And I have Tony Kuhlman of Grand Ledge, Michigan, to thank for pointing this out:
I really liked your article on the Z‑drag technique to get a kayak or canoe out of a jam. It's simple, ingenious, and so obvious. But one thought that came to me is that the weakest link in the whole setup might be where the line attaches to the boat. On my cheap little plastic kayak, the bow and stern carry‑handles are attached by a fairly thin synthetic cord. If the boat is pinned in tightly, I can imagine that the Z‑drag technique could create enough force to break that line, or even tear it out of the hole where it attaches to the boat. Anyone who uses this should give a bit of thought to how they attach it to the boat, or they may just retrieve a scrap of rope and plastic, and 99.9 percent of the boat will still be out there in the river.
How true. In fact, Farwell once ripped the pop‑riveted deck right off a Tripper in an ill‑thought‑out salvage attempt. It's not a mistake he's keen to repeat. And that's not the only one. After being caught short once too often, he never wets a paddle without making sure he's got a long line in his boat. But exactly…
How Long Is Long Enough?
Reader Arnold Larsen wanted to know, too. Rather than my putting words in his mouth, however, let him speak for himself:
Fascinating article. … Your advice about not trying this system without proper instruction and experience is right on. I do have a few questions or observations, though.
Depending on how far the pinned boat is from shore and a proper anchor, it seems to me that a very long rope would be needed. Have you got a recommendation as to how long a rope one boat should carry? I suppose that ropes could be joined and run through the carabiners. [And] what is the best distance from the boat connection to the prusik hitch? Might it make sense (or not) to use a third carabiner to attach the rope to the boat, possibly making it quicker and easier in turbulent water to hook the rig to the boat?
OK. Arnold's letter raises three questions, and I'll take them one at a time, beginning with "How long is long enough?" There's an old adage among climbers and sailors that all ropes are too short, and I won't argue with that. For want of anything better, though, paddlers often use the rescue lines from their throw‑bags to winch their boats off rocks, and the de facto standard for throw‑bag lines is now around 70 feet. That's probably close to the maximum useful length for a throwing line, but I'd call it a bare minimum for salvage operations. A line that's twice as long wouldn't be too long. In fact, a 150‑ or 165‑foot rope can come in mighty handy, particularly on multi‑day expeditions or big rivers — always provided that it's a low‑stretch line of adequate strength, of course. In any event, don't count on joining up several short lines to make a long one. Knots won't run through carabiners or pulleys, and each knot is also a potential failure point. As we've already seen, the Z‑drag conserves line. That's one of its signal advantages. But you still need a long enough line to begin with.
Now let's move on to Arnold's second question: Where should you place the prusik in setting up a Z‑drag? Ideally, the "working parts" of the 'drag are assembled on shore. (I'm assuming the haul line is already attached to the pinned boat.) It's no fun trying to loop a prusik over a taut line while you're standing hip‑deep in a fast current, struggling to stay on your feet. This dictates a close‑in placement, however, and it requires frequent repositioning of the hitch as the line is taken up. A second, braking prusik (NOT shown in the schematic drawing reproduced at the start of this column) must then be employed, making it possible to reset the hauling prusik as often as necessary. It's a tedious business, to be sure. Progress is slow and gains are often measured in inches rather than feet. But it's still progress. And a few inches of movement are often enough to break a pinned boat free.
Lastly, can you use a 'biner as a bow shackle? Sure — though for maximum safety it should be a locking carabiner. That said, and bearing Tony's earlier note in mind, it's best not to depend on bow or stern grab loops as hauling points unless you're confident they're bombproof. Consult the Whitewater Rescue Manual for alternatives. Better yet, study the whole of Charlie's book as if your life depended on it. Because someday it just might. And be sure that you also get hands‑on, in‑the‑water practice with a boater who has several seasons of experience in rescue and salvage techniques. Some things simply can't be learned from books or videos alone.
There is, of course, much more to freeing a pinned boat than deploying an improvised tackle, however ingenious it might be. The river is always stronger than you are, and all successful salvage operations involve…
A Little Hydraulic Judo…
In which you use the river's power against itself. This was brought home to me by reader Norm Yarger, who's a mechanical engineer as well as a paddler, and who wrote to say:
I did find another way to free a pinned canoe. I was on a local trip with a youth group, and two boys got a little ahead of us. When we rounded a bend, we found they had caught a snag in the middle of the river and tipped the boat the "wrong" way. Water was pouring in. This was just a simple, vertical snag, and although the river had enough force to hold the boat, it was not strong enough to take it down. And definitely not a strainer, thank goodness.
The river was not very deep here and was generally docile, so we waded out to the boat, but there were no trees for a Z‑drag, and I don't think we had any rope even if there were. … After looking the situation over, I had the boys push down on one end of the boat, submerging it further while others of us lifted up on the other end. This put more river force on one end and less on the other, and the river pivoted the boat around the snag and back in line with the current. The lesson? Don't fight the river, it will usually win. Rather, use the force of the river to your advantage.
Simple and good, right? The same approach can also be used in runoff‑swollen spring torrents that no sane paddler would think of wading. Here, though, it's an adjunct to winching operations rather than an alternative. The key lies in positioning your haul line so as to make the most use of any current differential. It also helps to wrap the line right around the stranded boat, in order to (1) distribute the load and (2) spill water once the Z‑drag begins to take up the strain. Charlie Walbridge calls this "Wrapping for Revolution." I call it the "Rope Trick." Whichever name you favor, it's a clever dodge, and Charlie's invaluable Manual will tell you how it's done. He also describes another "Rope Trick" — the "Steve Thomas Rope Trick" — for getting a line around the swamped boat in the first place. And that's a very neat trick indeed. So read the book! You won't regret it.
Extracting a broached boat from the embrace of a midstream rock is always going to be a drag, but the right tools can make the job both easier and safer. When, a couple of months back, I mentioned the Z‑drag in passing in an article about the prusik hitch, I didn't think much more about it. But readers did, and that led to a second article. And that article… Well, here we are. A hearty thanks to everyone who wrote in. Your questions and comments have taught me a lot.
And now, here's my very last word on the subject: The Z‑drag and related salvage and rescue techniques are vitally important to boaters who put themselves in harm's way. They can't be learned from a column like this one, however. By all means consult specialist publications to familiarize yourself with the necessary tools and methods, but don't stop there. Get your feet wet. Seek out hands‑on instruction from somebody who knows the ropes. Accept no substitutes. It could be a matter of life and death. 'Nuff said? I hope so.
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