Me, my group, bystanders, the victim

When an accident does take place, everyone wants to help. There is a sense of urgency because this is our friend. Stop, think, and plan before taking action. This process may need to be quick in a heads down situation with experienced rescuers or more deliberate when unpinning a boat without a paddler in it. You need to set priorities in any rescue and these priorities may surprise you:

Me - Ensure you don't add yourself as a rescue victim. Rescuing one person is always easier than multiple persons.
My Group - Keep a close eye on your fellow boaters. If you have novice boaters in your group, direct them to stay in a safe eddy. Alternatively, you can have them get out on the river bank and warn others from above. Novices may wish to help but many can't roll and will often swim compounding your problems.
Bystanders - This may be other parties or hikers on shore. You have no idea of what their skill levels are. They may be useful in reserve for pulling, getting help, etc. If you are a trip leader with a bunch of newbie's, think twice about abandoning your team to get involved in another group's rescue efforts if doing so jeopardizes your team (like running out of daylight for instance).
The Victim - Yes, the victim comes last. Once you are fairly confident that you can rescue the victim safely, proceed with the rescue effort.

Simple and fast to complex and slow

We have two other priorities and they sometimes conflict with each other. Most of the time, we prefer simple solutions over more complex ones. Complexity often goes hand in hand with danger. A great example is the Armstrong method (pulling on a tag line with lots of people) versus a Z-Drag (3:1 mechanical advantage system). The Z-Drag is far more complex and places a great deal of stress on ropes. The second goal is faster recoveries. This is far more important in a heads down pin than boat extraction. Rescuing a stranded swimmer in cold water needs to be done quickly as well to avoid hypothermia. We use the acronym RETHROG to prioritize our efforts in terms of safety.

RE - Reach Perhaps you can extend a paddle to the victim. This is fast and very safe. If you are in danger of falling in, simply drop the paddle.
TH - Throw This is where our trusty throw rope comes into play. Practice this skill often as it is the bread and butter of many rescues.
RO - Row A slight stretch of the imagination, in our case it means paddle in your boat to the victim. Set safety below as in many cases the rescuer will have to get out of their boat and let it float downstream.
Go - Go This is the most dangerous maneuver but may be necessary when you need a person to hold up the victim or maneuver them out of an entrapment.

You may be wondering why I said these priorities may occasionally be in conflict. Swimming to a victim is often the least complex method and at the same time has the highest risk factor. This is where experience and judgment play a vital role in evaluating your options. In a boat pin, time isn't as essential so don't risk a free swim if you don't have to.

Accident timeline

Let's take a close look at a fairly typical accident timeline. You are participating on a Lower Yough trip in early April. A new paddler wants to join your party and has never run the Yough before. You ask him some questions to see if this is a suitable step-up for him (good precaution). He has run Bloomington and Lower Gunpowder and is comfortable on those runs - cool - he passes the test. You keep a close eye on him in Entrance Rapid and you notice he his having difficulties with eddy turns and ferries, not a good sign. He manages to get down the rapid upright, seems like he knows how to brace well. You rationalize that Entrance is tough (it can be) and he should do better now that he is warmed up. The next rapid is Cucumber and he swims that rapid. You manage to rescue him and his gear. You talk things over with him and discover he has a shaky roll, maybe works half the time. You continue to paddle and his boat control is getting worse and he doesn't seem to be following instructions as well - you are guessing he is having difficulty hearing. At this point, you should be considering he may be exhibiting the early stages of hypothermia. Hypothermia hinders judgment, slows reaction time, and often shows up as inattention to your surroundings. I could go on with this scenario and the outcome will not be pretty. Big accidents are often the accumulation of a number of very small mistakes.

In the above scenario, lets summarize the timeline as if we are producing an accident report.

