navigation bar

Swiftwater Rescue
by Marc W. McCord

For many paddlers nothing beats the exhiliration of paddling a whitewater river, running rapids, dropping over waterfalls and dams, shooting fast chutes, avoiding trees, boulders and strainers, escaping holes and otherwise testing the limits of their paddling skills. Every now and then a paddler becomes a victim of his sport, and finds himself or herself in need of being rescued. Knowing what to do and how to do it may save a life, and the life you save could be your own!

Obviously, we should not paddle whitewater rivers alone, or in very small groups unless we are in an area that is easily accessible, and where help can be summoned very quickly. In a swiftwater rescue scenario time is usually of the essence, and the colder the water the more time critical the rescue will be. Ideally, a paddler will be able to self-rescue. This is the easiest and best way to resolve a problem, but it is not always possible, and sometimes we have to rely on the rescue skills of others in our group or outside assistance, professional or otherwise.

Doing the wrong thing can be as bad as doing nothing, or worse. Sometimes, doing the wrong thing actually accentuates the problem, and makes the rescue more difficult, if not impossible. That is precisely why paddlers who canoe, kayak and raft big water rivers should study swiftwater rescue techniques and take them to heart. The best rescue is the one that never has to happen. Unfortunately, we sometimes find ourselves swimming in fast water, often in the presence of boats, gear, trees, boulders, eddy currents, waterfall or dam drops, rapids, holes and other hazards that can cause injury or death. One of the most dangerous hazards to be encountered on a river is a strong hydraulic current below a dam, and that is the subject of this article.

A hydraulic current develops where water flows over a dam or waterfall with enough volume and force to create a backwave that returns, on the surface, to the obstruction over which the water just flowed. Hydraulics are recirculating currents that are produced when water dropping over an obstruction plunges to the bottom of the river with such force that it sets up a cylindrical wave that returns to the surface and turns back toward the drop that caused it. Depending upon the height of the drop and the volume of water that is plunging over it, a hydraulic current can be very strong and can, in fact, be a "keeper" that grabs paddlers and boats, then refuses to let them go.

Typically, a hydraulic can be measured by the distance downstream from the obstruction that the wave curls back toward the obstruction. For example, if the wave begins to curl back six feet out from the obstruction, then the hole below the surface will be about six feet deep. This is NOT a hard and fast rule, as riverbed conditions may create a situation different from what is observed on the surface. But, there is a definite advantage to being able to gauge the depth of the hole where the hydraulic forms because it directly affects how one will self-rescue, if possible. The reason this is important is because one technique for extracting oneself from a hydraulic is completely contrary to natural instincts, but it is, nonetheless, often an effective way to get free from the recirculation of the hydraulic quickly. That technique involves getting into a "cannonball" position, letting the hydraulic carry you to the bottom of the river, then extending your body (face up and feet downriver) and allowing the strong, bottom current to wash you out of the hydraulic downriver and away from the hazard. For this to work effectively you need to take a very deep breath of air just before going to the bottom of the hole, and you MUST remain calm and mentally in control during the procedure because you may be underwater for several seconds to a couple of minutes or more.

This method allows the natural forces to do what they want to do, and you ride the strong, bottom wave to safety on the surface downriver from the hazard. Trying to come up inside the curl of the backwave results in getting "Maytagged", or churned violently against the obstruction and forcefully taken to the bottom when you are least ready to go there. That is why it is best to go to the bottom in a controlled way, and then ride the bottom current out of danger. If you attempt to surface within the hydraulic, then soon or later you are going to gasp for a breath of air at the wrong time and take in water, possibly leading to drowning. The downside to trying to self-rescue along the bottom is that there may be other obstacles such as trees, ropes, fishing line, automobiles, boulders or who knows what else on the bottom in which you can become entangled. Most of the time you will not know, for a certainty, what the condition of the riverbed is, so there is a high element of risk associated with self-extraction by going to the bottom, but it may be your only recourse, and there will not be a lot of time to debate the pros and cons of such an effort.

