Dive/Rescue Series: In-Water Rescue Vessels

Dive/Rescue Series: In-Water Rescue Vessels



No matter what type of rescue boat your team is using, whether it’s a 25-foot twin engine inboard with a small weather cabin or a 12-foot aluminum or rubber skiff, there are certain tricks that will help to make the job easier and safer—for the crew as well as for the victim.

This particular article will pertain to the small outboard motortype vessel that may or may not need to be launched.


Anchors and lines

Let’s begin with the bow (front), or, to be more specific, the forward anchor and anchor line. I’m sure that you all have the bitter end (inboard end of the anchoring line) tied off to a secure forward connection so that you never throw your anchor and line out and find that you don’t have time to tie it off.

Minimal diameter anchor line for a small skiff should be a half inch. A braided line works better than a laid or twisted line, and nylon stores better after being wet. NOTE: A polypropylene line must be back spliced and taped off or it will always untie.

When working in areas of 25 to 40 feet of water, you should be carrying at least 200 feet of anchor line (proper anchoring procedures are a minimum of 5 feet of anchor line : 1 foot of water) with 5 to 10 feet of ⅜-inch chain lead with proper shackles connecting the anchor and line to the chain. The easiest way to store your anchor line is in a nylon bag. Put a grommet in the bottom of the bag and draw enough line to tie off the bitter end to a secure anchor point. Tie a figure-eight knot in the line close to the outside and inside portion of the grommet. This will keep the line from working back and forth in the bag. Theadditional 200 feet or so of line will be stuffed into the bag. This will allow for extreme ease of deployment and efficient restorage. It will also take up a minimum amount of room. One wrap with duct tape will hold the anchor to the bag, and a simple pull is all that’s needed to activate the anchor and chain.

A bow anchor should normally be a Danforth or Nany fluke type of no less than 10 pounds.

The aft or second anchor should be in a bag set up similar to the forward anchor. Quite often, the aft anchor is a mushroom type of no less than 15 pounds. This could also give you a down guide line for divers if there is no real current to speak of (less than 1½ knots).

Tool kit

The toolbox should be attached to the inside of the transom of the boat, close to the motor. The use of rubber tie downs will be of great help. Be sure to use rubber cement on and around any screw holes made in the transom for the toolbox.

The tool kit should be equipped with no less than:

  1. Three cotter pins and shear pins for replacement on propeller. Each set of cotter and shear pins should be placed into a small plastic wrapper and taped to the top of the toolbox. This way, if you go to use one set and lose it, there are still two more available. (Shear and cotter pins and propeller changing should be practiced in quarters.)
  2. A flashlight with extra batteries and bulbs wrapped in tinfoil.
  3. Small vise grips with lanyard.
  4. Pliers with lanyard. Wrap the ends of the pliers three to six times with 3-inch duct tape. This will give you a supply of tape if you need it, but it will also make for a decent grip when hands are wet.
  5. One straight edge and one phillips screwdriver with rubber handles and, again, with a lanyard.
  6. Two very sharp folding pocketknives with lanyards.
  7. Two spark plugs wrapped in tinfoil and a spark plug wrench with (you guessed it) a lanyard.
  8. Two flares and a whistle.
  9. An extra pull cord.
  10. A small can of spray ether for the carburator.
  11. A small rat-tail file (to be discussed further on).


You should have an extra propeller attached to the inside of the transom opposite the toolbox, set and ready to go. Be sure to check if you are using a power or speed propeller. Do you have a longor short-shaft engine? The long shaft is most often preferred unless you are working in shallow, white water or flood areas. Short shaft has better clearance, but has a tendency to cavitate and therefore lose power, forward momentum, and control of the boat.

NOTE: In shallow water areas, it is often preferred not to lock the motor down in case it hits bottom. You may want it to kick up and hopefully not crack your shear pin or worse. You will have to hold the motor down when in reverse.

In-water rescue operations usually involve the use of small boats. The emergency and urgency of the situation usually contribute to stability problems. Planning and training can make this drawback a routine operation. Small boat rescue stability must be planned for.

If your propeller blades are chipped and bent, performance will be cut immensely and your engine will overheat and work poorly. You could lose up to 25% to 40% of your efficiency due to minor blade damage. Chipped, bent, or broken blades are easily spotted and propellers should be changed before your vessel is needed.

During a long-term rescue situation, your propeller can be given emergency first aid. Remember though that these techniques are to be used only during a real emergency repair situation and when a new replacement propeller is not readily available. This will not substitute for a replacement propeller.

Chipped blades can be repaired wdth a file. Move the file gently over the damaged portion of both sides of the blade until they feel smooth. Blades are soft metal and will bend quickly if you are not very gentle.

Bent blades can be gently moved with a rubber mallet or soft piece of wood by tapping gently on the back side of the bend. Do not twist the blade.

When checking for bent or off pitch blades, set your propeller (any blade) top center. Place a long screwdriver along the top of the blade until the tip touches the lower portion of the motor (90° to the top of the propeller and the base of the motor). Turn the blade slowly and watch to see if each blade touches the screwdriver with the same intensity and at the same angle as the blade before it. If some blades miss your screwdriver or cannot pass your screwdriver, your blade may need tuning. Take it to your local marine service center and have it reconditioned.

Again, if blades are severely bent, chipped, or broken, they should be replaced. Your motor should be as efficient as possible. A good propeller makes a big difference.


One major problem with rescue boats is the clutter inside. Your rescue personnel must have room to move about without bumping into or losing an important piece of rescue gear overboard. All rescue ropes should be packed in similar bags and securely attached with snap rings to the side of the vessel. This will allow for rapid deployment use.

