Articles - How to use a throw-line - canoe & kayak rescue techniques

How to throw a rescue bag correctly
How to throw a rescue bag correctly
Canoe & Kayak UK Editorial - Posted on 01 Dec 2009
The one piece of equipment that every whitewater should carry with them is a throw-line. Hopefully you’ll have found our throw-line group test in last issue useful and spent some of your hard earned dosh on the right bag for you. But carrying a bag isn’t enough you need to be able to use it too. Knowing what to do and when in a rescue situation can help you stay calm and focused and help you to achieve a successful outcome. Learning the correct techniques, working out what works best for you and practicing means that when things go wrong on the river you’ll be prepared and ready to use your bag. In most cases you’ll be pulling your paddling mate’s soggy behinds out of the drink after an embarrassing, but safe, swim. But a well-aimed throw can literally be a lifesaver. To help you get your throw-line technique razor-sharp we’ve put together this easy-to-use guide to the best ways to bag ‘em and tag ‘em!

Right Place, Right TimeAlways carry your throwline on the river when whitewater kayaking or canoeing
The first thing to say is that you can’t throw your line if it’s sat in the back of your boat, so always take it with you when you get out to inspect. You never know if one of your group might slip and fall in, or if a swimmer from another group might come floating down from upstream. If you’ve got your bag then you could be in a position to affect a rescue. Many paddlers now favour a waist mount system; to make sure their bag is always on their person. If you’ve got your bag with you it also makes setting up protection for difficult drops much quicker.

It can be useless, not to mention potentially dangerous, for a rescuer to throw a line without giving prior thought to the best position, and potential hazards down stream. When you throw the line to the victim they will begin to pendulum into the riverbank as their weigh comes on to the line. This is ideal if there is a nice big eddy downstream. But not so good if it’s a strainer or undercut that lies in wait! Be aware of obstacles like trees, large rocks and even other paddlers. You need space for the line and paddler to swing in to.Find a safe position when setting up rescue cover with your throw-line
It is also important to make sure that you are in a stable position and will be able to maintain that during the rescue. For instance, being precariously perched on top of a pointy rock is less than ideal and could well result in you being pulled in to the drink too! Look for even footing. Is there a rock or feature that you can brace or lean against?
As well as sussing out your line down a difficult rapid, if you think the drop worthy of protecting spend some extra time choosing the best spot and be aware of potential downstream dangers.

Be Prepared
Once you’re in position get set up and prepare. It’s usually a good idea to take a few metres of line out of the bag ready to drop in to a dynamic position in the case of a rescue. This will also allow you to pay out some rope, to reduce the strain, if you are struggling to hold on to the swimmer.

Make ContactGet the swimmers attention before you throw your throwline for a rescue attempt
OK, you’ve got your position sorted, you’re primed and ready, things have gone wrong upstream and you’ve a swimmer coming your way. The first thing you must do when you are in position to throw a line is to attract the attention of the person swimming. The easiest way to do this is by shouting his or her name. If you don’t know their name, shout, ‘rope!’ as loudly as you can. Once you’ve got their attention, hold the line and bag high above your head to show the swimmer that you are about to throw throw the line. When you’ve made eye contact and you’re happy that they’re ready for you, you can throw the line.

The underarm rescue throwline techniqueThe Under Arm Throw
The easiest throw to perform is an underarm throw. Swing the bag out behind you, swing it back past your leg and then release the bag just as your hand reaches a point in line with the swimmer. If you get the release position right, it will look almost as though the swimmer is sitting in the palm of your hand as you let go of the bag. The bag should sail up and beyond the person so that the line falls over them. If the line lands in the water, it’s moving at exactly the same speed as them and may be difficult for them to retrieve.

The overarm rescue throwline techniqueThe Over arm Throw (Lob)

If you can’t do an underarm throw, you’ll have to do an over arm throw. There are two ways of doing this, the first is to grasp the neck of the bag reach back then lob it, releasing the bag as your hand is just above the paddler. It can be good for covering a large distance, but it’s hard to get right and can be difficult to control. The under arm throw is slower, tends to be more accurate and gets a bit more distance, but there might be times when you can’t use it, for example, if you’re standing in water or among boulders or bracken and you can’t swing the bag past your legs.

the overarm bullet throw technique for throwline rescuesThe Over arm Throw (Bullet)

Similar to above except you hold the bag ‘American quarter-back style’. You push the bag past your ear and release it when you can see the person in the water between your thumb and forefinger on the hand that’s holding the bag. So you effectively shove the bag at them. It’s a fast throw but it requires a lot of practice.

second attempt throwline rescue using coils of ropeSecond Throw

Ideally, you should practice your throwing so that you always hit your target, the reason being that your second throw will never be as effective as the first. There are loads of ways of doing a second throw. If the person is stationary, stuck in a stopper, you could just coil the rope at your feet, fill the bag with a little water and throw it back out to the swimmer. If they are being washed off downstream, you’ll have to take a series of coils and throw them. There won’t be time to repack in an emergency.

