No matter how good you are and how well you know rivers, safety remains one of the most important aspects of paddling. Rivers are dynamic and things sometimes do go wrong. Without firsthand knowledge of how to deal with the unexpected, one’s paddling career, and even one’s life, can be at stake.
It is strongly recommended that all white water paddlers do a Swift Water Rescue course accredited by APA (African Paddlers Association). It may just save your own or somebody else’s life. APA is better known for its guide courses, but also offers shorter courses dealing purely with safety and rescue techniques. K1 paddlers and private trippers with their own rafts are also advised to complete the courses that were developed specifically for them by APA. All paddlers are also advised to do a proper First Aid Course.
Some basic principles regarding safety on rivers:
• First of all it is important that trips are organised properly. It is also necessary to choose/accept a qualified and experienced paddler as the leader of the group to prevent chaos.
• When scouting rapids, remember to be just as safety-conscious as on the water. Keep helmets and lifejackets on when scrambling over rocks on the bank of the river.
• Never try to stand up in flowing water that is more than knee-deep. Foot entrapments happen easily and can be painful, and even fatal.
• Never lean away from any obstacle that you may hit with your floating craft, be that a rock, tree, fence, or whatever. “Hug the rock” is the slogan here, otherwise you will definitely capsize and get washed underneath both the obstacle and your own craft.
• Always stay away from trees or other strainers in the water and any man-made objects in the river, such as weirs and low-level bridges. They are lethal. Some weirs are safe to shoot, but most of them are not and may prove to be fatal.
• Always swim down a rapid in the cocktail position. That means on your back, feet pointing downstream, while using your hands to steer. Try to keep hold of your paddle and boat while swimming, except when doing so will worsen your situation.
• It will be a good idea to invest in a throw rope, karabiners, prussics and slings when running rivers larger than Class 2. Even more important: learn how to use them! But be careful – ropes are potentially very dangerous in water, so only use them for emergencies and with the required skills.
• Although this was often neglected in the past, more private trippers see the importance of taking a medical kit along on the water. Just like the other safety kit, this is standard equipment for river guides.
• Remember that self-rescue is the first line of defence. Rescue operations that are done by your fellow paddlers put them at risk. An external rescue attempt by something like a helicopter is a last resort, and it is unlikely to be in time for a live rescue.
• Don’t go down any river with a tube, especially when the water is up; that is a sure way of tempting death. Only attempt a river in a tube with the guidance of an established commercial tubing company employing APA-trained guides.
• To quote an expert local kayaker, Darron Raw: “If you want to push the limits, then do so regularly. Being extreme and surviving is not a part-time occupation, it’s a lifestyle.”