What Safety/Rescue Kit Should I Carry?
There are those who have swum and those who will swim - even the best paddlers swim sometimes and we don't go onto the water professing complacent certainty that everyone will cope with everything in style and safety. So every group needs to carry some gear for rescues, whilst individuals need a minimum of gear for their own safety. Helmets and Personal Flotation Devices need to fit well - a helmet that comes off, impairs vision or exposes part of the head to impact is worse than useless as it can inspire a false sense of security. Buoyancy aids need to allow freedom of movement whilst providing buoyancy without riding up. A poorly fitting BA can leave you swimming low in the water with your view ahead blocked, whilst a well-fitting one will keep both your head and body higher so you can swim to safety whilst hitting fewer rocks ! Don't take these items of gear off until you are safely away from the hazard - dress for immersion and wear helmet and PFD even if you are only providing bank support and don't intend to paddle.
Get lots of practice - start somewhere easy and not too cold!
If you are part of a group paddling as peers, you need some kit for helping others, much of which will also be useful for some of the ways you can get into trouble yourself. Your PFD should be equipped with a knife, accessible to, and openable with either hand. Rivers can be noisy, so a whistle is useful for gaining attention. Your throw line should be instantly accessible when you get out of your boat (and there's a lot to be said for it being accessible without needing to pop your deck at all). Not just accessible, but accessed - you should always carry the throwline when you get out to inspect or portage, you never know who might fall in or wash past... Some rescues need multiple ropes - every paddler in a group should carry one, and have practiced using it. All ropes should be floating line and a high visibility colour, but if you are using more than one, it helps to have different colours (red, yellow, orange) for easy identification.
Livebait rescues are one case where it's good to have lots of throwlines.
If you are (or hope to progress to be) one of the better paddlers who will most likely be carrying out rescues, firstly, it's really good idea to take some swiftwater rescue training, and practice frequently. A course will give you a good idea of what equipment you need and, more importantly, how to use it safely. The basic need is for a PFD with an integrated rescue harness comprising a quick-release belt and either an attached cow's tail or a ring to clip to. The group should have several paddlers carrying rescue kit (it's no use if your only kit for retrieving a pinned boat is in the boat that's pinned!). A sling and carabiner is always useful for a quick contact tow, or for getting a drifting boat secured whilst you exit your own boat. It can also form part of a pin kit, or be used as a belay if you are throwbagging from an exposed perch.
The other items making up a pin kit are your throwline, spare karabiners, prussik slings and pulleys. In a small group on a technical river, it's best if everyone has a full pin kit, line, four (screwgate) karabiners, three pulleys, two prussiks and one sling. In a bigger group, the gear can be spread around among more people, as long as the full kit can be got together quickly (again allowing for some of the kit being in a boat which is pinned or drifting). That 4-3-2-1 set is enough for one person to set up a three-to-one mechanical advantage hauling system (see How to set up a Z-rig) and operate it on his own. It's often handy to have one karabiner which has a wide-enough opening gate to clip it over a paddle shaft and, as most such krabs are wire-gate snaplinks, that shouldn't be one of the four mentioned above.
Full pin kit and a wide-opening snaplink.
Hot drink, high-energy food, bivvi bags or group shelter, first-aid kit and emergency repair kit should also be available and be distributed among the group to ensure adequate redundancy. At least one split paddle is always a good idea (paddles are easily lost and we've had one broken even on grade 2 water). A communication device will enable you to call for help if a situation gets beyond the group's resources (beware that mobile phones often get no signal in a deep valley, so be equipped to walk out and find either signal or a phone box - a (recent) OS map may help). A folding saw can be used to remove smaller timber from a rapid, or to cut someone out of a boat if it's the only way. It's useful for small portable bits of kit to have a lanyard so you can clip them in when working in awkward places. Then if you drop it, it's not gone forever!
Bivvi bags or Group Shelters are not just for emergencies - this was a long cold wait for the shuttle
None of this kit is of much value if you don't know how to use it - and quickly, whilst under stress. A Whitewater safety and rescue course is very strongly recommended for everyone who will be paddling at anything beyond a beginner level, but even more important is frequent practice. Accurate throwlining is an acquired skill that needs to be kept up, and other ropework is also a lot quicker and safer if you maintain familiarity by carrying out the actions often - you shouldn't have to pause to think about how to tie an Italian hitch or a prussik knot, make a safe belay or set up a mechanical advantage hauling system.
If you can't make time for a course, there are a lot of resources on the net, and the club has access to video materials which will help to familiarise yourself with the concepts and techniques, but there is no substitute for frequently performing the actions yourself so that they are second nature in an emergency.