Marlow PR1 Capsize Drill/Training and PR1 Policy

7 Dec

Marlow Rowing Club recently experienced a PR1 capsize in the river which was attended to promptly and successful, but did highlight a number of learnings. These learnings we integrated into the club’s revised “PR1 Policy” which included an updated and more comprehensive capsize drill for PR1s and capsize rescue training for PR1 safety supervision. This post shares overviews of the following for everyone’s reference:

  • PR1 Capsize Drill and Training
  • PR1 Protocol
  • PR1 Capsize Incident Report

It’s quite a long piece (probably my longest), but full of useful information for any PR1 athlete or coach.


Marlow RC recently held its annual club capsize drill which included a special PR1 capsize section. The drill was not just to train and test one of the new PR1 athletes, but also to formally train two of the adaptive squad supporters (Paul Thomas, David Duckworth) as well as to simply continue the ongoing process of testing a number of PR1 capsize and recovery techniques.

Marlow RC has a strict protocol for PR1 on-water safety cover:

  • All PR1 athletes must have completed a capsize drill before being allowed on water in a 1x.
  • All PR1 athletes must have direct supervision during all water sessions (safety cover may take more than one PR1 athlete as long as they stay within 50 feet of each other for easy observation and ready access to attend to any needs for assistance.
  • All Safety Launch Supporters must be formally trained in PR1 capsize and recovery.

The athlete drill went through the following progressive steps:

  • Holding Breath Out of Water – The very first step is to check the athlete’s comfort with holding their breath. Just closing their mouth and pinching their nostrils is effective. Many people start at about 20 seconds when they first try it. But once they get more familiar with the sensation, they can progress to 40 seconds quite easily. Going to a minute duration starts to get a bit uncomfortable for someone not practiced, but I have trained myself to get to 80 seconds. To put these times into perspective, the time it took for our PR1 athletes to remove 3 straps and extract himself from the upturned boats was 8 seconds. So this exercise also reinforces that the one has the “time” to, in essence, do an extraction 4 times over with the time one can hold one’s breath.
    HINT – An important trick to extending “holding” one’s breath is to actually exhale a tiny bit every ten seconds or so. This releases some CO2 and pressure on the lungs which makes them feel a bit better.
  • Holding Breath In Water – Then this step is repeated in the water by simply getting in the pool and putting one’s face in the water. This step is important because often the water can produce psychological stresses that the athlete needs to get accustomed to.
  • Progressive Strap Removal – The PR1 does 4 capsizes. The first is upturning the boat with no straps on at all just to get used to the dunking process. Then, they do a capsize with 1 belt on (waist), 2 belts (waist and chest), and 3 belts (waist, chest and legs).

Then, we moved on to the Safety Supporter training. This training is focused on righting an upturned boat that a PR1 athlete has been unable to extract from. Our current assessment (which was informed strongly by the British Rowing capsize drills we attended) is that the first recourse is to attempt to right the boat. With the correct technique, all but the smallest person trying to right the largest athlete can get the leverage to accomplish this maneuver. It is the quickest and easiest way to get the PR1 athlete above the water. And even in the situation where the boat cannot be fully righted, we found that it could be “half” righted quite easily (it’s the second half that’s the hardest). “Half” righting has the huge benefits (a) allowing the athlete to get a fresh breath of air, and (b) providing strong reassurance to the athlete that things are under control and he will get sorted out (see below).

The steps in the capsize training for Safety Supporters were as follows:

  • Lightweight Athlete – Our capsize drill happened to take place with the club’s junior squad (new joiners getting their capsize drills). We found a quite lightweight volunteer (thank you Aurelia) so the trainees could try the maneuvers with low weight resistance to get the technique down first (see video below).
  • Righting Without Blades – The blades get in the way so performing the maneuver without blades (and a full size adult athlete) is useful to focus on the technique first.
  • Righting With Blades – Of course, in the real world, there will be blades in the way so there final step is to do a full capsize righting with blades.

Pararowing Coaching Assistant and Safety Cover Paul Thomas commented:

  • I was very pleased that we could do this session. Even though we expect athletes to be able to free themselves in the event of a capsize, as a coach it’s nice to know that you could assist if needed.”


