Swiftwater Rescue Training: Everything You Need to Know

This afternoon I was passing the time reading articles on Paddling Magazine and it reminded me of the importance of swiftwater rescue training. I came across Terrifying Footage of a Kayaker Caught in a Sieve. To the non-whitewater paddler, you might think this was clickbait; “A sieve? Isn’t that a thing to strain pasta?” But for whitewater paddlers, a sieve may be the most terrifying obstacle in a river.

Imagine the kayak is a piece of penne trapped in a sieve. Now imagine hundreds of gallons of water running through the sieve, covering the penne and trapping it. In whitewater, a sieve is just that; an object like a rock or a fallen tree that allows water to pass, but not a boat or person.

This is why my heart sinks when I hear of inexperienced, untrained paddlers going on river trips unsupported. They underestimate how powerful the river is; they underestimate the severity of mistakes. They make rash decisions and they don’t get swiftwater rescue training. So in today’s post, I’d like to walk you through what you would learn in a swiftwater rescue course, how a course is structured and how you can apply it to the river in real life.

Swimming the water during swiftwater rescue training

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Swiftwater Rescue Training: Courses

The basic course is Swiftwater / Whitewater Rescue and requires two full days. The advanced course is Swiftwater / Whitewater Rescue Technician and that requires four full days. The certification is valid for three years, at which point you need to re-certify. Recertification typically takes two full days.

Typically, the courses are entirely taught in the field. You’re jumping into moving water, pulling canoes out of rivers and learning to toss throw bags in a big empty field. There is absolutely no classroom time.

Any swiftwater rescue training is going to be expensive. For context, I did the four-day Whitewater Rescue Technician course by Boreal River Rescue and it was $600.

Note: Most people use ‘swiftwater’ and ‘whitewater’ interchangeably. There is a subtle difference, but for the purpose of this article, they mean the same thing.

Note: The photos in this post are by Boreal River Rescue. This is the guiding company I did my Wilderness First Responder, Whitewater Rescue Technician, and Moving Water courses with. I am not sponsored or endorsed by Boreal River Rescue; I simply think they are amazing.

Swiftwater Rescue Training: The Content

So now that you have an idea of what the courses look like, let’s get into the specific content you’ll be learning and how it can be applied to the river.

Learn How to Establish Downstream Safety

Downstream safety refers to establishing safety measures downstream of the paddlers. It is often rescuers on the shoreline with throw bags ready to help anyone going down the rapid. It could also be a pair of paddlers in a boat at the bottom of the set.

How would you use this on the river? Let’s say you’ve scouted a big rapid and determined it’s safe to paddle, but there’s a good chance of a boat tipping. You don’t want the paddlers to swim too far downriver, so you and another wait at the bottom with throw bags in hand. If the boat tips and the paddlers go swimming, you throw the rope, the pendulum into the shore and get out of the water safely.

Note: A throw bag is simply a bag containing rope that a rescue can throw. In the photo below, the woman in the purple dry suit is holding onto a throw bag, ready to throw it in the water. On the left, there is a man stuffing the rope back into the bag after it was used.

Downstream safety during a whitewater safety course

In the photo below, one of the rescuers is tossing a throw bag to the swimmer. The swimmer grabs onto the rope and is pulled safely to shore.

Downstream safety during swiftwater rescue training

Develop Your Confidence Swimming in Rapids

For downstream safety to be effective, you need paddlers who are confident swimming in rapids. If someone tips out of their boat and starts panicking (which is often the case with inexperienced whitewater paddlers), it becomes challenging to direct them out of the water.

And, if you’re wondering, yes, there is the proper technique for swimming in a rapid. Lie with your face up and feet up and forward, arms by your side to navigate through the water. This is a common mistake with new paddlers; they don’t keep their feet up and risk catching their feet on a rock.

How would you use this on the river? If you’re in the boat that tips, you want to feel comfortable going through the rapids. This will prevent you from panicking and ensure you use good rapid-swimming techniques.

Swimmer in big rapids in a swiftwater rescue course

Learn How To (Safely) Retrieve Someone from the Water

While swimming in rapids can be a lot of fun, there are times you want to get your friend out. Quickly. Swiftwater rescue training teaches you how to safely jump into the water after your friend.

In the photo below, the rescuer is attached to a rope; this is known as “live bait”. The person being live bait jumps in the water and grabs hold of the swimmer (typically they grab the back of the swimmer’s lifejacket, at their shoulders).

During the rescue, there is someone on the other end of the rope holding onto the rescuer, so neither the rescuer nor the swimmer continues down the river. This may seem simple enough, but it takes some practice to get good at this. Practice you could get in during your swiftwater rescue training!

How would you use this on the river? Let’s say someone is swimming through a rapid and you can’t get a throw rope them. Maybe they’re too far from shore. Or they’re panicking and you don’t think they’d catch the rope. Or there is an obstacle downriver that you need them to avoid and can’t risk them missing the throw rope. In any of those situations, it makes sense for someone to jump in and swim to them directly.

Jumping into the water as live bait in a whitewater rescue course

Develop a Mechanical Advantage System to Save a Stuck Canoe

If you’ve ever pinned or wrapped a canoe on a rock, you’ll know what a pain it is to remove them. And if the boat is too stuck or if the water is too powerful, human strength alone may be unable to remove the boat at all. This is where a mechanical advantage system comes into play.

A mechanical advantage system uses a combination of ropes, webbing, carabiners and pulleys to multiply the force applied to the boat. As you can see in the photo below, the rescuer pulls on one yellow rope, and there are three ropes at a 90-degree angle pulling on the boat. This is called a 3-to-1 mechanical advantage system; the force applied to the canoe is three times the force applied by the rescue. All this additional force may be enough to get the canoe free.

How does the mechanical advantage system achieve this? Take a whitewater course and learn!

How would you use this on the river? If your boat tips and then gets wrapped around a rock, the force of the water rushing into the canoe may be too powerful to remove the canoe with your strength alone. That’s where a mechanical advantage system comes in.

Building a mechanical advantage system

Have an Insanely Fun Few Days

I have taken a lot of certification courses. Some were enjoyable; others were mind-numbingly dull. However, only one course has left me wanting to immediately do it all over again. That course was swiftwater rescue training, specifically the course I did with Boreal River Rescue. What made it so fun was the excitement of jumping into huge rapids and the thrill of unwrapping a canoe with pulleys and rope. I loved never stepping into a classroom or writing anything down. 

Jumping into the water during a swiftwater rescue course

How to Find Swiftwater Rescue Training Near You

The next thing you need to do is search for swiftwater rescue training near you. Unfortunately, there isn’t one source with all available courses. However, a quick Google of “Swiftwater Rescue Course [your province/state]” should find a course near you.

Here are some providers in Canada:

Here are some providers in the US:

Beyond Swiftwater Rescue Training


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2 thoughts on “Swiftwater Rescue Training: Everything You Need to Know

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  2. Al Martin says:

    Mikaela, you are such an amazing young lady!!! You are thorough, commited, organized, tenacious, gifted and thoroughly dynamic!!! Keep up your great work!!!

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