After twenty-five years of teaching and guiding, you would think that nothing messes with the trademark calm façade of Ken Kastorff. But f you ask Kastorff what he worries about on the river the calm façade behind those Killer Loop glasses is betrayed. Forget making sure everyone has their equipment along for the day….or catching shuttle rides…or lunch. What causes the biggest sleep loss? “It is the possibility of a paddler getting hurt on the river and not being able to walk them out” muses Ken.

What a minute! This does not sound like road-side boating on the Ocoee.  But when you are organizing trips in place like Costa Rica, Chile and Ecuador you must think beyond where the nearest McDonalds is located.  “I spent many nights wondering how I would get an injured person out of places like the Upper Pacuare or the Cien Saltos Canyon, where you cannot easily walk them out,” confesses Kastorff.

From such restless nights evolved a rescue system for getting the wounded off the river: the cata-kayak rescue. “I had it in the back of my mind that this would be the way I could get someone if there was an emergency,” states Kastorff the dreamer. Dream it up, but has it been tested?

Scenario One: It was a great day on the Cien Saltos section of Chile’s Bio BioRiver with the “Flyboys”—a trio of brothers who can paddle boats like they fly their airplane. They are shredding it up in a great hole. With an instinct honed after many year of guiding, when one of the flyboys comes out of the hole, Kastorff is after him before he has even rolled. It’s a dislocated shoulder, the most common injury found in kayaking.  Most boaters have a hard time paddling after such an injury occurs. In this case even after reducing the shoulder, the victim’s condition is not favorable for paddling out of the canyon.

Scenario Two: A day on the Pacuare River in Costa Rica climaxes with Dos Montanas rapid.  The group is primed to run the main line. Things get exciting. One boater probes a particularly good hole. When she finally pulls the cord, she comes out with three broken fingers; certainly not able to paddle for another two miles.

What are the alternatives in the above situations? According to Kastorff, the ideal alternative in both situations would have been to walk the paddler out. But in both situations this was impractical. This is where Ken’s “dream rescue alternative” came to be used. Once constructed, paddling off the river in the cata-kayak is again an option.

The construction:

  1. Gather two boats, two paddles, two throw ropes and a break apart paddle.
  2. Put the two boats side by side and place the two paddles at opposite ends of the boats to provide maximum stability. One paddle should be placed midway behind the back of the cockpit and the stern loops, the other between the front of the cockpit and the front grab loops.
  3. Lash the paddles to the boats, looping the rope around the paddle, to the boat, to the paddle, and then around again. If the boats have security loops, these can be used to tighten up the cross lashing. If the boats do not have security loops, run an extra lashing between the boats, front the front paddle to the rear paddle. Pulling the two paddles together will tighten the cross lashings and stabilize the boats.
  4. Set the injured paddler in one boat and close the sprayskirt around the cockpit. The rescurer paddles the second boat with one half of the break-apart paddle. Fashioning a t-grip to the end of the paddle makes for a more comfortable hand positioning.

What makes the cata-kayak work so well is that it offers a stable platform that can be controlled through whitewater rapids.  Even so, Kastorff emphasizes that there are several points that must be kept in mind:

If is always better (if possible) to walk the victim out.

  1. If you have to use this method, use common sense about what is runnable in this apparatus. In one particular rescue, we dropped an injured paddler off to walk around a Class IV rapid, while another paddler got in the boat. Have the injured paddler walk any large rapids if possible.
  2. The rescurer must feel skilled at maneuvering a strange craft.
  3. It takes a fair amount of strength to move the boats around. The helmsman must be able to read the water well because it takes much more time to maneuver with power on only one side.
  4. Reasonably open water that can accommodate a cata-kayak system is best. If you are in tight technical water the system will not work as well. However, this ultimately depends on the river, the skill of the rescurer and how important it is to get downstream.
  5. Having other safety boats in close proximity is advisable. As long as you are taking conservative routes and a conservative attitude toward the rescue, a flip should not be a problem. Murphy’s law here.

Kastorff’s conclusion? In a remote or expeditional situation, getting someone to medical help is critical. Keeping the above in mind, the rescue system has been tested and works. In both situations, several Class III rapids were negotiated with the injured paddler and without difficulties. In both of the tested cases it turned what could have been a very uncomfortable four-to-five hour hike (at best) into a short paddle out to medical attention.

Published in the November/December 1996 issue of the American Whitewater journal.