Active Outdoors: Building your water safety skills will keep you safe this summer

  • Gotcha, Again! takes water safety skills learned on dry land and puts them to use to rescue a trapped “victim.” TIM JONES / Courtesy

  • Tethered Swimmer Rescue. With instructor Darron Laughland standing by, one student tethered to a rope held by other students rescues another student from the strong currents of the Swift River, (Tim Jones/EasternSlopes.com photo)

For the Monitor
Saturday, June 10, 2017

Risk is a part of everyday life, and anyone who recreates outdoors, especially on or near water, is putting themselves in some degree of peril. Someone sitting on a blanket at the beach on a summer day probably had to negotiate automobile traffic either as a passenger or pedestrian, they have to calculate the long-term risk of sun exposure, and if it’s an ocean beach, they should be aware of rip currents and the increasing number of Great White sharks prowling our coastlines ... The odds say nothing bad is going to happen that day, but it’s never perfectly safe, either

However, playing in, on and near water is fun, and well worth the calculated risks. The trouble is, not everyone properly calculates the risks involved. Several recent drownings in New England prove that.

A canoe overturned in strong currents on Pemigewassset River in New Hampshire and a man drowned. The same thing happened on the Saco River in Maine and a woman drowned. He was wearing a personal flotation device (PFD, life vest), she wasn’t. Another woman drowned while swimming with friends in the high, cold waters of the Pemi.

But going onto or into cold and/or flowing water means putting yourself at risk. If these victims had been wearing a wetsuit, or better yet, a drysuit to keep warm and if all had been wearing a PFD, the stories would likely have ended a little happier. Later in the summer, when the water warms and current flows drop, the risk calculations change. Be smart when you are playing with water. Life isn’t a spectator sport. Get out and enjoy!

Fun with a purpose

I spent part of this past weekend observing a swiftwater rescue class on the Swift River in Albany, New Hampshire. I couldn’t be there for the whole class, and will actually take the course another time. Everyone was learning so much and having so much fun doing it, I was envious.

This particular class was sponsored by the White Mountain Swiftwater Rescue Team, a group of trained volunteers who can be called on for search and rescue operations on the rivers of northern New Hampshire.

Taught by swift water rescue instructor Darron Laughland and other members of the WMSRT, it had nine participants, including three members of the Mountain Rescue Service, plus trip leaders from college outing clubs and summer youth camp programs, and several members of the local paddling community

As with anything else, you learn swiftwater rescue skills in increments, practicing each skill and building on what you have already learned.

If you drove through Conway village on Friday night, you may have seen two lines of people facing each other out on the grass beside the fire station, swatting aggressive mosquitoes, shouting “Rope!” and tossing bright orange “throw bags” trailing yellow rope at each other.

A throw bag is, literally a bag full of coiled rope that you can throw to a swimmer, who can grab it and be guided to safety. It’s the simplest, safest form of swiftwater rescue, as long as you know how to handle the rope so you don’t get dragged into the water yourself. The trick lies in safe setup, accurate throws, and in knowing how to quickly make a second throw if the first one misses.

On Saturday morning along the banks of the Swift River, the training added water. After jumping in to get comfortable with swimming in currents powerful enough to easily sweep you off your feet, class participants took turns being rescued with ropes tossed by other class members. The water was cold and everyone automatically learned the importance of wearing a PFD (life vest), protective clothing (wet or dry suits), water boots (rocks are sharp), and a helmet (rocks are hard) when playing in whitewater.

One of the big concerns in flowing water is “foot entrapment,” getting a foot lodged among rocks or roots on the river bottom. With a foot trapped, strong currents can make it difficult for a victim to keep a head above water long enough for help to arrive. It’s why anyone who finds themselves afloat in swiftly flowing water is encouraged to float on their backs (easy if you are wearing a PFD, very difficult without) with feet downriver and “nose and toes” above the water, and to never try to stand until in an eddy where the water is less than knee deep.

Once everyone was good and wet, they got a chance to use multiple throw bags to rescue a foot-entrapped victim. Later, the group learned how to use pulleys and long ropes strung across the river to ferry rescuers and gear across a river, and to tether and guide a rescue swimmer who could then pull the victim free.

The Sunday session took Saturday’s skills another step, working out ways to rescue victims and boats trapped in “strainers” (rocks or trees in the river that water can flow through, where the force of the water will pin larger objects) and spent some time on stabilizing and protecting victims until they can be transported to safety.

While it was clear from the constant laughter you could hear over the roar of the river, that everyone was having fun, it was also clear that the purpose of this “fun” was serious training for possible life-and-death situations. At the core of everything was keeping yourself safe while helping others – essential training for anyone who recreates on our rivers.

(Tim Jones is the executive editor of the online magazine EasternSlopes.com and writes about outdoor sports and travel. Email: timjones@easternslopes.com.)