Are there any sources online for proper assisted rescue technique in rough water?

From my time participating in rough water sea kayaking events and ACA instruction, it seems to me there are a lot of special instructions as to how boats/people should managed and it sometimes differs from instructor to instructor.

For example, some people propose the rescuer should put their torso onto the victims boat with the rescuers boats sustaining little weight while the victim climbs back in. Whereas some people teach you should not put yourself on the the victims deck due to exposing the shoulder to injury.

Another example is I heard an instructor say it is important to keep the victim away from the bow/stern due to the rocking movement being dangerous. But I have also heard speed may be important enough to justify a slightly compromised positions of both parties in which case it doesn’t make since to have the victim swim to the rescuers boat if the rescue can be performed quickly enough by the rescuer.

I know if I were to talk to an instructor about these ideas they would have their own opinion, however are there any posts discussing rough water safety that compare/contrast different methods? I unfortunately didn’t have the foresight to write down all of these ‘rules’ to keep in mind in rough water rescues and I need a refresher.

For a successful rough water rescue, to begin with, hopefully both boats will have perimeter lines and the rescuer will be wearing a spray skirt. The person to be rescued will have a firm grip on their boat, either by the cockpit or a perimeter line. Both people will have at least a little experience with an assisted rescue, although if time is not a factor the rescuer should be able to talk the person being rescued through the process.

I’ve found that often the hardest thing in a rough water rescue is getting hold of the other person’s boat. . Both boats are bobbing around and the rescuee’s boat is being somewhat anchored by the person in the water while the rescuer’s boat is probably being blown by the wind. May take a bit of trying. Start where your boat is being blown toward the other boat.

Once you have hold of the boat work your way toward the bow of the rescuee’s boat. The person in the water can work their way toward the stern of their boat to aid in getting their bow up onto your front deck with their boat perpendicular to yours. Once you have a firm grip on their boat you should be stabile enough to not risk capsizing your own boat. From here you use the standard technique of hauling their boat onto your front deck and with the rescuee’s help invert their boat and drain the water out. Hopefully your boat does not have it’s front deck junked up with delicate gear and the person in the water still has a firm grip on their boat. It is probably a good idea the the person in the water not be directly in line with either the bow or stern to avoid being hit in the head as the boat moves with the waves.

At this point maneuver the boats into a bow to stern configuration. The person in the water can then work their way to the cockpit in preparation of getting back into their boat by either climbing up onto the rear deck or using the heel hook technique.

When the person in the water attempts this, you should have a death grip on their cockpit rim to hold and stabilize their boat. Partially leaning across their cockpit makes this easy. In all my experience, I’ve ever heard of anyone injuring their shoulder while doing this and can’t imagine how else you would do this without putting more strain on your arms or shoulders. When in this position you are very stable and can’t capsize unless you lose your grip. It is essential that you have a spray skirt on as your cockpit rim will often be under water in this position. There’s probably more risk of injury hauling their boat onto your front deck to drain it, although there aren’t many options. Let the waves assist you.

Once the other person is back in their boat keep hold of their boat until they have pumped out any residual water, put their spray skirt back on, and reorient themselves. If necessary, they can put their spray skirt partially on while leaving just a small opening for a pump. It only takes a small amount of water sloshing about in most kayaks to render them very unstable.

I’ve left out some of the finer points of an assisted rescue which I’m sure you already know.

Never, never, never leave a person alone in the water to retrieve a loose boat. If there are more than two of you, have a third person retrieve the boat. If just the two of you, hopefully you can tow the person back to shore. You’d be surprised how fast a loose boat can be blown away and how far it can go. In rough water, it can be extremely difficult to locate a bobbing head in rough water.

Read stuff online (a quick youtube search will find many examples), but doing it is best.
Take the lessons, practice the techniques, though, when in a real situation, the best solution will change.
2 examples:

  1. years ago, paddling into Fort George inlet, ebbing stream, against moderate incoming surf.
    There were 2 of us, the person paddling with me flipped, failed roll, bailed.
    Conditions were such that I determined it unsafe to go near the other kayak with short, steep breaking surf.
    I was able to grab his paddle and hat, he was able to get his wallet from his kayak, had him get on back of kayak and went in (he ‘bounced’ off a few times in the choppy surf).
    After he was on shore, I went back out to retrieve the kayak - but could not find it.
  2. last year - interestingly, same location - Fort George inlet, 3 of us were paddling. I determined that is was probably unsafe to go in the ‘main’ channel, so we went around.
    Coming in at the alternate location, one of the group went over - failed roll.
    This time, though still bouncy in the surf, it was safe enough to do the assisted rescue.
    We went through the above mentioned techniques, the rescuee got back in, and we pumped the boat out. Note: it was a fairly easy rescue, in that the rescuee had practiced the techniqe and clearly knew what to do - even after the 1st attempt was spoiled by a breaking wave over us.

Another consideration is the nature of the “rough water”.

If you’re in a surf or offshore break zone, or a rock garden, getting out to calm water quickly is the top priority for safety, which means getting them back in their boat and moving as fast as possible, even if it means forgoing things like pumping out the cockpit. You can do that once you’re in a safer situation on calmer water. If you have enough paddlers, sometimes the safest strategy is towing the boat and a paddler to calm water separately, then performing an assisted reentry.

If the water is rough due to wind, waves and swell, and there’s no escaping it, you just have to deal with it as explained above. Try to keep the boats pointed into the waves, as the risk of injury is much higher if you’re broached. If a third paddler is available, put the rescuee’s boat on a directional tow to keep it oriented properly. Use a long enough tow line that the towing boat and the towed boat are never on the same wave or swell. Leave the rescuer’s boat free to maneuver or disengage as necessary. Once the rescuee is back in their boat and ready to paddle, the rescuer can unhook the tow rope.

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Rules is rules but…

Certain factors are outside of the box. For example the over the other deck thing. At 135 pounds, there is no way I can secure the other boat while a 6 ft 3 inch guy gets back in unless I am over the other deck. And have perimeter lines. If I can’t do that, another technique or someone else who is bigger than me has to participate.

Thoughts on my real world experience of rough water rescues.

  1. Don’t paddle with anyone in rough water conditions who can’t self rescue. Those who can’t roll or re-enter and roll should be using sit on tops.

  2. In real rough water, the paddler usually has gotten separated from their boat and paddle. You can tow them out of danger to the outside or to land , let them ride on your back deck, or tow them to their boat then disconnect before the dumping surf zone. If there are several people in boats and who have proper boat handling skills, you can worry about retrieving the boat and trying to get back in it. If it’s a small group, worry about getting the swimmer in to land.

  3. Paddlers who have been having an “out of boat experience” in real rough water are either able to quickly re-enter their kayak with you just leaning over and holding the rim or they are not going to be able to re-enter at all. If the rescue takes more than half a minute in very rough conditions, it’s not going to end well. Fortunately most swims take place in an area where you can paddle to calmer water. If someone does not have skills to self rescue they should not be paddling in tide races, rock gardens, Class III rivers, heavy surf, or small craft warning conditions.

I was at an event where someone was seriously injured in heavy surf and several very experienced white water paddlers were able to get the person in their boa,t up right and tow them out of the surf zone for help. This involved team work of folks with real rough water rescue training, not something an average weekend paddler is going to pull off.