SWR – Lessons Learned the Hard Way

I was recently involved in a whitewater mishap that turned out ok despite our multiple failures. The purpose of this is not to embarrass anyone, but rather to let others learn from our mistakes so no names are used. We hope you read this, take the hard lessons that we learned to heart and spend some time thinking about being involved in such situations. Most importantly we hope this increases discussions concerning possible SWR situations with your crew BEFORE you put-in because I can tell you from this experience when it goes down on the river it is chaos if you don’t. Please be aware that this is MY view only and others may have had different experiences…hopefully better ones.


Setting the stage: The victim pinned his large creeker pretty much dead center of a rocky class III rapid maybe 100 yards long. The boat was side pinned up against a rock pointing to river right with a slight downhill and downstream angle. The nose of the boat was also against an underwater rock preventing the boat from going forward. Thankfully the rock the boat was side pinned against was tall enough that the victim was able to hang on to it with minimal of effort to keep himself and the boat mostly upright. The general movement of the water around the victim was from river right to left. Including the paddler there was a total of ten people in the crew of various ability levels. The members of the crew were pretty familiar with each other’s paddling skills, but not sure how much was known about each other’s SWR skills. In hindsight I wish we had spent a few quality minutes talking about that beforehand and identified in advance who would be the “incident commanders” if you will.

I was one of the last three paddlers working our way down this particular rapid catching eddys and ferrying back and forth as we had done all day when the alarm went up that there was a problem below. A quick glance below told the story in a hurry. The victim was side pinned below me in the middle of the river similar in size to the Nantahala and in its formation much like the more technical parts of the Nolichucky or Middle Tellico. It appeared to me that at least for the short term the victim was head-up and stable. I tried hard to catch the eddy directly below him but the angle I was coming from made this difficult and I missed it. Two paddlers (rescuers A and B) were able to catch eddys on river right, paddler C stayed at the top of the rapid in his boat and the remaining six of us ended up at the bottom of the rapid. From here people sprang into somewhat disorganized action with individuals acting on their own or in small groups, but definitely not as a cohesive unit looking to the most knowledgeable person for direction.

Most of the group at the bottom headed to the left bank except for two (Rescuers Y and Z) that stayed river center below the victim. While those four people (rescuers #1, #2, #3 and #4) were grabbing their ropes and trying climb their way upstream over large truck-sized boulders on the left bank, Rescuer A who was on river right upstream from the victim attempted to throw a rope to the victim multiple times without success. Rescuers A and B also set upstream and downstream safety from the right bank.

Rescue attempt #1: Rescuer #1 and rescuer #2 set up a live bait attempt from the top of a large rock directly across from the eddy below the victim. Although the launch and angle were good the current was much too strong and rescuer #1 was immediately swept downstream well short of the mark. Rescuer #1 is forced to pull their tether release and swims to left shore. Rescuer #2 begins to repack the rope for the next attempt. Rescuer #3 is able to get a rope to the victim from the left bank but it doesn’t help the victim get free. Rescuer Y exits his boat below the victim and begins to work his way up to the victim.

Rescue attempt #2: Rescuer #1 brings his boat and paddle to the site of the live bait launch rock and states that he thinks he can seal launch from that same spot and ferry over to the eddy below the victim. Attempt #2 works about as well as attempt #1. Rescuer Y has tried multiple times to work his way up from the bottom but is unable to get up over slippery rocks.

Rescue attempt #3: Rescuer #2 realizes the only way to the victim is to scramble up the left bank to the top of the rapid and approach the victim via live bait from above. Rescuer #3 gives the end of the rope that is out to the victim to rescuer #4 and goes with rescuer #2 to provide belay. Almost immediately from his live bait launch Rescuer #2 realizes that their elbow pad straps are not tight enough and the elbow pads are quickly pushed down on to their forearms which greatly inhibits their ability to swim in current. Due to this rescuer #2 does not make it out far enough to reach the victim and swims the entire rapid with the rope attached to their tether from the top as rescuer #3 is unable to hold on to the rope due to the force of the current and lets go of it. During this time Rescuer #1 has ferried to an eddy behind a rock in the center of the river below the rapid, exited their boat and is in the process of trying to throw a rope from a rock at the bottom of the rapid with the help of rescuer Y. Multiple unsuccessful attempts are made and each miss takes a lot of time as the rope is repacked in the throw bag each time before attempting the next throw.

