Deep-Water Rescues for L1+ kayak instructors and Kayak Day-trip Leaders

kayakers performing deep-water rescue

Many whitewater paddlers have never had much experience with deep-water rescues or rescues of recreational, touring or sea kayaks.

Since every ACA instructor is certified to teach every subsequently lower level of skills course/assessment in their discipline below their level of certification, including an understanding of all of the boat types and venues pertinent to those levels, it is important for instructors to understand some skills that may apply to boats and venues with which they may not be as familiar.

Deep-water rescues may be necessary in environments where egress from the water is not readily available: far from shore, banks too steep to exit or too difficult to accomplish an effective boat empty and reenter on shore. These types of rescues are generally the norm in lakes, estuaries and the ocean. You may find yourself opting for these simple procedures more often, even in a river environment, after you become familiar and practiced with them. They are great tools that can save you and the swimmer a lot of time and energy.

Specifically, the rescues required at Level 1: Introduction to Kayaking (and therefore above) include:

  • T-rescue
  • Side-by-Side
  • Rafted-T
  • Scoop

In this context, I will define all of these procedures as assisted rescues. The “T-rescue” is a reference to the letter-“T” shape formed by the boats during the procedure. In it, the rescuer goes through their normal process of hazard assessment and control of the situation and then instructs the swimmer to remain in contact with the boat pair. In flatwater conditions, wind can quickly separate the swimmer and the rescued/rescuer boats. Once the swimmer is in contact with the boats, the rescuer has contact with the rescued boat and the rescuer has temporarily stowed their own and the swimmer’s paddles (e.g. under their deck lines/perimeter lines), the rescuer may opt to have the swimmer proceed to the rescuer’s bow or stern to maintain contact and get out of the way, or may opt to have the swimmer assist by proceeding to the rescued boat’s stern (maintaining contact along the way).

The rescuer then manipulates both boats to place them in “T” configuration by grabbing the rescued boat’s bow and lifting the bow onto their own cockpit, perpendicular to their boat. The rescued boat should be rotated so that it is upside-down, beginning to move water out of the bow and back toward the cockpit, seat and rear bulkhead or stern flotation (all boats have flotation, right?!?!?!) so that the water is stopped behind the seat and begins to empty from the rear of the cockpit. The rescuer may need to work to “burp” a decked kayak that is upside down to break the suction of the cockpit on the water’s surface. Slowly rotating the boat and lifting the bow (or having the swimmer push down on the stern of the rescued boat) can assist this process.

The rescuer then continues to lift the bow of the rescued boat and draws it onto and across their own boat until the rear of the rescued boat’s cockpit is clear of the water and no more water will empty from the boat. 1.

Once empty, the rescuer quickly flips the rescued boat upright, lowers it back into the water and manipulates the two boats side-by-side and bow-to-stern (preparing for a side-by-side rescue). The rescuer should then reach all the way across the rescued kayak with the near-side arm and commit weight to the rescued boat with it resting in their armpit. With the rescuer’s far-side arm, the rescued kayak’s near-side thigh brace or cockpit rim is firmly grasped. This position allows the rescuer to firmly control the rescued boat’s stability as the swimmer re-enters (as described below).

Rafted-T rescues are essentially multi-rescuer versions of the above. One or more additional rescuers align side-by-side with the original rescuer (away from the rescued kayak). These additional rescuers can serve several purposes including helping to stabilize the first rescuer’s boat or actually doing the hauling of the rescued boat (turning the first rescuer’s boat into an effective ramp and fulcrum). As even more rescue kayaks align in this fashion, it’s possible to actually form a rafted platform large enough on which to rest the entire rescued boat (and swimmer) out of the water and create a stable resting/work platform (or deck dancing ballroom!). Be CAREFUL with your fingers in rafted rescues. There is still a lot of movement going on between the boats and it’s easy to get caught in pinch points.

At this point, several side-by-side rescue options are commonly practiced: Each having its own benefits and fans. Two of the most popular currently practiced will be described.
The Heel-hook rescue, originated in sea kayaking  applications, is quickly becoming the go-to deep water rescue. Arguably, this rescue seems to be advantageous for swimmers with less upper-body strength or rescuer/swimmer pairs where the rescuer may weigh significantly less or is less strong than the swimmer. To begin this process (kayaks side-by-side and bow-to-stern with the rescuer already grasping both kayaks), the swimmer is directed to the open side of the rescued kayak, facing the bow and with both feet on the surface. The swimmer then raises the outside leg and hooks the ankle/heel underneath the thigh brace/cockpit rim on the side of the rescued boat nearest them (the swimmer). The swimmer then begins to rotate their body toward both boats and begins to reach across both boats, ideally gaining a grasp on some part of the rescuer or the rescuer’s boat. Continuing to rotate their entire body, the swimmer straightens the leg hooked into boat, keeping their center of gravity as low as possible. Once onto the boat, the swimmer is now face-down on top of the kayak, facing the stern. The swimmer then continues rotation toward the rescuer to a face-up orientation. The rescuer maintains firm control of both boats until the swimmer is back into the boat with feet on footpegs/bulkhead, skirt (if being used) is back on and both swimmer and rescuer acknowledge all is stable.

