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Old 05-31-2006   #1
Denver, Colorado
Paddling Since: 2004
Join Date: Apr 2004
Posts: 3,097
River rescue question??? Lessons learned???

The post about the rafter that died on the eagle had me thinking about rescueing swimmers. I think that I read that he was in the water for a while and that kayakers finally pulled him out and performed CPR, but to no avail. I'd be interested to hear comments on techniques for rescuing swimmers when you are in a kayak. I've done the "swimmer grab the grab loop" and ferry to shore. Never tried it in big water, or hard rapids though. Seems like it would get challenging to say the least. Also I was thinking about unconcious swimmers, or swimmers unable to grab a boat. What do you do with them when you are in your kayak? I did the tethered rescue where you jump in and grab an "unconcious" swimmer in a river rescue class, but that doesn't seem to work when you are in your boat, and you see an unconcious swimmer. Maybe you could grab them and hold their head out of the water and ride out the rapids, but that is hard to do and stay upright. Swimming out of your boat on purpose to grab them and hold the head up seems like you would be endangering yourself and you might end up with two victims. I know that the first answer is that people on rivers should have the self rescue skills to be able to swim agressively to shore to save themselves, but this is not always the case. I guess I found myself thinking, what if I was on the eagle that day, what would I have done? I'm interested to see what folks thoughts are on this and if there are lessons to be learned to help us all be more safe.

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Old 05-31-2006   #2
Andy H.'s Avatar
Wheat Ridge, Colorado
Paddling Since: 1995
Join Date: Oct 2003
Posts: 2,909
I'm a rafter and not an expert in kayak rescues (other than being on the receiving end a couple of times).

My thoughts on hanging on to the loop in rapids: I'd rather let go of the loop, take the swim by myself and have the kayaker still upright and in his/her boat to tow me to shore from the tailwaters rather than have both of us go for the swim because I held on and flipped my rescuer.


Nothing in the world is more yielding and gentle than water. Yet it has no equal for conquering the resistant and tough. The flexible can overcome the unbending; the soft can overcome the hard. - Lao Tse
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Old 05-31-2006   #3
Join Date: Mar 2004
Posts: 35
A first hand account

I received this email from friends who were there.

Although I had a great time on the trip, the post Yampa kayaking
> on the Eagle river near Vail had a tragedy of a rafter who was on the
> same section while we were boating. On Sat. the 27th, a raft with
> two men on it flipped while running the Edwards mile (continuous
> class III-IV) on the Eagle. Although we did not know them, their
> boat was between our lead raft/kayaker and Kim Boberschmidt and
> myself kayaking in the rear.
> Doug Blockcolsky (kayaking), Tim Perez, Chuck Boberschmidt, &
> Shellie Miller (all in lead raft) managed to get the one swimmer to
> shore after about a mile in continuous class III-IV water. The
> swimmer held on to Doug throughout the entire rapid, then lost
> consciousness. Despite heroic efforts by Doug, Chuck and Tim in the
> rescue and Tim and Chuck performing CPR, they were unable to revive
> the individual. After approximately 30 minutes, emergency personnel
> arrived and took over, but were also unable to revive him. He was
> pronounced dead at the scene. While scouting the rapid Kim and I
> found the other rafter, who had been rowing the flipped boat. We
> convinced him that his best chance at helping his buddy was for him
> to make sure rescue personnel knew that he himself was okay. I find
> this hard to write about, but feel the need to let you all know.
> Although it was high water (~2800 cfs) and serious rapids, these were
> local rafters with much experience on this river.
> I hope everyone had safe and fun trip home,
> Mark
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Old 05-31-2006   #4
Golden, Colorado
Join Date: Apr 2004
Posts: 831
The only time I had a swimmer grab my loop I flipped immediately and it was a relatively tame bit of water.

Now, when I see a swimmer I give a toot on my whistle. If I'm downstream I get a good distance ahead of them, eddy out, jump out and throw my waist throw-bag at them. This actually worked for me once on Clear Creek.

If I'm not way ahead of them then I just follow along and my plan is to let them ride it out until they make it out themself because it seems to me that there is no way I'm gonna stay upright in a rapid with someone hanging on my boat. My backup plan, if they lose consciousness, is to be close enough to abandon ship and grab them and swim them to shore. I don't know if that makes any sense or not. I suppose in class V that would not work too well because 2 swimmers would probably be a disaster, maybe then it would be better to wait until the bottom of the rapid, even if they are unconscious. I don't know.
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Old 05-31-2006   #5
Steamboat Springs, Colorado
Paddling Since: 1986
Join Date: Jul 2005
Posts: 134
Rescues form a kayak

I have had a lot of experience both in rescuing kayak swimmers and rafting swimmers. Rescuing a person out of the water while in your boat is difficult at best. Cold water can make the situation even more difficult if the swimmer is not properly dressed. The newer smaller boats compound the problem as there is little extra flotation to support a swimmer. If you need to rescue a person while still in your boat, The best situation is to get them to pull themselves as far up onto your boat as possible so that you can make progress with your paddling. In smaller boats it is actually easier to have them climb on the bow and paddle backwards. This all takes a lot of control on the rescuers part and shouldn't be used if you have any doubt about your skills. I have seen some pretty amazing rescues of swimmers by kayakers. All involved extremely competent boaters.

All things said, your best training for being a successful rescuer is to be a better boater. Having a level head and more than adequate skills can make a big difference.

