Everyone swims, especially when learning or pushing on to harder trips. Some rapids just call out for bank support, whilst on others, safety cover can only be provided from on the water. Rescuing swimmers from straightforward capsizes becomes routine, and everyone will rapidly become familiar with throwlines and a few rescue techniques.We strongly recommend everyone to go on a Whitewater Safety and Rescue course early in their paddling career, and keep in practice ! Everyone should be carrying a throwline and knife - other useful stuff is on our What safety/rescue kit should I carry? page.
Fortunately less frequent are other incidents such as pinned boats and injured paddlers. But all paddlesport comes under the heading "assumed risk activity" and it is important to know what risks you are taking on, how to control them, and what to do when things go pear shaped. Reading this page is NO SUBSTITUTE for practical hands-on experience, and whilst normal trips can provide a certain amount of that, real emergencies are rare and the speed with which decisions must be made and actions taken really calls for some training in advance. Familiarity with the risks is a prerequisite for preparedness for dealing with incidents, as well as a good way of avoiding them, so we recommend everyone is conversant with our generic risk assessment for whitewater trips.
There is no substitute for practice - WWSR course on the Tees
We ran a whitewater safety and rescue course with two coaches a while back, and will do so again, once the BCU manages to get its new system sufficiently organised that providers actually have a syllabus to run courses to. What we have on this page are a few photos from that course (and other rescue practices), along with a few of real incidents (none of them life-threatening). Needless to say, when a real situation occurs, photography is not top of the list of priorities !
There's a natural temptation to look at a hazard like a rock in the river, rather than looking at the route to avoid it, but the boat wants to go where you are looking, so paddlers may find that rocks seem magnetic ! Equally, there's a tendency to lean away from the rock as it looms up, which makes a pin all the more likely. Learn to lean into the rock, bracing off it with the paddle if support is needed. Once pinned, the same is even more true, and if there is any chance of the boat turning over, getting out is a priority.
The incident shown in the photo above taught a number of useful lessons. It seems an obvious idea that on a trip with less experienced paddlers, the lead is taken by those with more experience and who know the river. On this occasion the result was that the experienced paddlers saw the hazard, grabbed the breakouts and started getting out of boats. Helen was left with only smaller eddies and missed the one she chose, having no time to do anything before being swept into this tree sweeper. This was a nasty situation as the release strap on her spraydeck was trapped below the trunk. The critical job was to prevent any deterioration whilst we worked to get her deck off so she could get out of the boat. It was a noisy location, and Claire had been wearing a fairly soundproof hood under her helmet, so had taken these off to aid communication. She got Helen free pretty quickly, but inevitably the boat was the least of our concerns and it was let go. That changed the flow pattern, and Claire also ended up swimming. This was the point where everyone spotted that having no helmet was probably not a good plan... The good things to note are that Helen leaned towards the tree, thus lifting her upstream edge, so the water was not able to turn her upside down, nor, when the deck came free, did the water immediately fill the boat. Those factors gave us more time, and made it much easier for Helen to get out when the deck was released.