Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Swift Water Rescue Clinic

"If your buddy doesn't have a throw bag, give him yours," said the River Store's Gigi McBee, "In case you need it."

That was good advice,  I thought looking out over the South Fork of the American River. The river was running fast.  Kayaks and rafts kept coming by, bouncing in the pillow of waves just upstream from Henningsen Lotus Park.  Smiles and fun were the order of the day.  But, rivers are like that. Your friend one day... Over your head and gasping for air the next.  It's good to be ready for whatever it dishes out.

I recently took part in the Swift Water Rescue Clinic for Novices conducted McBee. The clinic was set up to teach fundamental skills for kayak based rescues, rescue throw bag techniques (throwing & retrieving) and swimming self-rescues. The exercise was designed to improve our skills along with bolstering our awareness and confidence on the river.

The rescue/throw bag is an essential piece of safety equipment used to rescue a swimmer and in some cases,  help unpin trapped boats. There should be a minimum of one per kayak on any trip.  I got mine a few years back after capsizing in icy Otter Tail River and not having one. I ordered it the next day and now it comes on every trip. It is a little faded but still holds up well.

We were instructed to practice softball or sidearm style pitches, trying to get the float bag as far as we could into the stream. Soon bright float bags and yellow ropes crisscross the river like spaghetti.   When re-stuffing the bag we were advised to, coil the rope directly into the bag. Coiling it first and then putting it into the bag can cause a tangle that prevents the rope from smoothly flowing out of the bag when tossed.

Soon we were ready for practicing being both swimmer and rescuer.  First, swim across the river through rapids. After some pointers, our instructor dove in to demonstrate.  She took a couple of strokes, gracefully rolled on to her back in the boil and swam out to another side with ease. Two others followed before it was my turn.

There are two ways of swimming through a rapid. Swim defensively or offensively.  Swimming defensive involves floating downstream in a protected position, lying on my back, feet downstream, arms out to the side and with my body floating on the surface as possible. But, in order to get through the rapid and cross the eddy line, I adopt the offensive swimming technique. Swimming freestyle hard through the boils and whirlpool.

I dove into the current and was washed downstream quickly. The chilly water took my breath away as swam through the rapid to the eddy. I took a quick breath and oriented myself before continuing across.  Misjudging the speed of water  I was quickly being carried away from the group.
"Rope!" was called from shore.
A rescue bag was tossed out to me in a softball style pitch. I instinctive swam toward the lifeline and grabbed the line.  Clinging to it the rescuers will swing me toward the banks of the river. I'd was the first rescue of the day.

I would play both swimmer and rescuer several more times that afternoon.  As a rescuer, I quickly realized how the rope becomes very taut with the pull of swimmer on the end.  Pulling and swinging the swimmer to safety takes some muscle even done correctly using a climber's technique of belaying the rope across my back and hips while another rescuer can assisted me by grabbing the back my PFD and helping with the brace.

The skills taught that weekend was invaluable.  Always have a rescue bag handy, and practice using it.  Also, make sure the folks you boat with have them too. The life that gets saved could be yours.

The River Store offers a variety of clinics and workshops throughout the paddling season. For more information, visit them online at