The Oddball at Swiftwater Rescue Training


Introductions around the circle were going about like I thought they would: guide, Forest Service boater, guide, owner of a new rafting outfit, guide. I’d wondered beforehand what the makeup of the class would be, and I tentatively hoped I wouldn’t be the only non-professional oddball in the crew.

The introductions got to me. “I’m J. I spend my day riding a desk, pushing pixels around.” What this crew of river professionals listened intently to was a bespectacled, gray-haired guy in his mid-thirties, ample and soft in the middle, who makes those noises when he sits or stands. (You know the noises.) There was no pointing and laughing, not the least bit of derision. We had great instructors and a great crew. Still, I had to wonder, just a bit, what I was doing there.

Yes, I’ve been on the water my entire life. I even guided professionally before marriage and kids and mortgages. All that aside, one thing was clear: I was the class oddball.

Swiftwater Rescue Training Tethered Rescue Practice
The author practicing tethered rescues with Mark from Hughes River Expeditions. ©Jenni Chaffin

I’m convinced, though, that I made the right choice in plunking down my own cash and vacation time to take a formal Swiftwater Rescue Training course, even though I won’t find myself in the day-to-day of guiding. Why? There are many solid reasons, but hindsight provides three.

  • I’m a (part-time) boater. When I guided full-time, I knew every rock and every hole on my stretches of river. I had the advantage of lots of consistent time on the water, keeping me aware of new or emerging dangers. My mind and my muscles were tuned. These days, I seldom see my familiar stretches of river. I’m more likely to be exploring new rivers (big and small) with rustier skills and far less-toned muscles. I’ve traded a time-soaked familiarity for fresh and fleeting experiences. More knowledge and hands-on practice now will help offset new risks, challenges, and a lack of time on the water.
  • Precious cargo. My guiding license may be long lapsed, but I still love introducing friends and an ever-expanding family to the excitement of the water. My wife gets upset when she can’t tag along for one reason or another, and I’m happy to brag that my young children are already clamoring to go boating again this season. I feel like I owe it to anyone I take out on the water to know as much about what could go wrong and how to prevent it as possible. The SRT class helped me understand techniques to keep those under my charge safe and save them from life-threatening situations.
  • Ignorance is no excuse. Until recently, most of my boating time has been on higher-volume rivers. Boat pins and foot entrapment are less common, but can certainly still happen. Just because I’ve never seen it doesn’t mean I won’t encounter it one day. We all know the old adage about the two kinds of rafters: those who have flipped, and those who will. Apply liberally to any swiftwater hazard.

I didn’t take the class so I could push myself to do ridiculous new things. I took the class to make the trips I’m already taking—to make me and the people I’m boating with—that much safer. Job or hobby, full- or part-time, guide or oddball desk jockey—it doesn’t matter; knowing what can go wrong, how to to avoid it, and having some skills to deal with it when things do go sideways will go a long way to keeping people safer out on the water.

When I take the class again in a season or two, it’d be great to see a few more oddballs there with me.

Playing catch with the rescue throw bag. ©Jenni Chaffin
Playing catch with the rescue throw bag. ©Jenni Chaffin

To learn more about where you can get some solid Swiftwater Rescue Training info and classes, check out “Finding Swiftwater Rescue Classes.”