Another method for self-extraction is to swim across the hydraulic to the nearest bank or to the shortest way out of the recirculating current. This method requires very strong swimming skills, a helpful hydraulic and a lot of luck. It is not always possible to swim out of the hydraulic, but if you can get to a point of asymmetry where the wave starts to break apart, then you might be able to get out by swimming. The backwave will be trying to push you to the obstruction and down to the bottom of the hole, so it is imperative to act swiftly and deliberately when attempting this method of self-extraction. A waterfall will usually not be too symmetrical whereas a dam may be very symmetrical, possibly across its entire width, resulting in a more difficult self-extraction.

The preferred method of rescue from a hydraulic is to have a safety team on a bank, or in shallow, quiet water near you with throwbags ready to assist you. Rope rescues are tricky, but when done correctly can be quite effective and can lead to a speedy rescue. The safety team SHOULD be set in place before attempting to run a potentially dangerous drop because they may not otherwise have adequate time to get into position and effect the rescue. In such a technique the person in the hydraulic needs to maintain eye contact with his or her rescuers are much as possible. The rope team should consist of one person to throw the rope and at least one (two or more is preferred) other person to belay him or her and assist in pulling the victim from the water. The ONLY person to have any conversation with the victim should be either the person throwing the rope, or else a rescue coordinator who is directing the safety team activities. Multiple people shouting at a victim becomes confusing, and detracts from a successful rescue.

The person throwing the rope should make eye contact with the victim, shout "ROPE!", then throw the rope over and beyond the victim, keeping the position of the rope slightly upstream of the victim, but close enough that it can easily be reached. Remember that the victim may be struggling to stay on the surface, and may not be able to make an extra effort to reach a rope that is not thrown close. Once the victim has secured the rope he or she should roll over onto the back, hold the rope with both hands firmly against the PFD (you ARE wearing your PFD, aren't you?) with the rope over the shoulder OPPOSITE the side of the river to which the extraction is to be made. The victim should also use a leg kick, if possible and safe to do so, to aid in propelling himself or herself from the hydraulic much the same as a swimmer would use a leg kick for extra speed and control.

The one thing that a rescuer should NOT do is go into the hydraulic to assist a victim. That would probably result in two or more people being in trouble and would greatly compound any rescue effort. In lieu of a rope, a paddle, a long pole, a tree limb or other object that can reach the victim without endangering either the victim or the rescuers can be used to pull a victim out of a hydraulic, but extreme caution MUST be exercised to prevent compounding the problem.

Hydraulic at Big Rocks Dam on the Paluxy River, Texas
Hydraulic at Big Rocks Dam on the Paluxy River, Texas

Two actual rescues from hydraulics are detailed below. The first is a self-rescue and the second is a rope rescue by fellow paddlers. Both were successfully completed without injury or loss of property, well, almost no loss of property. More on that later...

On a recent Pecos River trip in the wilds of deep southwest Texas we were nearing the end, and the last obstacle was a weir dam, a low, concrete, riverwide formation with a gradient drop of about seven feet on an angle of about 45°. I was the first to approach the weir, which is an overflow dam usually used to create a small lake or pool, and which frequently is associated with a milling operation or other industrial project that relies on water power for its operation. I approached the weir on river left, where it was a little lower, and realized that it was a definite portage. I quickly surmised that I could safely run the higher drop on river right if I hit it hard and fast, then kept paddling as I entered the hydraulic below the dam.

