Steph reflects on an eventful White Water Safety and Rescue course

Our little paddling ‘clique’ who all met at the Intro to White Water course last summer (with a few exceptions who were assimilated into the group along the course of the year) decided we were ready for the next step in our paddling careers. We wanted to learn to become a better asset to the club and learn how to be safer on the river and gain confidence in safety and rescue so that we could go on peer paddling trips (most of us bought safety gear for the Alps trip and didn’t have a clue how to use it properly).

We set about researching course to go on [for those looking for a course we have a list of suggested providers]. Ever since the Regents trip to the Tryweryn we were all obsessed with getting back there, they run WWSR courses so it was an obvious choice. It was the first time we’d organised a trip on our own so the usual faff ensued for a couple of month but eventually boats and people were loaded into cars and we were bound for North Wales.

The Tryweryn is an amazing river with a guaranteed flow and with the fantastic facilities of the National White Water Centre from which we could hire most of the kit we needed. The benefit being, if like me you had none of the kit and there were 100 people telling you 100 different bits of advice, you could try it all out there and make your own decisions based on what you learnt and what you liked (most of us were trying out drysuits for the first time, honestly, it was life changing, if you have the money go for it).

I’m no expert but this looks more like being a secret agent than white water safety and rescue.

The course. What did we do?

We learnt how to:

  • Throw ropes
  • Tie knots
  • Rescue boats
  • Rescue people (in all sorts of imaginative ways, see below)
  • And… a lot of swimming (for everyone)

This was what I was most nervous about, I’m the kind of paddler that would do anything to stay upright, I have a roll and I have fairly good balance. So, I didn’t actually have much experience swimming in a river situation and I was apprehensive. So much so I weaselled my way into being last in the group to swim down the rapid and even watching 3 of my colleagues successfully swim to safety I was so nervous I was literally shaking [kudos for practicing the things you don’t like too]!!

Turns out I was fine.

Our coach had taught us how to swim defensively and aggressively so that we could successfully self-rescue. Did you know you can Ferry Glide whilst swimming?!

Whilst feet first in your defensive position, point your shoulder to the side of the river your eddy is and do windmills with your arms to slow yourself in the flow and you will (hopefully) reach that side of the river, then spin over and do your fastest front crawl over the eddy line! Hey presto your safe! Ideally at least, if not make sure there is a friend with a throw line on the bank just in case.

Learning is a process, and on this course (even if some of us had thrown a line before) we were all learning. One of our group (who shall remain nameless) thought that they were the swimming champion, they’d had lots of practice in the past but proper defensive form was harder than they’d thought, which resulted in a teary (and slightly snotty) crisis of identity on the bank after a failed swim (we can all laugh about it now).

But failures will happen, we have to be aware that even if we know all the proper procedure, sometimes things go wrong. In fact, I had taken the brunt of all the failed rescue attempts in our group. This was not 1 but 4:

  1. The Missed Throw line – resulted in me swimming down the rockiest part of a rapid! Good thing I was wearing my helmet! Luckily, we had a 2nd throw rope ready to go!
  2. The Missed Live Bait – playing dead (face down) in the rapid, my rescuer was meant to jump in and catch me before I disappeared down the river… but they missed… I went into the chipper, but I was fine. Keep cool and your feet up, you can bounce along it to safety.
  3. The Failed boat rescue – I’d nudged the boat in to an eddy, but it wasn’t properly secured by the person on the bank. I hadn’t waited to see if they secured it before getting out of my boat to go help on the bank. The boat sailed past me as I had one foot out of my boat. Oh No! Luckily the Tryweryn was fairly populated and a kind person had nudged it into another eddy whilst I was trying desperately to get back into my boat. We then did another rescue and made sure it was safe before I got out of my boat.
  4. Successful throw, but held in a hole for what felt like an eternity – this ironically was probably the most uncomfortable situation. So much so I considered letting go of the rope, and I would have if they hadn’t changed their strategy on the bank when they did.
Checking your phone?! Another very important safety and rescue principle.

WWRS techniques are useful and important skills to learn as a kayaker, especially when considering peer paddles or going for the next grade up, but the most important philosophy I learnt was; if you think the only way you’d paddle a rapid is to have safety set up on it, should you really do it?

Its sensible to put on safety as a precaution if your paddlers are strong but mistakes happen and that’s fine. But if you know you or someone in your group will definitely get into trouble on it, it might be wiser to walk around it.

We all loved the course and came back having learnt so much, I recommend those [who want to keep kayaking] go do one! WWSR, a course, a way of life.