Water Rescues: Reach, Throw, Row, Go

No Life Guard Reach Throw Row Go

Jimmy Austin was an avid fisherman. He loved to spend late summer afternoons on the water practicing his hobby and bringing home fish for the dinner table. Concerned for the next generation, he regularly took foster kids with him to the lake to get them off the couch and to re-introduce them to the great outdoors.

That is, until this past Sunday. Jimmy Austin and his 10-year old foster son drowned on a Lake near Memphis, Tennessee. The 10-year old fell out of the boat and the 61-year old Austin went in after him. Both drown.

A neighbor who saw the incident tried to help, but was too late.

This is a sad story on many different levels. My heart goes out to them. Unfortunately, though, it’s not unique. It’s replayed many times every year. In fact, more than 20 people have drown this year in Montana due to the heavy rains and swollen rivers.

Prepare To Help

As preppers, it’s important to prepare for circumstances where were are at risk. We must be prepared to fend for ourselves in survival situations, to act quickly and decisively to save ourselves or loved ones.

This is just as true for persevering through a job loss as it is for surviving in a week in the wilderness, for living through a weekend without power or adjusting to the end of the world as we know it.

And it’s true for water rescues.

When put into a lifesaving aquatic situation, a rescue that involved the least amount of risk to you is always advisable. Remember: Reach, Throw, Row, Go.


An extremely fatigued swimmer or a beginner who was over confident in his abilities can quickly become distressed, start flailing, and ultimately panic just feet from safety. When a distressed swimmer reaches that point, he desperately wants out of the water. Calm and reasoning have left him. And seeing the edge of the pool or the side of the boat so close only exacerbates his the problem. So close yet so far.

Reaching for the victim from the edge of the water is by far the safest method of rescue. Lie down and reach with your hand.  Or find a nearby Shepherd’s Crook, pole, long stick, or even just a towel to extend to the victim.

When reaching with a rigid device like a pole or stick, don’t extend it straight out to him. He has little depth perception that way and may lung toward it and injure himself. Instead sweep the pole toward the victim from his left or right, and tell him to grab it.

Make sure you are squatting with most of your weight on your back foot before the victim touches the pole otherwise he could pull you in.


Often a drowning victim is too far to reach with a handheld device. This is particularly true for open water like lakes and rivers.

If reaching the victim is not possible, your next best option is to throw something that floats to him. Ideally you’ll have a ring buoy or a bag rope to toss. If not, use anything that floats.

To avoid accidentally hitting the victim in the head and accidentally converting him to a passive victim, aim for a point 15 feet behind him. He’ll grab onto the rope or you can pull the ring to him.

As with reaching, make sure you have a low center of gravity before the victim touches the rope. You won’t be of much help if he pulls you into the water.


using a canoe to save a lifeIn open water, the victim may be too far to reach by throwing a rope or other floatation aid. In these cases, the best alternative is to go get them without actually entering the water yourself.

Quickly find a canoe, row boat, or kayak. Time is of the essence here so don’t go a long distance to find the boat. In fact, once a distressed swimmer starts to panic, you usually have less than 90 seconds to reach him.

Once you’ve reached the drowning victim, do not attempt to pull them into the boat; that could capsize you and complicate the rescue. Instead  have the victim hold onto the stern and paddle or row him back to safety.


As a last resort, you may have to go after the drowning victim yourself. This is very risky so do not enter into it lightly. More than one would-be hero has inadvertently become a second drowning victim.

Going after a drowning victimIf possible, take a floatation aid like a ring buoy or a rescue tube with you when going after a drowning victim. This will make the rescue far easier. You’ll be able to offer the device to the victim and allow him to kick himself to safety. Or if he’s unable to offer assistance, you can pull him in.

If you don’t have something that floats to offer the victim, use a shirt or towel. Most anything will work, although it’s best if the device floats.

Keep in mind that when a person is drowning, he wants nothing more than to get out of the water. The only way to do that is to climb on top of something and you are the only thing around. Drowning victims don’t intend to drown their rescuers but when they start to climb on top of you, they push you under water.