Rescue attempt #4: Rescuer #2 repacks the rope that was attached to their tether, removes their elbow pads and scrambles back up the left bank for another live bait attempt. Rescuer #3 goes with to belay again (this time off of a tree) and they discuss what needs to be done differently on the next attempt which is mainly getting rid of the elbow pads and starting even further upstream. Rescuer #2 makes it the first targeted rock outcrop approximately 40 feet out from the bank. The rope is 55 feet long and can’t reach from the belayer to the victim so Rescuer #3 has to work their way back down the boulder and brush strewn left shoreline to a point even with the victim so the rope would be long enough for rescuer #2 to be able to reach the victim. This took a while to do as Rescuer #3 had to work the rope that was still connected to Rescuer #2 through all of the tree branches, brush and rocks. During this time Rescuer #1 is able to get up on the rock below with help from rescuer Y. Rescuer #1 then works their way up from there and finally reaches a rock outcrop 10 feet directly to river right of the victim. There is a slot with fast moving current between them. From there rescuer #1 throws the victim a second rope but the victim is now holding two ropes coming from opposite directions. The victim ties the end of the second rope to the attachment point of their boat that is just in front of the cockpit and then wads up the rest of the rope in their hand. Rescuer #2 then swims the next portion of the rapid and makes contact with the victim from above. Rescuer #1 is now standing in thigh deep water in moderate current immediately upstream of the victim. Needless to say there was a sigh of relief by everyone at this point. Rescuer #2 verified that the victim was OK and not trapped in the boat. The victim was ok but starting to get tired and beginning to cramp up from holding themselves at an unnatural angle from leaning into the rock they were pinned against. A main concern was that the boat had a sizeable dent in the side of it where it was pinned against the rock and that it might collapse at any time trapping the victim’s legs in the boat. The victim throws the second rope that is tied to the boat back to Rescuer #1. Then he puts his upstream right arm around the shoulder of Rescuer #2 and prepares to pull the skirt. On the count of three the skirt is pulled and the victim exits the boat with assistance from Rescuer #2. Once out it is determined that the best way for the victim to swim the rest of the rapid is towards river left using the rope that rescuer #3 is holding. Rescuer #3 performs a backup belay for Rescuer #4 as the victim is pendulumed safely to the left bank.

Rescuer #1 and #2 are able to work the boat free.  The boat is filled with water and is very heavy so there is no way Rescuer #1 can hold it from going down river. Rescuer #1 if forced to release the rope to the boat and the boat goes through the rest of the rapid with the rope tied to it. At one point the rope gets caught in some rocks but then is pulled free. The boat is corralled some ways down the river at the bottom of the next rapid but the paddle is long since gone. Rescuer #3 belays Rescuer #2 to the shore with a backup belay from Rescuer #4. Rescuer #1 and Y work their way back downstream to their boats below. Amongst us were several sets of hand paddles and a breakdown paddle. Fortunately the victim’s paddle is found in an eddy another rapid or two later.

Had the victim been in a head down situation they would have died due to the amount of time that this effort took. If this had been in the dead of winter there is no doubt that the rescue situation would have then turned into dealing with a severely hypothermic victim once they had reached the shore. There was a lot that went wrong and in short WE GOT LUCKY! While we all learned a lot this incident wasn’t the right place to be figuring this stuff out.

  1. It is a great idea to discuss SWR coordination prior to putting on. “Who has SWR training?” “Who would be the best person or persons (option A and B) to take charge if an incident were to occur?” “What SWR gear does everyone have?” Trying to do this when an incident has just happened results in disorganized rescue attempts and the loss of precious time.
  2. In my opinion after this incident a rope shorter than 70 feet is probably not long enough unless you are on a small creek. Definitely something to think about. A shorter rope is cheaper and easier to carry along but it isn’t any good if it isn’t long enough to do the job you are carrying it around for.
  3. Keep at least 2 or 3 locking carabineers on your person.
  4. Fast rescue attempts are likely wasted time if they are not well thought out and have a high probability of success.
  5. If possible give yourself as much distance as possible to reach the victim. In our case we need to approach from above and starting further above gave the live bait person more time to swim out to the first targeted rock out crop.
  6. I would highly recommend that you put on all of your paddling gear and go for a few hard fast swims in stronger current with safety properly setup of course. What your gear does while doing this might surprise you and not necessarily in a good way.


Hopefully this write-up creates some good discussions and gets people to think and talk about SWR more often and much more openly.swr-sketch

Categories: Trip Reports