As an instructor, you must be able to demonstrate good throw rope technique. You should be able to toss a rope via various methods with reasonable accuracy. It is important to hit the swimmer within arm's reach, don't make them swim for the rope as this can be dangerous. This is one skill you will need to practice regularly to become proficient in.

The best way to ensure accuracy is to practice frequently. Start with static targets until you get your distance and accuracy down pat. Avoid tossing the rope too far since it may get tangled downstream. I like to drop the rope about 6' over the swimmer. This prevents them from grabbing the end of the rope and also helps prevent the rope from getting snagged downstream. Once you have mastered static targets, practice on moving targets. When fetching swimmers cascading downstream, you need to lead them a little bit. Bear in mind, a bulls eye is 2' from their chin - basically within their reach. Use the right tossing technique, underhand for large ropes and overhand for small ropes or when sitting in a boat. Sidearm tosses are much more tricky but sometimes essential if limbs are in the way.

Practice with different types of throw lines: big lines, small lines, waist lines, and coiled lines. This can be a fun activity on non-crowded streams - perhaps during a lunch break. If you are a large strong guy, you probably will have the best luck with the full size rescue bags and the underhand toss. Tossing these bags is a great deal like tossing horseshoes. Smaller individuals may have some difficulty with the weight of a large bag, that's cool because there are many small sized bags. These are tossed overhand - just like a baseball. They are great for close by rescues. With long ropes, you really need to avoid paying out too much line. Small bags are easier to control the length of line fed out. The diameter of the line doesn't really impact accuracy but makes a huge difference in rope handling. I would much rather hang onto a 3/8" line than a 1/4" line any day.

Good footing makes a big difference as well. If you are trying to balance yourself when tossing the rope, it's hard to be very accurate (not to mention keeping yourself from being pulled in when the swimmer grabs the line). The distance away from the target makes a difference as well. Off by 2° doesn't matter much at 10' but is probably a miss at 50' or more. It is important to wear gloves during rope work when it gets cold outside. First off, gloves protect your hands and secondly cold hands are stiff and inflexible (plus it hurts). Cold hands make accurate throwing quite difficult. Obstacles like low hanging branches, large boulders, etc. make accuracy far more critical and certainly more challenging.

Throwing Methods

There are three basic ways to toss a throw rope. It is a good idea to practice all three since different conditions call for different techniques. For full size ropes - 75' and 3/8" diameter ropes, the underhand toss often gives you the most distance. Make certain your footing is very sturdy and you can drop into a strong bracing position quickly. Establish a belay stance when tossing a throw rope so you can quickly release the rope at the first sign of trouble. Here is a nice video demonstration by Tom Westwater: Throw Rope Demonstration.

The overhand throw is quite useful when tossing small throw ropes. The technique is just like throwing a baseball. This method is often very accurate at shorter distances but is pretty unweildy with large bags. The sidearm pitch is another variation. A sidearm toss is often used to avoid branches hanging overhead.

Now it is time for targeting. In moving water, aim a couple of feet in front of the swimmer's head (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 they correct technique).

Metering the Throw

Another factor is how much rope to throw out. Avoid the mega-shot - one that passes over the swimmer by a long distance. That dangling line can easily get snagged in rocks below and mess up a perfectly good rescue toss. Too short is bad news as well since many swimmers will try to grab the end of the line - the throw bag. Overshooting their chest by roughly 5' is just about perfect.

If you miss quickly gather the rope at your feet, don't bother re-stuffing. 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.

Like a chess master, think a few moves ahead. If you have properly reached the swimmer, where am I going to swing them? Ideally, you want to swing them into a nice safe eddy. Check out the planned arc of the swing. Are there any holes, sticks, or jagged rocks that will interfere? Do your best to avoid these hazards. Is the boater hanging on to their boat? If so, expect a really strong and sudden tug. It doesn't hurt to have an extra person press down on your shoulders to keep you from falling in.

Take a minute or two to think about where is the best place to toss the rope from. Ideally, you want good footing and a place to brace yourself. Now lets think about the swimmer. When they grab the line, they will swing in a large predictable circular arc towards shore. If they grab the line 20' from your side, they will land 20' below you. Look at the landing zone, is there a ledge, hole, or strainer? If the answer is yes, consider an alternate place to throw from. You can adjust the landing zone a bit with a dynamic belay. Ask someone to station themselves at the landing zone to assist the swimmer getting out of the water.

Just like strainers, ropes in the wrong place can be just as deadly. When using ropes in a rescue, it is a good idea to send someone upstream to warn other boaters so they can stay out of harm's way. Never leave a snagged line in a rapid. Cut the rope out if you can't retrieve the rope. When working with ropes, having a river knife in an easily accessible spot on your PFD may save your life. Never attach a rope to yourself, always use a rescue vest as they have a quick release system. Avoid the temptation of placing your hand inside a rope loop - a rope under sudden stress may break your wrist. Prepare ahead of time by retying the end loops to make them too small to slip a hand through. Take great care when rigging a Z-Drag system. Mechanical advantage and the water force can lead to great stress, make certain you are out of the line of fire.


Let's face it, ropes can break. Add hardware like carabineers and results can be lethal. The danger increases significantly under heavy loads like those encountered in mechanical advantage systems and boats full of water. Let's go over a few precautions to keep you out of harm's way:

  • Avoid standing over lines: This is easy to understand. If the rope snaps, you will most likely be in the line of fire.
  • Avoid tensioning lines perpendicularly to current: The famous vector pull. Imagine a really taught line between two poles. Now hang a 20 pound dumbbell in the middle. The force necessary on each end to hold that line straight is nearly infinity.
  • Keep your body out of loops in the line: This is very similar to don't attach yourself to a rope without a quick release system. Picture manning a tag line to a broached canoe. Once the boat is freed from the pin, it is very heavy and carries significant force downstream. You will be taken for the same ride.
  • Consider clean line techniques: Avoid tight bends, knots, use pulleys to avoid friction, consider using a pulley for change of direction, always think - where is the weakest point and stay out of the line of fire. Here is a nice winch techniques article: Winch Techniques.
  • Keep entire rope in bag to avoid accidental deployments: When not in use, store completely in the throw bag and close securely. Store behind in the boat and clipped securely in place. Picture the danger of rope coming loose and getting tangled in that rope during a wet release.
  • Safety gear for rope work: Knife or trauma shears so you can cut yourself free. Gloves for land-based rescue work help prevent rope burns. Wear your helmet & PFD at all times when working with rope.