Surf Zone Rescues

I would be interested to learn what techniques you find helpful for rescues in the surf zone. Some of you have advocated a stern toggle tow, but it seems to me that being so close to the boat - not to mention issues with rudder cables, if that applies - could present their own hazards. I’ve also heard that a tow line can be useful for getting someone out of the surf zone, but then again, is entanglement a concern? I’ve practiced a stern carry where the “victim” scrambles onto the stern section of their partners boat and gets a ride, but I know from personal expereince that sucess here is predicated on the volume of the boat being used, the size of the “victim” and the skill level of the paddler. I know a roll or reenter and roll is ideal for self-rescue, but what works best when someone needs a lift out of the surf zone? Also, do any special considerations need to be made for rip currents, undertows or tidal races? I know there are multiple approaches given the situation, but I’d appreciate your own experiences with rescues in the surf zone (or similarly textured waters).

Taught surf kayaking
for some time and did plenty of rescues. It can be tough!! Usually I had people grab a strap at the rear of my surf boat. You have to instruct them to let go if you flip, and reassure them that you will not abandon them. Dragging a person with a surf kayak is HARD, and you want to head for the bigger waves, as they are your push in. As the wave approaches have the person kick hard as you paddle. Again, you want to explain the strategy, as they’ll want to go toward the smaller areas, which is where the rips will fight you. I use a tow line on my vest for hauling in their boats, but more often once we’re in, the boat is already ashore. Sea kayaks allow you to do the same stuff more easily. sometimes the person can climb aboard aft keeping low with legs in the water. If you flip they need to let go so you can roll up. Years ago I went after a guy who was drifting fast along a rock face in Tofino. I did not want to go too near as it was ugly. Tried to have him swim to me with his paddle, but he was too freaked. Ultimately went after him and he hung on the back. Paddled south into the steep faces out of the rip, and we made it back after about 1/2 hr. Not fun…not easy. Need tow line and a hang strap on your boats. Rudders make this stuff unpleasant, as do poorly designed grap handles / straps. People can swim well with their paddles and should practice this.

Inexpert Opinion

– Last Updated: Jul-12-05 11:13 PM EST –

My first thought on this is don't surf where you are going to have to rescue someone. For the most part when I surf with friends we all know that we have to get ourselves out of harm's way. If you can't handle the current or the intensity of the waves, you don't belong in the surf zone. Just play in waves you are willing to swim in.

The second thought is that usually to get somebody out of trouble usually involves getting them to their boat or paddle, holding onto their boat until they can get to it, or towing them a short distance out of the major impact zone or rip so they can start swimming on their own, then stand up and wade in. You usually only need to move a hundred feet or so to be out of danger.

My third thought is that surf rescues with wave skis and sit on tops are much much easier than with SINKs.

Towing: If it's a bad rip situation worry about saving the kayaker with a line from shore, let the boat go if it is going to mean eventually more people swimming trying to get it to shore, it will eventually come home or be an offer to the surf gods.

Don't tow people with ropes from a boat in the surf zone. Too much chaos.

I've been rescued once when I hurt my arm and could not climb back into my Cobra Strike by myself and was about 1/4 mile outside with big waves rolling in. It just involved holding the boat for me to climb in and a little help getting on the boat.

I've seen two hairy rescues. One was when someone was swimming in 12' crashing waves about 100 ft from a cliff. The rescue just involved towing the swimmer by the stern loop into a rip away from the cliffs and he swam into shore safe (boat was a loss). The second was when Sage got speared by Geoff Jennings boat this Winter at Jalama, CA. I did not see the first part of the rescue, but several guys put him back in his boat and towed him about 3/4 of a mile back to camp. There was an extensive debriefing of this on boatertalk surfzone in December if you are interested in looking up what they did to save a critically injured kayaker with no PFD or helmet.

Here's a link, scroll down through the Dutch to Geoff's account... Jason gave a better account of the rescue but don't have a link to it.

Experience, Context, Judgement…
The surf zone is probably one of the more dynamic environments you can find in ocean paddling. When it comes to rescues, I think the more experience you have just being in the surf zone, the better you can make a judgement about what is doable or not in helping someone else. I also believe, it there is a near absolute in surf zone rescue, the one I would make is that you have better have a bombproof roll if you consider putting yourself in harm’s way.

The size, type and frequency of the waves make a heck of difference is rendering what’s doable or not. 2-3’ spilling waves with long intervals is vastly different different from steeply pitching and barrelling waves with short intervals. While the first is relatively forgiving, the latter can make a bad situation much, much worse. What’s doable should be assessed really conservatively because a messup has the potential to endanger you and the would be victim even more. A boat landing on top of a victim, or the victim’s boat landing on top of you can mean broken bones or someone getting knocked unconscious which is worse than swimming.