Rescue Position
rescue position for swimmer in whitewater once they have reciieved a throwline
At this point, it’s important that the swimmer gets into the right position and it may be that, as the rescuer, you have to instruct them. As soon as they catch the line, they should bring it over their shoulder and down onto their chest. They then roll onto their back so that they take the load of water across their shoulders and the force of the water should then pendulum them into the bank. This position keeps their head and face clear of the water.

Dynamic Belay
white water rescue team using dynamic belay to bring a swimmer safely to shore
As that happens, there will be a load that comes onto the rope, so, as we said earlier, it’s important that the belayer takes a dynamic stance to accept that load. Current thinking is that it should be a standing stance so that, as the swimmer swings into the bank, you can almost play them like a fish to get them into the right eddy. That’s a little different to past thinking that suggested you should put a body belay on. But that left you in one position so you had to pick your venue and stick with it. If you get into a standing stance, you can throw, make contact with the swimmer, then decide where to get them into the bank.

Team Effort

If you do opt for a static belay you may need assistance to deal with the force that will come on to the line. The simplest way of doing this is to have a second rescuer ready to grasp you by the shoulders straps. Your position may be that you need to clip on to a second line, using a quick-release chest harness with a cows-tail or locking karabiner, held by a second rescuer.

Correctly repacking a canoeing or kayaking rescue throwline after use
When the dust has settled and you want to repack the bag, you need to pack it in such a way that it deploys correctly the next time you need to use it. Simply put the line over your shoulder, holding the bag in front of you and feeding the line into the bag a little at a time, creating a controlled pile inside the bag. A big mistake is to take coils of rope and shoving them back in the bag. The next time you throw the bag, the coils will land in a heap just in front of you, no use at all to the unfortunate swimmer!

Cutting it
A rope can save lives, but it can become a deadly hazard in minutes. If you carry a rope you should also carry a knife. Nothing to fancy, just make sure it’s easy to reach, rustproof, sharp and preferably able to be opened with one hand.

Practice, Practice, Practice!
Practasing canoeing & kayaking throwline rescue techniques on safe water
We’ve said it many times before but can’t stress enough how important it is that you practice throwing your bag. When you’re mate’s life depends on it, you’ll be glad of the time you spent in the garden aiming at a bucket or, preferably, with a willing swimmer on a safe stretch of water.

Care and Maintenance

Always dry your rope out after use, we know it’s tempting to just leave it in your boat, or sitting in a dry-bag, but it’s important to keep the line in as good a condition as possible.

If it has become covered in dirt or sand during the course of your run give it a rinse in fresh water to clean it before drying. Never use detergents on it, plain ol’ water will do.

Inspect your bag regularly, checking the knot, the neck closure, bag and most importantly the rope for any signs of wear and tear, or damage.

If you have to use your rope in a rescue scenario where it’s been under heavy loads for a sustained period, and been used with other rescue equipment such as slings, prussic loops or pulleys check it very carefully for wear, and seriously consider replacing it for your next river trip.

When drying your bag try and keep it out of direct sunlight. UV can do more damage to a rope than any other factor.

Keeping it CleanTake care of your rescue throwbag after use and inbetween canoeing and kayaking trips
Current thinking from whitewater and rescue professionals is that the line should be kept ‘clean’ at the throwers end. This is because if a scenario should arise where a line is worsening the situation and the swimmer is unable, or unwilling to let go, the rescuers only option at that time, is to release their end of the rope. So as to reduce and minimize the risk of the line snagging in this scenario it is best to have a clean end to the line, with no knots or handles. If indeed you come across a situation when a handle is required it takes only seconds to tie one. The other argument for a clean line is also that if the force of the water is such that the rescuer cannot hold on without the aid of a handle then it will almost certainly pull them in to the water too, in that situation the rescuer also has no option but to let go of the rope.

On Line - Recap

We’d recommend that all whitewater paddlers attend a rescue and safety course to learn the skills you need to stay safe on the river.

If you get out of your boat, to inspect or portage, always take your bag with you. It saves time and you never know if someone may slip and fall in, or a swimmer from another group may appear. If you have your bag to hand, then you’ll be in a position to affect a rescue.

Consider your position and downstream hazards

Ropes can save lives, but they can  deadly trap in seconds. If you carry a rope, you should carry a knife. Make sure it’s up to the job and easily to hand, even during a swim.

Never tie a rope off while being held by a swimmer.

Never put your hand through a grab handle of a bag, or wrap the line around a limb.

Further Reading
We highly recommend reading Whitewater Safety and Rescue by Franco Ferrero and published by Pesda Press ( It’s an invaluable resource of rescue knowledge and experience.

To find your nearest course provider, or to to find a rescue kit/throwline supplier check out the Marketplace. For more technique articles go here, here. For our full head-tohead Throwline test go here


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