A throwbag is a device which allows just about anyone to throw a rope accurately and quickly with a minimum of practice. There is nothing new about throwbags; they have been around since at least WWII, when the navy used them. A throwbag consists of a small nylon bag, with some sort of closure at the top, containing about 20-25 m of rope stuffed or coiled inside. The rope is ready to use; there is no need for any time- consuming uncoiling or untying before the bag is thrown. Although it is a simple device, there are many subtle details which can make one style of throwbag much more efﬁcient than another. While there are many types of commercially made throwbags available, I have never found a commercial throwbag that has all the different characteristics which I require, so I have developed my own design. Throwbags are easy to make, and making your own will allow you to produce a custom product which speciﬁcally meets your needs.
For the bag, I use coated nylon packcloth which is strong, reasonably robust and abrasion resistant, as well as being soft and ﬂexible. A problem with bags made of heavier material such as cordura or canvas, is that they tend to “bucket” when they are in the water. Such a bag holds it’s shape and acts like a “bucket” on the end of the rope, making the bag slower and more difﬁcult to retrieve, especially in river currents. Once my throw- bags are in the water, the softer material allows the bag to collapse and turn inside out, minimizing the resistance to the water, and making retrieval much easier. Some people also use nylon mesh for their bag material. However, I have found that mesh, while providing very little water resistance, has the tendency to always get caught whenever the bag is pulled through branches or other debris. I use bright colours for throwbags. Using a contrasting colour such as red and yellow between the handle and the bag helps the victim to see what to grab onto.
The size of the bag will depend on how much rope you plan to carry, and the diameter of the rope. The bag must be big enough to comfortably contain all the rope. A bag that is jammed tight when all the rope is inside is slower and more difﬁcult to repack. My bags are 30 cm long and about 18 cm in diameter. As a handle, I use a piece of 2.5 cm ﬂat nylon webbing, sewn lengthwise around the bag, with a 10 cm semicircle of webbing at each end. This handle is very useful, not only allowing easy throwing, but slipped over the forearm it supports the bag when repacking, and also provides an easy way of attaching it to your canoe.
A 5 cm strip of velcro at the top of the bag provides secure closure. Most of the other bags I have seen use a pull cord and spring clip to close the bag. This type of closure can be slower to open, especially if the strings be- come tangled or frozen while they are banging around in the bottom of your canoe.
The next choice is what kind of rope to use. I use 9.5 mm yellow twisted polypropylene for my throwbags. There are number of reason for this choice. First of all it is inexpensive and readily available in most stores. Throwbag ropes can take a good deal of abuse. If you use your throwbag often, up to half a dozen times a day like I sometimes do, the constant dragging over rocks and debris will quickly wear the rope out. When it wears out, I simply replace the rope. Twisted polypropylene is also stiff enough to allow rapid recoiling and shifting back into the bag, quickly making it ready for re-use.
I use 25 m of rope in the throwbags. One end of the rope goes through a 3 cm hole in the bottom of the throwbag and is spliced around the webbing loop below the bag. Because the handle of the throwbag is directly attached to the rope, it can be used as a handle by the victim without ripping the bag. Inside the bag, the rope passes through a 15 cm diameter disc of 12 mm plywood, which gives shape to the bag and provides some extra ﬂotation. The plywood can also provide a ﬁrm handle at the end of the rope. High density foam such as ensolite or camp mat foam can be used instead of plywood. It is softer, therefore to provide ﬁrm support for the bag, and to be of use as a handhold, a thick piece of foam is required which decreases the amount of space inside the bag. The other end of the rope has a ﬁst sized loop spliced ir1to it, with a piece of plastic tubing around the rope to make it more comfortable to hold on to.
To pack the bag, pass the webbing loop of the bag handle over your forearm. You can then use both hands to rapidly coil the rope into a handful of ﬁst sized coils. Once you have a handful, stuff them into the bag, and continue the process until all the rope is packed. The rope handle is left half protruding from the bag, with the Velcro closure fastened inside the rope loop. This keeps the bag closed, but also keeps the rope handle immediately and quickly accessible. The bag is now ready for use.
Although I use twisted polypropylene, you can use any kind of rope for your throwbag. If your throwbag is for your own personal use, and won’t be used very often, you may want to use a fancier rope. If you use a softer rope, such as a 12 mm mixture of woven nylon and polyprop, you will have to pack it a different way. Soft rope cannot be coiled in small coils quickly enough and then stuffed into the bag. However, the rope can be “run” into the throwbag quite quickly. The way to do this is to again put the throwbag over the forearm and then hang the loose rope over your shoulder. Grasp and pull the rope at your shoulder with one hand, while using the other hand to feed it directly into the throwbag.
To be of use, a throwbag must be readily accessible. I carry mine attached to a sling around a thwart by means of a carabiner. They may also be stored in the ends of the canoe, clipped under the deck plates.
Slings are made from a loop of rope or nylon webbing. Nylon climbing webbing, usually 20-25 mm wide is very strong, with a breaking strength of around 2500 kg. Webbing is often preferred over rope for slings as it takes up less space and can be easily sewn, removing any worry about loose or improper knots. Slings are usually tied to provide a loop about 70-80 cm long. Used in conjunction with carabiners, slings allow rapid and almost foolproof attachment of ropes, and easy and efﬁcient construction of anchor points. They effectively eliminate the time and skill required to tie many knots during a rescue. One or two slings per canoe should be enough for most rescue problems.
These small, individual pulleys were originally designed for rock climbing. They twist open so they can be applied anywhere on along the length of a rope. A couple of rescue pulleys can make your rope systems work easier and more efficiently.
A Rescue Saw
A light weight, collapsible triangular “Sven” saw, or a folding pruning saw, can be a very useful rescue tool. They are inexpensive and easy to carry. Just like a knife, when the time comes that you need a saw, nothing else will do the job. A saw is handy for cutting sweepers, dismantling log jams, or clearing a trail or helipad for an evacuation. It is also great for gathering ﬁrewood for that emergency ﬁre. A folding pruning type saw may be more versatile at times than a framed saw as it can cut more easily through boat hulls, or in the dense branches of a log jam. Safer to carry and less easy to cut yourself with than an axe, a saw will out in conﬁned spaces, and underwater, where an axe might be totally ineffective.
Carabiners, ﬁst-sized snap-links made of light alloy with a spring loaded gate, are indispensable in rescue operations. Developed for the Climbing community, Carabiners are handy for many purposes other than just rescues. One per paddler, or two per canoe will usually provide enough Carabiners to conduct most rescues. Carabiners can be purchased with a gate locking device which prevents the gate from opening unexpectedly during use. However, for water rescue I recommend the use of non-locking Carabiners, as locking gate carabiners are difﬁcult to apply and remove if you have to reach deep into fast moving water, or if the rescuer is not completely familiar with the device. Carabiners are strong and reliable, with a breaking strength of 1000-2500 kilograms depending on the style you choose. However, because most Carabiners are made of aluminum alloy, they will corrode if you spend much time paddling on salt water. Rinse them in fresh water after salt water use, and lubricate the hinge and spring sparingly with a silicone lubricant such as WD40.
First Aid Kit
A ﬁrst aid kit is an important item for any canoe trip. The group leader must ensure that the first aid kit is up to date, and is well stocked with sufﬁcient supplies for the size of the group. It is also the trip leader’s responsibility to see that the pack containing the ﬁrst aid kit is clearly marked and that all members of the group know exactly where it is being carried. All the members of the group should know who has the most medical training and the most first aid experience.
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Reprinted with permission from Canoeing Safety and Rescue by Doug McKown and published by Rocky Mountain Books, 2005