The first thing to is to never approach a swimmer directly from the waveside. You may end up inadvertently surfing right over the swimmer. Always approach the swimmer from the sides. If they swimmer indicates s/he is okay, the easiest and safest thing to do is to simply let the swimmer swim on his/her own to the beach. You can stay around to monitor and to reassure the swimmer. If the swimmer is tired or in a rip, then a tow is required. I am extremely leery of a tow rope in the surf zone, especially long ones which can entangle the swimmer or the rescuer and can tighten quickly and dramatically when one or the other gets surfed or pile drived by a breaking wave. The safest tow is a rear toggle tow. I equip my surf boats with with a loop of rope, encased in 1/2" vynyl tubing to make a comfortable, that is attached to the rear grab handle. This set up doesn’t bind or cut at a swimmer’s hand when sudden jerking motions happen as it does in the surf. If one is in a long boat, the swimmer cannot comfortable reach up onto the back deck to grab the rear carry handle. A rudder will make it even worse. If you think you going to play in the surf zone with a long boat, I suggest attaching a short 1-1.5’ section of rope to the grab handle with a big knot at the end of the trailing section. A swimmer can grab this and hang on without rope easily slipping off. When you paddling or surfing, the trailing short piece of rope does nothing to interfere with the boat.

On a rear toggle tow, the swimmer should assist by kicking along but also to watch the rescuer’s back. On a small day, or will spilling waves, there isn’t like going to any problem. On big days, or with curling and plunging wave days, the swimmer has to warn the rescuer if one of these types of waves are going to break on top of them. (I was actually a swimmer/victim on one these big wave days.) If such a wave look ready to break on top of them, the swimmer should warn the rescuer, let go, and hopefully swim under to not take a big hit on the head. The rescuer has to immediately get some strokes in, lean back and brace, or he’ll get tumbled or pitchpoled and potentially sucked out his boat. The rescuer hopefully deals successfully with the wave and come back around again to resume to the tow.

Why I don’t like tow ropes. Anyone who surfed big days/plunging waves can attest to the awesome power these waves have. They can literally suck you right of a boat. One moment you paddling in a boat and next you’re in the water with the boat possibly yards away from you. Now add a long rope attached the rescuer and the victim. The 30-50’ length of the rope will mean that rescuer and the victim are actually being affected by different waves. It possible for the rescuer to end up surfing a steep wave, gaining momentum and then being stopped suddenly and decisively by the rope with a swimmer attached. The rescuer can be yanked forceably right out of the boat. Now we two swimmers and a nice long, potentially deadly rope floating through the break zone…

Assisted rescues in the surf zone. I actually witnessed a quick successful assisted rescue in the surf but outside of the break zone and the waves were spilling which meant they didn’t pitch as acutely as other types of waves. We were all in long boats. The assisted rescue was text book and over in a minute. On the other hand, I have a friend who works with an outfitter and was leading a surf class in another break that is a little steeper. One of the clients came out of the boat and instead of swimming to shore as my friend suggested, insisted on doing an assisted rescue right in the break zone. My friend came in and was positioned on the wave side of the victim. Just as the victim was about to get in his boat, my friend felt his boat pitched up by the wave. One moment his was level with the victim and his boat, the next he was looking down at the victim and his boat. He barely had enough time to scream a warning, tucked himself, flipped over and slammed down on the victim and his boat. Fortunately for my friend, he didn’t sustain an injury. He rolled up and told the victim to swim who then decided to comply.

My other “absolute” about surf zone rescues, it’s about getting the swimmer safely to shore. Darn the boat, as that can be replaced. Sometimes, I swimmers hanging onto their boat like mad even though the boat in big breaking waves can actually endanger them, especially if the boat gets on the wave side. In a rescue, I worry solely about the swimmer and only thinking about the victim’s boat is that it isn’t nearby to potentially injure me or the victim. If someone decides to tow boat, think about what I said about rope towing a victim and increase the danger potential because the boat won’t release itself from a tow rope.

Is it possible to rope tow a swimmer and/or boat. Sure, if the waves aren’t that big and/or one is just within or outside of the break zone. It’s doable to tow the equipment and victim further out where the waves are not breaking.

Again, experience/skills and context (of the surf zone dynamics for that day) will allow you to judge what is doable. I would say judge conservatively. In most cases, the swimmer is probably fine swimming to shore. If not and only after careful consideration, should one really attempt to engage in a rescue.



This is great feedback
and thanks for the suggestions. I agree that a rope of any length in the surf zone is hazardous. At some level, it’s seems most convenient to simply toss a swimmer some line and then cruise into the shore and/or out of the impact zone; however, I can see how easily this could go south depending on the craziness of the surf zone. I like the grab rope idea a lot, but with a rudder it is problematic at best. Also, I’ve experiemented with the stern carry, but that really doesn’t seem that viable - at least not as viable as hanging on the stern.

After having spent time in the surf zone with my 18’ sea kayak, I have come to realize the importance of self-sufficiency - a good roll and generally solid bracing and surfing skills. As mentioned above, I understand the issue of staying out of harm’s way, but there is much enjoyment in coastal type kayaking and dealing with surf is an inevitability. I have seen the value of understanding coastal topography and how that informs where and how one comes ashore. Like anything, with time and experience everything becomes more manageable. Right now, a five to six footer seems pretty darn massive to me - for some of you, this is something you probably seek out.

When you posted…
this yesterday I started to type something out but held back. Reason being, I could post some experience had, but much of that experience’s shelf life expired at its conclusion. Even the judgement to use a certain technique or piece of equipment was only applicable there and then.