  • Knees to the Boat Hull – When the boat, with the athlete in it, was completely capsized, standing on the rigger brought the boat upright enough for the athlete to get a breath, but not enough for me to reach the opposite rigger and get additional leverage. Reaching across the boat to the opposite rigger brought my weight over the top of the boat and reduced the leverage. The rigger, that was stood on, was roughly at 90 degrees to the surface of the water and I was in the water up to my waist. Possibly, the buoyancy from the rescuer being partially immersed in the water was the reason he couldn’t get the boat fully upright. When he brought my knees up against the hull of the boat, most of his mass out of the water, and gripped the opposite saxboard, he was less buoyant and had more weight to leaver the boat upright.
  • Half Righting – It’s quite easy getting the PR1 athlete halfway turned so if there is difficulty in getting them full upright, then talk to the athlete saying, “I’ve got you. I’m having some difficulty getting you all the way around. Get some air and when you are ready let me put you under again and have a better go of getting you fully around.”
  • Athlete Size – Big athletes are easier to capsize and harder to right (as plan B). So wider placed or large safety pontoons are a good idea for such athlete to reduce the chances of capsize.
  • Remove Pontoon First – At the end, we wondered if it would be easier to right the boat if you pulled the pontoon on your side off first to remove the pressure of pushing its buoyancy under water? It makes sense and the Wintech floats come off quite easily (not so easily for the Fillipi and Swift boats). Something to try next time.


Adaptive/Pararowing Squad Coordinator Responsibilities

  • Ensure Athlete Responsibilities and Safety Supervision Responsibilities are adhered to at all time.
  • Perform capability and risk assessment on PR1 athlete as a first step to the athlete participating in squad activity.
  • Ensure that all PR1 seats are affixed to the adaptive boat using (a) at least three bolts, and (b) wide washers.
  • When providing introductory training, reinforce the requirement to hold onto blades at all times in order to minimise the risk of capsize.

PR1 Athlete Responsibilities

  • Pass PR1 capsize drill before going afloat in any boat 
  • Before setting off, close eyes and practice strap removal

PR1 Safety Supervision Responsibilities

  • All PR1 athletes assessed for impairment, capability, experience, and size. To include any anticipated complications arising from capsize.
  • All PR1 safety cover to:
    • Participate in PR1 capsize drill and successfully practice capsize recovery.
    • Carry a Victorinox Rescue Tool on the boat (from the Pararowing toolbox)
    • Be physically capable of effecting a recovery from the water with no medical conditions that would a risk to the rescuer if they entered the water. Extremely competent swimmer. (Swim tested)
  • Ratio of one launch per PR1 athlete
  • PR1 launches are designated as Safety Launches and as such must carry one driver and one crewman. (Rowsafe requirement & experience from Tom’s rescue & from capsize drill where one person was unable to right Tom). 
  • The crewman must be rescue trained. (Rowsafe requirement). 
  • The launch must carry a communications device and be able to call for assistance as required. 

River and Weather Conditions

  • No PR1 outing in flows above 80 m3/s
  • No PR1 outings where the water temperature is below 8c
  • No PR1 outings where there is a significant risk from wind or other risk factors.


BACKGROUND – Tom Mann suffers from MS which has progressed to the point that he now uses a wheelchair.  Marlow RC has an extensive adaptive/pararowing programme established for 8 years with a broad range of equipment and support rowers/coaches.  Tom joined Marlow RC in June to learn rowing for fitness and recreation.  Squad Coach Bruce Lynn conducted an in gym assessment when he arrived as well as a water assessment in a single.  The PR1 boat used was unsteady because the pontoons did not reach the water and Tom had difficultly managing the basic stroke.  As a result, it was decided to coach him in a 2x boat with a coach (Bruce) in bow for 3 sessions to teach him the basics of the rowing stroke. 

While that teaching technique was effective for providing boat stability, it produced a number of problems of getting the set-up just right.  The 2x boat does not have PR1 riggers and so when you have a PR1 in a supported 2x, it takes quite a bit of finagling the get the blades set up so they can move in a roughly PR1 fashion.  This challenge was compounded by his somewhat exceptional height (6’ 4”) which further limited how the seat could be set up in the 2x.  While Tom had come a long way in managing the technique (in his last session, he had gone 2k), it was felt that the 2x format was hindering his progress and the decision was taken to put him into a 1x where the set-up could be customized for his requirements.

SESSION – The session started off slightly breezy, but when Tom set off, the conditions were ideal – calm, little stream, sunny, warm air, warm water.  The session had strong support coverage with 5 support/coaching launches on the water for 5 boats (1:1 coverage).  Tom was paired with Dr. Paul Thomas, a highly experienced veteran sculler who has been supporting the adaptive squad for a number of years and has experience coaching PR1 and even rowing as a support rower for PR1 (and even innovated with how PR1 support rowing was done –  Bruce checked Tom’s set up, briefed Tom and Paul on the eventuality of a capsize.  The safety pontoons were set at the absolute lowest (into the water) setting to provide the most stability.  Tom was the last athlete to set off and Bruce followed Paul and Tom at the outset to make sure that he was starting off okay.