  • Joey could have worked on his roll this past Winter in a nice warm swimming pool but didn't. Lack of preparation.
  • Joey read a trip posting on a canoe club site and saw an opportunity to run the Lower Yough - AWESOME! He felt he was ready for this next step since he paddled suitable runs like Bloomington and Lower Gunpowder. Unfortunately, he didn't work these fine runs. Mistake in Judgment.
  • Joey packed his gear but since he hasn't paddled this early in the year, he lacked decent cold weather gear like a skull cap, dry suit, etc. He did have a farmer john wetsuit and a cheap splash jacket. This may work on a local run but not in the mountains where temperatures are much colder. Inadequate Equipment.
  • The trip leader evaluated Joey but it can be really hard to assess a new persons skills in a few minutes before a trip. Good precautionary step.
  • The trip Leader failed to evaluate Joey's paddling gear to see if it was adequate. Yes I know we are responsible for ourselves but we also need to take a few precautions for the benefit of our team. Besides, we all forget items from time to time and most of us bring extra gear that we can loan out. Failed to perform equipment check.
  • Joey failed to demonstrate adequate boating skills in Entrance Rapid - a typical rapid difficulty for this run. Trip leader chalked it up to Joey being nervous. A wise precaution would be assigning someone to paddle close to Joey in subsequent rapids.
  • Joey missed his line and swam Cucumber Rapid. The seeds for this swim were steps 1 & 2.
  • Joey's paddling skills degraded and he became unresponsive. Joey is now exhibiting classic signs of hypothermia. Steps 3 & 5 lead to this issue.
  • Possible outcomes to this story are a potential pin, equipment loss, drowning due to lack of strength and motor dexterity, and possible injuries to others in the group performing numerous rescues.
  • Another better alternative is a frank discussion with Joey and having him walk out with assistance.

The choice is yours. River trips can change very rapidly. Try to avoid the little mistakes and constantly evaluate your situation. Early recognition and intervention leads to successful and enjoyable trips.

Prevention and “what if…?” strategy

The above accident scenario shows the value in accident prevention. Some great "what if's" you can take away are:

  • What if I swim? Is my roll up to par?
  • What if someone gets cold? Are we dressed in layers? Do we have extra warm gear we can loan out? Can we easily evacuate?
  • Research the run before driving out to the river. Online sites like AW's River Database and guidebooks are excellent for this research.
  • What if I encounter a rapid that is too difficult for my current skill level? This takes some guts but if you can't break it down into manageable pieces, portage the rapid.
  • What if someone is injured? Did someone bring an adequate first aid kit? Which boat is it in?
  • What if someone needs a rescue? Have you and others in the party taken a SWR class? Does everyone have a throw rope, carabineers, safety whistle, and adequate flotation?

Prior planning for accident management

Be prepared for accidents. Take periodic training in SWR, CPR, and First Aid so you are able to make correct decisions when an incident occurs. Evaluate your gear to ensure it is adequate for your level of boating. Creeking has greater chances for pinning and strainers than park and play boating. When creeking, you probably should have a pin kit, decent hauling line, and collapsible saw. If an accident occurs, think before you leap. This can avoid further injuries to yourself, fellow boaters, and the victim as well. Set safety below and above if appropriate.

RescuePhilosophyThe great take-away from this course is how to avoid accidents - safe paddling. SWR has it's own set of dangers as well. One of the most important rescue practices is the KISS principle - complexity often brings additional dangers. Some rescuers get tunnel vision and forget about their own safety as well as bystanders. Don't fall for this very dangerous trap.

It may sound trite but the best rescue is the one avoided. There are many actions we can take to avoid river issues - by taking this class, you are taking a very important step in this direction. Many paddlers these days treat the river classification system like a yardstick and try to reach class V ASAP. To hasten this journey, they take may shortcuts like always following other boaters, skimp on necessary gear, skip training, and don't master basic skills. It takes time to develop good judgment and river reading skills - don't rush this process. Every intermediate and above boater should take a SWR class and practice those skills. This is just one of those necessary skills for advanced river running. Each year, evaluate your equipment. Can you assist in rescues? Is your helmet and PFD suitable for a nasty swim or beat down? Can you stay immersed in ice cold water for 20 minutes in case you have a swim or need to help in a rescue? Is that roll a bit rusty? Are you a member of a canoe/kayak club that is safety oriented and provides training?