I carefully sized up the hydraulic and determined that it was not "all that strong". I was wrong! As I completed the drop my bow submerged as I expected it to do. Being loaded for a multi-day expedition, my boat did not have airbags, but most of the space inside was packed with gear that was tightly lashed to the boat and would displace most of the water coming over the bow and forward gunwales. For the most part everything worked as planned, but as my bow rose the water I took on rushed to the stern of the boat just as the hydraulic caught my canoe amidship and aft. I was paddling as hard as I possibly could, but was not breaking out of the hydraulic. In fact, I was backsurfing with my stern ramming into the dam repeatedly. I remained calm because I was upright, level and not taking on any water. I just could not extricate the boat from the grip of the hydraulic. In all my years of whitewater paddling this was the first time I had actually been caught in a "keeper" hydraulic, and I realized that I might be in trouble.

Eventually, the boat listed to port and began taking on more water over the left gunwale. At that point I knew that I had but one choice - ABANDON SHIP! IN THE MIDDLE OF THE HYDRAULIC! It was a very scary thought, but there really was no other choice unless I wanted to get Maytagged into that dam. Luckily, I was able to swim out of the hydraulic with relative ease, but my boat got sucked in, flipped upside-down and sideways, then churned over and over against the dam. I stood downriver about 40 yards watching helplessly as my boat was put through a violent agitation cycle for some 20 minutes before it finally caught a wave just right and washed out of the hydraulic. It floated down to where I was waiting in the river, and I immediately flipped it upright and checked to see that my digital camera was still protected by my Pelican case - and it was! I did, however, lose all the ice in my cooler and had to paddle the rest of the day with warm Dr Pepper. Three of my D-rings had been torn lose by the force of the water and allowed my cooler to spill its contents, which by this time consisted of Dr Pepper and Gatorade only.

I learned a very valuable lesson that day about hydraulics that seem benign, but which are actually much stronger than they appear to be. A little more forward speed going over the dam and a spray cover or partially inflated airbag would have made all the difference, but I had neither on this trip, and I almost paid a heavy price for it. In the end I suffered one broken latch on my Pelican case (which Pelican replaced without charge under their lifetime warranty) and the loss of my ice. I got all my drinks back thanks to the rescue efforts of others in the group, who also gathered in my cooler.

In late June and early July, 2007, North Texas got pounded by heavy rains for about three weeks. All the rivers and lakes rose to record heights. It was a bonanza for paddlers here because we no longer had to drive four to six hours for great places to paddle. One of our seldom-navigable whitewater rivers is the Paluxy near Glen Rose and Dinosaur Valley State Park. On a normal day people go to the Paluxy to photograph dinosaur footprints in the limestone riverbed. A typical summer flow for the river is 20 cfs or lower. Just before our trip the river gauge read 18,800 cfs, and by the time of our trip it was down to 1,190 cfs, which is still very high and very great for a wild whitewater ride on Class III to III+ rapids with huge holes, ledge drops and low-water dams, some of which are actually flooded roads on low-water bridges. Who could pass up an opportunity like that?

Six of us gathered at Big Rocks City Park in Glen Rose, made our plans for setting up our shuttle, left one vehicle at the take-out to get us back to the top at the end of the day, then headed upriver. Along the way we stopped at access points to check out the conditions, and were thrilled at what we saw. One place we stopped was the SH 205 low-head dam below the overhead bridge, a site that had killed one girl a few days before and killed a game warden who was dragging the river for her body a few days later. We carefully studied the dam and decided that it could be run if we hit it in the right spot with the right speed.

Putting in about 21.7 river miles above our take-out, we enjoyed an E-ticket ride all day long! The Paluxy threw everything at us, and we enjoyed it all. Three of the six in our group swam a few times, but the other three of us managed to stay upright all day, though we all had to bail our boats after every rapid because the standing waves were swamping us. Five of us were in solo canoes and one was in a kayak. One of the guys was in my second whitewater canoe because his boat is an expedition barge, and it would not have been as well suited for this river, especially on this day.

