Opinions on this river resuce situation

You’ll have to pardon this long, rambling scene setup, but I could really use some advice on how things could have been handled better.

My wife, her brother and myself took to the Flint River, in GA on 4/13 for our first outing of the year. Water’s up so the shoals were rapids (probably class 2 ~ though we’re all relatively new to paddling so I don’t have a very good frame of reference) and we all got to enjoy doing some self rescues. No big deal, water felt great, we all wear proper fitting PFDs, it was just a little exhausting pulling a swamped kayak to shore so they could be drained. We took lots of breaks, enjoying the day. Just after one of the more mild rapids (that we all navigated successfully, and with much joy), we pulled over for a rest stop and saw a another kayak and canoe coming down the river so we stood there and watched (actually, I was in my kayak still). Well, the canoe dumped and I went out to gather their stuff while my brother-in-law swam out to grab the canoe and we all assumed they would just swim to shore (this section of water was deep). I have the paddles and head back to shore, see my brother-in-law with the canoe near shore, the guy in the kayak is taking photos with his phone and talking about posting them at work (co-workers on a weekend trip) the next week when he starts yelling “He’s drowning!” Brother-in-law drops the canoe and swims back to the guy, I’m just about to shore where I bail and start swimming to the guy as he bear-hugs my brother-in-law and dunks him. Thankfully my BIL is a fair swimmer and has a PFD so he held on for the ~30 seconds it took me to swim out where the guy now grabs me and dunks me pretty good too. Even at 6’4" and underwater, I’m not touching bottom and didn’t till we were 5’ from shore. Obviously, he’s freaked, not wearing a PFD (it was loose in the canoe), not helping with the effort to get him to shore and it’s a freaking LOT of work to drag him (he was probably a dense 200lbs, my BIL is a dense 220 and I’m a dense 240 ~ I don’t float without PFD assistance but I’m a strong swimmer) back to shore. He was dunking each of us alternately, so breathing was fun… plan to breathe when he’s not pushing and right after a strong kick, exhale while underwater, rinse and repeat.

We made it to shore where the guy puked up a little river water but was mostly just shaken from the experience. Heck, I was shaken from the experience and sat on shore for a good 40~50 minutes after this… and even when we started to leave, my legs went all limp-noodle and I dumped myself back in the water.

Now, I’m trying to understand if we could have done things differently for the better and how. In hind-sight (always 20/20, isn’t it?) my BIL would have grabbed one of the PFDs in the canoe, my wife would have tossed the throw-bag that was in my BILs kayak (she was busy rescuing the canoe, the other canoe occupant got to shore and sat there doing exactly nothing while we rescued everything for him). I know that one can use a kayak for rescue too, but I suspect the guy would have grabbed the cockpit and dumped me in with him and then there would have been another boat to drag in.

Plans, as of right now, are to buy 2 more throw bags so we each have one. I’m not sure my wife could have done too much more than toss the bag and wind her end around a tree (she’s only 5’4" and 120lbs dripping wet). And also attend a swift water rescue class (trying to find the money and make sure we have a free weekend right now).

I’m thankful that things ended as good as they did, and I’m NOT looking for pats on the back (only did what anyone would do, or what I hope anyone would do). I do want critical thoughts on how this situation could have been handled better on our part. This seems like it could be a common occurrence if we keep paddling (and I’m loving it so-far, so I think we’re going to keep paddling) and want to be prepared better next time. Even if it’s only knowledge.

Thanks ~ Brian

not to state the obvious

– Last Updated: Apr-14-13 3:52 PM EST –

But there's no way you could have accounted for the possibility of the stranger and his negligence.

Your story is a great example of how negligence doesn't just affect the negligent person.

I'd say that it's always dangerous approaching a panicking capsized paddler to the point where they can reach you. Is it always possible to avoid doing so? Probably not.

EDIT: I shoulda said "all things considering, you done good!"

Regardless of the outcome…
…that chump was lucky that you guys were there. Good work!

