Swimmer rescue and transport
by Dennis Fortier
Using a single kayak for rescuing a swimmer may be very difficult for anything more than short distances in calm water. An effective technique for carrying a swimmer is to clip two kayaks together with a pair of contact-tow straps.
On rare occasion, kayakers are called upon to rescue someone who has wound up in the water after losing a kayak or after becoming separated from some other vessel. The technique I call the “swimmer’s rescue and transport” is designed to get the victim completely out of the water-especially important when the water is cold-and carried to shore as quickly as possible.
I first thought of this technique after reading an article in the October 2000 issue of Sea Kayaker magazine. In “Kayaks to the Rescue,” author Michael Powers and paddling companion Bill Green caught sight of a capsized power boat and found a man floating in the water nearby. The man was barely breathing and severely hypothermic. Michael strapped the man on the stern of Bill’s kayak. The extra weight on the stern Bill’s kayak made it difficult for him to keep upright. With the boat so far out of trim, it was also very difficult for him to maintain a course. Michael clipped a towline into the bow of Bill’s kayak to provide direction and pulling power while Bill concentrated on bracing. They made very slow progress.
Other than having the swimmer lie on the back deck, there hasn’t been a reliable system for kayakers to use for rescuing a swimmer at sea. As Michael and Bill discovered, using a single kayak may be very difficult for anything more than short distances in calm water.
The strap clips into a grab line alongside the forward paddler’s cockpit, and into the grab line on the bow of the trailing kayak. Drawing the strap tight takes the slack out of the grab line and pulls the two kayaks snugly together.
An effective technique for carrying a swimmer is to clip two kayaks together with a pair of contact-tow straps. The rafted-double configuration works amazingly well as a platform for carrying someone (see “The Rafted Double,” SK December 2000). In trials, we were able to carry a swimmer very effectively for a considerable distance. With the load distributed over two kayaks, neither is badly out of trim, you nearly have the speed and stability of a tandem boat, and both paddlers are free to paddle and brace.
Although you won’t find ready-made contact-tow straps at your local kayak shop, they are easy to make. The contact-tow straps I use are based on one I saw used in a towing class at the Great Lakes Sea Kayak symposium. A single contact-tow strap consists of two 3′ lengths of flat webbing, with a carabiner at each end, and a quick-release buckle in the middle.
I prefer buckles that you can adjust on both sides, so the strap can be lengthened or shortened from either side of the buckle. Most buckles adjust only on one side, so you have to inspect the buckles carefully before purchasing. If an attachment point for the webbing has two bars, it is adjustable. If it has a single bar it is not. The instructor that originally showed me the tow-strap equipped with a buckle used a 3/4″ buckle. I thought it too small to release quickly with cold hands or gloves. I use 11/2″ webbing and buckles.
The first carabiners I bought for this project had the little notch in the clip end. The notch constantly caught on the deck lines, so I bought carabiners that had a flared end instead of a notch to connect to the gate.
Heat-seal the cut ends of the webbing with a match or lighter. Sew a loop to fit the carabiner on one end of each piece of webbing. If you don’t have access to a sewing machine, see if your local shoe repair shop can do the job for you. Thread the other end of the webbing through the buckle. To keep the webbing from slipping off the buckle and to provide a more positive grip, tie an overhand knot or sew a double fold in the end.
When I practiced with contact-tow straps, I worried about having one fall into the water as I was hooking it to or unhooking it from the deck lines. To keep it from sinking, I added a float to each end. I cut out some small blocks of foam, trimming them to make them as small as possible but still able to float the carabiner. I cut small holes in the foam blocks and slipped them over the webbing.
The contact-tow strap has a number of advantages over tying or clipping kayaks together. It can be pulled tight to draw the kayaks firmly together and it can be quickly unbuckled, allowing the boats to separate. The versatility of this allows it to be used for many applications, including, of course, as a short tether for a contact tow.
Contact-tow-straps. The foam floats are trimmed to be as small as possible and still keep the carabiners from sinking. In the tow strap, the male side of the buckle (upper right) is adjustable. The female side (lower right) is not and is attached by a loop sewn into the webbing.
If possible, use buckles that are adjustable on both sides.
The Swimmer’s Rescue and Transport
To set up for the swimmer’s rescue and transport, both kayaks approach the swimmer, side by side, facing the same direction but staggered so that one boat is ahead of the other. If one kayak has a rudder it takes the rear position, and may use the rudder to steer. A rudderless kayak in the forward position eliminates the risk of cuts and scrapes that the stern paddler might get trying to paddle around a rudder pulled in tight alongside his cockpit.
One contact-tow strap connects the bow of the aft boat to the forward boat just ahead of the cockpit, from the outside deck line of one kayak to the outside deck line of the other. If you have grab lines running by the cockpit, the contact-tow strap will lie across the forward paddler’s spray deck. The other contact-tow strap connects the stern of the forward boat to the deck lines around the cockpit of the aft boat. If your deck rigging allows it, the straps are easiest to tension or to release if they are well within reach on the spray decks of both paddlers.
The best place to clip the carabiners is on a perimeter grab line. Tighten the contact-tow strap to pull the slack out of the grab lie. Bungies have too much stretch to provide a positive connection between the kayaks. Running the straps under the inside deck lines will keep the kayaks from opening up under the swimmer, but the buckles will be prone to snag when released. If you position the buckles with the webbing leading into the top face of the buckle, they are less likely to snag, but if you are in conditions that may require a quick separation of the kayaks, don’t thread the straps under the inside deck lines.
The swimmer positions himself at the aft deck of the forward kayak, lets his legs float up and perpendicular to the kayaks. With a quick scissors kick and a lunge, the same technique a kayaker uses for a paddle-float self rescue, and climbs up and lies across the boats. The swimmer should take a position completely out of the water to reduce his exposure to the water and to keep from interfering with the paddling progress of the kayakers. If the position of the swimmer causes one of the boats to lean, direct him to get in a position to give the kayaks the best possible trim.
If the swimmer is incapacitated, as was the case in the Powers/Green rescue, it was easier to attach the boats after the swimmer was pulled aboard. The weaker of the two paddlers approaches the swimmer and puts the swimmer in position just aft of the cockpit. The stronger paddler comes along the opposite side of the first kayak and reaches across the deck to the swimmer. Grabbing the swimmer with one hand and pushing down on the deck with the other, he pulls the swimmer across both boats then pulls his legs out of the water. The other paddler holds the kayaks together and may assist in pulling the swimmer aboard. The outside boat slides back to the rafted-double position and both paddlers use their contact-tow straps to connect the kayaks.
Buckles that allow adjustments to the strap on either side provide the most versatile contact tow straps. They are also easier to replace if damaged, since they don’t need to be secured by loops sewn into the webbing.
The success of this variation depends upon the strength of the paddler. In rough water or with a heavy swimmer, it can be very difficult to perform the rescue of an incapacitated swimmer without the aid of a third kayak on the other side of the swimmer. The swimmer’s rescue and transport may not be a technique that you are ever called upon to use, but is just one more useful tool for a sea kayaker’s bag of tricks. Include it in your practice sessions with your paddling partners. It may save a life some day.
Dennis E. Fortier has been kayaking for about 6 years and he and his paddling partners take a strong interest in safety and navigational skills. A private investigator, he lives in Walled Lake, Michigan and can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org