On the Waterfront: Rescue Board Drills for a Flatwater Facility

Rescue boards allow lifeguards to get to the victim before it's too late (Photo credit: Pete DeQuincy, East Bay Regional Park District)

A rescue board is an effective piece of lifesaving equipment that is ideal for flatwater waterfront facilities. If properly trained, a lifeguard can use it to move more quickly to the rescue site, to provide a barrier between themselves and an active victim, and to support multiple victims.

A rescue board is wider than a surfboard, providing more stability to the rescuer when they have a victim(s). The board has a fin attached to the bottom of the tail portion, allowing for more directional stability and control. The deck of the board should have a pad or be covered with a non-slip material, keeping the rescuer from sliding off. The board can also have multiple handles on its deck, assisting in launching and providing multiple grab points for a victim.

This article will discuss the mechanics and drills for:

  • Lifeguard body position and launching the board
  • Paddling and steering
  • Making contact and securing the victim

The lifeguard’s body position on the board is one factor in a successful launch. The lifeguard should be on the middle of the board with their upper body resting about two thirds up near the nose when in the prone position.  This should assist in evenly distributing body weight so the rescue board does not list to one side. Once the lifeguard has a good idea on body position, move to the launching sequence; the transition from holding the board in a standing position to being on top of the board in a prone position.

Lifeguards should practice picking up the board and lowering it to the ground, followed by mounting the board in the prone position, which will look like the lifeguard is doing a reverse push-up. Once the rescuer has a good idea of where they need to have their body on the board, move the board to two feet deep water and verify body position and balance are still correct.

Look for the reverse push-up and body position

When launching the board, the lifeguard should hold the board about midway with the nose angled up. The lifeguard will enter the water until he or she is about knee deep, mounting the board doing a reverse push-up. Avoid dragging or dropping the board when lower it into the water. Maintain control of the board at all times. Consistent forward motion helps stabilize the board during mounting.

It takes practice to become proficient at a rapid board launch in the prone position. It takes even more practice to launch from a kneeling position. And why bring this up? If the lifeguard is proficient, the kneeling position is much faster than the prone position when combined with a double arm pull. Have an observer look at your body position and make adjustments as needed.

Paddling can be done with a single arm or with both arms. Do a full pull through to maximize the pulling stroke. Double arm pull is more efficient than single arm, and double arm pull in a kneeling position is more efficient than from a prone position. Double arm pull in the kneeling position utilizes more muscle groups and allows the lifeguard to paddle longer distances before fatigue sets in.  However, to sees the benefits of paddling from a kneeling position takes consistent training.

Single arm paddling

Double arm paddling

Steering the board can be done with dipping a foot into the water: To go to the left, drag the left foot.  It can also be done leaning the body or by doing a wider arm pull away from the turning direction: To go to the left, do a wide pull with the right arm.

When approaching the victim, have the nose of the board pointed in their direction. The goal is to get as close as possible on one side of the victim without hitting them. Then just as you arrive at the victim, make contact, and slide off the opposite side of the board. This should be one fluid moment with a counter-balance effect: As you grab the victim, slide down into the water on the opposite side of the board, forcing the victim to rise and make solid contact with the board. The rescue board remains between both of you, providing a barrier in case the victim panics.

Due to lack of surf and immediate external danger, most victims are usually never loaded onto the rescue board and are simply brought in by the rescuer maintaining contact and using a swim kick to move the rescue board to shallow water.

BODY PLACEMENT DRILL: Start with the rescuer standing by the rescue board that is lying on shore (on its side or bottom down?). Do this drill in an area free of rocks and debris. OBJECTIVE: Quickly mount the board on land in the correct body placement for the prone position. TIMING GOAL: up to 5 seconds to complete the objective. Once the rescuer is proficient doing the prone position, move to the alternate position: kneeling. Timing goal will be the same.

Once the rescuer is comfortable with body placement on land, move to the water. Start in 2 feet of water. The objective and timing goal will remain the same. Practice both the prone and kneeling positions.