You done good, one comment

– Last Updated: Apr-14-13 1:55 PM EST –

Honestly, the only thing that see you did questionably was to get physically close to an unknown situation with the swimmer. The usual rule of life guarding is to always try to insert something for the swimmer to grab, at a distance sufficient that they cannot touch you, before going to the alternative of grabbing them yourself. Once on the swimmer, it is nearly impossible to execute the perfect carry technique if they have grabbed you around the head and are holding on tighter than a leech.

The other question might be assuming that the first paddler's disinterest indicated the situation for his companion. It is a normal first response and I think many of us would have the same. The only cure might be to up your estimate of idiot behavior on this river, and assume that anyone in the water is likely to be drowning. The worst that happens is you get to improve your rescue technique and save a few extra folks.

If you are going to take a swiftwater rescue class, you'll learn to use a throw rope. But if not everyone is proficient with it, which does take time.

If a throw rope isn't going to work and you need to insert objects between you and the swimmer, I'd start with the biggest and go down. In sequence that'd be the canoe if there was a moment that it was in position, tossing something from your boat then hauling that with the swimmer on the end back to shore (it does sound like he could have climbed up on your own boat) and then things like paddles or even a loose PFD. Just paddle or swim faster than the person you are rescuing.

Overall though two people are out of the water and one is still alive because of what you did. I'd congratulate you on that.

grabbing the canoe
Funny that when we all went for a swim earlier my First reaction was to bear-hug the kayak. It has a dry-hatch and would float regardless… never-mind that my backside was bouncing along on the rocks that made up the bottom in that section. I watched my BIL do the same, and my wife said she also had that same reaction. Seemed common sense to me… but we all know that “common sense” isn’t so common these days.

Neither of these 2 made any effort to grab the still floating canoe when they were near to the canoe. It was 2/3rds full of water and NOT easily moved by the time the guy started having difficulty staying on top (and the canoe was easily 3~4 canoe lengths past them at that point). Might have taken us a little more time to get everything to shore if they were hanging on, but in a non-life threatening situation ~ who cares.

Maybe I’d be more willing to offer the kayak (nose or tail-first) if I had some sort of skirt that would help keep the boat from swamping so easily (I have a Dagger Blackwater 10.5/rec boat). Doesn’t take much to dip the cockpit and swamp the boat. I’ve already been playing with the idea of getting a splash skirt to try and help (I think it would have kept me from my own swim, if the boat hadn’t already taken on so much water I’m sure my brace would have righted me).

Maybe a paddle float where I can offer the paddle, they’re cheap enough.

sigh there’s a reason I stopped riding motorcycles with others who didn’t have the same desire for self-preservation/risk mitigation. I won’t Willing paddle with someone who won’t wear a PFD, but this situation just kinda fell in our lap.

NOT without a skirt
It hadn’t occurred to me that you guys were in conditions like that unskirted. (So an assumption got me…)

Before you take a swiftwater rescue class, get skirts and practice wet exits in a safe place, with one person in the water to pull the other out of the cockpit if needed. And practice doing it right, reaching forward to get to the grab loop. It is safest to start with a nylon deck skirt in case someone panics - those will blow right off the coaming of a plastic boat. And they are always useful for more lightweight paddling. Neo deck skirts usually have to be pulled off correctly to release.

You may find that the kayakers in swiftwater rescue classes paddle using neo skirts, and will make assumptions that others taking the class paddle similarly equipped. Your experience will be better if you have yourself experienced what they are talking about in various rescue scenarios. Someone being too freaked or unable to release their skirt is something that occurs.

Not sure its applicable in this situatio
But what i learned about rescuing someone panicking in the water is stay away from them. Proper carry technique is to get an arm around them from behind. If they grab at you take a breath and go under then move away. They taught us to knock them out with a right cross to the chin but I’ve always doubted the wisdom behind that, or the ability to throw a punch in the water, and it wasn’t concerning rescuing strangers. Could you have swam close enough to extend a paddle to them? Maybe thrown the PFD from the swamped canoe? In A strong current, a person grabbing a rope will go under so that probably won’t help much in a panic situation.

REACH, THROW, but only GO with training and equipment.

Have you taken a CPR class recently? Our local fire dept offers training cheaper than from the Red Cross. On the plus side, just thinking about your options now means you’ll be more prepared next time.

