A Low‑Speed Chase
Here's how John described what happened:
How do you recover a swamped boat floating downriver in whitewater?
Here are the specifics: Last April we were canoeing in our 17‑foot Old Town Penobscot canoe along with two friends in their solo kayaks on the Sheepscot River in central Maine (one of the great class II+ rivers in our state). One of the kayakers inexplicably flipped at the head of what we thought was a pretty easy rapid. My wife and I were leading the group, and we looked back to find him in the water, with our other friend out of his own kayak and leading the guy to shore. So, priority one, go after the boater, was already accomplished. Therefore, we decided to try and corral the runaway kayak, which was now upside down, full of water, and heading downriver through the rapid. Long story short, we had no trouble catching it, but had an unbelievably difficult time grabbing it! Of course, if the guy had rigged it with a painter or towrope, that job might have been much easier, but he hadn't. So we ended up trying to bump it with our canoe into a shoreline eddy, and this is finally what we did, but it took forever.
We were easily a mile downriver from the spill before we got that kayak to shore. Now if we had been on a lake there would have been no problem. We have done numerous canoe‑over‑canoe rescues, and I'm certain we could have lifted his swamped boat over ours and drained it enough to float it back to the guy. And of course, if it had broached and pinned against a rock, that would create a different set of circumstances, but we know how to deal with that, too. But with it running away from us downriver, that was a different story.
So, I'm wondering if you know a quick and safe way to recover a swamped boat in whitewater, a method that won't swamp us, too? Thanks so much, as always, for your help.
Sad to say, I had very little help to offer John. Given the circumstances, he and his wife did what I would have done. Few hasty attempts at salvage or recovery in moving water are safe, and no safe procedure is exactly quick. The slow and sweaty way is usually the best way. Often it's the only way. But now let's take a closer look at the problem, to see what we can learn about …
Coping With Capsizes
It's a topic I've touched on before, but this incident paints the subject in a somewhat different light. John was right about saving swimmers being Job Number One, of course. You can replace gear, but you can't bring a drowned friend back to life. So …
Rescuing boaters who are in trouble always takes priority over salvaging their boats. I don't imagine this comes as a surprise to anyone, though in the heat of the moment, with several grands' worth of kayak and gear disappearing around the next bend in the river, folks have been known to feel a little conflicted. But only a very little, and not for very long. It's at times like these, when the life of a friend hangs in the balance, that you'll appreciate having taken a course in river rescue. Such instruction is often offered under the auspices of local paddling clubs, and it's worth making the most of the opportunity. Some things just can't be learned from books or videos, and that's certainly true of the intricacies of rescuing paddlers who find themselves in trouble in fast‑moving water. Happily, John's friend was hauled out without incident, and the swimmer soon found his feet on dry land once again. His boat, however, continued downriver without him. It was time to think about …
Recovering and salvaging gear. And you can't recover what you can't find, so keeping an eye on the runaway items is obviously important. Often this means heading in pursuit, though not if that endangers the pursuer. There are many occasions when rescuing people involves some unavoidable risk to the rescuers, but such risks can seldom be justified to recover either gear or boats. (The only exceptions? Truly remote places, where any lost gear or boat threatens the safety of the party as a whole.) In particular, would‑be salvors should give reversals and strainers a wide berth — and they should do everything in their power to make sure they don't swamp their own boats while engaged in a hot pursuit.
Of course, the story doesn't end when a runaway craft is sighted and approached. A swamped boat, bouncing merrily down a rapid river, can't be picked up and put in your pocket. If you can get hold of a painter you may be able to ferry the boat to shore, or at least "park" it temporarily in the calmer water of an eddy. But if that's not possible (if, for instance, the boat doesn't have a painter), you may be forced to adopt a watching brief, tagging along behind the runaway until it comes to rest in an eddy of its own choosing. Or grounds in the shallows. Or — not the happiest of outcomes — wraps itself around a rock. At best, you might be able to nudge a painterless craft toward a safe harbor, in much the same way that a tug coaxes a barge into its berth, if you can do so without endangering your own boat (or yourself) in the process. And that is just what the Neals did.
Then, once every swimmer has been rescued, and all boats that can be found and retrieved have been brought safely ashore — easier said than done, if a boat is locked in a too‑close embrace with a midriver rock — it's time to …
Regroup and repair. Any injured paddlers should have been treated as a matter of urgency, obviously, and immediate measures should already have been taken to prevent (or address) hypothermia, in rescued boaters and rescuers alike. Repairing any damage to boats must be deferred till this has been done, after which it's simply a question of deciding whether or not to continue the trip. If the swimmers are uninjured and still keen to go on, and if their boats are none the worse for wear, the decision is easy. Otherwise, unless the group is so large and so well‑prepared that it can be safely divided into stay‑behinds and through‑boaters, common sense and courtesy dictate that the whole party call it a day. In which case, you have some hard work ahead of you, especially if the mishap occurred in mid‑trip. You may well have hours of walking and car‑shuttling to look forward to, not to mention the awkward, unplanned carries needed to get your boats and gear out to a roadside pickup point. Of course, if there are serious injuries to attend to, the situation becomes vastly more complicated, and the assistance of professionals will almost certainly be required.
Luckily, John's story ended on a much happier note. Which is a very good thing. But it would have been even better not to have suffered the misadventure in the first place. In other words, …
Prevention Really is Better Than Cure
And a few straightforward precautions can go a long way toward making any trip trouble‑free. Let's see what these are…
Know Your Companions. Are they capable paddlers? Can you trust their judgment? Are any of them feeling under par? Those aren't questions we like to ask, particularly about our friends, but they're important, nonetheless. A paddling group is only as strong as its weakest member. So go ahead. Ask the hard questions, if only to yourself. You may already know the answers, especially if you're the leader of the group. But what if you have doubts — if, say, you're paddling with people you don't know well? Then don't hesitate ask your questions out loud, and if you're not happy with the answers, consider suggesting another place or another time for the outing: a less challenging river, for instance, or the next weekend, when the water level's dropped a bit. This is easiest when you're the group leader, of course, but it's the duty of any paddler who cares about safety. Smiling acquiescence in the face of obvious danger is folly. Don't neglect to turn your critical eye on yourself, either. Your friends deserve no less. After all, they're the folks whose lives may be put at risk if you miscarry. Never forget that moving water is an impersonal, elemental force. It isn't swayed by bluster or bravado or good intentions. Only competence counts. Be sure you (and your companions) measure up.
Dress for Success. Cold kills. Don't be led astray by the first warm, sunny days of spring. Dress for the water temperature. And never, ever, launch your boat without first zipping up your PFD.
Tie Two On. Plastic boats are slippery when wet. Make sure that all your boats have painters fitted at both bow and stern, and that those painters are secured in a way that will minimize the likelihood of entanglement in a capsize.
Whatever Floats Your Boat… In whitewater — and whenever you'll be making long, open‑water crossings, too — any space inside your boat that isn't occupied by a paddler or gear should be filled with sturdy, securely anchored float bags. A swamped boat without adequate flotation can easily hold half a ton or more of water, making recovery both difficult and dangerous. And don't assume that your kayak's watertight hatches will really keep the water out. Use dry bags for all gear, and fill up any empty space in compartments with more flotation.
Brace Up! I began this article by claiming that canoes and kayaks are tippy. That's only half true, however. In sharp contrast to other, larger craft, the ultimate stability of paddlers' little ships is governed mainly by the strength and skill of their crews. In other words, you determine your boat's effective righting moment at all angles of heel. That being the case, a strong, practiced brace is essential in anything more than mild riffles, and mastering the roll should be very high on any whitewater kayaker's to‑do list. A bombproof roll isn't quite as useful as a skyhook when a boater misjudges a river, I admit, but it comes a pretty close second — and there's never a skyhook around when you need one, is there? Not in my experience, at any rate.