Tuesday, June 5, 2012

How to improve your sea kayak rescue skills

Alec prepares to do a reenter and roll.
Early summer seems to be rescue season. Kayak clubs schedule rescue sessions, symposia offer rescue classes, and many paddlers take advantage of the now-warm-enough water to practice a few self- and assisted rescues. All of which is great; being able to get yourself and your buddies back in their boats is essential for safe paddling.

But over the years, we've observed plenty of well-meaning instructors teach techniques that are not efficient, effective or particularly safe. Troubled by this, we wrote stories for both Adventure Kayak and Sea Kayaker magazines on the T-rescue (the go-to assisted rescue) in which we explained current best practices.

An image from our Sea Kayaker story, demonstrating how a victim can move safely from his boat to the rescuer's.
Some of the poor T-rescue techniques we we've seen include:

  • Sending the victim to the stern of his boat.
  • Failing to ask the victim to flip his own boat.
  • Lifting the capsized boat in order to empty it.
  • Allowing the victim to swim from boat to boat.
  • Letting go of the victim's boat during the rescue.
  • Placing the victim on the bow or stern of the rescuer's boat.
  • Failing to hold on tightly as the victim reenters his boat. 

Each of these errors slows the rescue, increases the likelihood of injury, and diminishes the chances of success in all conditions.

We distilled the essentials of the T-rescue into a few key elements:

  • Encourage the victim to flip his boat.
  • Have the victim transfer to the rescuer's boat, maintaining contact by holding deck lines.
  • Keep the victim in front of or behind the rescuer's cockpit during the rescue. 
  • Roll the victim's boat over and then edge away to empty it.
  • Hold tight on both sides of the victim's boat and lean on his deck as he reenters it.

If the rescuer edges away from the victim's boat, she can empty it without straining her back or shoulders. 
Most of the time, we see people teach and practice rescues on flat water. That's a good place to start, but it's essential to work on rescues on rough water, too. And in fact, plenty of techniques that work on flat water will fail in rougher conditions, which is where we are most likely to need them.

Shawna Franklin and Leon Somme of Body Boat Blade International recently released a Sea Kayak Rescues DVD that covers assisted and self-rescues in flat, dynamic and rough water. There's no better way to demonstrate the importance of good technique than to see how well it works in a coastal environment with ocean current, breaking waves and rocky shorelines. This instructional DVD does exactly that, showing how to quickly and safely return yourself or a capsized paddling partner to a boat. The demonstrations are done in real time and in real conditions. Because it's short (only 30 minutes), and favors action over talk -- and because it was shot by phenomenal filmmaker Bryan Smith of Reel Water Productions -- it's an exciting and compelling film (not the adjectives commonly associated with instructional DVDs).

Here's a preview:  


Sea Kayak Rescues costs $25 and can be ordered here

We are highlighting this one DVD because there are many books, articles and videos on sea kayak rescues, but all are not authoritative. This one is, and we're convinced that if more people learned proper rescue techniques and then went out and practiced them, there would be fewer tragedies on the water. 


Haris said...

Practice your rescues in the conditions you take yourself into! Thank you for a reminder.

I do not share your enthusiasm for the BBB Rescues DVD. If one is not a visual learner and wants to understand the details of what is demonstrated or the reasons why things are done one way and not the other, this video is not going to provide. Before you buy one and for a well composed alternative view see this review: http://www.sherrikayaks.com/2012/02/23/review-of-sea-kayak-rescue-dvd/.

California Kayaker Magazine said...

I also don't have as positive a feel for the BBB video as a training tool. I did a review of it for California Kayaker Magazine, which is posted at http://calkayakermag.blogspot.com/2011/12/body-boat-blade-sea-kayak-rescues-video.html. The Gordon Brown rescues video I found to be a much better tool for most people (beyond those who are able to watch it done and replicate, which the BBB video would work for).

Also not sure I agree as much about stripping out all of the points you say not to do. When I am a rescuer, I want to be able to handle whatever situation occurs. One assumption I make is that the victim is not going to be able to help or have ever done any rescue before, so I am prepared to do all the work and just make sure they hang on to a boat in some place out of the way. So I make sure I am able to handle a boat that is right side up or upside down on my own, and with the swimmer at my side, at my bow, or at their stern. Yes, your suggestions can be more efficient and easier when people know what they are doing, but people who know what they are doing are also less likely to need the rescue.

bpfamily said...

@Haris: Thanks for your comments. This video is not meant to substitute for instruction. It is meant to augment it. So you're right that viewers aren't going to learn to do the rescue from watching it alone, but that isn't really the point.

@Peter: Yes, as the rescuer, you are in charge and doing pretty much everything, and you certainly should be able to handle the boat if the victim can't flip it. But it he can, it's a great test of his ability to listen and follow directions, and it makes it easier on you. As far as where you place him, the safest place is immediately in front of or behind your cockpit. (That doesn't require his cooperation.) There, you can see and talk to him, he's safe and out of the way, and if he lets go, you have many ways to retrieve him. We've performed this rescue many times with people who have never had any instruction, and it is efficient, effective and safe.