Chris Brain Safety series: No.6… the chest harness

Chris Brain Coaching

No.1: Safety series: be prepared and stay safe:

No.2: working as a team on the water:
No.3: swim, chase, throw:
No. 4: get the advantage
No. 5: What if…
By Chris Brain

In the sixth part of the paddler safety series we will be looking at the quick release chest harness that many paddlers choose to wear on their PFD.

It is important to remember that there is no substitute for professional training in this area and this must be combined with experience to effectively use the ideas and techniques contained in this series. This article is not intended to replace formal training.

Our previous articles have focused on preparation, simple rescues, working together on the river and above all avoiding incidents happening in the first place. The techniques covered in this article assume that you have read the previous chapters.

The harness

What is it?
For most paddlers, a chest harness is a feature that comes as part of most higher end whitewater or rescue specific PFDs. On some PFDs, the harness is attached in such a way that it is stitched into the PFD and cannot be removed and on others the harness is removable should you wish to wear the PFD without it. Essentially the harness is a nylon webbing belt which sits around the outside of the PFD at around chest height and feeds through a quick release buckle situated on the front of the PFD. Each manufacturer positions their chest harness release buckle in a slightly different position and on some PFDs (with a removable harness) it can be switched to be on either the left or the right side. Each chest harness will have a rear attachment point, usually situated between the shoulder blades on the rear of the PFD. The attachment point is usually indicated by the presence of a metal ring to clip a locking karabiner to.

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What is it for?
The chest harness can serve a range of functions for the whitewater paddler, with many paddlers assuming the use of a chest harness is only for ‘live bait’ rescues.
The chest harness is a rear attachment point for a rescuer, whether this is a bank based rescuer or a water based rescuer. This rear attachment point allows us to be positioned and supported from the bank, for example if we need more support for a throwline rescue. This support could be through the use of a fixed anchor point such as a tree or boulder or even from another paddler (or paddlers) holding a line or sling to offer assistance.

The attachment point could also be used to give support to other paddlers in situations such as accessing the water’s edge to help retrieve a swimmer or fish kit and equipment out of an eddy. It could even be used as an attachment point to assist in the retrieval of a stuck or entrapped paddler if we need to be able to offer support in this situation.

As many paddlers know the chest harness can also be used as a way of attaching a rescuer who is going to enter the water. However, this doesn’t have to be a swimming rescue (live bait), it could in fact be used to safeguard a rescuer that may enter the water on foot, for example to wade out to clip a stuck boat or to retrieve equipment.

It is important to recognise that the use of a chest harness, during either a bank or water-based rescue, carries its own risks. It is essential that we understand the safe use of our harness and recognise its strengths and weaknesses during its range of practical applications as a rescue tool. Of course, going into the water attached to a rope carries a potentially high (or even unnecessary) level of risk for a rescuer and their team and even though a ‘live bait’ rescue may well be effective, I would personally choose a lower risk rescue instead if it was possible.

Chris Brain Coaching

All chest harnesses fitted to any current PFD should come with instructions on the threading of the quick release buckle. The quick release buckle consists of three main parts, the metal friction plate, the plastic buckle and the release toggle.

The tape is threaded through the metal friction plate and then into the plastic quick release buckle. The length of tape that is exposed after the buckle has been closed is important, the harness has to be sized and fitted carefully. Since each manufacturer and user is different, a recommendation as the correct length of tape exposed from the buckle cannot be made. To size and fit the harness correctly, ensure that when the harness is released using the toggle, that there is complete separation of the tape from the quick release mechanism, i.e the whole buckle mechanism becomes separate from the webbing. For most paddlers this means that the excess tape should be trimmed to be very short and bank based practice should be performed to ensure effective separation of the tape from the buckle prior to using in a real rescue.

When it comes to clipping into the attachment point of the chest harness, this must be done with a locking karabiner. If a non-locking karabiner (snapgate) is used there is potential that the rescuer could become unclipped from the line or if the karabiner is snagged on a loop on the PFD that they would be in a position where they could not release from the system (see photos).

