Basic Water Rescue Training Online

This page may contain affiliate links.

Posts are also available in audio/visual format on Youtube, Spotify, and Apple Podcasts.

In this article you will learn various types of lifeguard rescues and swift water rescue and recovery.

The information in this water rescue article does NOT replace professional water rescue training.

Treat it as water rescue guidelines or as water rescue training drills to use for any water rescue training situation such as:

  • Flood water rescue training
  • ​Open water rescue training
  • ​Swift water rescue training
  • ​White water rescue training

How to Assess a Water Rescue Scenario

This section covers several water rescue basics. The 10-20 system, prioritizing casualties, planning a rescue, and steps that anyone can follow when they see someone that needs help in the water.

When You See a Water Rescue Victim

Anyone can use the following passive water rescue steps. It is simple water rescue policy you can teach your friends and family, including children.

  • Keep calm. A person who panics cannot think clear.
  • ​Shout for help as loud as you can.
  • ​Ask everyone else to clear the area.
  • ​Ensure there will be no immediate danger to you while attempting the rescue. Animals, electricity, fire, etc.
  • ​Use land-based rescue techniques in the order given.
  • ​If you cannot perform a land-based rescue, call the emergency services.

IMPORTANT: Unless trained in water rescue protocol, never enter the water to save a victim. A drowning victim can pull you down with him. Even when trained, entering the water is a last resort.

Situational Assessment

The 10:20 System

When you manage the well-being of others near water, you can use the 10:20 system. It is common standard in water rescue operations and a good way to oversee a designated area.

When you manage the well-being of others near water, you can use the 10:20 system. It is common standard in water rescue operations and a good way to oversee a designated area.

The 10 stands for 10 seconds. You scan the designated area (e.g., a pool) from one side to the other in 10 seconds.

The 20 means you should be less than 20 seconds away from getting to any swimmer in your area.

Casualty Priorities and Recognition

This chapter explains the different water casualties and the application of their knowledge in water rescue skills.

When there is over one victim, rescue them in the order given.

Casualty Priorities

The general rule of thumb is to rescue those making the least noise first and the unconscious last.

The 4 types of casualties in order of rescue priority are:

  • Conscious non-swimmers. Unable to swim and often vertical in the water. They may grab hold and drag you down.
  • Conscious weak swimmers. Can swim but either exhausted or in some other distress. Usually in a forward position trying to swim. Often cooperative in a rescue.
  • ​Conscious injured swimmers. Can keep themselves afloat but have an injury they may or may not tell you about. Look if they are holding their injury and be careful of it during the rescue.
  • ​Unconscious swimmers. Often floating motionless and face down in the water, but can be at any depth.

Rescue the unconscious victim last. You do not want to waste time you could spend rescuing a victim with a higher chance of survival.

Recognizing a Distressed Swimmer

A distressed swimmer is any conscious swimmer that is having trouble in the water. If he does not find safety he can become an unconscious swimmer. You must learn how to recognize the distressed swimmer so you can rescue them before it is too late.

There are 2 basic types of swimmers in distress: non-panicking or panicking.

The non-panicking casualty knows they need help to get to safety. They will try to communicate this to you.

A panicking casualty is likely to already be in the drowning phase. He will thrash around trying to keep afloat. He may try to communicate (either silent or noisy) but it will be ineffective.

Making a Plan

When performing water rescue drills it is very important to create a plan of rescue instead of acting straight away.

The human brain can process a lot of information at great speed, even in high-stress situations.

Once you recognize a casualty, it will only take a few seconds to assess the situation. This will keep you safe and will also give the victim the best chance of survival.

The first thing you should look for is danger. Why is the victim in trouble in the first place? Is the danger still there?

Next, consider your victim's profile. Is he/she big, small, an adult, child, unconscious, panicked, injured, etc?

Finally, what basic water rescue equipment do you have, and/or what can you improvise?

Use the information you gather and the knowledge of your own abilities to decide the best form of rescue.

Due to the endless possibilities of scenarios you will need to be very flexible. For example, should you take the time to find a rescue aid? And if so, which water rescue aid is best for the situation?

Land-Based Water Rescue Techniques

There are a few types of water rescue techniques.

Land-based rescue techniques are safe to use by almost anyone. Here they are in escalating order, i.e., only use the second one if the first doesn’t work.

Watch the victim as much as possible while preparing his rescue. This way, if he goes under you can tell others the best place to look.

If a second person is there have him watch the victim while you find equipment and/or help.

Shout and Signal

Your victim may be in a panic. Sometimes giving simple instructions will be enough for him to save himself.

Get his attentional by waving and shouting. Then, in a loud, clear voice, tell him to kick his legs and push towards you or the nearest safe spot (waters edge, shallow water, etc.).

Throw Rescue

Look for something the victim can use to float on and throw it to him.

The object must be small enough for you to throw but buoyant enough for the casualty to use as a float.

Aim it so the victim can reach it, but do not hit him in the head. Allow for wind and current and aim upstream of the victim.

Once he has the object, instruct him on how to paddle to safety. Unless it presents more danger, he should swim with the current.

Tossing a rope is also a throw rescue. Throw one end of the rope to him and then help to pull him to safety. Stay back at least one meter from the water's edge to prevent you from falling or getting pulled in.

Tossing a rope is a type of throw rescue

Reach Rescue

Find something you can reach out to the victim with from dry land, e.g., a stick. Lie down at the edge of the water while reaching out. If possible, also hold on to something.

Lying down and holding onto something prevents the victim from pulling you in.

Lying down makes you more stable

Water-Based Water Rescue Techniques

In this section you will learn 4 basic water rescue methods for when land based rescues are not possible.

Only use water-based rescues if land-based rescues are not possible. Like land-based rescues, water-based rescues have a preferred order of use. Here they are in that order.

Wading Rescue

The wading rescue is good in shallow water up to waist deep. Any more than that and it turns into a towing rescue. Also, the victim must be conscious.

Find a rescue aid and enter the water as close to the victim as you can while still keeping safe and out of his arms reach. If possible, keep hold of something on shore.

Instruct the victim to grab onto the aid and pull him to safety.

Wading rescues are useful for shallow water up to waist deep

Boat Rescue

When there is a boat nearby and you know how to use it, you can use the boat rescue. As a general rule, avoid bringing the victim on board the boat.

For an unconscious victim, it is best to have a second rescuer hold his head above water as you drag him to safety. A solo rescuer will have to bring him on board. Be careful not to capsize the boat as you do so.

Throw a tow rope/float to the conscious victim. If he is calm, he could even hold on to the boat although this is risky with a panicking victim.

Use a reach rescue when in a boat

There are many situations where you will have to bring the victim on board. For example, if there is something dangerous in the water or when the distance to land is very far. Remember to be flexible.

Swimming with Water Rescue Aids

This is same as the wading rescue except you swim the rescue aid to the victim instead of wading. It is useful for conscious victims in deeper waters.

Swimming while holding water rescue aids requires prior practice. Also, practice taking off your clothes while in the water. You can use them as an improvised rescue aid if you are already in the water when someone needs help.

Like the wading rescue, be sure to stay out of arms reach from the victim. Using the aid is much safer. Help drag him to safety and make sure you are stable before helping him onto land.

Tow Rescue

The tow rescue is one of the more "hands-on" swimming rescue methods.

Towing is when you have to grab the victim and bring him to safety. This may be for an unconscious victim, because you have no aid, or because the person is too panicked to grab your aid. The latter is the most dangerous as they may drag you under the water.

There are several types of rescue tows and the one you use will depend on the specific scenario.

Whenever you approach any victim for a tow, stop a few meters back from him first. Re-access the situation and calm the patient from a safe distance. Assuming he is conscious, tell him what you plan to do and that he should stay calm throughout the process. Continue to reassure him until he is safe on shore.

Armpit Tow

The armpit tow is useful with a cooperative or unconscious victim.

It allows you to approach from behind which is the safest position for you.

There are 2 types of armpit tows, i.e., the single and double. The one you use depends on what you prefer and the situation at hand.

To do an armpit tow you must first level the victim off. This is so you can keep his face out of the water and his airway clear. It also makes the victim horizontal to the water, making it easier for you to take him to safety.

Single Armpit Tow

Approach the victim from behind and grab his armpit with your same side hand (e.g., right armpit with right hand).

Place your elbow of your other arm in the center of his back. Pull with your hand as you push with your elbow. At the same time use a scissor kick to level him out, face up. Your other hand can assist in the process if needed.

While keeping hold of his armpit, swim so you will drag him in the direction you want to go. Sidestroke works well. Allow your arm to extend until you start to pull him.

Level the victim out and use sidestroke to drag him to safety.

Double Armpit Tow

When the victim is larger than you the double-armpit tow may be easier to use, especially to level him off.

Approach the victim from behind and grab both his armpits. Grab his right armpit with your right hand and his left armpit with your left hand.

Place both your elbows on his back and pull with your hands as you push with your elbows. As you do this, use an inverted breaststroke (like in survival backstroke) to help pull him flat on his back. He is now leveled.

Continue to kick until your arms lock straight and you pull him. You will need to use a continuous and strong kick to keep your victim’s face out of the water.

Using the double-armpit tow long distance is hard since you have no arms to assist with swimming. A good idea is to start with the double-armpit tow and then switch to the single armpit tow once you have momentum.

You can make the double-armpit tow easier with a flotation aid. Place any long, thin, buoyant object between you and your victim and then tow him as normal. A pool noodle or rolled up sleeping mat work well. If possible, swim up with it in place, e.g., across your chest and under your armpits.

When using an aid in this manner you may find it more difficult to level the victim. You will need to experiment to see what works best for you. You may even skip the leveling.

Use the double armpit tow with larger victims. Use a flotation aid if available

Once you have momentum, you can free up one of your hands to help you swim.

Every flotation device will act a little different. Experiment with things you are likely to have.

Cross Chest Carry

Use the cross chest carry when rescuing a victim through heavy surf. It is a good passive victim rear rescue but is more tiring than other rescues.

Approach the victim from behind and level him off (described in armpit tows). Encircle his chest with one arm. You can use your other hand on his side to help position him into a secure position.

Once you get a good grip, use sidestroke to swim him to safety. Your hip on his back helps to support him.

If the victim struggles, you can either tighten your grip or use a defense technique.

The cross chest carry is useful in heavy surf

Vice Grip Rollover and Tow

When you suspect your victim has a spinal injury, use the vice grip rollover and tow.

The vice grip rollover and tow allows you to turn a faced down victim over and tow him while protecting his spine. You can also provide rescue breaths to an unconscious victim while towing him. You may wish to do this if the distance to shore is further than you want to wait to perform CPR.

To do the vice grip rollover you need to be in water deep enough to allow you to submerge the victim. Grip his jaw with one hand and align your fore-arm along his sternum.

Place your other hand on the back of the victim’s head and align your forearm along his spine. Squeeze your elbows together. Create a “vice” on his head, neck, and spine between your forearms.

Use the vice grip rollover if you suspect a spinal injury

Move forward to level him off. While keeping him level and stable, roll under him to turn him over.

Keep this vice grip and use a scissor kick to swim.

Swim with a scissor kick

Giving rescue breaths is challenging but you can do it if the victim is not too big for you. Change your hand on his chin to a pistol grip and lean over to give the breaths.

Note: Giving rescue breaths will compromise the spinal support.

How to Defend Yourself Against a Drowning Victim

A drowning victim can be dangerous to anyone that gets within arms reach of him. He can grab and pull you down with extreme strength (due to increased adrenalin) to save himself.

This is why you only use a tow rescue as a last resort.

Practice these techniques on land first and then in the water. You want to do them instinctively.

Hold escape techniques in the water are different to on land. They consider the water and are non-violent.

They are non-violent because the victim does not intend to harm you. His instinct for survival over-rides his ability to see the negative effects. Defend yourself and then help the victim if possible.

General Defense

Whenever a casualty tries to grab you, or as soon as you escape his grip, treat him as an obstruction.

Adopt the defensive position by lying on your back with your feet pointed towards him. Kick your legs to make a big splash. Be careful not to kick the victim.

Kicking your legs does a few things:

  • Creates distance.
  • ​Communicates to the victim to not grab you.
  • ​Breaks the victim’s grip if he grabs your legs.

When grabbed there are universal things you can do to escape without harming the victim.

  • Press your chin to your chest, raise your shoulders, and cross your arms over your face. This prevents the victim grabbing you around your neck.
  • ​Pull a finger or toe of the victim to loosen his grip.
  • ​Poke his armpit.
  • ​Take a big breath and submerge. All releases are more effective when done underwater. Your victim will want to stay above water so if you go under he is likely to let you go. He will at least loosen his grip which makes your escape easier.

The following techniques show how to escape the most common drowning victim holds. You can adapt these to other situations.


The block is a good preventative technique to use when the victim lunges at you as you approach him from the front.

As he lunges raise your open palm against his upper chest.

Defend against a lunging victim with an open palm on his chest

Lean back and submerge, keeping your arm(s) extended as you do so. Swim away while you are underwater and the re-surface at a safe distance from the victim.

Wrist/Arm Grab Escape

When grabbed by your arm or wrist, reach across with your free hand and push down on your victim’s shoulder. Kick upward at the same time.

While keeping downward pressure on his shoulder jerk up hard with your trapped arm. Repeat this until you are free.

Release the victim and swim back to a safe distance.

Head Hold Escape

Use this technique when the victim grabs you around your head and neck from either the front or back.

Protect your throat by taking a quick breath and tucking your chin into your shoulder. Clap your hands above your head a few times so you submerge underwater. This will also drag the victim underwater which often encourages him to let you go.

Going underwater encourages him to let you go

Apply an upward grab and thrust with your thumbs on his brachial pressure points. Find these on the inside of his upper arm, a little above his elbow.

Press the pressure point on the inside of his upper arm

Swim away while you are underwater and the re-surface at a safe distance from the victim.

Swift Water Rescue Procedures

These rescues assume you only have one rope (such as a throw bag) and no other specialist equipment. Using this minimalist approach leaves you with the simplest of rope rescue techniques.

If you enjoy whitewater sports you should carry more equipment. Take a professional course on how to use it.

With all rope rescues, if you have the manpower, place safety rescuers. Put one upstream of the rescue to warn and redirect or stop anyone coming down the river. Also place one or more safety rescuers downstream of the rescue. This is in case a rescuer becomes a victim (e.g., if he falls in the water). Also, if the first rescue fails, there will be an immediate backup.

Note: Safety rescuers are not in most of the following demonstration pictures. Place them if you have the man-power.

Land Rope Rescues

Entering water is always more dangerous than performing a land-based rescue. With swift water the danger of a water-based rescue increases. Use a land-based rope rescue if possible.

Pendulum Rescue

The general idea of a pendulum rescue is to throw a rope to the victim so he can grab onto it as he drifts by. He then “swings” in an arc (like a pendulum) to shore.

The pendulum rescue is fast to deploy but two things can go wrong.

  • The victim may miss the rope.
  • ​If the rescuer is not anchored he may get pulled into the water.

To do the pendulum rescue you must position yourself downstream of the victim. Be sure to give yourself enough time to deploy the rope. Anchor yourself if needed, depending on the weight of the victim and the force of the current. If possible, hold on to a tree or have a second rescuer hold on to you.

You should also consider what obstacles the victim may swing into due to your placement.

Throw the rope a little in front of and past the victim so he can grab it as he floats past in the defensive position.

Instruct the victim to grab hold of the line and place it over his shoulder. This will orientate his head towards the rescuer. He must stay on his back. Keep stationary and allow the current to swing the victim towards the shore. Once the pendulum effect has finished, pull the victim the rest of the way.

Pendulum rescue

To counter-act the victim's weight, use a belay position by passing the rope around the upper bit of your butt. For extra stability, you can sit on it, and if you have a water rescue team, have someone help to hold you down.

Get someone to hold the anchor down if you can

If possible (and not dangerous), after you have thrown the rope, take a few steps back inland. This will increase the pendulum effect and reduce the load you need to bear. Let out some rope as you get repositioned. Once you are stable, pull the rope tight to start the pendulum.

Pull the rope tight to start the pendulum

Stabilization Line

A stabilization line is where you fix a rope across the river to catch the victim. It takes more time to set up but lessens the chances of missing the catch.

It is also useful for providing a general support line which the victim can use to hold his head above water. This can be a lifesaver in cases such as a foot entrapment when the current is forcing the victim down.

The stabilization line requires at least two people. One on either side of the river. You could do it with one person by tying one or both ends to something, but you would have to cross the river.

The smaller the angle between the rescuer(s) and the victim the easier it will on the rescuers.

Once the victim catches the line, he can traverse himself to safety.

Stabilization line

Kiwi Cinch

The Kiwi Cinch is the only simple land-based rescue you can use with an unconscious victim. It requires the victim to be drifting close to shore.

Do it by looping the rope around the victim and then pulling him in.

Like the stabilization line, it is possible to do the Kiwi Cinch with one person, but it is much easier with two. This demonstration uses two people.

Each rescuer coils one half of the rope from the center out. This way they will have the same length of rope.

As the victim drifts past, the rescuers throw the rope around him in a big loop. The two rescuers must communicate well so they throw their ends of the rope at the same time. They must hold on to the other end of the rope.

Tighten the loop around the victim's torso

Swimming Rope Rescues

Swimming rope rescues need the rescuer to enter the water to save the victim. This includes wading. Use them for unconscious victims, floating equipment, or anything that can’t self-rescue.

Simple Rope Tether

With the simple rope tether, attach the rescuer to a rope as he wades out to rescue the victim. Secure the other end of the rope on shore by tying it to something or having a second rescuer as a belayer.

Simple rope tether

Tethered Swimmer

The tethered swimmer rescue is when the rescuer swims up to the victim instead of wading. The rescuer will need two hands, so tie him to the tether.

Although a tied belay would work, it is best if the belayer is human. This way he can feed out the line as needed and help pull the rescuer and victim to shore. The belayer should feed the rope loose so the swimmer restricted by it.

When the victim is wearing something on his upper body (such as a life jacket) the rescuer can grab onto it. If not, use an armpit tow.

When there is a human rescuer on shore he can pendulum/pull the rescuer and victim to shore. If not, then they can drift downstream until the line gets taught. They will then swing towards shore.

All water rescue is risky, but river rescue training is more-so. This is a subject you need professional training in to keep safe.

Besides swift water rescue and recovery techniques, a professional course can teach you swift water rescue terminology, water rescue knots, swift water rescue hand signals, and more.

Water Rescue Awareness Online Conclusion

Now you know different types of water rescues which you can use as water rescue drill ideas, as open water rescue emergency response, for inland water rescue, and more.

They also make good water safety and rescue training exercises for flood rescue training or whatever.

Water rescue is dangerous. Follow these water safety basic rescue procedures to give yourself the best chance of success.

Did you enjoy this article about basic water rescue training? If so, please share it with your friends.

Meet Sam Fury

Driven by a passion for fitness and a commitment to helping men worldwide stay fit and capable, Sam formulated a plan that will get anyone to out-run, out-fight, and out-live the majority of the world's population.

As an avid traveler, he sought a solution that didn't require expensive gym memberships or exclusive clubs — that any man, anywhere, could take and improve his fitness straight away.

Now, after nearly two decades of relentless training, refining, simplifying, and perfecting the Survival Fitness Plan, Sam is eager to share this transformative program with the world.

Buy The Self-Defense Handbook
Buy Essential Parkour Training
Buy Survival Swimming
Buy Emergency Roping and Bouldering

The information on this website is made public for reference only.

Only you are responsible for how you choose to use the information or the result of your actions.

Consult a physician before undertaking any new form of physical activity.

© Survival Fitness Plan