The first day of Swift Water Rescue was last Friday. Stephan and Will are our instructors, two of only eight instructors certified to teach this class in the United States. Stephan was explaining that there are Swift Water Rescue courses for rescue workers, classes for outdoor professionals that may work near the water, and this class, Swift Water Rescue Professional, for those that work in the water. I sat in the same chair I have occupied for various classes throughout this past year and asked myself the same question again, “Why on earth have I signed up for this class?”
Our first order of business was to demonstrate rope throwing skills by tossing a rope bag to our instructors who were standing about 40 feet out in the lawn just outside the school. The goal was to toss the bag within easy reach of where our instructors stood, reel it in and then toss the coiled rope within 20 seconds of the first. After a few practice tosses, I yelled “Rope!” and tossed my bag right between Will’s feet, coiled it back up, but fell short on my coil toss. A couple more practice runs and I yelled “Rope!” and hit Stephan right in the chest with my rope bag, coiled it back up, tossed the coil and bingo! We all passed our rope toss practical test.
The remainder of the day was all about self rescue and we spent the afternoon practicing our ability to swim the river and successfully catch an eddy. We crossed the river by ourselves using a paddle for stability, and in small groups facing upstream, in line or in a circle. Stephan explained that the current we were experiencing was the equivalent of 90 mph winds, which conjured images of a weatherman who insists on broadcasting his coverage of a hurricane in the middle of the hurricane. I felt like the weatherman.
After a couple of easy, defensive practice swims into an eddy, Stephan demonstrated the aggressive swim. We lined up on shore river right and one by one climbed onto a rock so we could dive into the water as far as possible to minimize the hard swim to river left. After a short float downstream on our back, we flipped over and initiated another aggressive swim to break through the eddy line and into the peaceful water of the eddy.
Crossing the eddy line requires strong swimming skills. The current at the eddy line can be powerful and I struggled to get through. Several times my classmates had to throw me a rope and my confidence was shaken. Finally, I made it across the eddy lines without a rescue rope. It was an important moment for me. After all, in rescue as in life, if you can’t self rescue you can’t help others.
The last run of the day was to swim to the bottom of the Nantahala Falls, a Class III rapid. These are the same rapids we took on 15 times in a row a few weeks ago in our rafts. We practiced hitting Top Hole at just the right angle so we wouldn’t flip the raft, and our classmates, as we went over Bottom Hole. Top Hole took on new meaning as a swimmer, however, because it is a recirculating hole that will catch you and will not let you go. I did not panic. I was in good shape when I passed Top Hole, pinched my nose when Bottom Hole sucked me in, and then I swam like a banshee to catch the final eddy and go home. By 9am Saturday morning, we were back on the river ready to do it all over again.
Saturday we learned to rescue each other, use our rope to assist a rescue and belay each other out of the dangerous current. We clipped ourselves to a line that crossed the river and learned to release out using a special feature of our rescue PFD. By the end of the day, we were frozen to death by the cold water of the Nantahala and ready for our final long swim back to the eddy at the put-in. Two hours after class ended my fingers were still shriveled.
My attire for class included four tops, three pair of long running tights, a full wetsuit over these, a dry top, rain jacket, fleece jacket, a splash jacket over all of that topped off with a wool beanie under my helmet and a pair of Vibrams on my feet, which make excellent river shoes as it turns out. Friday night all of the outer gear hung in the bathroom with the little wall heater on full blast in an attempt to make it dry again by morning.
Two weeks from now we’ll finish two more days of training. Rescue scenarios will include flipping boats upright, paddling into an eddy from on top of flipped boats, team drills with pinned boats, wraps and strainers, a final written test and dozens of practical tests.
Some of my classmates already work in the water, some of us do not. Some classmates know they will always work in the water, some of us are quite sure we will not. The one thing we all know for sure, however, is that by the end of this class…..we will all know cold.