on the cleaver rock.  The only safe way to assist this person is to toss a throw line to them and swing them into shore.
  3. RO - Row - Someone swims after the last drop in the Z and heads out towards the Potomac.  The only way you are going to catch this person and their boat is to paddle.
  4. GO - Someone manages to broach their boat on that center pinning rock in the Z Channel.  Fortunately they remembered to lean in towards the rock and they are heads up.  The only good option for getting them unstuck is to wade/swim out to them and pull them free.

Group Responsibilities

Where possible, keep groups at a workable size.  On small streams, it is really hard to manage 17 boaters for example.  If you have adequate support, try breaking this group into 2 - 3 subgroups.  Each paddler should keep an eye out for several boaters behind and in front.  Use proper spacing to avoid running into each other.  In a rescue situation, assign a leader/coordinator if time permits (heads up rescue).  Set a look out above the rapid to warn off other boaters.  Set safely below and in key positions.  Ensure clear communication with all persons implementing the rescue.  If you need to get professional help, take notes, practice the delivery and send two persons.