Anyone who paddles whitewater, wildwater or fast-moving water rivers owes it to him or herself, and all others with whom they paddle, to get formal instruction in swiftwater rescue. That instruction should be repeated at least every two or three years, though annual refresher courses are highly recommended. An emergency situation is no time to discover the lack of preparation needed to save lives, minimize and treat injuries and recover boats and gear. Instruction should be undertaken from paddlers who are certified in swiftwater rescue by the American Canoe Association (ACA).
As with almost everything else in life, practice makes permanent - what you practice is what you will do almost automatically in an emergency situation. Being prepared means not only having the necessary skills, but also having the necessary gear and equipment to successfully affect a rescue. It also means having the mental dexterity to evaluate an emergency, decide upon what actions to be taken, then implement those actions within the limitations of people and gear available. Bad decisions can be just as ineffective as indecision, and both can lead to less than favorable results. Often, prompt and effective actions are essential for a successful rescue, but it is also critical to recognize what can and cannot be done. As harsh as it may sound, sometimes that may mean losing one person rather than two or more. It is always preferable to sacrifice boats and gear rather than a human life.
The single most critical component of swiftwater rescue is the ability to self-rescue, because there may be times when it is not possible for others to assist you. The first consideration when paddling moving water rivers (or any river, for that matter) should be wearing a properly fitted and secured personal flotation device (PFD, or lifejacket) with adequate bouyancy to support your weight, and float you face up in the event of unconsciousness. Your PFD is NOT a good place to save money! The second consideration should be a high quality, snug-fitting helmet to protect your head. The third consideration should be high quality river boots with hard rubber soles and good traction to protect your feet. These should be high top boots with zippers and arch straps with Velcro closures to keep them on your feet. Tennis shoes, sandals or aqua socks just don't suffice in moving water. River boots will also aid walking on rocky river bottoms or banks.
Swiftwater rescue entails knowing what to do, how to do it, and having the right gear for an emergency situation. Safety gear should include at least 200 feet of climbing rope with a breaking strength of at least 3,000 foot-pounds (the higher rating, the better), caribiners, pulleys, throwbags with solid bag construction (and preferably polypropylene rope - it floats), at least 20 feet of tubular webbing, a loud whistle that is effective even when wet, a sharp knife with folding blade and a blunt tip, at least one high quality and well stocked First Aid kit, a Prusick loop, and one or more gear bags for carrying everything downriver. Ideally, each paddle should have everything needed for a rescue situation, but at the very least a full complement of gear should be carried among the paddlers in a group. It is NOT a good idea to have all the rescue gear in one bag and one boat in the event that is the boat that needs to be rescued. Dividing gear among paddlers will insure that at least some of the gear is available for a rescue unless all boats are in the same trouble.
When capsized in fast-moving water a paddler may take one of two actions - assume a passive swim position or begin an aggressive swim to the nearest bank or safe haven out of the current. A passive swim position is preferred if there are no known obstacles in the river and assistance is waiting (or self-rescue is easier) downriver. A passive swim position is one in which the paddler is on his or her back, feet pointed downriver with toes out of the water, head laid back and buttocks up. Arms should be extended to provide stability and directional control. This position allows the paddler to float above most rocks and other obstacles in the river, with the feet, lower legs and knees acting in concert as a shock absorber if an obstacles is encountered. The passive swim position will also allow a paddler to float at a slower pace due to the added drag from body contact with the water.
Sometimes it is necessary to get out of the water quickly. This is especially true if the water and/or outside air temperature is cold, or when dangerous obstacles in the water must be avoided to prevent injury or death. This would include approaching dams, low-water bridges or other dangers that must be avoided. When a paddler find him or herself swimming unexpectedly an aggressive swim position is preferred for quickly geting out of the water. The proper position is face down in the water so as to get the most strength and directional control from the arms and legs.
The paddler then swims upriver at a crab angle to the nearest bank where a safe exit from the river can be made. Hopefully, this will also be where assistance from others awaits. The paddler will use arm strokes and leg kicks to propel him or herself across the current, using a drift angle assisted by the downriver current, to reach a safe exit point. The paddler should swim very aggressively, rotating the head to the downriver side every 4-6 strokes to take in fresh air. A strong leg kick is necessary to save arm strength and increase momentum as the paddler swims across the current. As a rule of thumb the crab angle should be about 45° to the downriver current, but conditions may dictate an angle that is either lesser or greater than 45°. The aggressive swim should continue until the paddler has either reached shallow, slow-moving water or a safe exit point from the river.
Before you can save or assist in saving another paddler you must first be safe yourself. It may not be possible for others to assist you, and so the ability to self-rescue is very important. Once you are safely ashore or in shallow, slow-moving water, and have regained strength and breath control, then you may be ready to assist in rescueing other paddlers, boats and gear. Fast, accurate decision-making skills are necessary in a rescue situation. Above all else, DO NOT PANIC! Panic blocks the ability to think rationally and act decisely and effectively. It may also lead you to take actions which jeopardize your own safety or that of those trying to assist you.
This short treatise on swiftwater rescue is not intended, nor should it be taken, as a substitute for proper training and instruction in swiftwater rescue by ACA-certified instructors. There is much to learn before a paddler is prepared to help him or herself, or another paddler. A few of the critical components of swiftwater rescue training include throwbag techniques, knot tying, setting up mechanical advantage systems such as "Z-drags" and "Pig-rigs", instruction in the recognition and treatment of hypothermia, fording moving water on foot, basic instruction in First Aid, and exercises in organizing human and equipment resources to meet the requirements of an effective rescue, as well as the ability to recognize that, in some situations, there may be nothing you can do.
Paddling moving water rivers is not a walk in the park. It is a thrilling sport best left to those who have the paddling and rescue skills to safely enjoy it. It is highly advisable to paddle in groups, especially on rivers that are rated Class II or higher on the International Scale of Difficulty. For those who are prepared it can be a major adreneline rush that provides much material for stories around a campfire.
For information on swiftwater rescue training, First Aid and related matters please visit the links below or contact your nearest paddling club.