By Bill Vonnegut

An essential part of paddling is preparing to handle a rescue at any time and in all conditions. Accomplishing this requires proper training and practice beforehand. Yet even with appropriate preparation, doing a rescue in the heat of the moment may not always go perfectly.

Part of the education process is learning from mistakes and trying to improve for the next time. This process teaches us the most important thing about performing rescues: being adaptable. All the real life rescues I have seen or performed have taught me something, which makes me more prepared for the next occasion where a rescue will be needed.

Practice self-rescues. The ability to rescue others is only one part of preparing myself for paddling in dynamic conditions. In fact, it may be more to my benefit to be able to take care of myself and help facilitate my own rescue when things go wrong. One way I can help is by positioning my boat and myself in a way that will benefit the folks coming to my aid. For example, if I have become stuck deep in a rocky area that would be dangerous for my buddies to paddle into, I could simply give my boat a push out and paddle swim myself to safety. If I have flipped over in rough water, I could flip my boat upright and make the deck lines available for the rescuer to grab onto and stabilize themselves. Being an active participant in my own rescue will make things more efficient and as a result I’ll be out of the cold water faster.

They say a (moving) picture is worth a thousand words; here is an excellent video showing an actual rescue caught during a recent trip to Mendocino. Notice how Lily (the swimmer) took and active role in her rescue, making things quicker and safer for the others coming to help. From the time that Lily exited the boat to when it was at Roger’s side and empty enough to be paddled was exactly one minute. That’s teamwork! At this point, not being pressed for time, Roger drained the last of the water.

Don’t be afraid of making mistakes while training. As an instructor, it’s difficult to let a rescue scenario that I have set up transpire without jumping in to help. Afterwards, we can sit back and talk about how it went and discuss ways to improve for next time. Ultimately, every rescue is going to be a little different so what we practice in controlled settings becomes a reference point for real life scenarios. I remember being a student in these type of situations and sitting there like a deer in the headlights not knowing what to do and wondering if my choice would be “the right one.” As I encountered real life rescues, I learned that being proactive and drawing from what I’d learned in practice was far more effective than sitting back and wondering if what I was doing was right. Having an instructor that will let you make choices without labeling them “right or wrong” is golden!

Getting into position. The ability to maneuver my kayak into a position where I can help others is essential. Therefore, I regularly work on controlling my kayak with the goal of obtaining fluidity in any direction. I like to practice strokes on flat water using obstacles like buoys and piers to put them into muscle memory. The ultimate goal is to take those strokes out into the rough water and put them to the test.

Take a course. A great way to take your skills to the next level is with a qualified instructor who can push your limits. There are lots of good instructors out there and lots of paces to learn these skills.

See more from the multi-part rock gardening series where Bill discusses the techniques, skills and gear needed to enjoy coastal whitewater.