Oars should be securely attached to the vessel for quick use, but also kept clear for rescue procedures. One wrap of duct tape will help to hold almost any item in place and yet, with one pull, will rip to give you quick access to your needed equipment.

As with any necessary piece of equipment, your battery and gas tanks must be tied down for minimal movement and to prevent loss in case of capsizing. The easiest way to do this is to use rubber tie downs. Coming twice across the top of the tank, be sure to countersink the attachment on the underside of the floor. You may have a stationary seat that allows for storage under it; this would make securing the tank even easier.

Radios and first aid kits should always be mounted in a sheltered location and/or tied down to minimize spray.

In addition to the equipment mentioned, there are, of course, many other items that you may wish to carry on your rescue vessel such as air horns, depending on your needs as you see them.

Rescue boats, too, are considered tools that must work correctly when you need them to. Most of us take small boat rescue for granted. Small boat handling, preparation, and care is an expertise in itself.


PFDs (personal flotation devices)

No one should be allowed on a rescue vessel or near the water’s edge either during training or during a real emergency without a PFD securely attached to himself. PFDs are our assurance that we don’t have a second victim.

Once the small boat rescue vehicle overturns, preplanning makes its efficient righting routine.Grasping the pre-installed straps and pulling toward the water will easily return capsized rescue boats to their upright position.

Rescue throw bag

A rescue throw bag is a rope bag with 60 to 75 feet of line (not nylon) capable of being tossed its full extent with a flick of the wrist. The rescue bag gives the rescuer an extension of his arm by allowing for rapid deployment of a line in any rescue situation. A rescue bag is extremely easy to store, and even works in heavy winds of 15 to 20 knots.

Center of gravity

When working in small boats, the rescuer should attempt to stay low and close to the center of gravity. When two or three rescuers attempt to stand up, they and the vessel are unstable and could capsize. In most cases, there is little need for more than one individual to be in the full standing position. This is especially true when working in fast water. If your boat turns sideways (breaching), you must keep the center of gravity low. I am not saying that this will keep the boat from rolling over, but it certainly will help allay such a situation.

Rollover technique

The rollover technique is for small boats 12 to 17 feet in length and of metal, rubber, or whatever. Small boats can have a tendency to capsize, and the ability to reset this vessel is important to your safety.

Whether or not a small boat used for in-water rescue remains efficient depends upon proper storage of equipment.Velcro straps and duct tape will solve this storage problem.

Securely fasten two to three 2½to 3-inch wide flat-webbed straps to your vessel at even distances apart. Each strap should be 15 feet long, rolled, and wrapped with a strip of duct tape or large rubber band to keep it out of the way but ready for quick access.

If your boat were to capsize, your team could loosen the straps and crawl up over the hull of the vessel, bringing the straps with them to the side of the keel opposite the side to which the straps are affixed. While pulling on the straps, stand and lean out away from the center of the hull while pulling on the straps. The boat will slowly begin to return to its correct position. Ninety percent of the time, the boat will turn back over and your team will be able to re-enter the vessel.

If you have tied down all the necessary equipment, it will most likely still be there when the vessel is righted. With the aid of the ether and perhaps a new spark plug, the engine should restart easily. At the worst, the team is back in the boat and ready to go.

This technique should be practiced without a motor, gas tanks, batteries, etc., on board. A standard rollover should take no longer than 45 seconds. If you have an injured person, he can hold on to the outside line and be automatically placed into the boat as it is replaced in its upright position, assuming, of course, that the side that the victim is holding is rolled upward. One man can right a 14foot rubber rescue boat and bring another man into it at the same time.

Rollup technique

These same straps can be used to bring large objects or a victim into the vessel easily. Simply extend open ends around the object, grasp the straps close to the unit coming on board, and sit back. The object (or victim) will roll on board. NOTE: When dealing with victims, the first strap should be around the arms and chest, above the elbow and below the shoulder. The second strap should be above the knees and below the hip. Do not wrap straps or lines around your hands. If you need a better grip, take a double fold or tie a knot in the line.

Rescuing floating victims

When attempting to rescue a floating victim, you should attempt to approach him against the current. The victim is already moving through the water. He has velocity. If the boat is coming downstream behind the victim, the current will push the boat over the victim or, at best, force most of his body under the vessel and severely hinder extrication from the water. If the vessel approaches from downstream, the victim will be pushed to the boat. The vessel and victim then begin to drift downstream together. If the boat were to run aground or hit something, the victim would not be between the object and the vessel.

Boat exiting

When working with boat rescue, you should attempt to pick an exit point downstream from where you expect to retrieve your victim. Unless we are dealing with severe water conditions such as rapid water or waterfalls, it is usually quicker and easier to move downstream for exit (rather than attempt to return to the entry point for an exit).

Last year, I observed a group of emergency personnel practicing in-water rescue techniques. They insisted on returning to the point of entry (over 400 yards upstream) to exit rather than take a more direct route to a safe landing downstream 100 feet away. Their reasoning was why move the rescue vehicles and personnel.

This is the same problem that occurs to swimmers who attempt to swim back to where they entered rather than take the shortest route to exit. Quite often they don’t make it back!


The care and preparation of your vessel combined with sound and practiced in-water operation techniques is the best way to insure a possible water rescue and the safe return of your rescue crew.

Remember, nothing ever goes right when you need it to. Therefore, good planning and topknotch preparation just might help to make a difference.

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