A common goal in rescue work is the KISS principle.  Simpler techniques are often faster to set-up and have less points of failure.  A great example is mechanical advantage systems.  The Armstrong method (simple pulling) is very easy to control and has very little set-up time.  Compare this with Z-Drags and Pig Rigs which have a number of knots, require extra equipment, have weaknesses at bends, and require multiple safety countermeasures.  Once the boat is freed, the Armstrong method is quite adaptable and easy to clean-up as well.

The rescuers safety is also paramount.  Before jumping into a fast moving rapid, take a few seconds to consider some alternatives.  Can you reach effectively with a stick or paddle?  Is it easier to traverse in the slack water above or below?  Many of us carry two rescue ropes, a wearable and a larger one in our boats.  Often, we can stabilize a situation (buy time) with the smaller and available rope and do so safely from shore.

Time is often a critical factor in rescues.  The boater that is currently pinned heads up may soon tire and flip.  Foot entrapments almost always require quick rescues.  In advanced whitewater, we strive to get swimmers to safety ASAP to avoid fatigue, injuries, and flush drowning.

When you think of speed versus safety, we sometimes need to make an educated trade-off.  If a person is pinned heads down, you need to get someone to the victim ASAP and that probably means paddling and sometimes ditching your boat if necessary.  Others in your group can work in parallel heading downstream, upstream, and getting safety gear.  On the other hand, there is no reason to hurry when unpinning a boat.  Take your time and take as few risks as possible - boats can be replaced.


Just like we think about a Plan B when running rivers, we should give some thought to a Plan B for the overall trip. River levels, weather, people, etc. change - sometimes despite our best plans. Let someone that is not on the trip know about your planned itenerary and make certain you call them afterwards to let them know everything turned out fine. It doesn't hurt to think about evacuation routes like nearby trails and roads. Where is the nearest hospital? Perhaps carry a cell phone in a Pelican Box in case your car is stolen or towed.

Lead and sweep

The Lead paddler (Scout/Probe) must keep tabs on paddlers behind them. If the group gets too spread out, it is time to take a break to close the gap again. If someone gets pinned, blow the whistle and perhaps head to shore to help out.

The Sweep boat is the enforcer. They need to push people along to keep the trip on schedule. If an accident occurs, they have great visability and can often get to the victim rather rapidly. In some cases, you may take charge of the rescue and delegate rescue responsibilities - Sam & Alice: Get Sally to shore, Tim: you work on the boat, Pete: Please deal with the paddle, Rich: Set safety below, etc.

Know the group, the river and weather

When planning the trip (and participating for that matter), think about whom you are paddling with. Take a bit of time to learn about their paddling experience and skill level. What kind of equipment are they carrying? During the river trip, keep an eye on the party. If you feel someones needs a bit of assistance, offer it in a polite way.

Look for the telltale markers that the river is rising or falling and plan your actions accordingly. If the river becomes too high - suggest walking out. Others may be thinking the same but don't want to lose face - they will be very thankful. Research rivers you plan to paddle via guidebooks and web resources like American Whitewater. Pay close attention to known hazards like sieves, permaainers, undercuts, etc. so you can safely avoid them. Always bear in mind, rivers change sometimes dramatically at different levels and after flooding has occurred. Use your best judgment.

What if the weather changes rapidly - believe me it happens, especially in the mountains. Thunderstorms on large bodies of water require you to get off the water and move away from the shoreline. If it turns cold, dis you pack some extra food, water, and insulation? If a serious injury takes place, you may need to build shelter and assign a pair of paddlers to seek help.

Plan the trip and communicate the plan

It is always a good idea to let someone you trust know about your plans and follow-up with them once you are finished. Let everyone know the rough schedule for the trip so they can help you stay on schedule. This becomes even more important on Winter runs when the days get surprisingly short. Monitor your progress so you can shorten breaks and river play to pick up the pace. Let everyone know when you plan to meet at the put-in and don't wait too long for stragglers. I like to use email to communicate trip plans - it can be very effective.