RISK ASSESSMENT – The Para coaches are always performing risk assessments and the following considerations were made when boating Tom and determined that the risk of capsize was acceptable:

  • Conditions – Ideal (see above)
  • Safety Cover – 1:1 including dedicated cover for Tom.
  • Athlete Preparedness – Tom had not had a PR1 capsize drill, but just that day had scheduled to join Stratford’s being held in mid-September in Banbury.  As a result, Bruce went through a special briefing with Tom before setting off about what to expect and do in the event of a capsize.  Tom had done capsizes in kayaks and was a strong swimmer.


About 100 yards setting off from the dock, Tom let go of one of his blades and when reaching for it capsized the boat.  Paul immediately went alongside the boat to assist and not seeing Tom out immediately, went into the water to assist by using the “pull” technique (ie.  get on one side and lever the boat to right it –  Tom clearly had not been able to remove his straps and so by levering the boat, he was able to get a breath and then Paul and Tom continued to work on extraction.  Seeing the capsize, Bruce moved immediately to join the assist (Bruce was 30 meters away).  Seeing that Tom had not immediately extracted himself and Paul was not able to immediately right Paul, Bruce also went into the water to assist and Tom’s boat was turned upright.  The entire time from capsize to righting was probably under a minute.  Upon righting, Bruce and Paul checked Tom’s situation and while a bit flustered he was in good spirits.  The major thing we noted was that Paul’s seat rails had nearly wrenched off from the pressures of the righting and his considerable size (ie.  100kg).  A third safety launch driven by Chris Johnson had arrived and Bruce and Chris transferred Tom from the scull to the safety launch.

Paul described the capsize in more detail are follows:

  • We waited until I had the launch afloat and then pushed Tom off the stage to let him paddle across to the other side of the river, which he did perfectly well.  We then got into a spell of light paddling, and while Tom was making progress into the mild headwind, he looked a bit tentative as most new learners do, so I asked him to stop and get into the safe position.  Tom obviously knew what that meant and stopped with the blades perpendicular to the boat, so we then resumed light paddling.  We had just stopped briefly a few tens of metres further on and were just talking about the position of the hands on the grips, then Tom let go of the blades.  Tom looked like he was trying to put your hands on the sides of the boat to centre himself on the seat, but without the extra stability of the blades just shuffling the weight around a bit was probably enough to cause a capsize.  In the launch, I was just a couple of metres away and moved closer carefully before turning off the engine (kill cord would of course have done that if I had not).  It was difficult to see under the boat and decide if Tom had been able to unstrap himself and I didn’t want him either coming up under the launch or me jumping in on top of him, but it looked safe to enter the water to help with righting the boat, which we managed after a couple of goes to get a good grip.  I think the seat must have become partially detached from the boat as it was righted.“


  1. Response Time – Due to strong safety cover and good preparation, the capsize was attended to properly and very quickly.
  2. Righting Technique – There has been some discussion as to whether (a) attempted righting, or (b) focus on strap removal is the most effective technique for a PR1 capsize.  In this instance, the righting approach was definitely better.  The partial righting provided the athlete with both a breath and reassurance of support.  Furthermore, one of the major questions was whether righting would work for a bigger athlete and this athlete was about as big as they get and yet Paul was able right him himself (Bruce’s support really just provided extra precaution and maybe shaved a few seconds of the speed of righting).