LAUNCH PROGRESSION DRILL: Rescuer will start on land holding the rescue board with the nose angled up. OBJECTIVE: Walk into the water, mount the board and do 5 double arm strokes. Maintain balance, continuous forward motion, and correct body position. TIMING GOAL: up to 10 seconds to complete the objective. Once proficient, move to the variations:

  • Quick launch (faster than walking into the water) no time change due to the increased chance of falling off. Once proficient, change the timing goal to 5-7 seconds
  • Fast launch, (running) no time change due to the increased chance of falling off. Once proficient, change the timing goal to 5-7 seconds
  • Launch in the kneeling position, timing goal the same as quick launch and fast launch

Test your lifeguards with a slalom course

SLALOM DRILL: In the water have 6 rescuers in a straight line roughly 15-20 feet apart. In crowded water, the rescuer must be able to successfully navigate a rescuer board around the pubic without slowing down and without hitting anyone. OBJECTIVE: Maneuvering from left to right, paddle around each rescuer going through the whole line. Do not make physical contact with any of the rescuers. TIMING GOAL: None. Once, rescuers feel comfortable with zigzagging through the standing rescuers move to the variations:

  • Maneuver through the course only using foot drags
  • Maneuver through the course only using body leaning and arms
  • Maneuver through the course in a kneeling position
  • Have the 6th standing rescuer move out 30 feet, and becomes a turnaround point and go back through the course. Slide to the back of the board, raising the nose up and utilize an eggbeater kick to do a 180 degree turn
  • “The close shave” Maneuver through the course and have the side of the board almost graze each standing rescuer

TEN STROKE CHANGE-UP DRILL: This is a long paddle endurance drill, set up two points roughly 200-800 yard distance apart. OBJECTIVE: Take ten double arm strokes from the prone position, then move to a kneeling position and take 10 double arm strokes. Continue until the change-up until reaching the endpoint. Repeat. Focus should be on steady deep strokes and smooth transitions between prone and kneeling positions.

SPEED RESCUE DRILL, RESCUE BOARD VERSION: Establish designated rescue points and have a victim at point “A.” OBJECTIVE: Get to the designated point as quickly as possible. TIMING GOAL: Up to 20 seconds at most. These designated points are far from shore. If the lifeguard had to make a swimming rescue to these designated points, it would take over 30-60 seconds before they would make contact with the victim. Once proficient, move to the variations:

  • Try from multiple towers using the same rescue point
  • Multiple victims for same rescue point
  • Multiple rescuers and multiple victims for same rescue point, both using rescue boards
  • Multiple rescuers and multiple victims for same rescue point, one using a rescue board , one using a rescue tube to provide support

Not all waterfronts will need a rescue board due to size of the swim area and the nature of the swim environment. If your waterfront facility has rescue boards, evaluate if you’re adequately providing enough time for training and preventative maintenance. Becoming proficient at using a rescue board takes time, however the benefits outweigh the challenges. Good luck and enjoy.

For successful rescue board rescues, the lifeguard must keep visual contact with the victim. If the victim submerges, the lifeguard must have a good last seen point and maintain it. As they approach the last seen point, the lifeguard will rise up and look down into the water for the victim.

The lifeguard prepares to grab the submerged victim and positions his body to effectively use counter-balance to pull the victim to the surface.

Depending on the depth and urgency, the lifeguard can reach deep and still maintain solid contact with the rescue board by draping his legs on the opposite side of the board to assist in balance.

Success comes from practice and confidence in your skills and abilities.



Rescue Board 1-Hour Training Curriculum (12 lifeguards, 4 rescue boards)


Briefing: 5 minutes


Body Placement Drill (if needed) 3 minutes


Launch Progression Drill with variations: 12 minutes


Speed Rescues 10 minutes


Speed Rescues with variations 10 minutes


Slalom or Ten Stroke Change-up 15minutes


Debrief/Break-down: 5 minutes

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Comment by Pete DeQuincy on June 14, 2013 at 6:06pm

Joe and Gary, Thanks for taking the time to read the posting.

Comment by Gary Thill on June 13, 2013 at 11:33am

Great content as always, Pete. But you've outdone yourself with the pics!!

Comment by Joe Andrews on June 12, 2013 at 3:34pm

Great Write up and excellent use of the pictures, Thanks you for sharing.

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