The Subtleties of Safety
Paddling fires us up, especially when rain is coming. I get amped looking at the five day forecast. As a storm rolls east towards the Appalachians the excitement builds. Two days before a big storm, I will start rearranging my schedule, trying to free up time. One day before a big rainfall and I am on fire, the boat is loaded and gear is prepped! When the first raindrops start to fall, I always smile uncontrollably. Watching the shades of Green, yellow and red on the radar as the storm builds is beautiful to me. Much like an art buff would stare at a painting; I will stare at the colors on the radar. I know; I am sick. As the storm pounds, the rainfall gauges start rising. A few hours later and the river gauges rise! While non-paddlers are staying indoors and complaining about the awful rain, I will be stoked, trying to not hydroplane while driving to a put in!
With all of the great emotions swirling around in our heads as we plan and execute a paddling trip it is easy to cut a few corners when it comes to safety. We are all guilty of it. You left your airbags in your other kayak or lost your rope on the last trip and have not gotten the new one in the mail yet. There are a million reasons, good and bad why we are not as prepared as we could be for a paddling trip. But when we start to get amped for whitewater, everything looks promising and the glass is usually half full.
Accidents on the river seem to come in two forms. Pure accidents that nothing could have prevented or a few little mistakes that added up to a bad day or worst.
Personally, my crashes have always been due to making a few small mistakes. Maybe I did not wait for my buddies to set safety or I did not scout a familiar rapid and look for new wood. When the rivers are rising and the blood is pumping, it is easy to cut a corner on safety.
Our sport, as amazing as it is, is certainly not worth dying over. We have got to be as careful as we can out there. The little mistakes can snow ball and create an epic bad day. So, to help me and my buddies be safe I came up with the following list to remind us how subtle being safe can be.
I am sure many of you can improve upon my list so please add what you like and pass it on to newer boaters. This winter is possibly going to be the best creeking we have had in the southeast and as storms bring us record days of paddling we have to be more careful than ever! Charge hard knowing you did not cut corners on safety!
Kayak: 1. Be sure to choose the right boat for the run. Paddling a playboat on a steep creek may be more excitement than you bargained for. 2. Make sure your outfitting is properly adjusted: hip pads, back brace, thigh pads and bulkhead. 3. If your kayak has them, make sure the screws and bolts are tightened. Leaky boats and lose hardware can distract you.
Gear: 4. Wear a properly fitting rescue pfd and know how to use it. 5. Sport a good helmet that fits correctly. Full faces are way less expensive than a dentist! 6. A skirt implosion can ruin a day; does your skirt properly fit? Implosion bars are nice. 7. We all need good river shoes. 8. Having airbags in your boat is showing respect for your buddies. 9. Bring a breakdown paddle or spare hand paddles as a backup. 10. Got to have a throw rope and an easily accessible blunt tipped river knife. 11. Got a whistle on your pfd lapel? Are you wearing an easily viewable watch? 12. Carry a first aid kit, space blanket, head lamp, lighter and fire starter (cotton balls soaked in petroleum jelly). A fire can really warm up a chilled boater. 13. Bring extra food and water. 14. Pin kits are simple (2 locking biners, 2 prusseks and webbing) 15. Attach your safety gear inside your kayak (ropes, spare paddles, first aid kits, etc.) 16. Unfortunately, cell phones have service around rivers now, carry one. 17. Are you dressed for the potential rescue or just for paddling? Drysuits make paddling safer. A drytop and shorts in the winter time or in cold water in the summer, outside of the southeast, is asking for trouble. 18. Do you have a map or knowledge on how to hike out? 19. Take a small boat repair kit (small drybag containing duct tape, vinyl mastic, hand towel and lighter).
Skills: 20. Do you have the paddling skills for the chosen river? 21. Are you physically fit enough for the trip? 22. Can you swim well with your paddle? Can you accurately throw a paddle? Practice. 23. Take WFA, CPR and Swiftwater Rescue Courses. 24. Practice freestyle swimming. It’s good exercise and may shorten a swim. Do you know how to swim in the river, where to swim, where not to? (We’re not talking whitewater swim position here!)
Throw Rope: 25. Make sure you know how to use a rope and practice throwing it. 26. Stuff it properly so it throws well. 27. Wet it before a throw. The water adds weight and produces a better throw. 28. Position yourself strategically before a throw. 29. Practice throwing it multiple times in a row. Make sure you can properly pull it back and throw again quickly if you miss. 30. Always take a rope with you when scouting. 31. Keep your rope in an easily accessible spot in your boat. 32. Don’t leave a stuck throw rope in the river. It can become a hazard. Cut out as much as possible.
Are you prepared? 33. Have you tested your new gear for comfort before hitting the river? Tight drysuit neck gaskets are going to distract you. 34. Plan a prior scouting mission before putting on a new run. Many rivers offer commercial rafting. A raft trip can help you learn lines and get a feel for if you are ready for the run. If it is a creek, try to hike it with no water before paddling. 35. Be aware of the access issues pertaining to the river. Know where to park, follow the rules. 36. Research and memorized the run: consequences, rapids and levels? American Whitewater, the internet and guidebooks are great resources. The more you know the safer you’ll be! 37. Try to get a good night sleep before a big day of boating. 38. Are you providing something to the team? (Logistics, skills, motivation, big shuttle rig). Got to bring something to the party!
Time to paddle: 39. Try to paddle with paddlers you know well. 40. Is the number of paddlers in your group optimal for the run? 3-4 is usually best. 41. Get an early start and do not put on too late. 42. Meet your buddies on time. Waiting on late paddling partners can stress people and rush a trip. 43. Make sure the river level is appropriate for the paddlers. 44. Check the weather forecast to make sure the level will not increase too high. 45. Empathize with your teammate’s weaknesses and strengths. Know their medical histories. 46. If the run is new to you, is there someone in the group who has the skill, knowledge and desire to show you down?
On the River: 47. Always be aware of where your paddling buddies are while on the river. 48. Taking safety breaks may not produce the safest trip. A lot of folks can paddle fine while using drugs, but they might be slower to help you out in an emergency. 49. Try to be considerate and do not rush your buddies or needlessly slow the trip. 50. There is no shame, be willing to portage or hike out of a run if you do not feel it. 51. Follow the golden rule: On the water you are responsible for everyone upstream of you! Stay close and eddy before going too far downstream to aid in a rescue. A good leader will spend more time looking upstream than downstream! Make sure your buddies are clear of the dangers before going downstream!
When deciding to paddle or portage a rapid: 52. When scouting, it is a good idea to recognize the dangers of a rapid before you start looking for your possible lines. 53. Be patient and wait for your team to set proper safety. 54. If you hear your inner voice trying to talk yourself into running a tough rapid by thinking one of the following: “I have made it in the past, it will work out!” or “My buddy made it and I am just as good as he is.” or “I want to paddle the whole run with no portages.” or the famous “This is a once in a lifetime chance, I better do it!”, it may be time to portage. 55. Before committing can you visualize paddling the rapid successfully five times?
Remember, as the great Mr. Ammons stated, “The measure of ones skill is not what you can do at your best, but how good you are at your worst.”
Accidents often occur due to a few small mistakes that snowball into a bad day. Safety is in the details. This list has kept me charging hard for 20 years, I hope it will help paddlers make good decisions. Please add any additions and share with newbies. Thanks and be safe!