Another popular side-by-side rescue we will term the “BBL” for Belly-Butt-Legs. This rescue seems to be easier for swimmers with more upper-body strength and for rescuers that are significantly larger than (or at least similar in size to) the swimmer. Starting from the end of the T-rescue (kayaks side-by-side and bow-to-stern with the rescuer already grasping both kayaks), the swimmer is directed to the open side of the rescued kayak. The swimmer faces and grasps the rescued kayak just behind the cockpit and kicks their feet to the surface (feet at the surface is a key to this rescue). The swimmer then simultaneously thrusts themselves forward and across the rear deck of the kayak, ideally landing with their belly across the rear deck. Emphasize to the swimmer to keep their feet on the surface and to come across the deck rather than trying to lift up onto it. This will make the process work much better for both swimmer and rescuer. Once prone across the rear deck, the swimmer then rotates their body toward the front of the kayak, getting their butt into the seat (and their center of gravity lower in the boat). The swimmer then swings their legs into the cockpit.

The rescuer maintains firm control of both boats until the swimmer is back into the boat with feet on footpegs/bulkhead, skirt (if being used) is back on and both swimmer and rescuer acknowledge all is stable.

In any reentry, encourage the swimmer to keep their center of gravity as low as possible. Unpracticed swimmers re-entering kayaks will inevitably get partially back up onto the boat and want to get on their knees (or even stand) in their attempt to get resettled. Failure of the rescue due to falls back in progressively make a successful rescue more and more difficult due to fatigue of the swimmer. Practiced pairs can accomplish an entire rescue series in under a minute; far more quickly and with less effort than a swim to shore, empty, and re-entry.

The Scoop rescue is a process much different from those above. It is used in situations where the swimmer may have injuries, disabilities, exhaustion or for some other reason is not able to reenter an emptied, fully floating kayak. The scoop rescue therefore begins with intent of partially flooding the rescued kayak to minimize the freeboard that the swimmer must clear to reenter.

Once the swimmer is in contact with the rescued or rescuer’s boat, the rescuer orients the two boats side-by-side and bow-to-bow. The rescuer then turns the rescued kayak on its side and intentionally begins to flood the cockpit to lower the freeboard. Holding the rescued kayak on its side, the rescuer directs and/or assists the swimmer’s legs into the bow of the rescued boat and their butt into the seat. It is very important to get the hips and butt as far into the seat as possible for the sake of the physics of leverage. The rescuer then begins to rotate the rescued boat toward themselves, using leverage very similar to the Hand-of-God rescue, pressing down on the near-side of the rescued boat and gaining a grasp of the swimmer’s life jacket or upper clothing. Maintaining rotation, the rescued boat and swimmer are returned to upright. The rescuer must maintain control of the now-full rescued boat which will be very unstable. Pump-out, bailing or an assisted tow are now called for. Without assistance of emptying of the boat, it will be very difficult for the rescued  boat to make any further headway. The scoop rescue is an ideal situation for a multi-rescuer scenario2.

Other Variations

Variations on the BBL and Heel-Hook rescues can be effective self-rescue techniques. These are frequently used (and practiced) by touring and sea kayakers using paddle-floats as a self-rescue aid: essentially as an outrigger to serve the purpose of stabilizing the boat during reentry. A stern-oriented self-rescue is also common with the swimmer coming directly up the stern of the kayak along the centerline of the boat. Being sure to clear the skirt over the stern, the swimmer uses the horizontal orientation of the BBL to thrust directly forward onto the stern and onto the back deck. Pulling further up the boat by grasping and working forward on the cockpit rim, the paddler eventually gets the hips past the back of the cockpit rim and swings the legs forward, dropping into the cockpit and folding the legs into the boat. This is commonly called the “scramble” or “cowboy scramble” self-rescue. It’s very possible to accomplish with many but the smallest-volume whitewater play boats.

In most of these scenarios, a rescue sling can provide a backup mechanism that could make any of them slightly easier and may be difference between success and failure. A rescue sling can be as simple as a common cam strap that can be looped around the cockpit rim and adjusted to a length that provides the swimmer a stirrup into which to step for a helping boost back into the boat. If you find yourself teaching deepwater rescues or in venues where they may be necessary, you’ll find this a handy tool.