For every person who say’s this bit of equipment is an absolute yes or no, there is another who says no or yes. Equipment is important, but your judgement and experience is key. Therefore, whether it’s a towline, surf toggle or surf drogue I won’t make a blanket statement about them, particularly under unassumable conditions.

Attend some rough water rescue clinics held in your area. If none are available there, drive or fly to one. Take a few days off, enjoy the water and weather, make new friends. If you like to paddle the open coast you will need good training.

When you and your friends get together for a paddle, practice a bit. Learn to develop a strategy to not get yourself into these things in the first place. Always watch out for them, and they you. Be decisive and use whatever technique you think is adequate for the moment quickly. When speed is key, often stripping a technique to the barest elements is rewarding.

A classic T Rescue in a rockgarden, race or surf zone might work, might not. What worked for me best was when I got paddler into swamped cockpit and we paddled to safer area to do all the pumping. Not a lot of time to sit around and worship dogma. The 6 or 7 seconds wasted on dumping a swamped cockpit were better used getting the paddler in and secure and to a better area before the next set comes in. Most of the time the cockpit fills back up, anyway, and now you’ve no net gain and are 6-7 seconds closer to being mowed down by a set and a lifetime of picking fiberglass out of your a$$.

You are never going to remember all the scenarios; what about in plunging waves? how about standing ones with 5k of current? Oh, sure that’s fine in current but what about dumpers with a newbie and a rudder? That is stuff of 682 count threads. Get a group together, practice in conditions, take notes of your experiences. Oh, and have fun!

Rob G

Well said Sing! :slight_smile:

I will personally not hold a fast
rule about towing in the surf zone.

I think as with everything there are exceptions to the rule, and no black and white issues.

If a swimmer is having trouble in the surf zone, and can’t make it to shore under their own power and can’t hold onto the stern toggle of the kayak, you are hosed, and should probably consider a tow.

But otherwise rescues do work, and you should practice them in wind and waves for the sake of you and your comrades!

No "Hard And Fast…"
that’s why I put my “absolutes” in quotation marks. That is to say, they are really not absolutes but my experience and feel of it. Experience, skills and context.

As I mentioned to you (or maybe someone else), I find it interesting that when I tried to do a search on materials about surf rescues, I can not find much written at all. We have tons of kayaking “how to” books. However, surf rescues are barely addressed at all. Only two books made more than slight and brief mention – one by John Lull and the other by N. Foster. I suspect the paucity of written “to do/do not” guideline is directly related to the very fact that rescues in the surf environment have many variables to contend with. Any time something is written down, somebody can write something to the contrary. And both would probably be valid.


The National Park Service uses …
rescue lines in the surf. There was a surf rescue on one kayaker recently, anyone familiar with the rescue lines used by the parks? Anyone familiar with the problems encountered by these chaps off western Washington? Kalaloch is a rough beach off the south end of Olympic National Park in Washington, FYI.

"Kayaker rescued off Kalaloch coast



KALALOCH – A kayaker who was being pulled out to sea off the Pacific coast Sunday morning was rescued by Olympic National Park personnel who happened to be nearby.

Eleven park rangers and firefighters were completing a surf rescue and training lesson at approximately 10:30 a.m. when someone ran up to report that two kayakers had capsized in the ocean, said Barb Maynes, park spokeswoman.

When the park officials came up close to where the kayakers were, they saw that one had already managed to make his way to shore,'' said Maynes, referring to (name withheld) of Bremerton.<br /> However, the other kayaker, (name withheld) of Ferndale, had lost hold of his kayak and was between 150 yards and 200 yards off the coast.<br /> Tide pulling man out<br /> The tide was pulling him out farther.<br />He was just beyond the outer edge of the surf, where the current is stronger,’’ Maynes said.

Rob Palmer, a seasonal park firefighter and Port Angeles native, gathered his gear and swam out to Denham.

Palmer, a trained lifeguard, took a rescue line, which he attached to (name withheld) once he reached him.

Once Palmer got back to shore, the people back at the beach pulled (name withheld) in,'' Maynes said.<br />By the time rangers got to him, (Name withheld) had been in the water 20-30 minutes.’’

the national park service
isn’t paddling into the rescue area with a kayak though.

that’s true…
but, it is still a line and it is still surf. That’s why I mostly avoid the dogma of “never-neverland.” I know some L5 coaches that will submit to the use of a line in surf, too. Many of them advocate the use of a drogue. As we have noticed here, most avoid the subject alltogether.

Rob G


– Last Updated: Jul-14-05 1:45 PM EST –

I am big believer in PWC for surf rescues. :) I am pretty ecclectic. I think if you believe you can make technique/equipment work for you, go for it.


Yes but they aren’t in kayaks

– Last Updated: Jul-14-05 1:59 PM EST –

The line from shore was the way I was taught in a water safety rescue class. Lot's can go wrong if you have rocks or a reef or kelp between the person being rescued and the beach.

If the lifeguards get called in here in Southern California they arrive on jet skis or surf boards. In Austraila they use surfskis and siton tops and will tow the person directly on their boat.