Kayaking on white water is an incredibly exciting experience. The adrenaline pumps, your muscles get pushed to the limit, your control of the kayak is tested. Speed, precision and strength are the orders of the day. However, even on low grade rivers the force of the water will be far greater than even the strongest paddler so when things go wrong, they can go wrong very fast. As with all things prevention is better than cure, but inevitably there will times when this fails, and that time is when it is essential to know at the very least some basic rescue techniques. Reading this article is no substitute for practice, but it hopefully will point you in the right direction.
- Prevention -
When paddling a river there are four important things to remember to help prevent things going wrong, and they can be remembered using the acronym "CLAP".
C = Communication. On a noisy white water river communication will normally take the form of signals. If possible these should be hand signals, because there is far less likelihood of confusion as opposed to paddle signals which could be misunderstood as simply normal paddle strokes. Keeping a good line of communication to the group is essential, because this way everyone knows what to expect up ahead, and allows the leader to organise the group more effectively for scouting and the suchlike (see below).
L = Line of sight. This is essential, because loss of line of sight could mean that a group member has just taken a pounding in a hole, become pinned etc. and the rest of the group will not have realised. Line of sight is also necessary for communication otherwise the hand signals won't be seen. Occasionally maintaining line of sight will be tricky, for instance when running gorge sections with very small eddies. If it is impossible to maintain line of sight, it is time to get off the river as soon as possible.
A = Avoidance. Obviously you don't want to be paddling blithely into massive drops or recirculating stoppers, so avoidance is very important. As a rule of thumb, if you cannot see another eddy to get to, or if you see a large horizon line (these are lines across the river which you can't see past, suggesting a drop), then it is a good idea to get out and scout. Scouting takes the form of getting off the river in an eddy and inspecting a section of rapid on foot. Plan your route through if necessary, concentrating on avoiding any features of the river that you are not comfortable running. (For a guide to river features see x)
P = Positioning. After scouting it is usual to set up safety to protect the rapid. Think about positioning people on the bank with throw lines, and maybe send a more experienced paddler to break out into an eddy part the way down the rapid if possible to assist with rescue if need be. Remember though that your own safety must come first - getting yourself into trouble as well will help nobody.
- Some Basic Rescue Techniques -
One of the most useful techniques for rescue is the use of a throw line. These consist of about 20m of rope in a bag that is designed to be easily thrown to paddlers that have ended up swimming. The use of throw lines however is a little trickier than is first apparent however; especially if you are trying to use them on the small slippery shelves of rock that often form the edges of rapids. Lots of practice will vastly improve your aim.
First and foremost think about positioning. You need to in a useful place, firstly in that you are covering a section where people are likely to mess up, and secondly that you are in a position such that when you take up the strain of a person on the end of the line you will not be pulled into the river. Finally you also need to be in a position where you can get the swimmer into an eddy or an easily accessible section of bank; otherwise they will just be stuck on the end of the rope but not being rescued.
Next think about the actual throwing technique. Hold on to the non-bag end, and preferably feed a length of rope round your back so that the friction will prevent the line slipping. Give yourself some slack to hold on to. Throw the line however you are most comfortable - over, under or side-arm - being careful not to lob the line into a tree or other obstructions. Aim for the swimmer, and shout "LINE!" or "SWIMMER!" or their name to attract their attention. When the line is thrown, crouch low and brace yourself, preferably dig your feet into a crack in the rock or wedge yourself behind a tree, but make sure you're not going to get stuck. Then allow the swimmer on the line to swing round into an eddy, or pull them into the bank. For extra security you can get someone to hold onto you to prevent you sliding and help pull the swimmer in.
For grades up to about 3 the only other technique you will be likely to need is the white water tow. So, you have your swimmer safe in an eddy, but their boat and paddle have been pulled out the river on the other side. To get swimmer to kit you will need to give him a tow, or make him swim (see below). Towing swimmers in white water is a tricky business, and should never be done using a line. Get the swimmer to crawl up the back of your boat and hang on either around your waist or to the cockpit rim. To aid your paddling they should kick their legs, but remember that your speed and manoeuvrability will be seriously impaired when you choose your line. Towing if it is possible will tend to be much safer for a swimmer than swimming the rapid. Otherwise they should swim, but using the correct technique:
- Swimming in White Water -
Swimming should be done on your back with feet first so that you can kick off rocks and other obstacles. The most effective method of getting to an eddy is to roll yourself, rather than directly swimming for it. If at all possible get out of the stream as quickly as possible, but if it's not possible then avoid holes and strainers and other obstacles like the plague. A strainer is usually a tree that has fallen across a drop; if you have no option but to run the drop it is far better to go over the tree than under it because there is a serious possibility that you could become trapped.
This is the one time you will need to go headfirst - get up some speed, grab the tree and use your momentum to push yourself up and over it. You might want to stay there if the rest of the rapid looks nasty, otherwise continue down the other side, preferably feet first, but again this may not be possible. If it a large stopper below you aim to dive beyond it so you are not caught in the tow-back. Basically though, avoid swimming if at all possible!
Armed with these basic techniques you should be fairly well prepared for running lower grades of river, up to about three. There is no substitute however for experience, so ideally you want to be lead by an experienced paddler. Always remember that if you are not sure, it is better to err on the side of safety. Otherwise concentrate on enjoying the fabulous experience that is white water paddling!