Whitewater Safety

Successfully running a difficult river is not always a measure of your improvement. Instead, challenge yourself by making hard moves like ferries and surfing on easy rivers. Racers and all really good boaters develop their skills this way. Knowing your ability and matching it to appropriate rivers is the best way to ensure safe boating.

Preventable Risks in Whitewater Boating

On the first day of a beginner course, I remember standing thigh-deep in Lake Fontana, gazing off at the southern tip of the Smoky Mountains, waiting patiently for the last student in my kayak class to paddle over for rolling instruction. The extra time it took him to drift to me provided clues to his fears. And, as I had guessed, he panicked when he finally let his boat flip upside down."How do you feel?", I queried."Okay", he muttered."What's on your mind?" I asked."Drowning," he admitted.

Gulp. As a professional instructor, I believe in insulating my students from unnecessary worry by teaching skills in a logical, reassuring progression. An outline of the day's activities, closely supervised wet exits, and maintianing a high regard for safety precautions usually serves this purpose. Unfortunately, this whitewater-bound beginner had arrived with fearful mis-conceptions about safety in the sport. His well-meaning friends had sent him off with intimidating comments about his poor,ownerless dog starving. They had made teasing claims to his posthumous bank account. Then, after signing the purposefully graphic course waiver, my student's insecurities had toppled.

"Are you afraid of drowning here on the lake?", I asked."No," he swallowed."On the river then?" I pursued. "Well..." He paused. "How many of the 150,000 people who travel the Nantahala each year do you think drown?" I ask, imagining student's mind racing into the double digits. "Two drownings in twenty years." I explain, "Neither was a kayaker. One wasn't wearing a lifejacket."

Immediately following this incident I described to the whole class the five preventable causes of death that give whitewater sports a risky reputation.

"Number one, alcohol is a common cause of accidents. That is clearly not an issue for us today.""Number two, not wearing a tight fitting PFD. Our class has already discussed this topic.""Number three, no prior education in the sport causes 95% of whitewater accidents. Here we are in class, avoiding that mistake.""Number four, flooded rivers are a frequent killer. Sadly, we are in the midst of a five year drought. Although we would welcome higher water, floods are certainly not a risk to us today.""Number four, hypothermia... Clearly I am in the greatest danger, shivering slightly from 3 hours of roll instructing. You, however, are in no risk, basking in 90 degree temperatures with a wetsuit available. I noticed everyone's shoulders relax as I reviewed whitewater sports' five unnecessary killers. The class closed with smiles on everyone's face.

Dealing with Fear

A common way to aggravate fears is by paddling with groups of different experience and thrill interests than your own. My favorite example of this was actually with a group of drill sergeants who were put up to a raft trip by a commander. The commander wanted guides to take the sergeants on a wild ride, with a lot of risk. Understandably, when the drill sergeants arrived, few of them were looking forward to the trip in any way. The trip was, as a result, more conservative than most.

Sadly, the most common condition for fears is the wife or girlfriend scenario, where the woman is dragged into the sport by an obliviously macho boyfriend. Often in this situation the woman gets poorly fitting, hand me down equipment, and less instruction and say in river destinations. I can report that I have seen men dragged into the sport with the same result. Paddle with people of similar skills and interests!

To deal with your river fears, remember that fear is a deeply ingrained protective mechanism, designed to protect you. The horrible feelings you get are nothing more than extra energy for doing battle. Instead of thinking of yourself as nervous, think of having extra energy. Treat your mind to rerun images of making rapids successfully, rather than dwelling on the worst that can happen.

Fear of whitewater is caused like any fear: confusion, and a lack of specific understanding, allows your mind to manufacture anxiety, ill ease, and fear emotions. Specifically identifying the risks and choosing exactly where you paddle will go along way toward harnessing your fears. Very few hazards are lurking in every rapid. Knowing when not to worry will undoubtedly make most of the sport more pleasant.

Your vision patterns will match the water difficulty you paddle. Beginners tend to look only at the bow, and slightly ahead. Intermediates tend to see eddies along the shore and look well down the rapid. Expert paddlers catch eddies while scanning downstream for hazards and upstream for other boaters. Developing your vision patterns will actually improve your skill level.