For rescues, go for the swimmer first,
Then collect gear. Only if the swimmer makes it clear they are in control and it looks to you like they are out of danger on their own, should you go after the gear. And still keep an eye for the swimmer as you do that.

I’m thinking that if someone had just been paddling next to the swimmer as soon as they flipped over, the swimmer would not have panicked and would have probably been a lot more helpful in being rescued when he ran out of steam half way. You would hve avoided the panic sitution rather than having to deal with it after it happened. Verbal communications are key to figure out if they are ok or if you can trust them to get near them without putting yourself in danger.

If you do get a skirt, get a neoprene one - the splash ones are pretty much only to keep splashes of water out. And in a rescue situation it would not be uncommon for the rescuer to tip over and perhaps have to roll or just edge the boat deep sideways and filli it up with water while helping the swimmer.

Celia gave some good suggestions too.

probably should have float bags also

Honestly, in the moment…
I never even saw the canoe (where there were 2 PFDs), and knew that I didn’t have anything that would float (including my paddle, it’s a sinker and has a leash because I’ve had to go swimming for it before).

This is the point to my post ~ I want to know how to better approach this situation in the future. Not having any training in water rescue Prior to this, and watching this fellow spend longer and longer periods each time he went under (not to mention appearing further and further downstream each time he did pop up), it was 100% instinct. I’m realizing that water rescue, like motorcycling, is the practice of ignoring instinct and acting on knowledge.

As for CPR, my BIL is Search and Rescue with the Georgia Civil Patrol (next step below National Guard) though he’s more oriented to cave rescue, and my wife is a Pharmacist who’s required to be Advanced CPR certified. I’ve been through several CPR courses over the years, but I’m not current. We also had 2 first-aid kits with us along with a couple cell phones. On trips where road access is limited, we carry a SPOT as well… but all of that doesn’t help without a body on shore.

What i knoiw would not apply in a
situation with a strong current. The difficulty is in dealing with a victim who is in a panic. Ideally you would throw them some flotation so other than carying a throw ring on your deck all the time I don’t know how you could be better prepared. I don’t think a paddle float would have enough bouyancy to calm someone in a panic.

Sounds like you did well for having to make snap decisions.

I agree -
always be sure humans are safe before going for gear. Especially in a day trip situation so you are not so concerned about losing gear and food. But, this turned out well so good for you. I hope this fellow understands what you did for him.

I was next to the 2 swimmers

– Last Updated: Apr-14-13 7:02 PM EST –

As they were swimming/floating (I honestly didn't even realize neither had PFDs on). All 3 (2 in the water, one in his kayak) were laughing and joking, everyone thought it was a non-issue and they would just swim to shore. Heck, the one still in his boat was taking photos/video, it was NOT an emergency at the start.

Sounds like I was right to keep my kayak out of his reach though (given that I don't have a skirt, nor the training/experience to do wet exits with a skirt).

So, plans at this point are to buy 2 throw bags, 2 paddle floats, 2 skirts (type TBD). Take a class on beginning whitewater kayaking (to help learn how to use the skirts, just for our own enjoyment ~ we're firmly in the "touring" realm for kayaking fun), and take a class on swift water rescue. Hopefully that'll cover the bases fairly well.


– Last Updated: Apr-14-13 11:57 PM EST –

You need to get skirts, and flotation bags for your kayaks and a throw bag.
Some training wouldn't hurt if you plan to continue to assist in rescuing buffons.

Priorities: 1. paddler
2. boat
3. gear

If the swimmer is in a state of panic; you should have kept their boat, your boat, a paddle, or a pfd between you & the swimmer, to use as flotation for them,and/or to pull them to shore. Give them specific directions about what you want them to do, and what you are going to do. If you go after them in your boat; you & your boat will likely get dumped in any rescue attempt. Better left to the skilled paddlers.