Where a metal ring is present as the attachment point on the PFD we should clip a locking karabiner to this. Should the ring not be present (for example if it has been lost) leaving only the webbing of the harness visible on the rear of the PFD, this could be used as an alternative attachment point. If this is the case, we should clip our karabiner directly into the webbing where the ring previously would have been located. We would clip the rescuer using the attachment point at the bag end of the throw line, with the other end of the rope being clean and of course knot/handle free.

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What about a cows tail?
A cows tail is a short piece of elasticated webbing which makes it easier for a paddler to clip themselves into a line or to anchor themselves using the chest harness. For some paddlers it is possible to clip their own rear attachment point on a chest harness without a cows tail, but this usually involves good flexibility and the ability to reach the centre of your back with your hands. It would also mean that the rescuer wouldn’t be able to visually check the karabiner at their attachment point, which could be set up incorrectly. A cows tail does make this situation easier, but for most rescues involving a chest harness, someone else would be managing the line meaning that they could clip you in instead. A cows tail also adds a potential snagging point on a PFD when not in use, however in theory it should still be quickly releasable from the PFD. The opinion on these does vary depending on the paddler, their experience and the intended application of the chest harness. It is of course an individual decision, but I am not a huge fan of the cows tail as I feel it adds a piece of equipment to my PFD that I would rarely use and would get in the way for most my paddling the rest of the time.

Chris Brain Coaching

Following the research by Loel Collins and Chris Onions it was found that quick release harnesses, when not sized or fitted correctly, do NOT perform consistently. To achieve a consistent and reliable performance of the harness, the length of tape being pulled through the buckle and metal plate must be trimmed to ensure total separation of the release mechanism and tape when the harness release is activated. This sizing and fitting should be done prior to real live use using the test mentioned earlier). To release the harness, the buckle should be activated with the toggle. If these two steps are followed then the tape can be threaded through the metal friction plate before entering the plastic buckle. When we release using the toggle the buckle is opened completely and pulled away from the PFD. If the tape is adjusted to the correct length it will pull completely free from the buckle. Other tests have shown that releasing by pulling the webbing in this situation is not effective at separating the webbing from the buckle.

Once the rescuer has pulled the toggle to release from the system, they should form a star shape with their body by spreading out their arms and legs which will create more drag and aid in the effectiveness of releasing from their rear attachment point.

If your chest harness has Velcro™ that is holding the attachment ring in place, this could be removed as it may impede the releasing of the harness in a low load situation. Additionally, if your PFD has a lot of loops or ‘tubes’ that the tape is fed through during the fitting of the harness, do consider the fact that during a release these will increase the friction in the system which may cause the release to fail. If possible, try and use as few loops/tubes to secure your harness in place as is practical.

In Use

Live bait
Before you dive straight in on the end of a rope, it might be worth working out what situations you would need to use this type of rescue. If a swimmer can help themselves, could they not just swim to the side without the need us to perform a higher risk rescue like live bait? Would a boat based rescue or a throwline be more suitable? The situation that we are most likely employing a live bait rescue is likely to be for an injured or unconscious swimmer or someone not capable of swimming to the bank or receiving a throwline.

Without a doubt ropes and swimmers (especially those attached to a rope) are a combination that can quickly lead to deadly complications. However, when performed correctly by skilled and experience rescuers, it can be exceptionally effective.

Chris Brain Coaching

The rescuer/swimming going into the water should already have their harness fitted correctly and are clipped into the attachment point on the rear with a locking karabiner and the bag end of the throwbag. They gather a few loose coils of rope (using a lap coiled method) and place it in their hand. The rescuer/swimmer is looking for a position where they can leave the bank at water height, where they will swim the shortest distance to get to their target.

