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Getting rescued by the USCG (training)

USCG rescues

Last week, I covered how to use a VHF and what steps it takes to call for help. This week will be a continuation of the process, and what it actually looks like from a kayaker’s perspective.

A little background to this training: A few years ago, I had organized a joint training mission involving a local paddle club and the USCG. Our training proceeded with a pre-brief with members of the Coast Guard and the paddle club members who would be on-water.  Safety was our main concern during the day, and we had a code word which would be used, if the Coast Guard were truly needed elsewhere. During the planning – it was understood we would not use flares, no PLB, or actual electronic rescue devices (for concerns of citizens believing this was truly an emergency) and would transmit the Mayday call via VHF channel 72.  All four kayakers were ACA level 3, and higher coastal instructors – had numerous safety/rescue devices, PFD’s, clothing suitable for immersion, sea kayaks, and skill sets appropriate for the conditions/environment.

The four paddlers launched from an alternative site because of time constraints and proceeded to head out past the pier head. Moments into the paddle, we realized this would not be a flat water and smooth training experience, however would add to the realism of a rescue. Conditions were: waves 2 ½ to 3 footers, nice rollers from time to time, winds constant around 15 mph from the ESE, Air temp around 75, water temp mid 60’s. We paddled about a mile away from the pier head, and just within viewing for the folks on Neshotah beach. We weighed out the options to either conduct the training away from the beach and attempt to maintain our position, or face additional broaching waves and winds which may have increased the safety factor.  We chose to conduct a safe affair. Our scenario involved one kayaker getting ‘injured’, losing consciousness and fracturing her arm as a power boat ran into her and ejecting her from her yak.

During the post-briefing of all the members involved, here are a few interesting noteworthy topics we encountered and will be perfecting.

  • While one VHF is worth the weight of gold during any paddle adventure, two or more is best. I could transmit the Mayday, however could not receive CG replies. Luckily, we had three VHF radios with us. I could not imagine just how any paddler could signal what kind of emergency they may have without communication.
  • As mentioned, our ‘victim’ had been hit by a power boat, knocked unconscious, and ejected from her yak. The decision to keep her in the water and maintain an open airway was a personal choice – for the fear of C-spine injury and further injury, we did not attempt a H.O.G (Hand of God) rescue, or place her on the decks of the two other kayaks. The kayaker who rescued the swimmer, had to store his paddle, and hold onto the shoulder straps of the PFD of the swimmer. Her face was away from the oncoming waves. It was somewhat unbalanced for the rescuer to maintain center balance of his yak, as broaching waves and winds continued. The third yak clipped on a tow rope to get the swimmer’s yak out of the way. Even if we did do a H.O.G. rescue on the swimmer, the CG would have to once again remove the injured kayaker from the kayak (as they manually hoisted her onto the CG vessel). There was an option for the CG to use a dive team and stokes littler to extract an unconscious swimmer.
  • Once CG boat arrived, swimmer had to be passed off to the crew, and lifted out of the water. Additional information of accident was provided, and swimmers known medical history provided (which was unknown) – although this would be normally known for a professional outfitter group paddle, or if your friends who you paddle with normally share that kind of information. Might be best if we all carry some sort of ICE (In Case of Emergency), brief medical history, and meds somewhere on our person/inside a pocket of the PFD.
  • Ideally, the rescuer and swimmer stay together and await the CG rescue boat. If additional kayakers are in group, CG desires the rest to stay out of the immediate area of swimmer and rescuer.
  • With conditions present, would it have been wiser for a second person to stabilize the rescuer by rafting up? What would the situation be had it only been two paddlers, one being a swimmer, and the rescuer still had to make a VHF call, maintain contact with the unconscious swimmer, and stay upright? In flat water with no conditions – I would expect there is a totally different response and outcome.
  • As noted, there was no use of flares, PLB (personal locator beacon), or other electrical devices. We did use a laser flare, paddles and hand signals to dictate our location. Although we did not have orange smoke to mark our position – this may have been a great option for a daytime rescue. Air horns and whistles would have been impossible to hear, since we couldn’t even hear the sirens of the Coast Guard boat. Once again, thinking how this could be accomplished with a solo rescuer.
  • Towing an empty yak (from the rescued kayaker) with an extended rope can be problematic with conditions. Although this worked well, the empty kayak had a mind of its own – Careful attention and adjustments were made to the length of rope once passing the pier head and conditions decreased.


Another aspect of a rescue is working with a helicopter crew. A couple of years ago at the East Coast Paddle Festival (Charleston, SC), I had also taken part in a similar training exercise. This one was involving a USCG rescue helicopter, and talking to the crew as they were trying to “find” us. We communicated with them via VHF, and vectored (help guide them into our position) the helicopter to our exact location. When they were close enough for visual confirmation, we used a various assortment of visual ques to pinpoint our location.

Both aspects of training provide knowledge only gained from actually conducting this practice. As a kayaker, one should always seek knowledge about what could happen – and how to effectively take actions in the worse case situations. Hopefully you will never have to enact any of these rescues as a real world emergencies. But, understanding this process may make it a bit easier.


*** Personal note:  A BIG thanks to all who made this training special *****

For the Paddler Within…

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