Whitewater Safety When Kayaking

With the winter rains well on its way, the ever-popular whitewater season is upon us. As our state only has a few months of whitewater each year it can be easy to forget how to paddle safely in a dynamic environment, and so Paddle WA would like to educate and remind our paddlers of safe practice when on whitewater.

  1. Always wear a life jacket and helmet

    Nobody, no matter how experienced they are or how small the rapid is, should ever paddle in whitewater without wearing a helmet and life jacket. These pieces of equipment are essential to whitewater safety, and if not worn can put both themselves and other people at risk. If you ever see someone on whitewater not wearing either of these items, please tell them that they need to wear both a helmet and life jacket, even if they’re not a paddler or you don’t know them.

    See more: ABCs of PFDs (life jackets)
    Helmet Know How

  2. Know your ability

    If you are new to whitewater, spend time practicing and perfecting the most basic skills on an easy section of whitewater before progressing to more-advanced rapids. Find a stretch of Grade II whitewater, such as the Walyunga pebble race to practice your ferry gliding, eddying in and out, low bracing and high bracing. These skills are fundamental to the whitewater technique and are neglected by paddlers focusing on getting down a rapid without falling in.

    If you can, paddle with more experienced whitewater paddlers who can give you tips on these skills. Watch how they do these skills on the whitewater and how you can improve. Keep an ear out for whitewater training courses run by outdoor companies that can help upskill your abilities. And remember, if there is a rapid you don’t think you can paddle, there’s no shame in portaging around it. A smart whitewater paddler is one that knows when to not paddle.

    See more: Jez Jezz’s YouTube Channel

  3. Nose & toes

    If you happen to fall out of your craft, remember the phrase ‘nose & toes’! This refers to the defensive swimming position whereby a capsized paddler floats on their back and point their legs downstream. The important part to remember here is to keep your legs up on the surface of the water (toes to the sky)! If you attempt to stand up in the middle of a rapid there is a great risk that your feet can become trapped in rocks on the riverbed, which is bad news when there is a strong current pushing you downstream. Swim defensively (on your back) or aggressively (on your stomach) towards somewhere safe, such as an eddy), but always keep your legs pointing downstream and on the waters’ surface. If you must, let go of your kayak and paddle to get to safety. These items are easily replaceable, your life is far more valuable!

    Less-stable craft, such as ski’s or WWK1’s, are popular in Western Australia, and when some of these paddlers fall out we rarely see them keeping their legs up. The best way to remember and practice this skill is, and this may sound crazy, intentionally swim down a rapid. Pick a section of whitewater that isn’t too rocky, doesn’t have trees sticking out and has a big pool/eddy at the bottom, and jump in the water without your paddle or kayak. Practice laying on your back with your feet up, and working your way into a safe eddy. A good section to practice is the Walyunga slalom course, or even the main chute. These sections are forgiving due to the large pools below that you can easily swim out of, just make sure to pack a flask for afterward!

    See more: Avoiding Foot Entrapment
    How to Swim in Whitewater (video)

  4. Safety in numbers

    We recommend paddling in groups of four or more when in whitewater. This is so that in the rare chance an incident occurs, two paddlers can go find assistance while two remain behind. The more paddlers on a trip, the safer it becomes. However, if a group becomes too big (e.g. >15-20 paddlers), this could create other problems due to crowding. If you are paddling in a larger group, send a few paddlers down at a time to prevent congestion in the middle of a rapid. Paddlers waiting at the bottom can then also act as safety, in case of a capsize.

    Also, make sure that somebody not paddling knows of your plans when whitewater kayaking. It is not always possible to carry a mobile device when kayaking, so letting someone on the land know where and when you plan on paddling is essential.

  5. Advanced rescue technique – throw line

    In some circumstances where there is a dangerous rapid, strong current, or no pool below a rapid, safety will need to be set up in case of a swimmer. This person will often stand on the bank in an area where the chance of a capsize is most likely, ready to throw their throw bag to the swimmer. Rivers such as the Avon are relatively low risk, however, a throw bag should still always be carried as you never know what could happen. While the following tips refer to rescuing a swimmer, a throw bag can be used in many other scenarios, including making a rigging system to unpin a boat.

    If you are the person using the throw bag on the bank, remember these key points:
    – Have solid footing (i.e. don’t stand on a slippery rock or too close to the river bank)
    – Call out the person in the water to get their attention (shout something simple line ‘JOHN, LINE!‘)
    – Aim just upstream of the swimmer (the bag will move faster in the water than the person)
    – Prepare for the tension once the swimmer grabs the rope (the force of the water can be strong, in some cases somebody may need to hold the life jacket of the person throwing for support)
    – Pull the swimmer into a safe eddy (make sure the location the person will swing to is clear of rapids and trees, preferably a still eddy they can climb out of)
    – Make sure the swimmer is ok before leaving them. Offer a snack to the swimmer to get their energy levels back (something with sugar, such as a small chocolate)

    If you are the person in the water, remember these key points:
    – Try to hold onto your paddle unless it is too dangerous to (this can act as a reaching-aid to help pull you to the bank)
    – Whilst adopting the defensive swimming position (point 3), listen out for someone calling you name (‘JOHN, LINE!‘)
    – Look out for the person on the bank, and see where the throw line is thrown. Grab onto it as quickly as you can
    – Once holding onto the line, lay on your back and put the line over your shoulder (i.e. adopt the defensive swimming position)
    – The force of the current can be very strong, so prepare to hold onto the line very tightly
    – If you miss grabbing the throwline, swim aggressively or defensively (depending on the rapid) towards the nearest visible safe area (eddy)
    – When you are in an eddy, or other safe part of the river, pull your way up the throwline to the bank and get out of the water.
    – Take a moment to recover from the rescue. Some swims can leave the body in shock and you will be out of breath, so make sure you have got some energy back and have warmed up before continuing to kayak (getting straight back in can lead to further rescues needed)
    – Remember that even the best professional kayakers have needed to be rescued countless times, so don’t be disheartened! It’s easy to lose all confidence after a scary swim, but remember that it’s all part of the learning experience. In the long-term, it will have actually made you a better whitewater kayaker, you just don’t realise it yet!

    See more: How to Toss a Throw Bag (video)
    How to Catch a Throw Bag (video)
    How to Restuff a Rescue Throw Bag (video)

These are just a few key points to remember when kayaking on whitewater, and some of the most important for Western Australian rapids. There are thousands of books, articles and videos online aimed at educating whitewater safety and rescue, so if you are interested check out some of the following links. If you would like more whitewater tips or clarification on any of the above points, please do not hesitate to email us at develop@paddlewa.asn.au or call 08 92858501.

NRS Whitewater Kayaking Safety