Can You Survive a Whitewater Emergency?

I feel like I'm drowning. I'm panicked and nearly paralyzed. The current is like a tractor chained to my ankles, pulling me down into a snare of submerged timber or undercut rocks. My white fingertips have to give up any grip. The cold water tightens my neck muscles, wrenching my head back and opening my mouth. Water seeps in. I lunge, arcing my body skyward through the rushing bubbles for a gulp of air. But the current wins. The river sucks me under. It isn't a violent yank - more like a bear hug that pulls me away from the sky, which fades from metallic silver, to lead gray, to brown. Fortunately for me, the other side of the experience was still in this world. It was all a drill, an exercise in a three-day whitewater-rescue course photographer Tim Romano and I took through Dvorak Expeditions at the peak of spring runoff on Colorado's Arkansas River, as the current raged at 2,300 cubic feet per second. We figured the tricks, rope knots, rigs, and rescue techniques might just save our butts someday. But our education came at a price. We left bruised and bloodied, having free-swum "The Numbers" rapids, flipped and righted rafts, and thrown ropes until our hands turned raw. When it was over, one lesson was burned in: You don't want to find yourself in a river-rescue situation. Not ever. Still...stuff happens. So, here's exactly what to do when it does.Tim Romano
In this clip, F&S; photographer Tim Romano takes a ride down "The Numbers" rapids on Colorado's Arkansas River with his improvised "helmet cam." ASSUME THE POSITION: The safest way to ride a rapid is on your back, head pointed upstream, feet down, legs flexed, and toes just above the water's surface. Lift your head to watch ahead. Use your feet to bounce off rocks and logs. TIME YOUR BREATHING: Choking on water will unleash a panic reaction in even the most experienced swimmer. The surest way to avoid a sudden, massive gulp of water is to inhale in the troughs (low points) and exhale or hold your breath at the crests (tops) of the waves. SCOUT FOR AN OUT: As you look downstream to avoid obstacles, such as logjams, also scan the shoreline for calmer water, such as an eddy on the downstream side of a rock or river bend. GO WITH THE FLOW: As the current carries you toward quieter water, paddle with your arms and kick with your legs to steer yourself toward shore. When you get close, roll onto your stomach and swim upstream at a 45-degree angle, which will ferry you to the bank.Field & Stream Online Editors
Watch Kirk Deeter get schooled in how to survive a deadly river obstacle known as a strainer. ALERT! STRAINER: Avoid these at all costs. A strainer is a river trap of downed timber or undercut rocks. Like a colander, a strainer allows water to flow through, but solid objects (like you) get pinned inside. If you get stuck in a strainer, says Dvorak instructor Terry McShane, there is a 95 percent probability that you will die. If you see one, roll over on your stomach and swim to avoid it. If you can't avoid it, swim at it aggressively, grab the obstacle, and try to vault your body over the top of it.Field & Stream Online Editors
This video shows you proper procedure for saving yourself and others in the event that your boat flips over in the river. REACH OUT: Quickly prioritize your options based on this simple rhyme: Reach, Throw, Row, then Go and Tow. Reaching from shore with your hand to grab a drifting victim is by far the safest option, so do this first if at all possible. Keep your center of gravity low. Lie on your stomach, or better yet, have someone hold on to you. If a boat oar, canoe paddle, or sturdy tree branch is handy, use it to extend your reach.Field & Stream Online Editors
THROW A ROPE: All boaters should carry an approved throw bag - and throwing it to a victim (see the next page) is your second-safest option. Drop to the ground as the person grabs hold of the rope. (It's going to feel as if you've roped a steer.) Carefully swing the person to shore. RESCUE BAG THROW: It's actually tricky to throw a rescue bag accurately and quickly, and worth practicing before you hit the water. Throw the bag with your dominant hand, holding the end of the line with your other hand. As the bag travels through the air, the slack rope will uncoil from the bag. Assuming you miss your first shot, lean over and quickly strip long even coils to the ground; now you're going to throw the other (non-bag) end. With practice, you should be able to get off two accurate tosses, first with the bag end, then the tag end of the line, within 20 seconds.Tim Romano
ROW YOUR BOAT: If a victim is too far away for you to reach from shore,row or paddle your boat far enough into the river to extend him your hand or a paddle, or to throw him the rope. GO AND TOW: Swimming is your last option. Remember, for every five people who drown in a river rescue, one is the rescuer. Your priorities should be yourself, your team, and your victim, in that order. That said, if you do swim to a victim, assume he¿ll be panicked. Don¿t let him grab you. You grab him. If that means pushing him away, clasping him forcefully, and towing him backward, there will be time for apologies later. And don¿t swim alone if circumstances allow; have a spotter ready with a rope. ALERT! DEBRIS: Rescues should be team endeavors, whenever possible. One of the most important roles on that team is that of an upstream spotter. This person runs upriver to watch for and alert rescuers and victims to potentially dangerous floating debris, such as tree limbs or paddles and boat coolers from a capsized craft.Tim Romano
