Whitewater Pulley Systems for Recovering a Pinned Boat

Nobody ever wants a pinned boat on a river, regardless of whether it is a canoe, kayak or white water raft. But it is crucial to know how to remove a pinned boat, in case it does happen – this is where the whitewater pulley systems are crucial. The easiest methods are with mechanical advantages. We will outline four methods as below. A 1:1 (quick), 2:1 (marginally easier), 3:1 (standard known method – a z-drag) and a 4:1 (often know as a pig rig).

What method you choose obviously depends on numerous factors, what is on the bank for an anchor, what equipment you have with you, do you have any help? And what methods you remember or know about.

All the methods we describe below are what we personally think are the methods. If you are a rope ninja or genius, then you will be able to cut down on the amount of kit which you are using for the setups. But we are not going to go into this as it will end up confusing matters for people. If you want to learn these methods, then we highly recommend booking onto a white water safety and rescue course or a raft guide training course where these will get shown to you.

The International Rafting Federation has a great photo of all the systems here but for those of you who prefer videos there are some below. The Fourth system is quite complex so it is a very good idea to be shown this in person by someone who know the setup already.

A standard 1:1 whitewater pulley system:

Plain and simple, you connect a rope to the boat and pull on it, you can make it slightly easier by tying it to an anchor and pulling the middle of the rope in a different direction. This method works ok if you have a reasonably simple pin – i.e. a boat which has not wrapped around a rock or is full or water, or if you have got to the boat incredibly quickly before it can fill or wrap fully. You will need a throw-bag and a carabiner. Petzl Roll Clip Carabiners are great and can be used in many circumstances – especially useful as they have an inbuilt pulley which means you don’t need both a carabiner and a pulley.

A 2:1 whitewater pulley system

Again if the pin is not too bad, but you can’t quite get it to shift by simply pulling the boat off then this can be a bit easier. This would be a method of approach when perhaps you were on scene quickly, or perhaps if you did not have very much kit in your buoyancy aid/wrap kit. You will need a throw-bag, two carabiners, a pulley and something for an anchor.

A 3:1 or the z-drag.

This is the very well known whitewater pulley system amongst paddlers out there and is often the one which people turn to straight away as it is also very easy to add additional pulleys into the systems; it is very quick and easy to set up and also does not require a huge amount of equipment. You will need a couple of pulleys, one throw-bag three carabiners and two prussiks as well as something for an anchor. This method is also extremely popular amongst climbers, individuals setting up zipline or Tyrolean traverses as well as the white water rescue community.


A 4:1 often called a pig-rig.

This is the equivalent to getting a gold star sticker in school. If you can do this then the chances are you can probably get most pinned boats off rocks. It is a bit more complicated and is definitely worth practicing so you are used to it and it become second nature. You will need five carabiners, two pulleys, two throw-bags, two anchors, one prussik. This method is more commonly known amongst raft guides but is extremely useful for any paddler to know how to use.

All the whitewater pulley systems shown here will work for pulley systems as and where appropriate. But it is important to be confident and competent in their setups, so as to be able to do them under pressure on the river. Even for people who think they are proficient, we guarantee that the more you practice the more permanently the skills will be engrained.

Active Outdoor Pursuits provide Outdoor Instructor Training Courses twice a year, (every year) where you will learn these skills and many more.

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