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White water safety for kayakers

white water safety

Imagine the following: You’re out there on an insane river. Everything is running perfectly until you reach a rapid where another group is running around frantically because one of their paddlers is stuck in a dangerous slit and there is no exit without external help.

What would you do?

Do you have the right equipment with you?

Do you have the know-how to handle the situation?

Flo Fischer guides you through his procedures…

In the last few years, white water kayaking has become more and more popular; paddlers are searching for new adventures and possibilities to challenge themselves. You meet kayakers on some of the most difficult rivers in the Alps and after conversing with them, you’re totally stoked to learn that they have only been kayaking for only two or three seasons. Maybe kayaking is a sport, which is easy to learn if you have talent and it’s very easy to escalate to more difficult white water.

white water safety

However, a good kayaker not only needs to paddle perfectly, they also need many more skills that are necessary to be safe on the river. Of course, you need experience to appreciate the right way to avoid accidents but if there is an accident, you need not only the theory but principally the practical knowledge to handle these situations under stress.

Here I would like to give a short overview on the necessary equipment and how to use it.

NOTE: This is based on my personal experiences and opinion and doesn’t represent any ‘must-do’ instruction. I just want to prompt all of you to practice safety techniques at multiple times of the year.

white water safetyThrowbags
As everyone should know, the throwbag is one of the most important pieces of safety equipment, which consists of a long rope stored in a handy bag. The main use is to hold the free end of the rope and throw the bag to somebody who is in trouble to pull him or her out. However, it can also be used to build up a pulley block – there are many applications for this important piece of gear.

Please check on every throwbag once a year, especially when it’s a new one that there is a knot on the bottom of each bag, which is responsible for the sling you can see outside of the bag. Also check that it is still in good condition and there is enough free rope left in case of movement of the knot.

The other end of the rope is responsible for many discussions, principally if there should be a knot or not. In my eyes there are only two possibilities:

  • A small knot at the end of the rope prevents an unintended release if you’re taken by surprise. However, there is the small risk that the knot can become stuck between rocks or trees in the water and you must throw it away because you can’t hold it anymore. This can lead to serious accidents.
  • A clean line is the expression for an end of the rope without any knot. This is the opposite of the advantages and disadvantages of the above. You don’t have any stopper at the end of the rope, so if you have to loosen it, you need to check exactly how much rope is left. On the other hand, the risk of getting stuck in the river is much smaller.

white water safety

For me, I use a small knot because for me the advantages of the stopper and finding the end of the rope easily and fast is more important than the unlikely situation that the knot will become stuck.

white water safety

Whichever possibilities you choose make sure you remove the plastic handle at the end of the rope! This is the fastest way to get your rope stuck in a tree. Remove it or replace it with a small knot with a very small sling.

The situation, I was talking about at the beginning of the article is a classic situation in which to use pulleys. In most situations it is just equipment that gets stuck on the river because the paddler escaped from the boat. However, it could also be that a paddler is involved in the accident. In this situation you don’t time to think about how to build up a pulley block. You need to know exactly what to do and build it up as fast as possible. I will show you just one possibility I rely on in two different situations.

Pulley block with a single loose pulley
You will need:

  • Your throwbag.
  • A sling to fix your system to a tree or a huge rock.
  • Three carabiners.
  • A self-blocking pulley (such as Petzl Traxion, etc.).
  • Maybe another basic pulley.

white water safety

white water safetyHere is how to install it:

  1. Search for a reliable point to fix your system. This could be a tree (minimum of 30cm diameter), a huge rock or anything else that is solid enough.
  2. Use your sling to build up a fix point. I always use a 6m long open sling, which I wear like a belt underneath the outer skirt of my drytop or drysuit.
  3. Fix one end of your throwbag rope with a solid knot and a carabiner at your fix point.
  4. Try to reach a solid point near the paddler or boat where you can pull it out and plug a carabiner with the rope just clipped in. This is your free pulley. You can improve the efficiency when using another pulley here but it is not necessary.
  5. The part of the rope, which comes back from the paddler, you need to plug to your fix point as well, using your self-blocking pulley.
  6. Make sure that every carabiner is closed and you have a basic pulley block with a single free pulley and a return stop.

white water safety


If this is not enough and you need more power, you need to use another free pulley. So what else do you need?

  • Something to fix a carabiner in the middle of a rope (such as a prusik sling or a Petzl Tibloc).
  • Another carabiner.
  • Maybe another basic pulley.

This is how you extend your existing pulley block to one with two loose pulleys.

  1. The basic setup is the same as the basic pulley block I explained before.
  2. Fix your carabiner with a prusik or Tibloc somewhere on the rope between the paddler and your self-blocking pulley. Make sure not to use the rope, which is fixed to your fix point!
  3. Just clip your free rope, which comes out of the self-blocking pulley into the new installed carabiner. An additional pulley here helps to improve the efficiency.
  4. Now you just need to pull in the other direction to the basic setup.
    Remember: always try to pull in the same direction as the trapped paddler or boat! This is usually the only way to free it.

Necessary equipment:
Here I just want to give a short overview about the equipment you should carry on your body, in your PFD and in your boat.

On your body:

  • A long, open sling with a carabiner (6m).
  • Maybe a small extra throwbag in addition to the big one in your boat.

In your PFD:

  • Minimum of two carabiners.
  • A self-blocking pulley.
  • A prusik sling or Petzl Tibloc, etc.
  • Another shorter sling to extend your long sling or your whole setup.
  • Mobile phone, Spot or SatPhone.

In your boat:

  • Throwbag (minimum 20m rope).
  • One or two additional pulleys with a metal roll.
  • Two or three additional carabiners.
  • Another prusik sling or Petzl Tibloc.
  • Two more slings.
  • First aid kit.
  • Spare paddle.

white water safety

If you carry all these things with you, you have enough material to build up a more extended pulley block than I have described above, there may be times when this could be necessary as well.

As you see, it is pretty easy to set up a basic pulley block and you don’t need much material. However remember, a real accident is a very different situation than just practicing at home. So please be sure to practice many times and ride safe!

About thepaddlerezine (654 Articles)
Editor of The Paddler magazine and Publisher of Stand Up Paddle Mag UK.

1 Comment on White water safety for kayakers

  1. Use a prusik over a tibloc, tiblocs can strip a rope when put under enough pressure where a prusik will only grip the rope tighter. Just as quick to use and less damaging to your rope.

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