ACA Level 4: Swiftwater Rescue Agenda

We will be using the ACA recommended SWR class agenda for this class. Few ACA instructors are able to cover all of the topics listed in one weekend. How much is covered depends a great deal on students experience and preparation. As a general rule, instructors tend to focus on topics that provide the most value to their class makeup. The ACA class agenda we are using is: ACA Level 4: Swiftwater Rescue

Site Logistics

We hold this class on both US Park Service Property and parklands controlled by Maryland whom has jurisdiction over the waterway. Parking is limited at Lock 5 so we highly recommend arriving by 7:30 AM so we can organize parking and leave spaces for other visitors and park service vehicles. Please use discretion when changing clothes as many park visitors pass by this area. Leave no trace is always a good rule to follow. Although Lock 5 has restroom facilities, they may be out of order the day of the class. We are very fortunate to have such a great place to run our training classes - please treat this area with respect so we are always welcome in the future.

This is a formal ACA (American Canoe Association) Class. As such, we have a very limited amount of time to convey a great deal of information. To make this class successful, we need to stick to the following ground rules:

  • Classes will start at 8:00 AM sharp, try to arrive by 7:30 AM as parking is tight at Lock 5
  • We will try to wrap up classes by 5:00 PM
  • Proper boating gear and clothing are essential. All participants should bring their own throw rope and have proper flotation in their boats.
  • Pay special attention to your footware, no loose sandals! Rescues often involve wading in current with challenging bottom surfaces
  • If you have questions, please ask them
  • Do only what you are comfortable with
  • No peer pressure!
  • Try to set aside time for reading these documents, at least ones that interest you.

This is a very comprehensive 2 day class with a great deal of information. It is easy to get overwhelmed by the body of knowledge. This collection of HTML articles should enable you to go back and review any fuzzy areas. If you have any questions at a later date, fell free to contact me. As mentioned elsewhere, try to work in small practice drills to keep your rescue skills sharp.

Every class we teach has different types of students with varying needs. I tend to run a very organized and some say - fast paced class. I try to keep a close eye on my students and my assistants provide a great deal of help in this area. I expect students to come prepared (proper gear, read some of the material, get a good night's sleep, etc.). If I notice a crucial skill (like throw rope work, swimming, etc.) needs more time, I reserve the right to shorten or skip a less important topic in the best interest of the class. Questions from the students and assistants are quite valuable to the instructors. If you have a question, don't wait - ask it.

RescueIntroThis website is a compilation of a number of articles and various web resources that cover all topics listed in the ACA (American Canoe Association) Level 4 Swiftwater Rescue (SWR) suggested curriculum. The ACA SWR class is essential training for all intermediate and above kayakers. The training provided in the SWR class not only teaches you techniques for potentially saving your boating buddies, it also provides valuable guidance on how to avoid incidents in the first place.

When I teach this class, I feel it is very beneficial to have students review this material at their leisure from home. The SWR discipline is very extensive and quite challenging to cover in just one weekend. I also recommend students purchase a copy of the Whitewater Rescue Manual (Walbridge & Sundmacher) and/or River Rescue (Slim Ray) - both are excellent resources you will enjoy for many years to come.

Real incidents are very stressful events. This is no time for learning on the job as not only victims lives are on the line, so are bystanders and rescue persons. We have learned a great deal over the years on what works and what doesn't. Les Bechdel and Slim Ray were early pioneers for these skills and have trained numerous SWR professionals. Charlie Walbridge maintains the AW Safety Database and is a leader the ACA SWR Training community. The Whitewater Self Defense DVD is an excellent learning tool as well.

We start this class by getting to know the participants, their paddling backgrounds, and perhaps specifics goals they are interested in learning during this class. Safety in all ACA classes is absolutely paramount. A key rule in every ACA class is the concept of "Challenge By Choice". Put quite simply, if a particular exercise is well beyond your comfort level - skip it.

Course Overview

The Swiftwater Rescue workshop teaches recognition and avoidance of common river hazards, execution of self-rescue techniques, and rescue techniques for paddlers in distress. Emphasis is placed both on personal safety and on simple, commonly used skills. Techniques for dealing with hazards that carry greater risks for both victim and rescuer, such as strainers, rescue vest applications, entrapments, and pins, also are practiced. Scenarios will provide an opportunity for participants to practice their skills both individually and within a team/group context.

Minimum personal equipment for class: PFD designed for whitewater use, whitewater helmet, protective clothing suitable for extended swimming in cold water, protective footwear, boat, paddle, whistle, throw rope, 15+ feet of one inch tubular nylon webbing, 2 locking carabiners, and 2 prusik loops.

NOTE: The CCA brings a gear bag with lots of extra prusik cords and climbing webbing for knot tying practice.

This is a two-day class to be taught on rivers up to class II rapids.

ACA Official Curriculum: Level 4: Swiftwater Rescue

Introduction, Expectations, & Logistics

Rescue Philosophy

The Paddling Environment

Personal Preparation




Scene Management Rescue Vest
Medical Issues



Throw Ropes Line Ferries and Line Crossings


Knots Mechanical Advantage

Pins Stabilization, snag, and cinch lines

Hazards and Hydrology Strainers
Swimming (60 minutes)

Boat-based rescue



"Live Bait" Rescues Contact Rescues and C-spine control




Scenarios Resources
Conclusion & Wrap Up
The Final Exam