  1. Strap Removal Practice – While Tom was briefed on strap removal on the dock, we did not do a step that we often do which is having the PR1 athlete close their eyes and remove their straps as practice.
  2. Strap Removal Grips – Tom reported that when he reached for the end of the strap on his chest, he struggled to local the loop to grip and proposed have a larger loop to make it easier.
  3. Seat Rail Securing – With the weight of the athlete and the torque on the levering him out the water, all of the washers ripped right through the carbon fiber and the seat was detached.  This situation complicated the strap removal as the athlete was using his hands to hold onto the side of the boat (which did assist in the effectiveness of the righting technique).
  4. “Don’t Let Go of the Blades” Reminder – The single biggest cause of 1x capsizes are letting go of the blades.  When Tom first went out in a single, Bruce strongly reiterated the imperative to not let go of the blades no matter how unsteady things get.  It is likely that because of the more secure stability of the supported double (a wide adaptive double with floats), this imperative was lost a bit and was not re-emphasized when Tom set off in the single.  This appears to be the root cause of the capsize.  In the double sessions, Tom could just adjust himself while the coach in bow stabilized the boat.  According to Paul’s account above, Tom appeared to think that he could do that in a single.
  5. Buoyancy assessment – Would it be possible to assess the buoyancy of the boat before pushing off from the stage?  The best we could think of was if we added both floats but not the inside scull, and then asked the athlete to lean towards the bank with the coach holding on to the wing.  But the risk with a heavy athlete is that it might be asking a lot of the coach to prevent the boat rotating anyway if the inside float does not provide enough buoyancy.  Also, we need to bear in mind that even if the athlete cannot roll the boat by moving body mass alone, a scull stuck in at the finish can also provide an additional rotation torque to help roll the boat over.
  6. Seat Inflatable – Would it be possible to engineer an inflatable (like the life jackets) to the back of a PR1 seat such that in the event of a capsize the inflation would help raise the boat above the water to facilitate righting it or moving it to make it easier for the athlete to get a breath while extraction takes place.


  1. Big athletes have higher risk of capsize.  It seems obvious but is worth reiterating for future risk assessments.  Their higher center of balance and the heavier weight (which can overwhelm the safety float support more easily) make the risk of capsize higher.  We always emphasize that safety floats do not eliminate the risk of capsize and this is all the more the case with larger athletes.  In fact, in 8 years of para coaching, I have observed 4 single scull capsizes with floats on and ALL were with large athletes (ie.  Tom Walden, Xander Van der Poll, George Bull-McLean, paratrooper capsize at Docklands during 2015 rowing camp).
  2. Fixed-Seats need big washers on their rails.  The PR1 single had recently been fitted with the new model Wintech fixed seats.  The washers that came with the seat were rubber-padded 15mm washers.  In general, I recommend a minimum of 20mm to secure the rails.  We have observed smaller washers digging into the carbon fibre (mostly from session with Paralympian Kingsley Ijomah who exerted considerable force on the rails with his strength).
  3. Fixed-Seat rails need all 3 bolts affixed.  The rails come with 3 attachment holes, but most conventional seat rails are affixed with 2 bolts.  When the Wintechs fixed seat rails were installed, only 2 bolts were used.  Using all 3 would further (with the wider bolts) ensure against the rails coming loose/through with a capsize righting of a large athlete.
  4. 4. Strap-removal practice before setting off is best practice.  When veteran PR1 Sally Hopewell came in from her session, she noted that she did make a habit of practicing strap removal once every time before she sets off.
  5. Extraction protocol – After having participated in righting technique session with British Rowing and assisting which this recovery, I would summarise the optimal rescue technique as follows.  “Athlete – Your primary objective is to remove your straps.  Focus on that and realise that if you have trouble, you will be assisted to either right the boat or assist you with the straps.  Coach/Safety – Your primary objective is to right the boat by getting on one side, reaching over, pushing down on the near-side rigger with your foot and turning the boat.  Even if you are not successful in completely righting the boat, you can very likely provide enough lift so the athlete can get a very helpful and reassuring breath.”  I think if we had focused on trying to fiddle with the straps (ie.  cutting or removing) we would have added dangerous delay and increased the unease/panic of the athlete, and the concern that a big athlete might not be able to be righted was dispelled pretty much.
  6. PR1 athlete centering can be an issue.  Marlow have had the issue before where one of our PR1 athletes (Mari Durward-Akhurst) was shifting off-balance on the seat over time.  This shifting is what led to Tom’s capsize.  We have considered putting foam on the sides of Mari’s hips to help keep her centered and maybe this is a best practice for PR1 athletes.


  1. Review all PR1 Rails – The squad will be checking the PR1 rails on its 4 PR1 singles to (a) ensure 20mm washers are used, (b) all 3 bolt points are used. 
  2. Strap loop enhancement.  The squad will add extended loops to the straps to assist in their accessibility.
  3. Consider enhanced buoyancy for novice, large PR1 athletes – We are not sure what this might entail.  Perhaps it is strapping an extra float on so there are 2 floats on each side.  We noted that the Swift PR1 rigger extends the pontoon our about 6 inches beyond the oar lock which provides a considerable extra degree of leverage in the capsize protection (while the Wintech floats go directly under the oar locks).

3 Replies to “Marlow PR1 Capsize Drill/Training and PR1 Policy

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