Water rescue: Saving up- and downriver victims

When a motor isn't an option, here are paddling and anchoring techniques to get victims on both sides of the hazard

We had a water rescue earlier this week with multiple kayak victims hung up on strainers. We had very heavy rains all week and the river was running fast and deep with the overall area in a flood-like state.

What are normally islands were underwater with fast currents pushing around trees; there was a lot of debris to avoid. We had to negotiate through the tree fields to get to the downriver side of the victims and safely get them into the watercrafts.

These access lanes had foliage, vines, downed trees and branches all underwater. This always presents major challenges to propeller or jet-drive crafts.

Image: Rescue Methods
Image: Rescue Methods

On multiple occasions we had to tether the craft to a tree, access the props and disentangle them from all of the stuff we were navigating. To work in and out of these lanes, we had to switch back and forth between motorized and paddling operations.

Proficient crews that can quickly switch gears like this and effectively manage the craft are essential to these types of water rescues.

The environment is generally the driving factor when choosing motorized, paddling or shore-based techniques. If the water is too hazardous for or won't support motorized operations, then you must have other options. Here are four conditions where motors won't work.

  • The current exceeds the capabilities of the outboard.
  • There are too many hazards or shallow points to operate a motor.
  • Hazards close to or downriver from the objective are too dangerous to rely on motors without safety tethers to shore.
  • Victims are obstructed from reliable water access by a debris or tree field.

There are several technical approaches when confronting these environments, but they must be applied correctly based on the environment. Each may require paddling sequences to advance lines from bank to bank.

Paddling may also be required to assist the rescuers controlling lines in getting the watercraft into the right position. Here's a look at two different environments and the techniques best suited for them.  

Environment A: Victim on the upriver side of a hazard
This would look like a large tree that has fallen across the river or other type of strainer. The victim is trapped against the high side or is on top of the strainer.

Deploy the two-point tether upriver from the victim. Attach two lines to the front corners of the craft. This can be done with a messenger line and line gun when both banks are accessible by land.

When one bank is an island or inaccessible by land, the lines may have to be established by craft. If motors are not an option, attach one line to the rear of the craft and deploy the craft to the other bank, setting a good ferry line from an appropriate upriver point. Place an extra rescuer in the craft with the line he will take to the opposite bank.

Before paddling to the opposite bank, attach the line to the rear to prevent it from pulling a ferry angle on the craft that is opposite of the angle required. Once the craft reaches the other bank, deploy the additional rescuer with the extra line and attach both lines to the front corners of the craft.

Use the lines and the rescuers managing them to control the position of the craft. The craft can now be moved left to right as well as up and down river. If possible, have two rescuers in the craft so that one can communicate and direct craft movement while the other grabs the victim.

Four-point tether
Remember that this does not always result in directly loading the victim into the craft. Reaching and throwing options from the craft should always be in play. This is a very quick and easy-to-manage technique, but it has some obvious shortfalls.

The two-point tether can only be deployed like this in relatively narrow bodies of water with moderate current and an upriver deployment point close to the victim. As the distances and current increase, the less reliable this approach becomes.

If the lines are so long that they end up in the water, the rescuers will struggle managing the craft position. If the current is too strong, simple manpower on the end of these lines will not suffice for hauling the craft upriver against the current.

Four-point tether uses the two-point system as its foundation but adds additional rescuers on opposite banks directly in line or slightly upriver from the victim. These additional rescuers place two more opposing lines onto the rear corners of the craft. Mobility for these downriver rescuers is important.

They will be more effective if they have an area on the bank that allows them to move up- and downriver to alter their control points.

The four-point approach provides greater craft control as well as more manpower for moving against and across the current. This approach has some limitations when confronted with significant current and unforgiving water hazards.

Progress-capture devices and anchor points can be established on the banks to run the control lines through. Although this may provide more safety and control in case a rescuer loses his footing or is overpowered by the current, it takes more manpower to operate and more communications coordination.

A movable control point requires a bank-to-bank tensioned track line be erected upriver from the victim. A movable control point is then attached to the tensioned line with a pulley. This consists of a rigging plate or steel ring with two ferry lines and one up and down line.

In layman's terms, attach a river right line to the ring or plate and a river left line to the ring or plate. These typically can be managed with one or two rescuers controlling them by hand from the bank.

Then establish an anchor point and rig a versatile progress-capture device/pulley such as a CMC MPD. Rig that line through a pulley attached to the MCP and connect it to the craft. This is the most basic version of the MCP, and there are many different variables.

Have the necessary equipment for a quick mechanical-advantage device to be rigged onto the up/down line during hauling operations. This approach requires good communication, a moderate amount of hardware and software as well as some mid-level skills in rigging. But it provides the highest level of safety and control when it comes to shore-supported watercraft approaches.

Environment B: Victim on the downriver side of a hazard.
This would look like a large tree that has fallen across the river or other type of strainer and a victim is trapped in the hydraulic or boil below the strainer. In this scenario, use a four-point tether or a snag/float line.

The four-point tether is essential for this downriver approach with a hydraulic involved. Any time there is a boil line or any type of circulating water that can draw in and keep victims, we must have the ability to pull them out of the keeper.

This applies to rescuers as much as it applies to the victims we are trying to save.

A two-line tether with control points slightly upriver from the hazard and victim will not offer any ability to pull the rescuers and their craft out of or downriver from the hazard. These are very high-risk approaches and regularly result in fatalities from improper techniques.

Establishing the four-point system with two control points downriver from the hazard and two control points at or slightly upriver from the hazard allows the rescue team to be pulled across the river on the downriver side of the boil line.

The rescuers can reach or throw if necessary to get the victim and pull them to the craft. If the craft is drawn into the keeper, the downriver control lines can be pulled aggressively to get the craft out of harm's way.

Snag lines
If the conditions are too hazardous for this technique, use a snag/float line. This eliminates placing rescuers and their craft in the water for the rescue.

Simply establish ferry lines on each bank and place a buoy in between the lines. Pull the lines across the hydraulic until the buoy is in the right position and coach the victim to grab hold.

At that point, it is more effective to pull them downriver, across the boil line and out of the hydraulic. Trying to pull them laterally through the hydraulic to the nearest shore keeps them in a high-hazard environment longer than necessary. It may result in them being dislodged from the buoy or simply letting go.

If the victim is being circulated and is not capable of grabbing the buoy, you may be able to snag them with the lines and buoy and pull them out, but it is unlikely.

All of these techniques can require active and efficient paddling. Applying the right approach to the right environment can make or break your rescue plan.

Pre-plan your water, train on it when it is at its worst condition and prepare yourself to get the job done when the need arises. Train hard. 

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