Larger boating trips have several key personnel:

  • Lead - Also known as the Scout or Probe (William Neeley). A strong boater with good river reading skills. It is imperative that no one passes the lead.
  • Sweep - Another strong boater. This is often the most risky position in a paddling party since everyone is downstream of this boater if he becomes pinned. The sweep's job is to ensure no paddlers fall behind him.
  • Trip Leader or Coordinator - Plans the trip. Once on the river, time management is one of their most important tasks. This person also gets to decide who can join their party.
  • First Aid Person - One person typically has the most comprehensive first aid kit. Place this person towards the rear of the group so they are always available if needed.
  • Rescue Person - Hauling lines and pin kits definitely have some weight associated with them. Serious rescues require specialized training like you are recieving in this class. It is a good idea to find out whom has decent rescue training and equipment in a large party. Place this person towards the rear of the group so they (and the gear) are always available if needed.
  • Mentors - Strong confident boaters that can shepherd weaker boaters if necessary. Keep weaker boaters near the front of the pack if possible.

It pays to know your fellow paddlers (but not always possible). It is helpful to know if everyone is skilled enough for this trip, who is trained in First Aid, who has decent rescue skills, who has group gear like a pin kit, etc. A good trip leader will try to find out as much as possible about each participant before and during a trip.

It is a really good idea to research the run as well via the internet (AW site for instance), guide books, or fellow paddlers. Are strainers common? Any specific drops we need to watch out for like Initiation on the Upper Gauley? How much time does it take to make this run (don't run out of day light)? It is also a good idea to check out the weather forecast and river gauge forecast. the Savage at 300 CFS is quite different from the same run at 900 CFS. Make certain you check both the air temperature and the water temperature. 40° water is unbelievably cold, even in the summer.

Both the trip leader and participants should research the run ahead of time. The trip leader should provide a meeting location and shuttle start time. It pays to provide your cell phone number if you have one. As a general rule, don't wait for stragglers. This places the group at risk and frankly encourages them to continue this poor behavior. You should have a good idea on how long the trip will take and you need to monitor progress, especially if you have a shuttle bunny at the end. Running out of day light can be downright dangerous and should be avoided. This is much more of a risk on Winter runs, plan accordingly. Communicating plans via private email is an excellent practice. Often this is better than posting details on the club board since it can prevent unexpected participants that might not be prepared.

Negligence, duty to act, breach of duty, harm, standard of care, abandonment

These days, many persons are quite worried about getting sued. The news media (and some special interest groups) love to hype rare cases with high damage awards. Good Samaritan Laws often provide a great deal of protection to rescuers and for good reason. In general, good risk management will protect you against negligence and leads to safe trips. Here is a list of legal terms you should be familiar with:

  • Negligence - The failure to use reasonable care. This class teaches you the latest in rescue practices and how to ensure safety.
  • Duty to Act - If you are not leading a paid trip, you are not required to perform a rescue. It is up to you. Furthermore, you are NEVER required to risk your life in effecting a rescue. The following article from an EMT provides a more detailed explanation: Duty to Act.
  • Breach of Duty - Failure to satisfy ethical, legal, or moral obligations, specially where someone has a corresponding right to demand the satisfaction. Most of us are not paid for our services and are not under contractual obligation to provide a service (or rescue).
  • Harm - Harm is physical or mental damage, an act or instance of injury, or a material and tangible detriment or loss to a person. Whitewater boating is a sport that involves risk. Most clubs require signed waivers to become a member. This class also requires a signed waiver to participate. It is very important to follow good risk management to avoid accidental injuries. This class also teaches ways to avoid additional harm to the victim and others involved in rescues.
  • Standard of Care - The watchfulness, attention, caution and prudence that a reasonable person in the circumstances would exercise. This class teaches rescue practices that meet this standard.
  • Abandonment - The giving up of a thing absolutely, without reference to any particular person or purpose. This term is very confusing so an example will provide a better explanation. When performing CPR, you are not allowed to stop until relieved by a professional, exhaustion, or risk of injury to yourself.

Moral vs. legal obligation to act

Many confuse moral and legal obligations to act (perform a rescue). It may seem very cold indeed not to rescue someone in trouble but it is perfectly legal in most cases: Good Samaritan Laws By State. The decision to rescue is yours and the decision to act needs to be weighed against potential harm to oneself, your group, and bystanders. The goal of SWR training is to enable you to make an informed decision and greatly increase your chances of success (everyone returns unharmed).

Trip leader vs. common adventurer

In most cases, unpaid trip leaders have no more liability than common adventurers. On the other hand if you are a paid professional like a raft guide, you do have a contractual obligation to perform a service to your customers and that often includes rescue if that becomes necessary. All adventure companies require signed waivers and most also carry business liability insurance for added protection. Training is essential for paid professionals in this sport.