Thanks to ACA Kayak Instructors Nancy Guthrie, Wayne Jones and Pam Causey for assistance with the videos!

  1. Note: in decked kayaks with no stern flotation or rear bulkhead behind the seat, a significant amount of water will simply slosh to the rear of the boat and still present a rescue problem. In this case, the rescuer must continue to draw the rescued boat across their own until the two boats from a cross or X-rescue and being to rock the rescuer’s boat from side-to-side, alternately lifting the bow and stern of the rescued boat and allowing water to slosh out of the cockpit of the upturned rescued. Do this a couple of times and you will begin to understand why you, as an instructor want to emphasize flotation in student boats!
  2. Note: The scoop rescue will be very difficult for a single rescuer with a rescued kayak without bow flotation. Once that unbouyed section of the kayak is flooded, the rescued paddler’s legs will continue to sink the bow of the boat and make it practically impossible to pump the boat to a condition where freeboard can be maintained. Thus, in a recreational boat with no bow flotation, or in most whitewater kayaks, the scoop rescue will likely be a multi-rescuer scenario. Convince recreational paddlers of the value of flotation.
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4 Comments on “Deep-Water Rescues for L1+ kayak instructors and Kayak Day-trip Leaders”

  1. I am a Lieutenant for Lake County Fire Rescue in Florida.(Leesburg). Looking for a class in water rescue using kayaks. We do not have any fast water, usually smaller land locked lakes with difficult or non existent boat access. The larger chains have numerous access points, with municipalities with boats available. Before my organization would consider using kayaks for rescue, we would have to get or have access to training. Wondering if you give courses or know someone in the Central Florida area, (Orlando, Ocala, Tampa) that provides similar classes. Thanks.

    1. Hi Benson! Thanks for writing. I could, indeed offer you a course in water rescue using kayaks on flat water, coastal environment or rivers that would be paddler-oriented. Being in central North Carolina, we’d have to consider travel. I’d also refer you to the American Canoe Association website for a list of ACA certified kayaking instructors that you might find in your area. Most of these instructors should be able to provide you with basic-level kayak rescue techniques and many of the higher-level coastal or river/whitewater instructors may also offer Day-trip leader courses that also contain rescue components. Someone with both kayaking and safety and rescue certifications (which includes myself) may have an extra margin of experience in this field. Please feel free to email me at if you’d like to continue the conversation. I’ll be happy to help you find someone, even if it’s not me, for your final solution.

  2. I’m a member of the Tallapoosa county rescue squad. We’ve been fortunate in having several kayaks purchased for us. Most of our rescues with kayaks will be in slow to medium running creeks. Can you point me in the right direction to some literature or website to get me started? Any advice would be of great benefit. Thanks Jay Taylor

    1. Hi Jason, thanks for writing. I’d first point you toward a list of ACA certified river (Level 3) and swiftwater rescue (Levels 4-5) instructors around the country. They would be a great place to make a start with this education. The courses offered by these folks would be directed at peer-paddlers performing a variety of on-water rescues within their paddling groups or rescues that group may happen upon during paddling. These rescues, in most cases non-serious events for capable paddlers and trained rescuers, are commonly encountered and practiced in whitewater paddling. By obtaining and maintaining these rescue skills, otherwise complex rescue scenarios (e.g. many of those performed by first responders on swiftwater) become minor events that are quickly handled on site by lay paddlers. You’ll find that in most of these cases, rescue kayaks serve the purpose of geting to and moving around a rescue scene but otherwise the kayaks themselves play a very small role in the rescue itself except for simple victim/equipment tows from mid-stream or cross-stream movement. Much of the rescue technique and skills practice in these ACA courses will be done from shore once on-site. That’s not to downplay the importance of also gaining high proficiency in paddling the kayaks in, and of itself. If your team is going to rely on moving around a rescue scene in kayaks, those team members should have high level of proficiency in whitewater kayaking (to not only affect the rescue, but to prevent becoming victims themselves) and I’d highly recommend that the team build these skills first and then add the rescue knowledge and skills afterward. I’d also highly suggest that your team become familiar with local whitewater paddling clubs and rely on the knowledge and skill that folks within those clubs utilize on every trip. The chances are that most of them have had swiftwater rescue training (common in the whitewater paddling community) and some may even be instructors themselves.

      A completely different path I’d point you toward is swiftwater rescue courses aimed at first responders. These generally don’t consider the kayaking aspect but are geared toward professional rescue teams engaged in swiftwater rescue. A great resource I’d recommend is Aaron Peeler’s programs at the US National Whitewater Center in Charlotte, NC He teaches SAR teams from across the country this curriculum.

      I hope this info is helpful. Please let me know if I can help you more.


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