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Safety First

by Ros Coleman

We`d been six hours in the water already and we were cold – shuddering with a mind-numbing, bone-cracking cold. It was summertime too, with summertime weather and summertime water levels. In winter this would have been unthinkable.
"Are you all right, Ros?" said our saviour compassionately. "You`re getting that grey look about you. Don`t worry – we`ll have you out of there soon".
His next words struck an icy chill.
"We`ve got time for one more exercise. Stopper rescues. Who`s going first?"
Why? I winced ruefully(and not for the first time that weekend). Why am I here? Why am I doing this?
A few weeks before, three friends had been out on the river Goyt. The Goyt was in flood and one paddler had become pinned in a tree. It had taken a good 20 minutes to free them from the tree`s clutches but all three people stayed calm and did what they could. The least experienced paddler had wisely stayed in an eddy whilst the other had helped the pinned friend. In the end, thankfully, all was well.
Despite not having been on that trip, the story had made quite an impact with me. Suppose things had not gone so well? Picturing myself as one of the party, I wondered what I could have done to help. (Ever had that blank, dumb, helpless feeling before?). Like the others, I had no rescue knowledge, experience or gear. The fact is, I just didn`t know. Like the friends having the 20-minute epic, I suppose I would have done my best and hoped it would all turn out right.
Well, it was time to get clued up. For me, the answer lay in a hands-on safety and rescue course, with prolonged wet sessions and plenty of full-on rescues. And here I was, flopping once more into the river Dee, this time to fling myself into a grippy little stopper, and surf it until rescued.
The course was Swift Water Rescue – Level 1. An American company, Rescue 3 International, initially devised the 3-day course for the benefit of professional rescue services and river rafters. This was because of all the people that drown in river rescue situations, a third of them are the rescuers themselves.
Altogether there were three people on our course. My partner Dave, an outdoor instructor called Steve and myself. Steve`s claim to fame is that his arm appears in an advertisement. Nobly it rises from the foaming waters of the Dee, holding a paddle as though it were the sword Excalibur. Cor!
We were lucky – a student/instructor ratio of 3:1 was a definite bonus - plenty of time for us all to practice everything and go for a paddle afterwards. The course was held at Mile End Mill, Llangollen over a Friday, Saturday and Sunday. And we were staying over – perfect!
Well, the course was fantastic and absolutely action-packed. Our incredibly capable instructor, Leo, would gamely set himself up as the victim for many hands-on rescue situations. He was very patient and would explain everything thoroughly, making sure that we had all understood before he moved on to the next topic.
On most of the activities we had to work as a team – a challenging prospect for three people who are all used to taking the lead in their normal line of work. One of our many tasks was to rescue a "pinned" Leo, who was lying face down and "helpless", from a tricky point in the river Dee. We were allowed two throw bags and three karabiners between the three of us. Taking turns at being the person in charge, variously we messed up and "drowned" our victim. Each time we got it wrong there was a lengthy debrief, after which Leo would assume a different entrapment position in the river, so as not to make it easier the next time round. Finally we got it right, but only when Leo used another cunning training ploy to inject a sense of excitement and urgency to the scene. Behaving distressingly like a genuine victim, he started screaming loudly and convincingly. And he kept this up until he`d been conveyed safely to the bank (which we did in double-quick time I can tell you). What a racket. Personally I don’t think Leo was acting – he`d been in the water for ages and his dry suit was leaking. Time for lunch.
This next bit was an official part of the course, so it had to be covered. "Effecting a rescue using a river board". A river board is like a body board with handles, an American concept I think, which might explain a lot. It was a sunny Saturday afternoon and every play spot was stiff with kayakers, paddles and rafts. To more effectively manoeuvre our river boards in the water we had to wear special garments. And what a display we made on the bank, kitted out in flippers and webbed gloves, the visors of our baseball caps coyly peeking from beneath our safety helmets. "Quack, quack" snickered a couple of wags as we flapped and shuffled through the crowd to get to the water. "Ooh look, it`s Flipper", quipped another. Turning with dignity to one of the jokesters, I explained our grave and important mission. But for some reason this only made it worse and as a result we had to plop into the water to a veritable cacophony of jeers and taunting. But then, by heck! We showed them.
A river board may not be the best thing for a canoeist to use when rescuing people but they are brilliant for playing in holes! The laughs turned to gasps of envy as we smoothly and effortlessly surfed the big stopper at the bottom of Mile End Mill. Fun time. We were cool.
Amongst other things we covered were: Learning different methods for safely crossing moving water; using a single throw line to rescue one, then two people from swiftly flowing water (another activity we had to practice – as rescuer AND victim - until we got it right); victim recovery, boat recovery, effective use of basic gear such as throw ropes, karabiners and prussic loops. In fact, a lot.
There were one or two light moments. Like the time Steve and I were perched on a rock whilst Dave crossed over the river to us on a tensioned diagonal (line stretched diagonally across a river – the force of the current helps people to cross). I`d had my turn and suggested hanging on to Steve to add stability as Dave came over. Concentrating hard and unable, at the time, to locate the words for "safety harness", Steve substituted the term "special equipment" and asked me to hang on to that instead. I laughed so much I nearly fell off the rock, but really, you had to be there.
Well, the course has done wonders for my confidence both in and out of the water. And you get an internationally recognised qualification at the end, so it`s a useful stepping-stone for those who are climbing the kayak/canoe-coaching ladder.
To be honest, the time to think about safety and rescue training is not when you are desperately trying to fish a terrified and drowning person out of a stopper. It is now, before it happens. If you haven`t had any safety and rescue training yet – seriously, think about it.
Ask me now what I would do if, whilst out touring, one of the party was in trouble or a boat needed recovering, and I can tell you this. I would not feel helpless and inadequate. I would feel competent to assess the situation from an informed perspective and try to effect a rescue. I would not put myself or anyone else in unnecessary danger. I will have appropriate rescue gear with me and I will know how to use it.

Ros Coleman