Nicole Ranger gives us some sage advice on the importance of being able to self rescue. 

Most people arrive at Packrafting from either a strong kayaking or strong tramping background.  My adventures in the outdoors started with tramping, then evolved into shorter adventure races (6-24 hours) and eventually I gave expedition racing (5-10 days) a go.

I’d never heard of packrafting, although it’s been around for at least 30 years.  It sounded like a great way to combine my passion with tramping with the basic kayaking skills I had picked up from adventure racing and push the boundaries for some exciting new adventures.

So, I did what most people probably do.  I borrowed a packraft from a friend and gave the local (very tame) river a go, then I bought my own boat and nervously went on a couple of trips with some other local paddlers.

Most of the time everything went to plan.  However, there was a situation on one trip in the Tararuas (Waiohine River, Totara Flats Hut down to Makaka Creek) where one of our group fell out of his boat at the end of a rapid and went for an unnecessarily long swim.  Luckily, the river was relatively straight with no real hazards for the next section, but as a group it did take us an awful long time to sort it all out.  To be honest, both individually, and as a group, we didn’t really have the right idea on what to do when someone falls out of their boat.

So, what should have happened?  There are two main scenarios;

Either; the person is able to get back in their boat from the water and continue paddling, or they cannot.

Getting back in the packraft

Individually, everyone should have been able to perform an effective self rescue and as a group, we should have understood how to assist with a buddy rescue.

This is what I learnt when I did a Packrafting Skills and Safety Course with Packrafting New Zealand/Expedition X.

Self-rescue – a how to …

  • Find a suitable place to practice – somewhere deep, with calm or barely moving water and no hazards downstream.
  • Fall out of your boat!
    • REMEMBER – when you are floating in the river, always keep your feet up to avoid the chance of a foot entrapment.

How foot entrapments happen. Photo/Swiftwater Safety Institute.

  • Try and keep in contact with all your gear – keep a hold of your paddle. If you lose the boat, swim to it with your paddle in one hand.
  • Find the front of your boat.
  • Grab the front of your boat like a stack of folded T-shirts, between your hands and turn it over the right way up.
  • Swim along to one of the sides and hold your paddle widthways across the boat.
  • Give a couple of good kicks in the water and propel yourself across the boat (this may be difficult if you are wearing a bulky pfd). You want to aim for across the boat (not up), as this means there is less chance the boat will tip up or tip back over due too much weight on the side tube.  If that happens, start again.

Self rescue does require a bit of strength, so at the end of a long day, after a few failed attempts, or after a long swim in cold water, the swimmer might not be able to get back in the packraft by themselves.  This is when a buddy rescue comes in;

Buddy rescue

  • Once you have turned your boat over and have moved alongside it, get your buddy to manoeuvre their raft alongside yours.
  • Put your paddle widthways across your boat as before. Your buddy can hold both your paddle and theirs across both rafts, making a very stable platform.
  • Your buddy can then move partly across onto your raft.
  • Working together, they can grab your PFD while you help by kicking in the water, and they can drag you back into your raft.

Dry land demo of how a rescuer can set up in preparation for buddy rescue. Photo/Dan Clearwater

On the course, we practised these two rescues over and over.  When you have these sorted, practice other scenarios – try it without a paddle, try it with no paddle and no boat!

Packrafting and Godzone

Another reason it was important to know how to self-rescue, was that for the first time in New Zealand, packrafting was included in Godzone Chapter 7: Fiordland.  One of the skills we were expected to show before the race was how to self-rescue.  Luckily, I had learnt this through the course and was able to show our team knew what to do following the steps above.  Here we are showing how to self-rescue in a double Packraft in Lake Te Anau.

Credit: GodZone

Like every new skill, learning what to do when ‘something goes wrong’ is an essential part, and practising it will give you confidence to try something new.


What happens when the swimmer can’t get back in their packraft?

Some additional thoughts from Dan Clearwater

Ideally, after a flip, the swimmer gets quickly back into their boat, either through self or buddy rescue. Minimising time in the water reduces the swimmers exposure to hazards; as soon as they are in the boat, they can paddle to shore, or to avoid any hazards downstream.

But what if they don’t hold onto their boat and paddle and get separated?  What if they need to take immediate action to avoid a dangerous hazard (like a strainer) and self-rescue would take too long?

Don’t end up in the water yourself

If someone has tipped over, chances are that its because of the power of a water feature.  Think for a moment about your own skill, and ability to perform a rescue without ending up in the water yourself! Those who can help and are close enough should lend assistance.   But if you’re miles away, or aren’t competent enough, then catching an eddy and waiting for instructions prevents you adding to the problem.  Get ready to use your throwbag, intercept gear or be useful in some way.

Get the person to safety

Top priority is always the swimmer, then the gear.  The swimmer should know how to assume the white water float position, how to fend off rocks with your feet, how to paddle towards a shore, and how to aggressively get into an eddy or safe zone. These are basic personal skills which everyone should be learning if they are paddling on any sort of swift water, whether easy or technical.  If you have team members ashore, providing safety with a throwbag, this is the time to use it!   These skills of whitewater swimming and throw-baggging are best learnt on a course.

Get the gear

Packrafts and paddles are easily lost.  Packrafts catch the wind easily, and don’t automatically end up in eddies like hard-shell kayaks do..  To rescue an empty boat, you’ll need to use your boat like a bull-dozer. Pushing that empty boat to the side of the river in a safe place is easier said than done; practice lots until you’re confident.

Paddles sit low in the water, making them very hard to spot and easy to loose. If you do intercept a floating paddle, either put it accross your thighs and paddle to shore if its easy water, or if its a frantic paddle rescue, you might need to hurl it like a Javelin into an eddy or towards the shore.

Nicole and Dan are members of the Packrafting Association of NZ  which organises meet-up, trips and activities throughout New Zealand.