Letting a swimmer in a state of panic grab you is a big NO NO! If they do grab you; get loose, and do whatever it takes to make that happen.
I do NOT suggest slugging them; never heard of that from any instructor trainer I had. Sounds bogus. Some will let go if you go underwater; they are using you in an attempt to stay above water. If this does work; a "firm" grip of a very tender spot & a guy will definitely turn you loose. If they don't let go; you ain't squeezing hard enough. Not kidding! When they let go(they will); get some distance between them & you, and maintain that distance. Not saying quit trying to help. I am saying you will do them no good if you allow them to drown you. You will need to learn to assess the situation, reassess the situation if necessary, and it probably will.

You can learn some talking/reading about rescue situations, but bottom line, the best thing you can do is take a class & then practice the techniques. Example: A throw bag is worthless, and may present an additional hazard to the swimmer, if you don't know how to use it correctly. That takes practice.

An introduction to Swiftwater Rescue class would be great; well worth the money & effort.
It might save someone's life someday.
The life you save may be yours, or you wifes.

Ex Advanced Swiftwater Rescue Instructor
Ex Lifeguard Instructor
Been there; done that.

Did you say what section of the Flint
you were on? Rescue along Yellowjacket Shoals can be very difficult. But the Flint is usually very wide throughout the Pine Mountain area, and river width can make some shore based rescues difficult.

I’ve heard the suggestion
to slug them when I was getting rescue training at a yacht club I was member of - “do anything to get them off you, break their nose if you have to - noses heal, corpses don’t start breathing.” Knocking them out is probably not a good idea in the water though, for obvious reasons.

Effect of current

– Last Updated: Apr-15-13 9:53 AM EST –

One take-away about swimmers in current - you can't trust initial impressions if you don't know them. Swimming out of current is a matter of thoughtfulness and patience more than brute strength, and many otherwise decent swimmers have never experienced or practiced it. So they panic when they suddenly find they can't thrash their way out of it.

The other issue is speed in getting a swimmer out of moving water, as fast as possible. Even with pretty mild stuff, if a foot gets caught in rocks they can easily drown long before you've been able to free them. That is why you are taught to float feet first on top of the water, and on your back after a capsize in white water. The longer it takes to get to the swimmer, the more you risk foot entrapment.

The class will be good for you on a lot of scores. Just be prepared to crave more gear and more time in skills work.

Just north of 36 bridge
Actually, I guess that’s just West of 36 bridge after looking at the map (heh, I’ve only been in GA for 2 years). Just around the corner, and the shoals there weren’t too bad when compared to… I think my BIL said it was Table Rock… oh, googling a bit, the section where we did the rescue is called “Surprise Rapid” (I remember seeing the sign on the side of the river now), and it’s classified as a class II.

Now that I see Yellowjacket Shoals is a class III-IV ~ I don’t think I’ll be going past 36 bridge by boat anytime soon…

I’m 100% about being educated/prepared
20+ years as a motorcyclist, 30+ as an alpine skier, I’ve done rock climbing, mountain biking, back country camping, etc… my whole life. The take-away is that I rather enjoy being active in life and have learned that risk mitigation is the only way I’m going to continue doing fun activities (and all of those involve some element of risk) for several more decades of life. My goal is to get to “the end” (40+ years from now) with the most/best stories of things I’ve done in life. :smiley:

We had already been planning on taking an into to whitewater kayak class ~ couldn’t find the budget for it last fall when we first bought the (used) boats, but the priority for education… and thus the funds, have just risen sharply through the ranks along with the desire to be educated on rescue. It was an eye-opening experience, especially as someone who’s not accustom to doing anything in/on water (not much water in Wyoming and I’m Wyoming born/raised). I suspected there was a “work smarter, not harder” aspect to this rescue, hence asking here prior to getting some formal, in person, hands on education.

I agree fully that a rescue class may be used first to save my own life, or that of my wife, her brother, his girlfriend, or one of the occasional friends we seem to be taking with us on our trips now. If I can keep myself from a panic situation (or one of the above), I know that rescue will be made easier/more likely.

BTW, thanks for the edit, that cleared up a couple things that had me confused upon the first reading last night.

If anyone wants to see the section
of the Flint where this occurred, click on this link. Be sure to copy and paste the entire link.


I also paddled from Spewrell Bluff to hwy 36, but at a much lower level.