The bank based team should ensure that the rope is well managed and is tangle free in a neat pile on the banking. This should be positioned away from potential snagging points such as tree roots and cracks in the rock. The bank team need to think about where they will aim to land their rescuer once they contact with the swimmer. It is important that they think about being a mobile team rather than a statically positioned as this will allow them to move their rescuer and swimmer into position more effectively. The bank team must consider the amount of force that may be applied during the rescue, they should look to manage the load dynamically and should consider having more than one person holding the line to manage the potential force which will be applied (for a more in depth look at this technique, read the previous chapter relating to throwbag rescue.

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Swim out
Timing is critical, experience and practice will tell you when you need to swim out to make effective contact with your swimmer. If you go too early you’ll be washed downstream of them, too late and you’ll be trying to catch them up. Additionally, if there isn’t enough slack in the system to allow you to reach your swimmer, you’ll be pulled up short before you get there.

When you’re ready to go, drop the coils of rope in your hand and swim out, don’t dive in! You’ll be faster by staying on the surface of the water rather than leaping out like superman. Swimming out rather than diving in will also help to avoid impact from rocks which may be under the surface of the water.

At this point the bank based team may need to give out rope to ensure that you have enough slack to reach your swimmer. If they don’t give you enough the rope will go tight before you make contact.

Grab the swimmer
When you make contact with your swimmer, turn them over onto their back, grab their shoulder straps of their PFD and hold them in towards your chest in front of you. Hold on tight at this point, it is now up to the bank based team to use the flow of the water to bring you back in.

Chris Brain Coaching

Bring them in
Once the rescuer has made contact and has pulled the swimmer back in, that is the signal for the bank team to swing them into their target eddy. By adjusting their position on the bank, they can change the angle of the rope and the rescuer/swimmer to the flow and use this to pendulum them into an eddy. Where possible they manage the load dynamically so that there is less force on the bank team and on the rescuer/swimmer. For information on managing the load dynamically please refer to the previous chapters covering throwlines. Remember that the flow will do most of the work to bring them into the eddy, you shouldn’t need to be dragging them back towards the bank or hauling on the line.

If you are dealing with an unconscious casualty, its first aid time. Check to see if they are breathing and if not give them five breaths followed by a minute of CPR. Call for help if there is no recovery and continue with your CPR (see previous chapter for water based first aid.

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Additional considerations

It goes without saying that due to the high-risk nature of a chest harness based rescue that this requires practice in a controlled environment before using it for real. I can highly recommend that you attend formal safety and rescue training with a coach who will be able to help you work through these techniques in a safe and controlled way.

During a live bait rescue you must consider the potential outcomes What will happen to me if I go in the water now? What if I miss the swimmer? What if I need to release and what is the likelihood of this situation? We must aim to use alternative lower risk rescue techniques if they are available.

One thing to consider is whether you need a chest harness at all? Many paddlers choose not to wear one for a range of reasons. They might not be trained/experienced enough to use it safely, they might not feel that they are likely to use it in the locations they paddle in, or they simply might not be prepared to take the risks associated with this type of rescue. It also goes without saying that we most certainly shouldn’t attempt to improvise a harness in any situation or use one that isn’t specifically designed for your exact model of PFD.


For this article to be possible thanks go to Loel Collins and Chris Onions who performed research into the effectiveness of chest harness release and the various factors, which contribute to a successful release. Their work has ultimately influenced our current understanding of the chest harness and its practical implications in modern whitewater paddling and of course has shaped much of the content contained in this article. Thank you guys for your hard work. Additional thanks go directly to Loel Collins for his assistance with this feature.

Chris Brain coaching

Chris Brain
Chris has been kayaking, canoeing and coaching for the last 15 years and runs his own business Chris Brain Coaching, delivering paddlesport coaching, safety and rescue courses and REC First Aid Training. http://www.chrisbraincoaching.com. Email: chris@chrisbraincoaching.com

Chris would like to thank Pyranha Kayaks, Palm Equipment, VE Paddles and Go Kayaking for making fantastic kit and their continued support. Photo: Patrick Beavis

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