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Survival: Save Yourself in Whitewater

Hard-won-lessons and tips about whitewater kayaking from the front lines of survival.

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Les Bechdel 

Salmon River ranger and co-author of River Rescue

My top guides and I took a group of skilled rafters to the spectacular Bio Bio River in Chile in 1983. We’d just entered an amazing canyon hemmed in by soaring basalt walls. A 200-foot waterfall plunged into the river, and in the distance we could see a smoking volcano. Up ahead, we faced a series of frothing Class V rapids. We took risks exploring a river like this, of course, but we also traveled cautiously, with three oar rigs, a paddle raft, a guide paddling a safety kayak, and a throw bag for every craft. Plus, I’d been pioneering river guiding and rescue techniques for several years.

On the second rapid, the paddle raft hit a big wave, ejecting two of our passengers. One quickly took three or four strokes, grabbed the handline on the raft, and pulled himself back into the boat. But for some reason, the other passenger, a man named Ted, just laid back in the feet-forward position and did nothing. He was right in the middle of the river, rocketing through the big rapids, so the throw bags couldn’t reach him.

On every trip, we stress that if you fall out of the boat, you have to swim hard to get back to it. But maybe Ted was having medical issues or was paralyzed by fear, because he was conscious but not communicating. Our safety kayaker tried towing him to shore, but Ted didn’t assist. Then he was pulled into another huge rapid. The next time I saw him, he was facedown in the water. Dead.

Ever since, I’ve stressed it even more: If you’re knocked out of a boat, you can’t wait for rescue. People will come after you, throwing ropes and chasing you. But it’s your responsibility to attempt to save yourself. Everyone remembers to point their feet downstream and float on their backs. But that’s not enough in a big, powerful river. What you should be doing is backstroking, angling your body into the current, and swimming as hard as you can to the boat or the closest bank. If you’re in deep water, turn over and do a front stroke. Whatever you do, do something—and do it like you’re fighting for your life. Because you are.



1. Tighten Your Life Jacket

You want it so snug that you have trouble inhaling deeply.

2. Help

Rescuers If someone tosses you a throw bag, grab the rope, lie on your back, and kick. Ditto with a kayak: Grab the stern loop, sidestroke with your free arm, and scissor kick.

3. Time Your Breathing

In a wave train, water crashes over your head repeatedly. Inhale when you surface in the trough of a wave and hold your breath as you crest the next whitecap. Repeat until you reach calmer water.

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