4 water-rescue paddling techniques

Understanding the paddle and how to use it is critical if the motor cuts out

Scroll to the bottom to see a video demonstrating these techniques. 

When it comes to water rescue operations, paddling is one of the most neglected skills.

This is especially true in areas where rafting experts and whitewater rescuers are not prevalent. These areas rely heavily upon shore-based rescue techniques and motorized boat techniques.

So why is paddling so important?

Even if your organization is completely focused on motorized operations, your first and most important capability should be paddling. That's because mechanical things fail.

Eventually the dynamic and unpredictable nature of swift water and machinery breakdowns will cause the motor to stop propelling your craft. Then, the only thing standing between your crew and mayhem will be your ability to quickly convert to paddling and guide the craft to safety.

Additionally, flood conditions add debris, hazards, extreme current and unseen obstacles to the equation — also known as prop and motor wreckers.

Often, a well-rounded toolbox of paddling and line- or shore-based boat operations may prove far safer and more effective than an outboard motor that is underpowered and susceptible to failure for the current and hazards it is about to face.

Let's walk through the fundamentals of paddling; next month we will apply these fundamentals to some rescue applications.

Anatomy of a paddle
The paddle's handle is typically T-shaped, but may also be an oval or a ball. If the paddle is used as a reaching device to help pull a victim into the watercraft, the T provides a better grab point than the oval or ball.

Also, the T can be hooked into objects such as tree branches or floatation device shoulder straps to help either pull the craft to the object or the object to the craft.

The T also helps the user stay oriented to the paddle blade. The T should be parallel with the blade to help manage the blade position by the handle position.

Another major element of the paddle is the blade. These are typically straight but also can be concave. The concave version is a directional paddle that requires a little more attention to orientation.

The next portion of the paddle is the shaft. When evaluating shaft options, consider both the material of the shaft as well as the design.

Shaft materials included everything from wood or plastic to carbon fiber and other high-strength and lightweight materials. Obviously, the more exotic the material, the better the performance characteristics and the greater the cost. For most rescue companies, plastic or wood are reliable materials for a modest investment.

Paddle length
One very important feature to avoid are telescoping or adjustable shafts. These are two-piece shafts, one smaller diameter shaft inside of a larger diameter shaft with a tensioning collar for adjustment.

These shafts are extremely unreliable for rescue work. I have consistently witnessed these shafts not only separate under a moderate load, but the T handle typically rotates unintentionally with only minor use.

The result is that users crank the tensioning collars so tight that it takes a Samson-like effort to loosen them, which eliminates the whole purpose of an adjustable shaft. If you don't crank down the collars, the shaft is going to be problematic.

The overall length of the paddle is also important. Select a length that allows the average rescuer to place the paddle straight up and down outside of the craft while sitting up on the tube or bench. When the paddle is in this position, the blade should be able to fully break the water line.

Watercrafts ride at different levels in the water and this can change with load. The more stuff crammed into the craft, the lower it sits in the water. So, when you plot this out, consider the lightest load scenario. This will ensure that you can paddle efficiently regardless of craft configurations.

Here is a look at the four basic paddle strokes. There are more details to paddling than described here, but this will illustrate the fundamentals.

1. Forward stroke
This is a power stroke to pull the craft forward. These strokes should be smooth and powerful. Keep the paddle upright and lean forward driving the paddle down into the water.

The T handle and paddle should be perpendicular to the craft when pulling. With your top hand on the T, push forward while the bottom hand pulls back to your hip. The recovery phase of this stroke involves turning the knuckles of your top hand either away from or towards your body to turn the paddle parallel with the craft and bringing the paddle out of the water.

2. J stroke
This is a forward stroke with an added flair at the end of the stroke. When applying just a forward stroke, the craft will turn slightly with each stroke. If paddling on the right side, each stroke sends the craft to the left.

To counteract this, the most common application is to have an additional rescuer paddling on the left side. This sounds easy enough, but you may need a little more control. For example, if the left side paddler is weaker than the right side paddler, even if they paddle together, the craft is still going to turn to the left.

The J stroke will correct this. The right rescuer finishes each stroke by leaving the paddle momentarily in the water and flaring it out when it reaches the hip. This allows the current to push against the paddle, which is now acting as a rudder and will hook the craft back over to the right.

The amount of flaring and the duration the paddle is left in the water before recovering depends upon the current and the amount of turn required.

This is a really critical stroke if you end up paddling by yourself. If the second rescuer gets pitched out and you're on your own, keeping the craft on course while paddling from one side is really important.

3. Draw stroke
The draw is a lateral stroke in which the rescuer reaches out to the side of the craft, digs in with the paddle parallel with the craft, and pulls hard towards the craft. This is the least efficient of the strokes and requires more work.

The purpose of this stroke is to turn. If paddling on the right side, deploying a draw stroke will pull the side of the craft to the right, which results in the nose heading left.

The draw stroke is also very dependent upon your position in the craft. If you are towards the front of the craft, the draw is going to do the opposite and actually pull the craft to the right.

If you are positioned towards the rear of the craft, it is going to have a more efficient reaction to force the front of the craft to the left.

4. Sweep stroke
The sweep involves turning your torso towards the rear of the craft, extending the paddle straight back, digging in and sweeping straight out toward the side of the craft.

If paddling on the right side, this will push the rear of the craft to the left and the front of the craft to the right resulting in a right turn.

Rescue watercrafts are not canoes, don't position yourselves front and back and try to alternate paddling sides. Rescuers should be almost side by side just behind the midpoint of the craft. You may need to move slightly forward or slightly back to get the desired outcome out of the sweeps and draws.

The primary operator should paddle on their dominant side. The primary rescuer will paddle on the opposite side. The primary operator controls the craft, which means controlling the communications and teamwork.

The primary operator does not have to call stroke every time. If the operator can be proficient with regimen of strokes, it pretty much frees up the primary rescuer to use two strokes: the forward stroke and the drift, or do nothing.

Think of the primary rescuer as horsepower only. When the primary rescue strokes, the primary operator can simply time and gauge the strokes.

Practice immediate action drills. Make sure the paddles are accessible and develop strong muscle memory at fluidly switching from motorized operations to paddling operations. Get out on the water, kill the motor and pull it up, and transition to paddling ops.

First practice this on flat water or very slow current with no down river hazards. Once proficient, start applying it in more challenging environments.

Train hard.

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