Risk and Kayaking: The Little Things, Part II:

Advanced Rescue Gear

by Brian Snyder and Juliet Jacobsen Kastorff


In the previous article, Sometimes it’s the Little Things,Part I’ we looked at the pieces of gear–rope, knife, whistle, stuff that should be part of every boater’s daily paddling checklist. Now let’s look at optional equipment that every boater should think about as they become more committed to paddling and to becoming a trip leader.


Breakdown Paddle.  For road side boaters, a breakdown paddle seems unnecessary.  But if you are on a river that has limited access, or a river that has even rapids with limited access, a breakdown paddle is a necessity.  Spend enough time on the water, and someone around you will break a paddle.  It’s just part of the game.


A breakdown then, is like a ‘get out of jail free’ card.  It puts you instantly back in the game.  Yes, it may feel awkward at first—it may not be as stiff or as light as your original paddle.  It may feel unfamiliar to your hands.  But most of the time, it sure beats walking to the takeout.


Perhaps discouraged by the extra weight (~ 3lbs.) of a breakdown, many people choose to forego it, and instead carry hand paddles.  While better than nothing, there are two things to consider about this approach.


One, hand paddles make it really hard to do anything else with your hands.  If one of your friends gets in trouble, are you going to be able to pick up their paddle, or do a hand-of-God while wearing hand paddles?   Think about it.


Two, hand-paddling is not the same as stick-paddling.  If you are not someone who regularly uses hand-paddles, do you want your first time to be deep in the run, on some unknown river that’s already pushing your buttons?


It is true that breakdowns are generally not cheap.  Prices for higher-end models often rival their one-piece counterparts.  It is easy to get sticker shock, and think that maybe you don’t really need one, or that the $25 Sportsman’s Special will do the trick.  Just remember that you get what you pay for.  The price is worth the peace of mind.


First Aid Kit.  Like the breakdown, the value of an adequate first aid kit is never appreciated until it is needed.  Although its components may vary according to the situation, a good first aid kit always has three basic essentials.

o       Blood-stoppers.  These can be sterile gauzes, tampons, maxipads…anything that can absorb blood and curb excessive bleeding.

o       Emergency blankets.  Also called ‘space blankets’, these special fabrics have many uses with one common function—to keep the body warm.  Lightweight and durable, space blankets can be used both for layering and for shelter.  They also fold small enough to fit in an average kayaker’s wallet (you know, one with no cash in it).

o       Duct tape.  Its uses are infinite.  Good duct tape can patch boats, mend drytops, fix outfitting, patch drybags, tie splints, affix bandages, make shelter, and remove hair from unwanted places.


On top of the Big Three, other items specific to the itinerary and the members of the group may include: matches/lighter/firestarter, candle, bee sting kit with epinephrine and antihistamine, inhaler for asthma, rescue breathing mask, water purification tablets, headlamp, bandages and splints, glucose tablets, extra food, and a pistol with one bullet.


The remoteness of the trip and the makeup of its group members will determine the contents of the first aid kit.  Sometimes just a small kit packed in a nalgene bottle is sufficient.  Whatever the makeup, a good medkit needs to be in a waterproof bag or box and secured in a place where it will not interfere in the event of a swim.


Rescue vests and tow tethers.
Rescue vests/pfds take various forms.  Many of them are bulky garments designed for Coast Guard, paramedics, or swift water rescue professionals.  What kayakers consider a rescue vest usually involves a Coast Guard-approved Type V pfd, fitted with a simple harness that is governed by a quick-release buckle.

 While a rescue vest makes possible many advanced rescue techniques, it does not make up for advanced rescue technique training.  In fact, misuse of the rescue vest can seriously endanger both victim and rescuer.  It is crucial to understand the techniques involved in tension lines, strong swimmers, and other rescue approaches before attempting them in a live situation.  There are many levels of swift water rescue training, and classes are held regularly.  Before signing up, consult a professional to find out which one is right for you.

Tow tethers – elastic cords used for towing boats – are also usually included in the standard rescue vest.  Like a belay line, they can be clipped into the harness and released using the quick-release buckle.  In certain situations they can make life a little easier by allowing a kayaker to tow an empty boat across calmer water to a stranded swimmer.

They can also make life very scary for the rescuer that finds him/herself out of control and tethered to fully swamped kayak.  As both boats approach the same speed, tension on the tow line decreases, and the quick-release buckle fails to disengage it.  Worse yet, the rescuer may become pinned upstream of the tethered boat.  With the tension vector pulling forward, the harness may fail to release, leaving the rescuer trapped and subject to enormous force from the downstream boat.

The designers of modern rescue vests have gone to great lengths to eliminate potential failures of their products.  In fact, when used correctly, their systems are nearly flawless.  However, no amount of design can safeguard against poor judgment, misuse and bad luck.  Before using a rescue vest, seek out the proper training.  Learn how the tow line works, and then learn when and where to use it.  With the right knowledge and experience, the rescue vest can be an incredible tool.

We again reiterate that the focus paddling should always be on prevention.   Like the list from the previous piece, the three items (breakdown, first aid kit, and rescue vest) need to be secured properly, to avoid contributing to future problems.  And, like the previous list, they are pieces of gear that are often subject to debate as to who should use them and when.  This is presented for thoughtful discussion.

For more on this three part series, read Risk and Kayaking, Part III: The Human Touch.