YOUR FRIEND HAS FALLEN INTO FAST WATER: You hit a rock and suddenly find yourself paddling solo. Your pal is in the drink, already racing downstream away from your boat before either of you realize what's happened DON'T GIVE UP THE SHIP: Stay put. Two people in the water are two potential victims. Just keep cool, keep the boat upright, and maintain visual and verbal contact with the person overboard. MAKE YOURSELF HEARD: Yell or use hand signals to alert the victim to downstream dangers like strainers, rocks, or debris. If there are other boaters or anglers below, do your best to get their attention. Smart boaters always wear a whistle on their PFD. Three loud, long blasts are the universal signal for an emergency situation. THROW THE BAG: Toss your rescue bag so it will land right in front of your buddy's head, where he can¿t miss it. Then lower your center of gravity and brace yourself for the jolt when he grabs on. Ideally, you¿ll be able to pull your friend to your boat or steer him to shore. MARK THE SPOT: If you don¿t have a rope, try to paddle close enough to extend a hand (or paddle) to the victim [a]. If the raging water separates you, however, and you lose contact with your victim, accurately note the last spot you saw him [b], and find additional help quickly. GOOD THROW: In fast water, you'll likely be throwing the rescue bag at a moving target. So, like an NFL quarterback, you need to lead the receiver. ANGLER IN ACTION: An alerted fisherman should race (downstream in this case) to get in position to help. ALERT! ROPE Under no circumstances should you, the rescuer, attach yourself to a rescue rope. If you need added leverage, wrap the rope behind your hips, but don't close the loop in front of you (this is called belaying). Some life jackets feature quick-release devices that allow rescuers to clip in and out of lines; don't use them unless you¿re trained to do so. Also, never leave a rope behind in the river; they snag on rocks and logs and can potentially kill other boaters. If you can't retrieve a lost rope, tell authorities exactly where it is.Tim Romano
FREE A TRAPPED FOOT: When someone's foot gets trapped in the rocks on the river bottom (a good reason why you want to float through whitewater on your back, feet at the surface, pointed downstream) rescue time is of the essence. To free a trapped foot, position two teams of rescuers on either side of the victim. String a rope between the two teams, downstream from the victim, but be sure to have the mid-section of that rope heavily weighted (with rocks in a throw bag or otherwise) so it sinks to the bottom. With the rope strung and sunk, the teams then pull it upstream, grabbing the victim's leg, and popping it free from the trap. Odds are, this victim's leg will be broken, so have rescue swimmers and/or boats downstream, ready to scoop him/her up quickly. Even if a pinned victim looks submerged, it's worth performing this maneuver. There are documented cases where a pinned foot victim has survived, breathing from the air pocket in the wave over their head as the rope was strung, and this maneuver ultimately freed them.Tim Romano
In heavy current, the more legs you have - meaning wade as a team - the more stable your rescue effort is. Position your heaviest team member at the front of a "conga line," facing upstream. The leader uses a stick or oar for balance. Each subsequent member of the team hangs on to the PFD of the person in front of them. The leader calls out the steps, and you move, in unison, one step at a time, across the current.Tim Romano
Kirk Deeter gives a quick tutorial on properly tying a rescue knot whitewater survival style. TIE A RESCUE KNOT: The double figure eight knot on a bight is one of the most basic, and effective knots used in river rescues. To tie it, take the last three feet of your rope, and form a loop. Reverse that loop back toward you, passing it underneath the doubled main line. Wrap the end over the line, and pass it back through a second loop you've now created, from underneath. Pull the knot taught away from you. Tie a single hitch on the tag end to create the bight.Field & Stream Online Editors
In this clip, learn how to flip your boat back over in an emergency situation. RIGHT A FLIPPED RAFT: If your raft is flipped, get back on it, then use an oar (or your hands) to grab one side. Slide your weight back to one edge of the uprighted raft, lifting the other off the water, and ultimately pulling it (upright) back on top of you. Then vault yourself back into the righted raft. Ideally, you can flip over, find the boat, climb on, right it, and climb back in, within 20 seconds. It's an exercise any raft owner should practice often, starting on flat water, of course.Field & Stream Online Editors
The number one mistake most would-be rescuers make when rigging a line across a river is to tie it off at a 90-degree, angle, perpendicular to the current. This is a trap that can easily snap the arms or wrists of both victims and rescuers. A rescue line should be tied at a 45-degree angle from downstream to upstream. That way, once a victim grabs on, if the bottom is released, the victim floats easily to the shore where the upstream line is anchored. If you grab a loose line, or if the rescue line is released downstream, simply pass the rope across your body toward the middle of the river, and the force of the current will push you gently to shore.Tim Romano