Due to the obvious dangers inherent in whitewater kayaking, it is essential that whitewater kayakers know a number of different safety and rescue maneuvers very early on in their paddling careers. Fortunately, whitewater kayaking is the one discipline of kayaking where its participants are generally hesitant to just jump right in and paddle without this very important safety instruction that is usually very fun to practice on those dry river days. Still, it is crucial that as a person’s whitewater skills develop that so does their proficiency in performing these whitewater kayaking safety rescues.
Whenever I teach someone to whitewater kayak I always teach them to wet-exit the kayak first. This is even before I explain to them how to take a forward stroke. It is essential that every kayaker be completely comfortable with getting out of the kayak in the event that it flips over. And, as every whitewater kayaker knows, their kayak will flip over. So, the first whitewater kayak safety rescue skill to learn is how to wet exit the kayak.
In the event that you do have to swim out of your kayak, there are certain ways to do it safely. At times you might be your own best bet at rescuing yourself and your gear. Knowing how to swim in whitewater and when to stay with your gear and when to leave your gear are all learned habits that need to be learned and practiced as you learn kayaking safety rescues.
Throw rope bags are standard safety gear in whitewater kayaking. This is also one piece of equipment that most kayakers never practice how to use until they need it. I once saw a guy flip over and wet exit above a 20 foot waterfall. His safety spotter above the waterfall choked on throwing the bag only to watch his buddy go over the falls and vanish underwater for what seemed like an eternity. Please, learn how to throw a rope bag and how to be rescued by one before you need to.
It’s never fun to have to wet-exit and swim in whitewater. But there is always that period between when paddlers begin to whitewater kayak and when they learn to roll the kayak themselves. The buddy roll is a great whitewater kayak rescue maneuver to bridge that gap. If the person has patience to wait while upside-down for a friend to paddle over, the buddy roll can be the difference between a potentially painful, expensive, and cold experience of swimming to the side of a river and trying to find all of your gear. At first it might seem like a lot to ask from a beginner to have that kind of patience, but if practiced ahead of time it really is not. Trust me, I’ve used this many times with people I’ve instructed on the river. The key is that everyone in your group is watching out for everyone and on the same page about how to rescue one another.
The Hand-of-God Kayak Rescue is a maneuver that every kayaker needs to know. There might be a time when someone you are kayaking with is stuck in their boat or unconscious while it is upside down. Knowing how to do the Hand of God kayak rescue could mean the difference between a great story and a tragedy on the river. Have fun practicing this one in a lake or calm section of river.
Ultimately, you will want to get to the point where you can roll your own kayak. This is a skill that should be developed in every whitewater paddler. Still, knowing how to roll a kayak doesn’t mean that the above rescue techniques need not be learned. Even the most experienced kayakers have found themselves in situations where they have needed help being rescued from some unforeseen set of circumstances.