Swiftwater rescue class

This past weekend I took a swiftwater rescue course sponsored by the Merrimack Valley Paddlers club up in Bristol, NH, with Charlie Walbridge(safety chair for American Whitewater) as the lead instructor. Saturday morning started with classroom discussion of rescue principles & stratagies, organization & scene management, and basic rescue gear. We then moved to dry-land practice with throw bags, belaays, and belay assists. The afternoon was spent on the river practicing group wading, defensive and aggressive swimming(including trips through the Pemi play hole), simple rope rescues, and lowers using a rescue vest. Everyone had multiple chances to be at both ends of the ropes. Sunday morning started with dry-land work with knots, anchors, and haul systems, and boat outfitting, and continued with dry-land exercises for pins and entrapments. Sunday afternoon we moved to Livermore Falls and worked through several “real” pinning and entrapment scenarios, along with strainer-swimming and zip-line practice. I went home tired, bruised, and humbled, and much better prepared to deal with an emergency on the river. I’d highly recommend the class or one like it for anyone who spends much time on moving water.

Impressions from the weekend:

  1. Keep it simple. The rope rigging techniques are neat, but Charlie said that over 90% of the simple pins he’s seen were released by going out to the boat, grabbing it, and pulling. Save the complex techniques for complex situations.
  2. Communication between spread-out rescuers is very difficult because of the river noise, and can quickly break down. Try to agree on a plan, but be prepared to adapt as the situation changes.
  3. Good drills can be intense, and trigger all the classic symptoms of adrenalin kicking in – we got strong and fast, but also clumsy, and developed tunnel vision. We also saw the dynamics of a group under stress – people got argumentative, frustrated, stuck – all perfectly normal, but it’s stuff you have to deal with.
  4. Slow down. Force yourself to stop and look around instead of staring at the victim. What’s happening on the far bank? Upstream? Downstream? What other resources do I have? With the adrenalin boost, if you think you’re moving slowly you’re probably doing OK.
  5. Involve the victim in his/her rescue. Ask them what they need – boaters will often stay calm, and be able to tell you “my left foot is stuck” or “I’m OK, but I need help keeping my head up”. Try to make eye contact, and keep talking – it has a powerful calming effect on both of you, and lets you monitor the mental state of the victim.
  6. Finding a good belay spot is vital for even a simple throwbag swimmer rescue. The forces can be very high, and we had a few people dragged off their feet because they had nowhere to brace – the smooth sloping rocks that seemed like great throwing spots were treacherous with tension on the line.
  7. When swimming, barrel-rolling can get you across a pushy eddyline.
  8. Any rope is better than none, but it’s hard to beat the standard 70-foot bag of 3/8" rope. It’s much easier to handle than the thinner stuff, and you need all the length you can get length when you start running lines across rivers or rigging lowers. The 1/4’ does have less drag if you have to ferry a line across but unless it’s spectra-core it isn’t strong enough for many uses.
  9. A rescue vest with tether isn’t magic, but it gives you more options: “Live bait” strong-swimmer rescues and V-lowers if the situation justifies the risk, or you can self-anchor for a stronger belay. In normal paddling the cowtail makes boat retrival much faster.
  10. The forces on both ends of the rope in a rescue situation can be pretty brutal. It ain’t over when they catch the rope – not by a long shot. And being on a tether doesn’t feel very secure – it feels like the whole river is hammering on your shoulders waiting for an oppotunity to stuff you under. If you grab a rope and forget to stay on your back you become a human crankbait on a fast trip to the bottom.
  11. The group wading techniques can be very effective in moving across shallow water.
  12. Think seriously about your boat’soutfitting in terms of egress – can you get a leg out while staying in the seat? Could you get out if you were pinned on the back deck? How might you change your outfitting for a big-water canyon trip as opposed to park & play?
  13. It’s almost always useful to have somone on the opposite bank. People tend to bunch up in a crisis, so look for places you can be useful other than in the main group.

    Lots of stuff to digest and practice. I plan to take this or a similar class again next year.

Thanks for taking the time to write the report. Did Walbridge deal specifically with the effects of adrenaline. This is the area that seperates the ability to perform the drills or not in real scenarios. Everything is easier in practice when you know it’s PRACTICE. When it’s for real and adrenaline kicks in, most folks not used to the adrenal rush get overwhelmed.


The instructors just kept repeating that we needed to force ourselves to stop, breathe, and look around – try to expand our awareness of the whole situation instead of letting the tunnel vision take over. It’s much better to do the right thing carefully than to screw up quickly…

For better or worse, I seem to have no trouble getting emotionally involved in training scenarios – don’t know if it’s just an overactive imagination, but I can get pumped just practicing CPR in a classroom. It took me a while to come down from a couple of the rescues, and I’m afraid I may have spooked a couple of people who were less involved. If I start thinking “S***! He’s pinnned!” instead of “Wow! They did a good job setting up that fake pin.”, it starts the adrenal squeeze and everything snowballs from there.

A book on competitive shooting recommended never shooting without something at stake – a dollar, a beer, whatever – as a way to get used to the pressure of competition. You could do the same for rescue practice if you were honest about not taking shortcuts. How about ending every paddle with a throw-bag accuracy contest, loser buys?

nice report
I did a bunch of training with Charlie back when ACA was first getting on board with the SWR. He’s a GREAT guy and instructor. glad to hear he’s still teaching.


Wthout saying much, he makes you appreciate the price that was paid for some of the knowledge we take for granted.

If you take a swiftwater rescue class, I’d suggest wearing a neoprene farmer john, even in relatively warm conditions. The neoprene provides impact and abrasion protection – judging from the rock-slime smears on mine, I’m very glad I was wearing it.

And like any other class, you’ll get more out of it if you do your homework first. Read up on basic rescue techniques, practice with your throw bag, and learn at least the figure-8 family of knots. If you already understand the concepts you’ll be better able to focus on the details.