A good rule of thumb is to never let an active victim touch you. Hold one end of the floatation device and give him the other. If he tries to climb up the device to get to you, give it to him. Don’t let him touch you; that’s how rescuers become victims.

Provide Aid

Regardless of the method of rescue, once you get the victim to safety tend to his needs. Warm him if he’s cold, reassure him if he’s panicking, or call for professional emergency personnel if the situation requires it.

Keep “Reach, Throw, Row, Go” in mind and hopefully you’ll be better prepared should the need ever arise.

By the way, as someone who is a certified life guard and who teaches water rescue techniques, I’d highly encourage you to consider taking a weekend course in Water and Boating Rescue and in CPR. You’ll learn a lot and the life you save may be yours or one that’s dear to you.

Related Posts


11 Comments on “Water Rescues: Reach, Throw, Row, Go”

  1. Jarhead Survivor Says:

    Great post, Joe. I used to work as a commercial scuba diver a few years ago with a friend. At one point not too long ago my buddy was called on to dive on a guy who had drowned in the harbor. He’d been fishing and accidentally threw his rod off the float he was on and jumped in after it. There were a bunch of people standing around and the guy still wound up drowning. Tragic that nobody had the presence of mind to help him out. He was only 20 years old.


    • Joe Says:

      That’s another sad story, Jarhead. It’s too common that people think that someone else will act, or they are parallelized and don’t know what to do.

      Didn’t know you used to be a commercial diver. Bet you could tell some stories….



      • Jarhead Survivor Says:

        I’ve done everything from being a high priced Unix consultant flying around the country (I hated that job) to being a lobster fisherman here in Maine with my brother-in-law. That was great, but he was a little difficult to work with sometimes. I used to work in the woods cutting wood, I drove heavy equipment and dump trucks for a construction job, was a security guard in Philly… you name it. The diving job was excellent though! We used to bring up boats that sunk, do mooring and hull inspections, cut rope out of the wheel (propeller), whatever. I also used to harvest urchins and scallops, which meant diving through the winter. That’s when I learned that neoprene dry-suits suck. If you’re ever going to buy a dry suit get a trilaminate suit with a rubber hood. There’s nothing worse than 38 degree water leaking into your suit when the temperature above water is about ten degrees.


  2. Laura Says:

    I’ve noticed that often public parks at lakeside areas have 2 milk jugs with the tops screwed on tightly connected by a short rope hanging on the “rules” sign. It was years before it occurred to me that those were makeshift life “rings.” Goes to show that whatever is available can probably be made to be helpful.


  3. Tom Nelson Says:

    Good article, thank you.
    I’ll soon be 61 years old.
    Something happened this evening & brought back old memories from almost 40 years ago.
    Kayaking with friends/neighbors in local large creek.
    Neighbors little girl playing in kayak got too far out, current had picked up & she was swept to the other side & stuck under overhanging tree limbs.
    Although she wasn’t in any real danger as she was in the kayak – she panicked & was too scared to paddle out of that mess.
    Situation was such that my training from years ago – that saying came back to mind “Reach throw row go” & after a quick assessment it was time to “go”.
    God got me through the quick current, ad I got close enough i kept reassuring her everything was okay & unhung her kayak from the limbs & swam pulling her in the kayak back.



  1. First Aid Refresher: Working with Your Body, part 1 | - November 16, 2011

    […] Water Rescues: Reach, Throw, Row, Go […]

  2. First Aid Refreshers, part 2: Wound Care | - December 1, 2011

    […] Water Rescues: Reach, Throw, Row, Go […]

  3. First Aid Refreshers, part 3: Shock | - January 6, 2012

    […] Water Rescues:  Reach, Throw, Go […]

  4. How to become Water Self Sufficiency for Survival Preparedness | - January 27, 2012

    […] Water Rescues: Reach, Throw, Row, Go […]

  5. A Natural Cure for Wasp Stings | - May 31, 2012

    […] Water Rescues: Reach, Throw, Row, Go […]

  6. Reach or Throw, Don’t Go! – Mackenzie's Mission, Inc. - November 13, 2017

    […] (Prepping to, “Water Rescues: Reach, Throw, Row, Go,” […]

What do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: