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An emergency situation, whether it is one you are involved in or one you are responding to can be a very stressful time. The following information is provided as a guide to help ensure your best outcome. Note: It is the responsibility of any coach boat to provide assistance to any capsized boat- even if from another sport, or a pleasure boat. 


  • Foremost, stay calm. How you approach a situation either in action or tone of voice will impact your actions and how others you are interacting with will respond.
  • Assess the situation. Are you the first person on the scene or are others already engaged in supporting others involved in the situation?
    • Identify what has occurred, and what needs to be done to ensure the safety of all involved, starting with anyone in the water.
    • If it is your athletes involved in the situation, determine quickly whether you will need assistance or the support of others. (A capsized 1x may be relatively easy to recover, but a 4+, 8+, someone having a medical emergency, crews involved in a collision, etc. may need more help than you offer on your own.
      • Dial 911, and/or flag down the support of others on the river if you need assistance! It is best to err on the side of caution than it is to give it a go and run into trouble.
    • If you are supporting another coach or lead person, ask how you can help before engaging. It is best if one person coordinates any rescue efforts.
      • This changes if the lead person is not able in some way to coordinate the situation, in which case communicate clearly how you are going to start helping.
  • If you dial 911 make it clear to the dispatcher that you need support from DC EMS. Cell systems will often redirect you to Arlington EMS dispatch if you are close to the VA shore.
    • If you get Arlington EMS ask to be transferred to DC because your issue is taking place on the river.
    • Be prepared to give the dispatcher a location or landmarks for responding to EMS services.
  • Be aware of your prop! Move slowly, keep track of individuals in the water, and how wind and current could possibly swing your motor prop towards individuals. If conditions allow, cut your engine while extracting individuals from the water.


This section is presented for river users who are without a safety launch present.

  • Individuals or small groups are encouraged to bring a cell phone with them in a waterproof, floating case, or a case that can be attached to the boat.
    • Carrying a noise-making device (i.e. an emergency whistle) is advised as well. Ensure the whistle is easily accessible in an emergency.
  • When possible it is best to practice with a partner or small group who can act in support of an individual in an emergency situation.
  • If the sculler or paddler is unable to self-extricate themselves from the emergency situation, they should dial 911, and/or flag down the support of others on the river if you need assistance! It is best to err on the side of caution.
    • Others in the training group should remain with the athlete who is experiencing the emergency and offer what assistance they are able. They should not, however, put their safety at risk.
  • If no help is available then the sculler or paddler should consider swimming the boat to shore.
    • At no time should the athlete leave their boat and swim for shore!


  • A coxswain’s job is to first ensure their safety, and then that of the members of their crew.
    • If no safety launch is present, activate EMS by trying to attract the attention of other river users, or if possible, dial 911.
    • Stay calm and keep your head. Keep chatter to a minimum- you want the athletes to pay attention when you give commands.
    • Keep your commands simple and succinct.
    • Listen for and follow coach or EMS instructions.
  • Take a headcount of all your athletes, and have them count down from the bow.
    • Remind the athletes to stay with the boat during whatever comes next, and to look out for each other.
  • If the shell has swamped, instruct the athletes to exit the shell in pairs, one pair at a time, on your call.
    • Bunch the athletes up together at either end of the shell.
  • If the shell has flipped, start by accounting for everyone in the shell.
    • Count down, and then buddy up everyone as above.


All crew members should be fully aware of what actions to take when a crew swamps, flips, or capsizes. In any of these events, the crew should remain with the shell! The shell will float (an important reason to close bow and stern ports before going on the water). (NOTE- oars are not watertight and will not work as a USCG-approved floatation device!) If for some reason the shell sinks below the surface, the shell should be rolled so the bottom is facing the sky (“keep up, guts down”), as this traps air underneath the shell and increases buoyancy. At no time should any crew member leave the boat to swim to shore! A short swim can be far longer due to currents, wind, water temperature, or fatigue. 

Stay calm. The first thing that should be done in a team boat is for the coxswain or bow person to get a headcount to make sure all rowers are accounted for. The crew, while holding onto the shell, should attempt to get the attention of other crews, or coaches on the water. Waving and making as much noise as is necessary to attract attention. If no crews or launches are on the water nearby, attracting the attention of people on shore is the next step. 

If the water and air temperatures are low, then the crew members should move along the shell and huddle together in pairs near the middle of the shell. Efforts should be made to keep as much of the body out of the water as possible. This can include draping one’s self over the top of the hull. A minimum of movement is key to retaining body heat. Constantly check on crew mates and keep up one on one communication. 

To recap procedures: 

  • Stay calm. 
  • Stay with the shell. 
  • Take a headcount. 
  • Pair up and keep communicating with each other. 
  • Attract the attention of launches, crews, or people on shore. 
  • If need be, roll the shell over and drape the body across the hull. (Sinking shell or cold conditions) 
  • Wait for help. 

There is one other event that should be addressed that is similar to what was mentioned above: man overboard. A violent crab by an oarsman can throw them out of the boat. In this situation, it is up to the ejected rower to stay below the surface of the water till the shell has passed (this avoids getting hit in the head by a fast-moving rigger(s)). The crew should stop rowing and hold water immediately so they can lend assistance. The crew should get the attention of the coaches’ launch while the rower treads water. In the event that a launch is not nearby, the crew can back up to the rower in question so the rower can use the shell as a floatation device. It is also feasible to pass an oar to the ejected rower, using the oar as a floatation device. Once removed from the water, the rower should be evaluated to determine if the rower is fit to continue or if a medical emergency is present. 


Recovering a shell that has capsized or has swamped requires care so that damage doesn’t occur doing so. Follow these steps for an effective outcome:

  • People come before equipment! Ensure the athletes are safe and being taken care of, then focus on equipment recovery.
  • Assess the shell for damage. The type and extent of damage will determine whether the shell has the potential to be rowed back to the dock (small boats).
  • Remove oars and place them in a launch. Recovery cox boxes as appropriate.
  • The shell should be rolled so it is keel down, “guts up.”
    • Position the launch parallel to one side of the boat.
    • Grab the riggers and lift them up and away from you. 
    • Switch to grabbing the riggers that are swinging up from below and push the launch away to allow the riggers to continue to rise to the surface, righting the shell into the proper position.
  • With the shell righted, it is now ready to be drained, reboarded, or towed as appropriate.

Singles and doubles:

  • If possible they should be drained of water. They may be carefully lifted to drain water or a pump may be used. Craining can occur as the shell is being righted.
  • The shell can then be carefully lifted into a launch for transport back to the dock or if conditions allow and the athletes are OK (i.e. warm weather) then they may reboard the shell. Place oars into the shell first, followed by the athlete(s) (one at a time).

Big boats (4x, 4+, 8+):

  • You should not attempt to lift a big boat to drain it as the weight is too extreme. Use of a bailer or pump is required.
  • If the boat cannot be drained it still may be towed, but it must be done so slowly and carefully to ensure damage does not occur. This method is not ideal.
  • Generally, it is best to tow a big boat rather than to reboard the shell. Here is the method for towing:
    • Use the 50ft rope that should be in your launch safety kit.
    • Loop the rope through the bow pair riggers and secure to itself forming a triangle beyond the wash box.
    • Loop the rope around the bow of the shell, closer to the bow ball end of the shell, and “tie it off” by threading the line through itself (like one does when starting to tie their shoes) so that the loose end is inline with the centerline of the shell, and on top of the deck. Doing so will ensure the shell tracks straight behind the launch as it is towed.
    • Tie the loose end of the rope to a cleat on the launch, or to another sturdy fixture on the launch. Do not secure to any part of the outboard engine, to anything that may be pulled loose (the shell is heavy, even without water), and will not interfere with any launch passengers.
  • Move away slowly and monitor the tow rope so it does not become entangled in the engine prop!
  • Keep in mind that the shell is free-floating, so if you stop suddenly the shell will continue on into the back of your safety launch or the dock. All driving motions should be smooth, subtle, and made with care.
  • Upon arrival at the dock, as much water as possible should, again, be removed from the shell. 
  • If the shell is submerged, use this procedure to empty the shell:
    • You will need as many hands as possible to help with this process. 
    • The outboard riggers should be tilted towards the sky. You will need to push the dockside riggers away from the dock. You will tilt the boat and raise it just enough to get water to drain from the internal structure. After this is complete, return the shell to a normal position alongside the dock.
    • Again use bailers or pumps to remove more.
    • After as much water as possible has been removed, line up people along the length of the shell and gently lift it from the water.
    • Lift to waists and drain more, or if possible to heads.
    • Alternate by lowering the bow and raising the stern, and vice-versa, to help drain the remaining water. The shell may also be rocked from side to side (gunnel up/down) to free more water.

After these steps are complete any shell should be placed in slings and gone over carefully to check for damage. The bow, stern, and deck caps should be opened and left so overnight to allow for the shell to completely dry out.