Safety starts before we even go paddling
By Dave Rossetter – paddlesport instructor at Glenmore Lodge
The article focuses on white water kayaks, however, the areas could translate across other disciplines.
Time spent outfitting your boat before hand can help you out in whatever environment you are paddling in.
For example if your legs go to sleep due to a tight footrest or over padded seat then are you still going to have good control over the boat? Lack of airbags can lead to loss of boat altogether not to mention how difficult it is to move the white water kayak to the side of the river. Spending time ensuring that your boat is well outfitted will aid you in the control of the boat as well as making any rescue potentially easier.
The following is not an exhaustive list but certainly starts you thinking:
Take time to sit in your boat in your normal paddling clothes and adjust all aspects of the boat as required.
Footrests: Fullplate/foam/footbag. Make sure these are fixed in and allow you to stretch your legs so as to keep blood moving. Being over tight in a kayak can lead to loss of circulation and ultimately poor power transfer through the feet. Whatever the kayak ensure that you can push through the footrest but also extend the leg that will help when edging.
Seat: Adjust the seat as to have an even balance point of the boat and so you have the ability to reach the water effectively. Many of the kayaks are getting deeper due to having more volume but this can mean paddlers loosing contact with the water and lack of control over their strokes.
To get the seat right for you sit in the boat on flat water. Ensure that there is an equal distance between the water and the bow as there is on the stern. Once this has been achieved then look at the height of the seat so that your elbows are above the boat and that you can reach the water effectively. Be careful of padding the seat to much as a ridge on the underside of the thighs can cause numbness in the legs. However having some form of pad there prevents slipping on the seat and adds to the overall comfort.
Hip pads: Make sure that your hip pads don’t impede on a wet exit and are firmly fixed in place. Hip pads are a great way to help transmit energy into the boat that aids greater control of your boat. Having even a thin piece of foam is better than nothing at all.
Backrest: A poorly fitting backrest is one of the biggest problems people have with their boat so time spent on this saves loads of time on the river. Your backrest also aids keeping your posture correct which in turn helps keep greater control. The backrest should be resting and not holding you in position.
Thigh or knee grips: Make sure that when you are sitting in your boat the knee or thigh grip is giving you grip so as when you lift the leg you are using the grip to maximum effect. Having a thin piece of foam on the point where you are applying the pressure helps with the comfort and the control. Again make sure that it doesn’t impede you on wet exiting.
Make sure you have padded conservatively to allow some movement inside and also so you are not hindered in wet exiting the boat.
The use of airbags in the back of the boat is very important in helping the rescue if you do have to swim.
This speeds up the rescue as well as keeping as much water out of the boat to keep it floating higher when full of water. Don’t forget about the bow. With the big creeker kayaks available the bow can get damaged easily if the kayak swamps. So the addition of foam or an airbag up front is very useful.
Take time to kit the boat out for you so you know where you will pack your kit.
Can you locate your throwbag in a hurry? A lot of boats now have a drinks bottle holder in between your legs that can make excellent holders for your throwbag and allows you always to get it in a hurry. Make sure your throwbag has a good closure on it, as 15-25 metres of rope floating about inside your boat will not make an easy wet exit.
Outfitting your boat is not enough by itself. You should also look at your other equipment:
- Buoyancy aid – enough buoyancy / space for equipment / harness.
- Throwline and rescue equipment – suitable length / tape and krab / knife / whistle.
- Spare paddles – where to carry.
By taking the time to prepare properly can help you have a much more successful time on the river. Too many paddlers get themselves into difficulty by not taking the time to outfit themselves or the group they are leading and end up struggling to paddle and rescue successfully.
Safe River Running
“The art of staying out of trouble”
When paddling any river there must be some clear and flexible ideas on how a group of paddlers is going to get down safely and in control. This is clearly going to depend on; the size of the group, the groups’ ability levels and the nature of the river. With this in mind the following mnemonic is helpful for the group while river running;
Communication / Line of sight / Avoidance is better than cure / Position of maximum usefulness
Communication: The important factors with this are that everyone within the group is aware of how the group are going to keep in touch and if signals are being used that they are kept simple. Often it is easy just to chat to each other. However, there are times when this is not possible so having some signals agreed can help. Any more than five signals and things are going to get complicated.
Suggested signals: Stop / Go / Left / Right / Eddy.
Safe river running seems to break down most due to lack of signals or poor signals. As a group get to know each other, other signals may get added but keeping it simple is the key. Signals are a two process and work best when they are acknowledged.
Line of sight: Keeping line of sight of where you are going as well as your paddling companions is the golden rule. By ensuring you know where your next eddy is on the river means you have a stopping option. Keeping your paddlers in line of sight makes signals much easier and helps them see the paddling line.
Avoidance is better than cure: The over riding principle in safe river running is the art of staying out of trouble. To help achieve this we need to know what the hazards are and where to find them. We then need to spend time working on our skills so we can position ourselves in such a way to avoid those hazards. Ultimately we can always walk a rapid, as it will always be there for another day.
Position of maximum usefulness: As river leaders we need to strive to find the position where we can be of best use to the most number of the group for the greater amount of time. This is not only important when protecting a rapid but also when paddling. This doesn’t only apply to the river leader but also to the group. Instilling this into the paddlers we are leading will help in the success of the trip as well as them becoming independent of us.
Following this mnemonic will help you as a leader focus on leading safe trips and will provide a framework for the day. This is not meant to be THE way to a run a river, it’s a way.
“Never go where the mind hasn’t been before”
“Think there = Look there = Be there”
An area that perhaps doesn’t get mentioned a lot is inspecting or scouting a particular rapid. When looking at rapids there seems to be two camps; those who can instantly see the line and those who need a lot of time, chat and thought over the proposed route. To help those who are in the second camp and also river leaders or those who are coaching then the following mnemonic can be particularly helpful:
Section / Current / Obstacles / Understanding / Training
Section: When scouting a rapid it is important to break it into manageable sections. To do this we start at the bottom of the rapid and work back upstream. This allows us to see where we want to end up and will start to dictate where we enter the rapid.
Current: What is the current doing? Is it going to help or hinder us? Is it predictable? By asking these questions we start to have an understanding of what our options are.
Obstacles: What are the obstacles that I have to avoid? Are there any blind spots that I could of missed?
Once we have decided on what obstacles are in the way then we can start to have an understanding of the route down the rapid.
Understanding: Once the above have all been determined then we have to make sure that;
- I have an understanding of what I am going to do.
- My group have the understanding of what they are going to do.
We might need to repeat some of the above if the understanding is not there.
Training: Then it comes down to the training we have ourselves or the training that we have given our group. Do they / I have the skill to complete the route. It might be that I do but not today! Has the group got the skill to make that line or do we need to go back some stages to re-assess the line.
Following this guide
will help you as the leader or group member have a clearer picture of what’s involved to paddle that particular rapid. It can confirm that you can OR can’t paddle it. It is a tool for new river leaders.
It is a good idea to take your paddle and throwbag with you. The paddle is great for pointing, stability and a reaching aid while your throwbag is ready in case someone slips in or to speed up setting up safety.
Happy paddling and hope to see you on the water.
Dave is the full time paddlesport instructor at Glenmore Lodge – Scotland’s National Outdoor Training Centre. He has been involved in the development of the new awards and provides expert advice throughout the industry on all things to do with coaching, safety, leadership and personal paddling. He is passionate about all things paddling and specialises in white water kayak and open canoe where he will most often be found. He is supported in his paddling adventures and coaching by Pyranha Kayaks, Mad River Canoes and Palm Equipment.