Kayak Rescue Done Right

Composure and know-how help save a fellow kayaker from a pin

Last month, a whitewater rescue video took over the Facebook newsfeeds of paddlers around the world last month for one very good reason: Everybody loves a happy ending.

Kiwi kayaker Barny Young was paddling with friends on the Lynn River in Devon, England when one of his mates missed a line and pinned bow first between two rocks. Young’s helmet cam captured the tense three minutes that followed. The video shows Young quickly eddy out, exit his kayak, and lead his crew in a textbook rescue operation. What we don’t see are the thoughts running through Young’s head and the years of river-rescue experience that helped him and his team save their friend.

CanoeKayak.com asked Young to detail the rescue to give us the whole picture. Here’s what he had to say:

CanoeKayak.com: What thoughts first went through your mind when you realized your friend was pinned?

Barny Young: I think the first thought that ever goes through your mind in this type of situation is “Oh shit.” But then you need to act quickly. In kayaking when someone is trapped underwater time is of the essence and you need to get them as quickly as possible.

Walk us through your situation. What steps did you think through and carry out for the rescue?

When arriving on the scene the first thing I ask Mark is “Are you breathing?” Getting the thumbs up here is great, as it confirms that Mark has an air pocket which buys us a little time.

Despite this I know the force of the water can change the angle of his boat at any second eliminating his air pocket. So the next step is to get a sling clipped to him. Next, the key thing is to get him stabilized. Luckily in this situation there was a rock in the middle of the river. I asked my friend Shacks if he can jump onto it, and he did.

Once Shacks is on the rock and has hold of Mark, we are able to secure and pull him out from both sides.

How prepared were you for the situation?

I was pretty prepared. I had my own safety gear and training, and a solid crew around me. Another key component for performing a good rescue on a cold day like that is being in quality gear. I was wearing my Kokatat dry suit which gave me the confidence to stand in the water for extended periods if need be.

Spending a lot of time kayaking on the west coast of New Zealand has put me in a range of different rescue scenarios. Growing up I was lucky enough to paddle with west coast Legends Gareth Fryer and Keith Riley, who were always quick and on the ball in regards to safety. Paddling with guys like that who always had your back meant you had to learn to reciprocate. I’ve also had the opportunity to safety kayak over the years for Eco Rafting, a company that runs heli rafting trips in New Zealand.

All these experiences have taught me to be prepared for the unexpected. That said, kayaking is an extreme sport and things go wrong that you can’t predict. The key is remaining cool, calm and collected to deal with them quickly. Panic helps nobody.

What safety gear do you have in on you when you go boating?

In my PFD I always carry:

  • River knife
  • 2 Prusiks
  • 2 carabiners
  • Whistle
  • 15-foot sling of high-strength webbing. It’s the perfect length for using in rescues as seen in this clip, and also is long enough to use as a climbing harness if the need arises.

In my boat I have:

  • 2 pulleys
  • Fold up river saw
  • 2 carabiners
  • Throw bag

What gear did you use for this situation?

In this situation I just used the 15-foot sling and a carabiner. As you can see in this rescue clip I leave my throwbag inside my boat because I want to get to him quickly, and I know my sling will be long enough.

What is the takeaway from this experience?

I think it’s very important for us all to remember the force of water and its ability to humble us at any time. I’ve noticed a few comments regarding this clip where people have suggested if they were pinned like this they would simply “climb out.” Remember that 1 cumec (35 cfs) doesn’t look like much, but it’s actually 1,000 kilograms–more than 2,200 lbs.–of water pouring down on you every second. The current in this clip may look like a trickle, but it still took three of us pulling pretty hard to get him out of there.

Charge hard, have fun and always keep an eye on your mates!

Click here to learn more about Barny and his kayak crew.

Check out our River Runner series for quick river rescue how-to videos.

Click here for where to get intensive river rescue training.

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