Throw Bags, Accessories and WorkShops "Gear For Life"

Reasons Rescues Fail

Reasons Rescues May Fail
                                                                      --Jim Simmons

Over the past forty years of paddlesport and river rescue many heroic rescue efforts have been successfully done.   Sometimes, however, a rescue attempt may fail and a paddling death may occur.  Let's look at reasons that may contribute to an unsuccessful rescue effort.

EFFECTIVE COMMUNICATION AND TEAMWORK.   Teamwork is vital even if just trying to recover a pinned craft.     If members of a group that paddle together have all taken rescue training, rescues will likely go smoothly because you'll know how to teamwork.   However, if you are called to work on a rescue with strangers it may be more difficult to communicate and find agreement.    One rescuer may initiate an action on his own without others knowing his intent, or plan.   There is really no place for ego during a rescue so make an effort to teamwork and communicate well with others.  This is especially true if a paddler is in serious trouble in the river and quick action is necessary. 

In a leadership book, FIVE DYSFUNCTIONS OF A TEAM (2002), Lencioni highlights  important factors that contribute to dysfunction, or lack of success such as in a river rescue effort.   The author believes trust is the foremost, but conflict is another of the five.
Any group that regularly paddles together will be able to build on the trust factor, and by practicing important rescue methods andy conflict can be minimized when they're under pressure with assisting a paddler.   Even so, the noise in a river scene can make good communication challenging.    Besides the common river signals everyone uses establishing some auxilliary signals will prove helpful.  Example: to let out slack in a rope position  point your thumbs out; to take up slack, position them toward each other.  With regular paddling friends review some basic ways you can communicate when not in close proximity to one another.  This will also build trust and reduce conflict and disagreement.  

LACK OF RESCUE TRAINING AND RIVER SAVVY.   This can be critical for situations in which a boater is stuck, pinned or broached in a serious position.  For example, setting a stabilization line to support a paddler calls for quick and decisive action.   Inexperienced paddlers may barge ahead without the awareness of protecting their own safety or that of their group.  All of the steps in the standard rescue sequence of 'trying simpler actions first' before moving to more 'complex stategies' have accompanying risks to rescuers.  Sometimes the best course of action is simply 'talking' a victim into self-rescuing herself.  If you're a relatively inexperienced river boater and something more serious occurs in your group, think through your actions and do your best not to make a situation worse while you figure how to help fellow paddlers.  

NOT UNDERSTANDING THE DYNAMICS OF RIVER CURRENT.  Elsewhere on this site is an article all about river hydrology, river features, and how river current behaves.   If the rescue is a pinned craft, clear understanding of how the boat is being held by the current is vital to recovering it.  By the same token, knowledge of how to use the river current to properly access a victim can make a 'life-saving' difference  and reduce your personal risks.  Just as paddlers have "to read" the water when making moves in whitewater paddling, rescuers need to accurately read the river current when trying to access victims. Most commonly misunderstood is the action that creates a 'hydraulic', especially if the rescue site is a low head dam.  Rivers are typically much more powerful and the water much colder that people assume.
LACK OF KNOWLEDGE FOR USING GEAR OR EQUIPMENT.  It is important to know well the characteristics of not only your rope but all your gear items,  and how your equipment performs--part of the concept of 'mastering' the gear you use.    

A  basic principle of rescue is that paddlers and rescuers should carry gear and equipment of sufficient quality and strength when needed.  Since whitewater kayaks, canoes, and other small craft have limited carrying capacity, choices may have to be made about what and how much a boat can carry. 

Obviously, a priority item will be a trusty throw bag with a rope inside of sufficient strength to perform most rescues.   Most all rope types are useful for hauling in swimmers in the water, and for many rescue applications,  but some types and sizes would not be good choices in other rescue functions.    Most common rope sizes  river paddlers carry are 3/8  inch  and 5/16 inch line, however some boaters with limited space may choose 1/4 inch line.   Rope sizes smaller thn 3/8 inch are hard to grasp for both swimmers in the water and belayers on the shoreline--especially so for 1/4 inch line. 

The size, type and strength of rope make a critical difference when used in a haul system.   Successful haul systems (with heavy loads) have been done with only 2000 lb, 3/8 inch regular poly rope; and 1600 lb, 5/16 inch max-grip.  In both cases  the ropes were damaged because of heat buildup but the pinned boat was recovered.   Since both these ropes are relatively inexpensive replacing them would not be costly.   Although more expensive, both spectra and dyneema (ultra-high molecular weight polyethylene) rope would provide a greater margin of strength that might be needed in a rescue. This is the kind of choice that paddlers must make as they consider: cost, quality, strength and size of rope, carabiners, prusik loops, webbing, etc.    

If you have not taken swiftwater/whitewater rescue training, find a workshop in your area and complete one.  You'll find it to be empowering, and it that knowledge and skill will help you blend with others in an accident on the river.  If you are member of a regular paddling group, make the effort to practice rescue techniques together from time to time.  This may well be the difference in success and failure in a rescue scenario.

Jim Simmons--5/2013
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