Whitewater (AW) assumes a mission to conserve and restore America’s
white water resources and to enhance opportunities to enjoy them
safely. As part of this mission, AW has formulated a Safety Code
compiled from the best available information as reviewed by a broad
cross section of white water experts. Still, as AW notes: the code
“is only a collection of guidelines; attempts to minimize risks
should be flexible, not constrained by a rigid set of rules. Varying
conditions and group goals may combine with unpredictable
circumstances to require alternate procedures….”
may be a perfect time to revisit and familiarize ourselves with
safety precautions, especially in interim periods when there is no
wild water to be found for a time. Sea kayakers may do well to review
these safety guidelines as well to formulate general safety
guidelines for the conditions faced in the sport of ‘kayak touring;’
many of the white water safety guidelines presented can also be
directly applied, without revision, to sea kayaking.
Preparedness and Responsibility:
Be a competent swimmer, with the ability to handle yourself
Wear a life jacket. A snugly fitting vest-type life preserver offers
back and shoulder protection as well as the flotation needed to swim
safely in white water.
Wear a solid, correctly fitted helmet when upsets are likely. This is
essential in kayaks or covered canoes, and recommended for open
canoeists using thigh straps and rafters running steep drops.
Do not canoe or kayak out of control. Your skills should be sufficient to stop
or reach shore before reaching danger. Do not enter a rapid unless
you are reasonably sure that you can run it safely or swim it without
White water rivers contain many hazards which are not always easily
recognized. The following are the most frequent killers.
High water. The river’s speed and power increase tremendously as the
flow increases, raising the difficulty of most rapids. Rescue becomes
progressively harder as the water rises, adding to the danger.
Floating debris and strainers make even an easy rapid quite
hazardous. It is often misleading to judge the river level at the
put-in, since a small rise in a wide, shallow place will be
multiplied many times where the river narrows. Use reliable gauge
information whenever possible, and be aware that sun on snow pack,
hard rain, and upstream dam releases may greatly increase the flow.
Cold. Cold drains your strength and robs you of the ability to make
sound decisions on matters affecting your survival. Cold water
immersion, because of the initial shock and the rapid heat loss which
follows, is especially dangerous. Dress appropriately for bad weather
or sudden immersion in the water. When the water temperature is less
than 50 degrees Fahrenheit, a wet suit or dry suit is essential for
protection if you swim. Next best is wool or pile clothing under a
waterproof shell. In this case, you should also carry waterproof
matches and a change of clothing in a waterproof bag. If, after
prolonged exposure, a person experiences uncontrollable shaking, loss
of coordination, or difficulty speaking, he or she is hypothermic and
needs your assistance.
Strainers. Brush, fallen trees, bridge pilings, undercut rocks or
anything else which allows river current to sweep through can pin
boats and boaters against the obstacle. Water pressure on anything
trapped this way can be overwhelming. Rescue is often extremely
difficult. Pinning may occur in fast current, with little or no white
water to warn of the danger.
Dams, weirs, ledges, reversals, holes, and hydraulics. When water
drops over an obstacle, it curls back on itself, forming a strong
upstream current which may be capable of holding a boat or swimmer.
Some holes make for excellent sport. Others are proven killers.
Paddlers who cannot recognize the difference should avoid all but the
smallest holes. Hydraulics around man-made dams must be treated with
utmost respect regardless of their height or the level of the river.
Despite their seemingly benign appearance, they can create an almost
escape-proof trap. The swimmers only exit from the “drowning
machine” is to dive below the surface where the downstream
current is flowing beneath the reversal.
Broaching. When a canoe or kayak is pushed sideways against a rock by strong
current, it may collapse and wrap. This is especially dangerous to
kayak and decked canoe paddlers; these boats will collapse and the
combination of indestructible hulls and tight outfitting may create a
deadly trap. Even without entrapment, releasing pinned boats can be
extremely time-consuming and dangerous. To avoid pinning, throw your
weight downstream towards the rock. This allows the current to slide
harmlessly underneath the hull.
6. Canoeing and kayaking alone is discouraged. The minimum party is three craft.
Have a frank knowledge of your boating ability, and don’t attempt
rivers or rapids which lie beyond that ability.
Develop the paddling skills and teamwork required to match the river
you plan to boat. Most good paddlers develop skills gradually, and
attempts to advance too quickly will compromise your safety and
b. Be in good physical and mental condition,
consistent with the difficulties which may be expected. Make
adjustments for loss of skills due to age, health, and fitness. Any
health limitations must be explained to your fellow paddlers prior to
starting the trip.
Be practiced in self-rescue, including escape from an overturned
craft. The Eskimo roll is strongly recommended for decked boaters who
run rapids class iv or greater, or who paddle in cold environmental
Be trained in rescue skills, CPR, and first aid with special emphasis
on recognizing and treating hypothermia. It may save your friend’s
Carry equipment needed for unexpected emergencies, including foot
wear which will protect your feet when walking out, a throw rope,
knife, whistle, and waterproof matches. If you wear eyeglasses, tie
them on and carry a spare pair on long trips. Bring cloth repair tape
on short runs, and a full repair kit on isolated rivers. Do not wear
bulky jackets, ponchos, heavy boots, or anything else which could
reduce your ability to survive a swim. For a more detailed copy of
AW’s White Water Safety Code.
From “The Bulletin” — newsletter of the Washington Kayak
in The Eddy Line, November 2005