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As Paul and I sat outside the bakery we attracted curious stares from the Sunday day-trippers in Warburton. Dressed in wetsuits, cags and buoyancy vests I guess we did look pretty strange. This was the third day of our Swiftwater Rescue Technician level 1 course and it seemed a long time ago since we'd started on Friday. Although Paul and I had both been paddling for many years and had a basic idea of rescue techniques it seemed like a good idea to learn a bit more and update our skills.
Day 1 was classroom based with sessions on river hydraulics, rescue theory and videos of rescues both good and bad and some of the bad were very bad. Interesting information from the session was the relationship between the speed of the water and the force on a person in the river. As the speed increases the force increases at an expediential rate and not at a linear rate. Also useful was the progression of rescue options from low risk options to high-risk options. Obviously you should try/consider the low risk options first and don't go straight to the helicopter! The progressions of options are reach, throw (rescue rope etc), use a boat, swim, swim and tow the victim and finally the helicopter.
In the afternoon we moved on to knots and setting up mechanical advantage systems. While learning about the breaking strengths of ropes, slings and carabinas I found out that my 10 year old throw bag, slings and prussics are likely to fail and will have to be replaced.
Day 2 we moved to the Goulburn River and the main rapid at Blue Gums. Swimming rapids is not where I prefer to be. Why leave the relative warmth of a cozy kayak if you don't have to! So I wasn't looking forward to repeatedly throwing myself into the Goulburn River. But I have to admit I got a lot out of the experience and would definitely recommend that everyone should have a go at swimming rapids. The idea is that you should be able to rescue yourself and keep yourself from getting into trouble if you come out of your boat. Then other people don't have to put themselves at risk to rescue you. Knowing when to swim defensively and when and how to swim aggressively, particularly how to cross eddy lines (different to paddling them in a boat) and techniques to avoid foot entrapments when washed down drops (pull your knees up to your chest and hold on) are great skills.
On to throw bags and our first couple of throws showed why you should practice regularly. With a bit more practice everyone could throw the bag, coil the rope and throw again in 20 seconds. There is definitely a technique to rescuing someone with a throw bag. If you stand in the spot where you threw it as the slack is taken up you are likely to be pulled over and as you pendulum them into the bank they get stuck on the eddy line. So you need to be moving down the bank into the eddy before the slack is taken up to be successful. There is also a technique when being rescued with a throw rope. Not only do you lie on your back with the rope over your shoulder but also you should have the rope over the shoulder furthest away from the eddy so you ferry glide across into the eddy.
We practiced swimming rescues of unconscious people. It is amazing how difficult it is to tow someone to the bank and means that you would always need someone else to help either with a throw bag or with a boat. Another interesting exercise was shallow water crossings as a group but it was the tethered rescuer exercise where I had a good lesson. The exercise involved attaching ropes to the rescue harness of the buoyancy vest and lowering the rescuer into the rapid. The rescuer can be moved left or right, upstream or downstream until reaching the desired place. If you get into difficulty the harness is simply released and you swim away. I confidently entered the water for my turn and was enjoying the experience until I tried to release the harness. There was no way the harness was going to release and I had to be pulled back out of the rapid. On many occasion I have used the harness to tow boats and paddles confidant that if I got into difficulty I could just release the harness! So if you have a Topsport buoyancy vest don't use the harness and if you have any other sort of vest check that the harness releases from the vest easily. Apparently the test is that the harness releases on dry land with the vest unzipped so give it a go.
Day 3 and practical exercises on the Yarra River near Warburton. We practiced setting lines across the river. Particularly useful was the tensioned diagonal traverse, basically a tensioned line at water level and at least at 90 degrees to the current. This line can be used to cross a river or as a safety net in case of swimmers. As the swimmer hits the line they are carried across the river and into the eddy. We also practiced swimming strainers and dealing with foot entrapments, neither of which I would like to experience for real. Finally practiced using tether rafts, recovering pinned boats and wrapped rafts.
It is impossible to properly detail all the knowledge and skills we gain during the course but hopefully this article will make you think about your own knowledge and skills in river rescue. Paul and I would certainly recommend the course to everyone and would encourage people to practice the basic rescue techniques, particularly self-rescue and throw bags.
The course we did was a three-day Swiftwater Rescue Technician 1 course run by Rescue 3 Australia. Paul and I would also like to thank Bronwyn for giving us accommodation, cooking meals, preparing thermoses of hot water and saving my life by lending me a wetsuit!