Swift water rescue training was a classroom like none-other. We sat on the beach for our lectures and swam rocky whitewater rapids for lab. Oh, if only my other classes could be like that! Though we had a tropical paradise for our classroom, the subject matter was very serious and all were attentive.
We learned the differences between low-risk rescues that used paddles, ropes, arms or even boats to reach victims, and high-risk rescues that required a rescuer to get in the water with a victim or a helicopter from above. Low risk rescues are common, but high-risk rescues do occasionally happen if a person gets very stuck or the water is too powerful around them. We were also taught about the power and relentlessness of rivers and the fact that though they are very powerful, they are also very predictable. For instance, water will interact with rocks of certain shapes in the same way every time. An undercut rock will have water “stack” in front of it then suddenly disappear, water flowing over a rock will cause a ‘hole’ that can suck you in, and water flowing around a rock will cause an eddy that can be a life-saver. These are some of the predictable characterizes of a river.
In time, we all were able to read and understand the movements of water much better than when the class had begun. The last thing we have to learn before entering the water was throwing throw-bags to swimmers. We learned how to get two good throws from a bag in less than 20 seconds!
When the time came for us to begin working in the rapids, we began by learning how to make a “shallow water crossing” through rapids. This is a technique used both for crossing rivers and for getting into place to rescue someone in need. Two methods were taught to us. The first method required us to lean up-river on a stick that we used as a third-leg. This technique worked quite well and I found myself moving through the water very quickly. The second technique I found awkward. Three people would line up around one another and rotate through the rapids. This technique required coordination from all parties and did not work well in our group.
The next step in our training was one of my favorites. We learned to swim rapids safely in case we found ourselves outside of a raft or if we needed to swim to someone to help them. We had already practiced keeping our feet up while going down stream and when to use a defensive position (lying on ones back) and an aggressive position (freestyle swimming on ones stomach), but we had not yet tried them in the fast-moving bumpy rapids. Our assignment was to ‘eddy-hop’ down the rapids until we reached the pool at the bottom. I gladly went first.
I jumped into the main current of the river and guided myself toward the side of a large boulder, around which the water flowed. Just as I was passing the boulder, I rolled twice to my left and began swimming very aggressively in the ferry-stroke we had practiced the day prior. Suddenly there was no current pulling me and I found myself comfortably within the confines of the eddy formed by the large boulder. I was safe. I climbed on the boulder and sat down to watch my friends in their first attempts. Some made it; others rode the rest of the rapids and swam ashore in the pool below.
Those of us who had made it into the first eddy lined up and prepared to swim to the next eddy downstream.This technique was important for us to understand as it allowed us to perform self-rescue in larger rapids where guides may not be able to reach us right away and dangerous obstacles could likely be downstream.
To further our skills, the instructors rigged a ‘dummy’ strainer for us to practice swimming over. Strainers are very lethal river obstacles that with proper approach and technique can be much less deadly. In addition, we learned how to rescue from boats and also how to use a combination of people on the shore and in boats in order to remove large groups of swimmers from the water at one time.
When everyone had become comfortable with the skills we were learning, it was time for another lecture. This time, however, the material was very familiar to me. We were learning anchor systems used in rescue. My prior climbing experience and training through the AMGAhad taught me nearly every rope/anchor system used in water rescue. I even taught the instructor a new trick (putting a clove-hitch on a carabiner in order to keep the knot in a self-equalizing anchor out of the way).
When all the lessons were done, I spoke with our instructor about his experiences and knowledge in hopes that I would glean a little extra. During our conversation, I received a wonderful compliment when he told me that I had a natural river sense and have a future in the business if I decide to go in that direction. I was delighted to hear that. Although my grades in school are good, they require significant amounts of work; in the wilderness, however, I have found that I excel with ease. Everything feels natural to me and I love it!
We had free time in our campsite after our training but before dinner. I strung up my hammock between two trees and enjoyed the beautiful view. I had planned to sleep in it, but the discovery of one of Costa Rica’s deadliest snakes in our campsite caused our leaders to make the wise decision of disallowing anyone to sleep outside of tents. A group the week before had two anteaters crash into a tent while fighting and that was enough excitement in this campsite for a while.It was good that out guides allowed us to take risks when appropriate but they always weighed the costs. They were fun-loving men who were a joy to be around, but they knew when to be serious and showed their wisdom when it was appropriate. Autentico Adventures has the best guides I have ever met; they got to know each of us on an individual level and cared about making the experience the best they could for everyone involved.