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Chris Brain Safety series: No.3 – swim, chase, throw

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No.1: Safety series: be prepared and stay safe:

No.2: working as a team on the water:

By Chris Brain

In the third part of the paddler safety series we will be looking at dealing with some scenarios which are common on the river, swimming, chasing boats and using throwbags.

It is important to remember that there is no substitute for professional training in this area and this must be combined with experience in order to effectively use the ideas and techniques contained in this series. This article is not intended to replace formal training.

Our previous articles have focused on preparation, working together on the river and above all avoiding incidents happening in the first place. The techniques covered in this article assume that you have read the previous chapters.

In any situation on the river you are always the most important person. Having the mindset that you need to actually get yourself out of the river and actively do something about your own rescue will potentially save long swims and bumps and bruises. Too often I see swimmers adopting a ‘victim’ mentality and wait to be rescued by their team, when a proactive approach and a bit of effort in the water would get them to the bank much sooner.

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As paddlers we should be dressing with a ‘clean’ profile, which means that when we swim we have minimal parts of our kit that can catch on anything that might be in the water. Some parts of our kit that present a snagging hazard when we swim, such as a kayaker’s spraydeck cannot be realistically avoided. However, we can make sure that slings and karabiners are zipped and stored out of the way, your knife is stowed away inside your PFD (instead of protruding on the outside) and even watches can be kept under cag sleeves or in a pocket too. Even though they have declined in popularity in recent years, cowstails are still present on some paddler’s PFDs, if you wear one it is important you think about how useful it is for you versus the risk of getting snagged or tangled during a swim or rescue. I personally have never found one very practical or useful in a recreational paddling situation.

Reducing risk
As soon as we are out of our boat we need to act quickly to get ourselves to safety. We can swim on our back with our feet downstream in a defensive position, keeping all of our body to the surface as much as we can. If we ever try and stand up in moving water, we are putting ourselves at risk of entrapment. By keeping our body (feet, bum, hands) up by the surface of the water we reduce this risk and we should only stand up when we are in calm/still water by the bank. With our feet being downstream it means we can use our legs as shock absorbers if we need to and fend off rocks or obstacles.

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When we swim in moving water we generally spend a little more time in our defensive position (as opposed to an aggressive position on our front). This is because it uses less energy and allows us to adjust our location in the river, saving ourselves for our final burst of speed when we get on our front and charge for the eddy.

When we are swimming on our back our angle to the flow is very important, exactly as it is when we are in our boat. If we want to move to the left or the right, we need to change our body’s angle to the flow (just was we would do in a canoe or kayak) and we move in a way which resembles a ferry glide. Changing our angle to the flow means that any swimming movement of the legs or arms to propel us, will be helping us to get to our destination rather than just fighting against the flow. I try to imagine an arrow pointing straight out of the top of my head and shoulders and I point that arrow towards where I want to be, this will change my body’s angle in the flow and will change my position in the river.

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Aggressive swimming
As we are nearing our target, we will need a burst of momentum to get us across the eddyline and into the eddy. To do this we roll onto our front and adopt an aggressive swimming position. This position looks very similar to front crawl that you might do in a swimming pool, but we still focus on keeping our body (including our hands) up near the surface of the water. Once again our angle is absolutely critical to our success and we shouldn’t be afraid to swim directly across the eddyline, pointing the arrow coming from our head and shoulders towards our goal. It is important that in this situation we don’t actually swim headfirst downstream as we will have nothing to absorb any impact from head on collisions with rocks.

I am often asked if rolling over the eddyline will help us to cross it, but I personally find that a good angle of entry and carrying momentum is far more effective at getting across the turbulent water.

Chris Brain coaching

I find that the most effective/experienced swimmers combine defensive and aggressive techniques seamlessly to help them move around the river and that they use waves, features and the fast/slow water to help them reach their goal just as they would do in their kayak or canoe.

When a paddler takes a swim, it is important that we work as a team to complete the jobs that need to be done. The same rules apply as before and we must make our own safety our priority before we assist with a rescue. However, in this situation it is realistic that we might multi-task, checking our own safety, keeping our eyes on the swimmer, rescuing the boat and communicating with the team throughout.

