The number one rule for SWR is the rescuer's safety comes first.  Be honest with yourself, do you really have the skills and training to make that rescue.  On a recent boating trip, a paddler got stuck in a hydraulic and was having trouble getting out upright.  Another boater that isn't used to playing sizable holes decided to do a boat based rescue.  His boat got pulled in as well but fortunately, the hole eventually let them both escape.  Was this a wise decision - hell no!  I have seen boaters get their ribs broken from friendly but inexperienced boat based hole rescues.  If both paddlers end up swimming, we have a lot more people and gear to rescue.  Perhaps a throw line would be more effective and safer.  This is why we teach RETHROG.

When leading novices, it is a good idea to send them to shore when a rescue is needed.  They can set safety above and below the rapids and retrieve any gear that gets sweept downstream.  This allows the more seasoned paddlers to concentrate on the rescue and not worry about others getting into trouble.

Boats are like a Swiss Army knife in rescues.  Decked boats is skilled hands are much faster in getting to a victim.  Open canoes and rafts are far more stable and may be essential for safe evacuation of a victim.  Take a look at the many uses of boats in rescues and think about how your boat can be used.

  • Transportation - A boat is typically the fastest way to reach a victim.
  • Ambulance - A raft or canoe can safely carry an injured boater downstream.
  • Barge - A boat can carry a fair amount of rescue gear, even kayaks.  Check out Ron Ray's kayak some time - LOL.  Besides the mandatory throw rope, some carry folding saws, pin kits, first aid kits, food & water, extra clothing, spare paddles, etc.  Try not to go overboard.
  • Tow Truck - Along with a rescue vest and tether, you can tow pretty much any boat, swimmer, or paddle - sometimes all three at once.
  • Messenger - The boat is the fastest way down stream to request assistance.  On easier water, a kayak can go back upstream pretty quick as well.
  • Crane or pier - You can assist someone in trying to right their boat via a hands of god maneuver or a bow rescue.
  • Drainage - You can quickly empty water by dragging their boat upside down over yours.
  • Bulldozer - You can plow a swamped boat to shore.
  • Sea Anchor - You can pull a boater trapped in a hydraulic out from a safe distance using fast current to assist.
  • Life Raft - In big water, most PFDs have a tough time staying on the surface.  A boat with air bags is like a mega-PFD.
  • Other - There are other uses as well like a quick shelter on land.  Use your imagination.

We often have a number of different craft in our rescue classes.  Each craft has unique capabilities and rescue challenges.  Heres a quick summary:

  • Decked Boats
    • Generally the fastest craft and most maneuverable
    • Leg entrapment can be an issue but madern designs have greatly mitigated this risk
  • Open Canoes
    • Great for carry heavier gear that would impact kayak handling
    • Also can handle long length gear like a broken kayak paddle
    • Pins are generally more serious as they hold a great deal of water
  • Rafts
    • The most stable platform
    • Great rescue platform and often used by rescue squads
    • Amazing capacity for gear and people
    • Generally requires special techniques for unpinning
    • Self-Bailing rafts are replacing the older bucket rafts and are far less prone to pinning
  • SUP (Stand-up Paddleboards)
    • Surprisingly versatile
    • The least stable platform in whitewater
    • Makes the Hand of God rescue a breeze due to leverage
    • A perfect backboard
    • Excellent visability just like a raft
    • Careful choice of the correct leash and a waist mounted quick release are essential

This is one area where we have huge advantages over professional rescue personnel.  Strong boaters can pretty much place their boats almost anywhere on the river and get very close to a victim.  Often, the challenge is getting out in a safe manner so you can apply leverage.  Boaters may be tempted to tow swamped boats which is fine only if you have a quick release system.  A flipped boat is also a dynamite flotation device providing far more flotation than your PFD.

In a number of rescues, response time is critical.  Often, paddling directly to the victim is the fastest way to get there and start the rescue effort.  Strong boaters can pretty much put their boat anywhere in a rapid or at least get close enough to rock hop in a few minutes.  All of us carry throw ropes (or should).  Many also carry carabineers and perhaps a pulley or two.  Throwing a rope from the accident site is often easier than from shore.  For one thing all you need is distance, accuracy doesn't matter.  Large craft like canoes and rafts make an excellent and safe platform for rescue activities.  They can also be used to haul out an injured boater.  The boat in skilled hands is a very versatile tool.

Instructors need to be proficient paddlers to be effective in rescues.  Practice your rolls, eddies, ferries, and use of water features at your favorite paddling venues.  Although less common, the SWR course is perfectly suitable for boats other than kayaks.  Other boats like rafts and canoes are actually better rescue platforms which is why all fire departments mandate the use of various types of rafts/inflatable's.  I have even had requests from standup paddleboard instructors for this training.  You need to know the strengths and weaknesses in regards to rescue for various craft.  When teaching, it isn't a bad idea to include a variety of craft if possible.

Hand of God

The "Hands of God" rescue is great for righting a flipped kayak and still keeping the person in their boat. Here is a video example: Hands of God Rescue. In calm water, you can often empty their boat over yours, hold the boat upright to keep it steady so they can crawl back into the boat. This is known as a T Rescue. Here is a short video example: T Rescue.

Strengths, limitations and techniques with canoes, kayaks and rafts

Each craft has its set of advantages and challenges. Decked boats like C-1's and kayaks are typically lighter and easier to perform T Rescues. They are also quite tippy and hard to reenter in whitewater. A raft is great for pulling a swimmer into the boat. They are very stable and you can typically get several people to pull up on the swimmers PFD shoulder straps. Canoes are a mix between kayaks and rafts. They are not nearly as stable as a raft and lack the manpower but they are far more stable than a kayak. You can definitely pull in a swimmer in calmer water into a canoe, it just take some bracing and team work. T rescues are also easier on a canoe.

Stern and bow tows

Swimmer stern tows are pretty straight forward, especially if you have a larger boat. If you are being rescued, help out by kicking to provide extra propulsion. Bow tows can be used when you have a distressed swimmer and you need to keep a very close eye on them. A worse case scenario is rescuing an unconscious swimmer from a kayak. Your number one objective is ensure they are face up and can breathe. Get help from shore or a larger craft like a raft ASAP. Here is a short video on a boat based rescue of an unconscious swimmer.