In whitewater, safety is principally a state of mind.  As in most environmental adventure sports, experience, judgment and a calm alert spirit are far more important than any safety equipment in keeping yourself out of trouble.  Of course facing up to possible danger (and in large measure cancelling it out through a combination of judgement and technique) adds another dimension of personal satisfaction to the sport

DON'T CANOE ALONE - Running rapids by yourself is sheer folly. In mountaineering, despite the risk, a certain glamour and mystique is associated with solo ascents.  This is NOT SO in kayaking.  Whenever you run a rapid, you do so by yourself, fundamentally alone, even if there are other boaters at the top and bottom of the rapids.  You have no rope and no helping hand for aid or comfort.  For this reason, whitewater canoeists do NOT consider it more difficult or more daring to run rapids alone - JUST MORE STUPID !!

A useful adage when organising a trip is:-


GROUP ORGANISATION on the WATER - This brings us to the whole question of leadership, mutual responsibility, and the interaction among members of the group 

Experienced Parties - Whitewater river running is a free thing, magnificently so, and kayakers themselves tend to be free spirits, escaping from social regulations rather than recreating them anew on the water.  Experienced kayakers, therefore, tend to canoe together in a very loose, and unstructured way.  They have no designated leader, and they make no rules.  At first glance it looks like anarchy, and yet, in a party of experienced kayakers there is a strong sense of river etiquette and an informal but real group, dynamic at work all the time.

River Etiquette - The overriding principle of river etiquette is - DON'T INTERFERE WITH OTHER CANOEISTS WHEN THEY ARE ACTIVELY INVOLVED IN SOME STRETCH OF WATER.  For example, don't blindly move out onto a wave if someone is already surfing it; or wait until there is room in an eddy before ferry gliding over to it.  Likewise, canoeists starting down a drop will adjust their line to avoid people playing at the bottom; and kayakers waiting at the bottom of a rapid to play in the waves will tend to wait until the drop is free of kayakers.  These are simple matters of common sense and courtesy, but they make canoeing in a large group a pleasure not a pain.

Roles of participants - The informal and usually unexpressed organisation of a group of experienced canoeists comes down to one simple idea - EACH canoeist is mentally concerned about the welfare and whereabouts of his companions ALL the time.  Thus even though a group may be strung out along a stretch of river, with various kayakers out of sight, everyone knows who's ahead and who's behind.  It's just a matter of paying attention.  In a similar way, WHOEVER HAPPENS TO BE IN FRONT WILL BEHAVE LIKE A LEADER without actually being designated as such, trying to pick a good line for following canoeists, warning them of unexpected hazards or problems, and waiting below a hard spot if he senses that it may cause problems for some of the other boaters.  Then, too, WHOEVER HAPPENS TO BE LAST WILL ACT AS A SWEEP, checking to see that no one is left behind, for example with boat trouble.  Neither role is official or designated or PERMANENT. And the whole thing works well because each canoeist senses and accepts his share of RESPONSIBILITY for the WELFARE of the GROUP.

Inexperienced Parties on the Water - The picture changes however if there are a numbers of beginners or inexperienced canoeists in the group.  They will have enough trouble just getting through the rapids themselves, and may need a bit of help to do so.

In such a group it is common to designate a LEADER and another experienced canoeist to come last (TAIL-END CHARLIE).  It is also a good idea to have several more experienced kayakers waiting at the bottom of a drop before beginners start down, either to assist in RECOVERING EQUIPMENT, or to help a SWIMMER to shore.  If there are enough experienced canoeists in the group, a fine idea is to pair them up with the less experienced and get them to lead their "buddy" down the rapid.  It's both a confidence builder and a way to show the best line. THE PSYCHOLOGICAL AND MORAL SUPPORT THAT WHITEWATER CANOEISTS CAN GIVE EACH OTHER IS ITSELF A SIGNIFICANT FACTOR IN SAFE BOATING

Martin Home 14th Sept 1988


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