Chris Brain coaching

The swimmer’s job should be to self-rescue and my experience is that an effective self-rescue is far quicker than holding onto someone else’s boat and being dragged into an eddy. Allowing a swimmer to get hold of your boat in moving water also puts you at risk too as your boat will handle very differently and if the swimmer is panicked, they can potentially pull you into the water. Assuming that the swimmer still has a paddle in their hands, they should throw it to the side or towards one of their rescuers, trying to swim with it can be awkward and clumsy and will most likely slow them down meaning that they take a longer swim than is necessary.

Supporting paddler
I think one of the most important roles during a rescue is having a supporting paddler moving slightly downstream of the rest of the team. This paddler is most likely not be hands on with recovering the boat/paddle/swimmer but will warn of upcoming hazards, give direction and be ready to support if required. The rest of the team will work to recover the boat and paddle and if needs be give assistance to the swimmer.

Chris Brain coaching

Ideally we will have different people rescuing paddles and the boat, remember this is a challenging environment and it is easy for things to go wrong if we try and complicate it too much. I find that the best way to rescue a paddle is to simply throw it to the side (into an eddy or on the bank) or to throw it on and catch up with it. If we put it in our hands with the paddle we are already using and try and ‘double up’ we can make it harder to paddle and we will struggle with the complex movements we usually can do with ease, this means our skill level is potentially reduced and that we are not as effective paddling our boat. If we simply throw the paddle, then in theory our ability in a boat should always be the same. Of course if you are paddling a canoe or have one in the group, they make excellent paddle carriers during rescues!

I find that the simplest way of rescuing a boat in moving water is to turn it the right way round and push it. Our kayaks/canoes are designed to be the right way round and they move much better like this (even when full of water). If possible during the process of turning the boat over I will try and empty a bit of water out to make it a bit lighter and then I will position myself behind it and push towards the eddy. This does usually require multiple pushes but is far less complex and risky than involving a sling or using a towing method.

Chris Brain coaching

During a boat rescue our timing is very important, we shouldn’t be afraid to wait until the right moment to rescue. This might mean that we stand off at the start and don’t dive straight in or that take a break part way through and keep our distance. This helps to ensure that we don’t end up in a sticky position because we have collided with the boat, got ourselves stuck on a rock or have followed the boat into a sticky stopper. We should be spotting the eddy we want the boat to end up in as early as possible and be working towards that, being realistic about where the boat might be able to be held until it can be emptied.

The swimmer should ideally be making their way down the bank to assist in the recovery of their boat, but as a water-based rescuer we must be realistic about our expectations of what they will be capable of doing. We must remember that they will have been paddling (maybe attempting to roll) and swimming through moving water, all of which is exhausting. If we then expect our swimmer to start sprinting down an uneven bank at top speed they could risk injury.

A throwbag can be an incredibly effective rescue tool when deployed at the right time and in the right situation, however, one of the most important skills with a throwbag is understanding when not to throw it! Ropes can complicate situations and can create hazards from snagging, tangling and getting wrapped around swimmers. Just because you have a rope doesn’t mean that you have to throw it and it might not even be the most effective rescue that you could use at the time.


Before we go any further It goes without saying that if you are carrying a rope you need to carry a knife. It should be easily accessible, have a locking blade, be sharp and able to open with one hand.

All shapes and sizes
Throwbags come in all shapes and sizes, and there are some excellent bags out there as well as some poor ones, try to purchase a bag which will best match your needs. You will be looking to balance rope quality and thickness/handling, ease of packing, ease of throwing, size/weight and of course cost. Generally, bags that have a thicker and higher quality rope are bulkier and heavier to throw but feel better in the hands and are good for some of the more advanced rescue techniques such as unpinning and hauling boats. Throwbags that have thinner rope tend to throw better and are more lightweight, but the thin feel of the rope can sometimes be tricky to hold if you don’t have much experience handling ropes in rescues.

Chris Brain coaching

Our bags should have no handle at the throwers end (keeping our system clean and snag free) and should only have a loop small enough to clip a karabiner into (if we need to) at the bag end. Some Throwbags have a sling purpose built into the bag to make it as streamlined and as easy to use as possible.

When we are making the decision to throw a line we should first think about our position, choosing the right place to throw from is critical to the effectiveness of the rescue.

