“Where’s Haruo?” Jim Kakuk, lined up just outside the breakers and next to me, shrugged. I scanned the surf zone again at Pillar Point and counted the boaters…one, two, three, four, five. No Haruo. “We’ve got to find him.”
We were surfing at Microwave on a blustery day with good-sized swells crashing through every few seconds. We were trying out a prototype of a washdeck slalom kayak in the surf, and it was Haruo Hasegawa’s turn to play in it. He had taken a wave a couple of minutes ago, but now was gone. Jim and I told the other guys that we were going to find Haruo, and we took off in the likely direction—down wave along the wind path.
Ten minutes later we spotted him about 100 meters off the southwest end of the jetty, swimming feebly, sans kayak. As we approached him, we saw that he was exhausted. I helped Haruo climb on to the stern of Jim’s kayak, and Jim paddled him to the inside of the jetty, where we helped Haruo onto the rocks. From there, he walked back to the put-in at the harbor. The boat and Haruo’s paddle were lost for good, swallowed by the sea. Later, safe and sound, Haruo told us he came out of his boat on a dumping wave and the wind blew it away. He started swimming to shore 400 meters away, but tired after 20 minutes of slow progress in the 52F water.
Fortunately, Jim and I were able to rescue Haruo using a relatively easy stern deck rescue as illustrated and described in John Lull’s book, SEA KAYAKING SAFETY AND RESCUE. But what if he had been too weak or injured to hold on to Jim’s deck or bow? What if he was still in the surfzone when he lost his boat, and needed rescue? Then we would have had to swim over and rescue him. That was 20 years ago, but got me thinking about efficient ways to rescue kayakers who had lost their boats, especially in surf or rocks.
A swim rescue story in surf
Years after the Haruo incident, a pod of us Tsunami Rangers paddled six miles down the Oregon coast to a beach for a week-long retreat. Michael Powers paddled a river kayak laden with all his camping gear and photography equipment. He could barely progress at sea and was the last guy to arrive. He hesitated outside the six-foot surf, started in on a big wave, changed his mind, then tipped over in the slosh. With his camera around his neck, he couldn’t roll up properly. Next thing you know, he’s bobbing and waving his arm just outside the surf, and his boat and all his gear are being washed through the surf and into some sharp rocks.
Andy Taylor of Force Ten, who was our guest on this trip, put on his fins and swam out to Michael. I swam into the surf and secured Michael’s boat. Dave Whalen and John Lull ran over the rocks and retrieved his gear floating about. Without having to physically grab Michael, Andy talked him into body surfing in to shore, which Michael did with Andy. Five minutes later Michael and his stuff were reunited on the beach, and he laughed as he stuffed down hummus and crackers, explaining that he was tired and getting cold, and he got confused a bit after losing all his stuff.
We were lucky that Michael got in so easy. What if he had passed out, or been incapacitated with cold, or panicked? Since that incident, I have developed a swim rescue system based on the Red Cross senior lifesaving course. Here are the steps to take, in order.
Swim Rescue System
1- Does a swimmer actually need rescue? We use diver’s signals of “I’m Okay” to indicate we don’t need to be rescued, or “Help!” to show that we do need assistance. So step one is determine if the swimmer needs rescue. Pat your head and point at the swimmer. Does he pat his head, indicating he is okay? If not, assume he needs assistance and…
2- Ascertain whether it is safe for you and others to attempt a rescue. If it looks too dangerous, don’t do it. Call 911 or contact the Coast Guard, Harbor Master, or someone who can safely execute a rescue. But do consider that it may take too long for authorities to arrive and perform a rescue, or they may not be able to do it. A few months ago, a swimmer drowned in flat water off a beach in Alameda, California, because the various authorities chickened out because they were “unprepared” to perform such an easy rescue. Finally, a woman passerby swam out to the guy and brought him in, but he died anyway.
3- If you go out to rescue the swimmer, approach him carefully and talk him into shore, as Andy did in the above story. Many times the reassurance of having someone there is enough for the person to come out of his near-panic state and come in on his own. This is perfect, as the swimmer feels like he did it himself without being a VICTIM.
4- If you will have to perform a rescue, give the victim something other than you to hold onto (unless he is incapacitated and can’t move), so you don’t have to physically touch him. Many rescuers drown because victims cling to them too strongly. The best item to hand to the victim is a paddle. Instruct him to grab one end and you hold the other. Then swim him in, talking confidently and calmly to him. Be wary of the victim suddenly gaining strength and climbing the paddle to you. If that happens, warn him off or let go of the paddle and swim away. Then try again. A short rescue line or throw bag can be used in lieu of a paddle, but be very careful not to let you or the victim get entangled, as that can endanger you both in surf.
5- If you have nothing to hand to the swimmer, or the victim is incapacitated because of illness, injury, cold water immersion, or a combination of these, grab the victim by the shoulder loop of her PFD, and swim her in doing sidestroke. Be sure the victim’s airway is clear. If the victim’s head is dipping underwater or her neck may be hurt, gently place your forearm across her back near the T1 vertebra which raises her head a bit. Alternatively, if she is not wearing a PFD, cup your hand under her chin to raise her head out of the water, and tow her in that way. Or use a cross chest carry as a professional lifeguard would. Swim in to shore either behind the breakers, or body surf the wave in (this is the fastest and easiest way in, though hard on the victim).
More thoughts on swim rescues in surf
Remember, after a successful rescue, your job may not be finished. Unless the victim can walk around and talk okay, assume that first aid will be needed. Be ready to call 911, administer CPR, and treat for shock.
Note that many drowning people don’t shout or flail. They just sink and are gone. If a person is floundering in the surf and cannot or will not signal that he is okay, go into rescue mode. Don’t wait until a victim silently slips away.
I have directly saved or assisted in saving a dozen swimmers in grave distress; five of these were in surf zones. Seven rescues occurred before I took my senior lifesaving course from the Red Cross. There are two points here. First, even without “official” training you can still rescue someone. If you think you can do it, you probably can; just follow the five steps above. Second, why look for trouble? Take a Red Cross (or other agency) course and be prepared. It goes without saying that you will also want to complete a first aid and CPR course.
Finally, be sure to practice, practice, practice. Kayak rescue authors Roger Schumann & Jan Shriner and John Lull strongly advocate learning and practicing all kinds of kayaking rescues. You can now add the swim rescue to your repertoire of lifesaving techniques and go out and try it in a safe place. I make my Open Coast kayak students practice swim rescues, and I hope you will practice too. You never know when you might need to save a swimmer in the surf.
I could have put in more detail, so if you have a question about swim rescues, please push the comment button and ask, and I will answer. If you have additional information or wish to correct me on anything I wrote, please post a comment. We can benefit from your knowledge.
If you have been rescued as a swimmer or kayaker, please share your story. And if you have rescued someone in surf or rocks, we’d like to hear about it. We can learn from your experience.