Approaching the SH 205 low-head dam, which was only about 2 miles or so from our take-out, four of our group decided to portage on river left, and it was a smart move on their parts. I fully intended to run the drop and the other guy was not sure if he would. He was waiting to see if I made it. He had already broken his double-blade paddle early in the day and was using his spare single-blade. We discussed the strategy I intended to use, and he watched as I approached the drop. Remembering what had happened on the Pecos, I hit this one paddling like I was starting a race, and flew over the drop, into the hydraulic and broke through it with relative ease, turning back into it to front surf the wave coming off the dam. After a few minutes I backpaddled out of the hydraulic and sat downriver waiting from my friend to either portage or run the drop.

He decided to try the run, but he was much slower and got a little skewed going over the top. Immediately upon his bow plunging into the hydraulic it flipped him and he was caught in the hydraulic. The boat was sideways and rolling. My friend was trying to stay on the surface, but was getting pulled under every few seconds. One of the safety guys tried to throw a bag to him, but his technique was horrible, and he missed several times. Seeing what was happening, two of us immediately scrambled back to the dam on land with our bags. The other guy beat me there and made a perfect throw. Our victim caught the rope, but remained on his stomach clutching the rope to his chest. Two of the guys belayed the rope as I was approaching the situation, but my friend was being pulled under by the force of the hydraulic. He did NOT release the rope, so I told the other two guys to give it some slack.

Once our friend came back to the surface I instructed him to get on his back and secure the rope to his chest over his right shoulder so that we could pull him to the left back. It took every bit of energy three of us could muster, but we succeeded in pulling our friend out of the hydraulic, at which time I secured a fireman's grip on his left arm and dragged him up onto the dam. Our victim was scared and shaking badly, but he was safe and uninjured. The rescue took nearly 15 minutes, and for our friend it was living hell that lasted an eternity. He had been unable to swim to the side, and he is a very strong swimmer. He was unable to get kicked out along the bottom. The rope rescue was the only thing that saved his life. He was exhausted and waterlogged, but mentally and physically stable.

The experience taught him a lesson in hydraulics, and showed us all the need for actually practicing throwing a bag once in awhile. A rope is useless unless you can get it to the victim in a safe and proper manner. Time is critical, and had two others of us not been able to get back in time to assist the rescue our friend probably would have drowned that day. As it was, we sat in a Burger King eating burgers and fries, and discussing the day's events. Our victim decided that, in the future, he will portage low-head dams and other hazards involving hydraulic currents.

These are two personal experiences with hydraulics within three months of each other. Nothing can prepare you for the power of a hydraulic except being in one, and it is a lesson you would rather not experience. Be very careful of what may appear to be a modest hydraulic because it may be much stronger than it appears. If there is ANY doubt about your ability to safely run a hydraulic, then PORTAGE! It goes back to what I said earlier - the life you save MAY be your own!

Read previous "On the Water" Feature Stories
[ Surviving Hypothermia ] [ Texas Water Safari ]
[ Wilderness Tripping Protocols ] [ Dangers of Low-Water Bridges ]

Southwest Paddler
Click to return to the Southwest Paddler Homepage
Home Page
Southwest Paddler

Arkansas Rivers Index
Canoeman River

Guide Services
Return to the homepage
Home Page

CobraGraphics - Web Designs with a Bite!

Send E-mail This web page designed, created and maintained by
Marc W. McCord dba CobraGraphics
© July 20, 2007. All rights reserved.
Last updated October 31, 2009

Copyright © 1998-2010, Marc W. McCord dba CobraGraphics. All rights reserved. Southwest Paddler, CobraGraphics and Canoeman River Guide Services are trademarks of Marc W. McCord dba CobraGraphics. The textual, graphic, audio, and audio/visual material in this site is protected by United States copyright law and international treaties. You may not copy, distribute, or use these materials except for your personal, non-commercial use. Any trademarks are the property of their respective owners. All original photographs on this web site are the exclusive property of Marc W. McCord or other designated photographers and may not be copied, duplicated, reproduced, distributed or used in any manner without prior written permission under penalty of US and International laws and treaties.