Dan Brabec
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Old 05-31-2006   #6
Join Date: Apr 2005
Posts: 66
I have never rescued an unconcious swimmer but one good method may be to use the harness on your rescue vest. You could clip on to their pfd and drag them to shore or release yourself from them if things got unmanagable.
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Old 05-31-2006   #7
JCKeck1's Avatar
Seattle, Washington
Paddling Since: 1999
Join Date: Oct 2003
Posts: 1,471
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Here's my advice as a former safety boater on Gore and Pine Creek. This advice is different from what you would get at a swiftwater course because the course makes it clear that rescuer safety is paramount. However, as a paid safety boater, I feel that it is my job responsibility to take risks and do everything possible to get swimmers to shore because they have no experience and are paying me for my experience to keep them alive. That being said, as a paid safety boater my protocal is:

1: Do everything possible to always be the furthest person downstream.

2: Act as swim team captian. Generally guests will panic like crazy, so stay out of their reach at least initially. First calm them down and then get them swimming in a positive direction. 85% of the time this works. Also, you can help multiple people this way.

3: If you can get eye contact with the person and they appear reasonably calm, I'll let them grab the stern loop. Scream at them to swim with one hand and kick with their legs. This helps a lot. Unlike advice given above, I never under any circumstances allow people onto my boat. That makes it extremely hard to remain upright. I've never had too many problems staying upright if the swimmer just holds on while I tug. If I flip, the guest will have been told to let go of my loop before putting on. After all, I'm no use to them upside down.

4: If the person is unconscious, there are two options. First I will clip the person with my life jacket tether to their life jacket. This makes things interesting but it works. Second without a tether I would ditch my boat and perform a strong swimmer rescue. That's another topic and for the finer points on strong swimmer rescues I would recommend a swiftwater rescue class. Also at this point, I hope your CPR skills are up to date. Are they?

Again, things are different when the risk is shared through a paddling group, but rafting clients are paying to have guides assume the risk for them. These clients will have been given a long safety talk including all of the above before putting on. Also, I make sure to mention that I will slice my fiberglass paddle across their face if they wont let go when I tell them to or if I'm upside down. Finally, these situations with guests only occur on stretches that I know really well. Things would change considerably if your buddy grabbed your boat when you were in uncertain terrain.
Hope that helps
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Old 05-31-2006   #8
Matt J's Avatar
Leadvillian, Colorado
Join Date: May 2005
Posts: 381
I've been paid to safety kayak a bit so I'll add a little. Lots of great stuff has already been said by very qualified people so I'll only fill in a few things.

First, choice of craft is real important. When being paid I'm always in a creeker. If you're taking the responsibility seriously you need to be in a bouyant boat.

Also there are a lot of methods, some of which were new to me until working in New Zealand last winter, that work with a little practice. If you're afraid you'll bang the swimmer around on your grab loop have them put there arms around your waist. This can be done with them on your bow or stern. It sounds difficult because it is. So, practice it and see if it's something you're comfortable with.

And remember you're only capable of so much. In any rescue situation any help given is a noble and honorable gift. Don't feel responsible for "saving" someone else. You only have to live with yourself so make decisions based on your own ability to help.

Some amazing rescues have been accomplished by well-trained, courageous paddlers. It's a real credit to our sport and those teachers who went before us. My hats off to the Poudre crew for the rescue in the Middle Narrows last year and to Kevin Hammond for his efforts on the Middle Fork of the Flathead just to name a few. Let's continue to show the world that we look after our own.
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Old 05-31-2006   #9
Join Date: Oct 2003
Posts: 405
If a swimmer is holding on to my stern grab loop, I don't think it unstabilizes me at all. In other words, I am no more likely to flip with a calm swimmer hanging on to my grab loop. I got to do this twice last weekend on the numbers at 2,200 cfs and was able to get the swimmer to shore quickly. Granted, if it was happening in Pine Creek rapid or Gore rapid it may be different!

I have found that in the past when I tried to paddle to the swimmer and present my grab loop gently at arms distance, they could never reach. This weekend I changed tactics and aimed my boat straight at the swimmer's head, paddled with speed, and yelled "grab loop!" Sure as shit, they effortlessly grabbed it both times. Seems rude, but at least I was in reach!

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Old 05-31-2006   #10
Arvada, Colorado
Paddling Since: 1999
Join Date: Oct 2003
Posts: 84
Good topic Ian....

I agree with Joe 100%. Whenever I pull swimmers out, I make sure they are going to do what I want, and they are calm. Generally your boating partners know what to do, it's when you decide to help out that rafter who got tossed that you can get into trouble.

There is a recurring theme in all the above posts, wear a rescue PFD. 999 times out of 1000 you will only be using your tether to fetch gear. But it's the one time you need it you wished you had it.

One thing I don't get is why people hardly anybody wears a rescue PFD. They will throw down $1000 for a new boat, $150 for a new sporty helmet, then buy some cheap PFD. Totally confuses me...

I'm no expert, but here are some things I learned after going through an incident on the Poudre a few years ago:

1. A lone rescuer is pretty much useless. You need at least two people to deal with an unconcious victim, or almost any rescue situation. So I try to boat with at least 2 other people.

2. Those 25 ft. throw bags are crap. Buy a 50 ft spectra bag. Even thats barely enough line sometimes.

3. Wear a rescue PFD. That tether and release buckle can prove invaluable.

4. Sometimes things go wrong despite all your best efforts.

That last one is not really a helpful tip, but it's the truth.


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