  • Will I be able to deploy my throwbag effectively to a swimmer from here?
  • Where will the swimmer end up once they have hold of the rope?
  • Do I have enough room to move with the line if I need to?
  • Are there any hazards which will cause an issue when I throw the line? Eg: trees, rocks, stoppers.

Chris Brain coaching

No excess of rope
When we are in position, we should undo our bag and pull out the first few metres of rope and drop it to the floor. This gives us a bit of rope to work with and means that we won’t risk the end of the line being pulled out of our hands. We should also be mindful of how much rope we are introducing to the river, if we are holding a 20-metre throwbag and the throw required is only five metres, we can afford to leave at least 10 metres on the bank. This means that there is not an excess of rope in the water that can potentially tangle or get stuck and in fact makes the throwbag lighter, smaller and easier to get on target.

Chris Brain coaching

We need to then decide on what technique we will use to throw the bag, will we go underarm, overarm or for a lob?

  • An underarm technique can work well if we are at the level of the water as the bag will travel in a straight line to the swimmer.
  • If we are above the water an overarm can be more direct as you will be throwing straight down towards your target.
  • If we are looking for distance and we are using a long rope a lob can usually do the trick. However, with a lob we potentially lose accuracy as the bag stays in the air for longer and is not as direct to our target.

Remember, our swimmer will not thank us for how we threw the bag to them, they will thank us for getting it on target!

We are now in position and ready to throw and we can make things easier by throwing at the right time.

After shouting at the swimmer and grabbing their attention we should (where possible) throw when they are upstream of our position (as opposed to when they are level with us or downstream of us) as this will give them a few extra seconds to grab hold of the rope and will give us time to get ready on the bank before the rope pulls tight.

Chris Brain coaching

Stay on your feet
Once we have thrown the bag, we need to get ready to take the force of the swimmer, which will come onto the rope. Staying on our feet, we should adopt a low strong position, similar to what you might see in martial arts. This helps us to keep our balance and will mean that we can use our body to pull against the weight of the swimmer. We need to grip the rope tight and position our hands on the rope in a way which will allow us to take a bit more load (see photograph). The swimmer pulls the rope across their chest with both hands and stays on their back whilst they swing in towards the bank.

Chris Brain coaching

If we stand firm and resist any movement we risk the rope being pulled out of our hands and our body being pulled towards the river. However, if we anticipate this and when the rope goes tight we look to move downstream with the swimmer, this will absorb the force much more gradually, making it easier for us to hold the weight and easier for the swimmer too. We can also look to move away from the water’s edge and walk further onto the bank, which will change the angle of the rope and can bring the swimmer in faster. Even if we only have enough space to move just a little bit, it will make a huge difference. If you think you will find the weight too hard to manage, consider being backed up with another rescuer holding the line. This means that you can share the load and can make it easier to hold the rope.

Chris Brain coaching

So that the bag deploys effectively next time you must make sure it is packed well. After throwing, make sure the rope is in a clean and tangle free pile on the floor, take hold of the bag in one hand and push small handfuls of the rope into the bag with your other hand. I usually make the ‘OK’ sign with one hand, holding the edge of the bag with my thumb and first finger and have the rope running through the middle of the ‘O’ to keep it in position whilst I push the rope into the bottom of the bag with the other hand. With a bit of practice, you can do this quite quickly, but it is essential that you make sure it is done properly as you want your rope to be tangle free next time you throw it.


Remember, if you don’t practice using throwbags, your ability at using them effectively will fade. Take five minutes before you get on the river next to throw your line and pack it up, why not challenge your paddling buddies to a throwbag Olympics!

A huge thank you goes to Bex Pope, Chris Horsey and Ben Press who ‘volunteered’ to swim and pose for pictures.

Chris Brain
Chris has been kayaking, canoeing and coaching for the last 15 years and runs his own business Chris Brain Coaching, delivering paddlesport coaching, safety and rescue courses and REC First Aid Training. Email:

Chris would like to thank Pyranha Kayaks, Palm Equipment, VE Paddles and Go Kayaking for making fantastic kit and their continued support. Photo: Patrick Beavis

Chris Brain coaching

About thepaddlerezine (654 Articles)
Editor of The Paddler magazine and Publisher of Stand Up Paddle Mag UK.

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