2015 ICF World Championships Slalom

Touring & Expedition

White water safety - You are not a victim

canoe kayak white water wild safety river rescue sportscene

Bruce Joliffe and Dougie Shannon | Sportscene - We are humans and we go paddling so inevitably our paddling lives have cultures built around them. These are things that have developed or evolved over the (relatively) short time that kayaking as a sport or pastime has existed.

Although we tend to participate mainly with friends, there are structures in place that have a very marked effect on the manner in which we as friends often interact when we take to the water.

Consider these three titles for moment; trip leader, head guide, rescue ranger. Here we have three nominal roles, we can guess which is related to the club scene, which to the commercial world and which one is a term of endearment or mockery depending on your point of view, but they all have one thing in common. They all infer that someone else is in control.

We can argue all day long as to whether kayaking is a solo sport, or a team sport or a mixture of both and to what degree; however, in our mind we are missing the point. That is, from the very moment we wake up each day till we go to bed and night, there is one person above all others to whom we have a duty of care. That is you, me - ourselves.

Why then when we put ourselves into a dynamic situation, like kayaking white water for example, do we appear to embrace a culture that places emphasis on other people making decisions for us? We may lack experience in a given situation and subsequently we may be prone to make poor decisions but that is no excuse for delegating control to others. We would argue that no matter our inexperience, we must challenge those that intend to assume control for two reasons:

  • First, so that any decisions made on our behalf are a contract that we buy into.
  • Second so that we learn how the decision was made so that we might make the decision alone at a point in the future, i.e. so that we become autonomous paddlers.

Without getting bogged down in loftier philosophical arguments, like the chicken and the egg; is there a component in our kayaking culture that has fed into the creation of superiority complexes or have alpha male archetypes fed into our sport and created a symbiotic culture of dependency for the recently initiated?

canoe kayak white water wild safety river rescue sportsceneIn swift water rescue and white water safety and rescue courses a great deal of emphasis historically has been placed on getting an individual, often referred to as a victim or a casualty, out of trouble. Is this part of our culture to do with the massaging of rescuers egos? Don’t get me wrong we are all for someone buying us a rescue beer, we like beer and willingly accept any such offers. We can’t help but think that we should be changing our perspective a little, to put more emphasis on the 99% of scenarios where we want people to be empowered rather than the 1% where we genuinely have to deal with incapacitation in any of its forms.

The language we use in dynamic environments is important for building confidence. If we want to build a culture of independence or at least interdependence, should we maybe refer to out of boat paddlers as just that or as swimmers? If we do so we might create a culture of believe in oneself.

Who would you rather paddle with, a group of potential victims or a group of potential swimmers?

So what does this mean in practice? How many times do we see a paddler capsize in white water and exit their boat after a failed attempt at rolling, then watch them adopt the defensive swimming position and await the rescue. The “trip leader, head guide or rescue ranger” will then swing into action corralling all the kit and the swimmer.  The dynamic is maintained “victim” and “rescuer”. 

Is there an alternative? We would argue that there is. From the very earliest stages of introducing friends or clients to our great sport we should be encouraging them to be independent following a capsize in white water.  Self rescue in white water involves rolling the kayak upright and either placing the paddle in the cockpit or using it as an aid in swimming to the side while pushing the kayaking in front. Swimming in white water, getting across eddy lines and knowing when it is safe to put your feet down all need a bit of instruction initially. However, in our experience self rescue is safer, quicker and more likely to result in the swimmer and all the kit arriving at the same place.

So what is the role of the “trip leader, head guide or rescue ranger”?  They become an enabler.  Offering advice on where the best eddy is and the best line to get there from their higher vantage point.  Inevitably they will also be required to assist on occasion, particularly with kit recovery, but this doesn’t need to be the norm.

We’re not suggesting swimmers should be left to their own devices, but an approach that is characterised by “accompanying” swimmers to the shore is quicker and safer for both the swimmer and the “accompanyer”.  In addition, it also has to be said that for those of us that enjoy some harder white water, self rescue may be the only way of getting back to the river bank, so let’s embed this proactive behavior right from the earliest experiences we have on white water.

White Water Safety is a multi-award winning instructional film for kayakers and canoeists.  Produced by Bruce Jolliffe & Dougie Shannon (http://EddylineFilms.com), it was filmed and edited by television industry professionals to offer the highest standard of demonstrations.

Bruce and Dougie are both BCU Level 5 Coaches, White Water Safety & Rescue trainers and most importantly active paddlers who have travelled far and wide with boats on their shoulders.