Return to previous page

Safety Code of the Keel-Haulers
(Adapted from the Safety Code of the American Whitewater Affiliation) 

I. PERSONAL PREPAREDNESS AND RESPONSIBILITY

A. Be a competent swimmer, with the ability to handle yourself underwater.

B. Wear a life jacket. A snugly-fitting vest-type life preserver offers back and shoulder protection as well as the flotation needed to swim safely in whitewater.

C. Wear a solid, correctly fitted helmet when upsets are likely. This is essential in kayaks or covered canoes, and recommended for open canoeists using thigh straps and rafters running steep drops.

D. Do not boat out of control. Your skills should be sufficient to stop or reach shore before reaching danger. Do not enter a rapid unless you are reasonably sure that you can run it safely or swim it without injury.

E. Whitewater rivers contain many hazards which are not always easily recognized. The following are the most frequent killers:
    1. HIGH WATER. The river’s speed and power increase tremendously as the flow increases, raising the difficulty of most rapids. Rescue becomes progressively harder as the water rises, adding to the danger. Floating debris and strainers make even an easy rapid quite hazardous. It is often misleading to judge the river level at the put-in, since a small rise in a wide, shallow place will be multiplied many times where the river narrows. Use reliable gauge information whenever possible, and be aware that sun on snowpack, hard rain, and upstream dam releases may greatly increase the flow.
    2. COLD. Cold drains your strength and robs you of the ability to make sound decisions on matters affecting your survival. Cold water immersion, because of the initial shock and the rapid heat loss which follows, is especially dangerous. Dress appropriately for bad weather or sudden immersion in the water. When the water temperature is less than 50oF, a wetsuit or drysuit is essential for protection if you swim. Next best is wool or pile clothing under a waterproof shell. In this case, you should also carry waterproof matches and a change of clothing in a waterproof bag. If, after prolonged exposure, a person experiences uncontrollable shaking, loss of coordination, or difficulty speaking, he or she is hypothermic and needs your assistance.
    3. STRAINERS. Brush, fallen trees, bridge pilings, undercut rocks or anything else which allows river current to sweep through can pin boats and boaters against the obstacle. Water pressure on anything trapped this way can be overwhelming. Rescue is often extremely difficult. Pinning may occur in fast current, with little or no whitewater to warn of the danger.
    4. DAMS, WEIRS, LEDGES, REVERSALS, HOLES, AND HYDRAULICS. When water drops over an obstacle, it curls back on itself, forming a strong upstream current which may be capable of holding a boat or a swimmer. Some holes make for excellent sport; others are proven killers. Paddlers who cannot recognize the differences should avoid all but the smallest holes. Hydraulics around man-made dams must be treated with utmost respect regardless of their height or the level of the river. Despite their seemingly benign appearance, they can create an almost escape-proof trap. The swim only exit from the “drowning machine” is to dive below the surface when the downstream current is flowing beneath the reversal.

II. BOAT AND EQUIPMENT PREPAREDNESS

A. Test new and different equipment under familiar conditions before relying on it for difficult runs. This is especially true when adopting a new boat design or outfitting system. Low volume craft may present additional hazards to inexperienced or poorly conditioned paddlers.

B. Be sure your boat and gear are in good repair before starting a trip. The more isolated and difficult the run, the more rigorous the inspection.

C. Install flotation bags in non-inflatable craft, securely fixed in each end, designed to displace as much water as possible. Inflatable boats should have multiple air chambers and be test inflated before launching.

D. Have strong, properly sized paddles or oars for controlling your craft. Carry sufficient spares for the length and difficulty of the trip.

E. Outfit your boat safely. The ability to exit your boat quickly is an essential component of safety in rapids. It is your responsibility to see that there is absolutely nothing to cause entrapment when coming free of an upset craft. This includes:
    1. Spray covers which won’t release reliably or which release prematurely.
    2. Boat outfitting too tight to allow a fast exit, especially in low volume kayaks or decked canoes. This includes low hung thwarts in canoes lacking adequate clearance for your feet and kayak footbraces which fail or allow your feet to become wedged under them.
    3. Inadequately supported decks which collapse on a paddler’s legs when a decked boat is pinned by water pressure. Inadequate clearance with the deck because of your size or build.
    4. Loose ropes which cause entanglement. Beware of any length of loose line attached to a whitewater boat. All items must be tied tightly and excess line eliminated; painters, throw lines and safety rope systems must be completely and effectively stored. Do not knot the end of a rope, as it can get caught between rocks.

F. Provide ropes which permit you to hold on to your craft so that it may be rescued. The following methods are recommended.
    1. Kayaks and covered canoes should have grab loops of 1/4” plus rope or equivalent webbing sized to admit a normal-sized hand. Stern painters are permissible if properly secured.
    2. Open canoes should have securely anchored bow and stern painters consisting of 8-10 feet of 1/4” plus line. These must be secured in such a way that they are readily accessible, but cannot come loose accidentally. Grab loops are acceptable, but are more difficult to reach after an upset.
    3. Rafts and dories may have taut perimeter lines threaded through the loops provided. Footholds should be designed so that a paddler’s feet cannot be forced through them, causing entrapment. Flip lines should be carefully and reliably stowed.
    G. Know your craft’s carrying capacity, and how added loads affect boat handling in whitewater. Most rafts have a minimum crew size which can be added to on day trips or in easy rapids. Carrying more than two paddlers in an open canoe when running rapids is not recommended.
    H. Car top racks must be strong and attach positively to the vehicle. Lash your boat to each crossbar, and then tie the ends of the boats directly to the bumpers for added security. This arrangement should survive all but the most violent vehicle accident.

III. GROUP PREPAREDNESS AND RESPONSIBILITY

A. Organization. A river trip should be regarded as a common adventure by all participants, except on instructional or commercially guided trips as defined below. Participants share the responsibility for the conduct of the trip and each participant is individually responsible for judging his or her own capabilities and for his or her own safety as the trip progresses. Participants are encouraged (but are not obligated) to offer advice and guidance for independent consideration and judgment of others.

B. River Conditions. The group should have a reasonable knowledge of the difficulty of the run. Participants should evaluate this information and adjust their plans accordingly. If the run is exploratory or no one is familiar with the river; maps and guidebooks, if available, should be examined. The group should secure accurate flow information; the more difficult the run, the more important this will be. Be aware of possible changes in river level and how this will affect the difficulty of the run. If the trip involves tidal stretches, secure appropriate information on tides.

C. Group equipment should be suited to the difficulty of the river. The group should always have a throw line available and one line per boat is recommended on difficult runs. The list may include carabiners, prusik loops, first aid kit, flashlight, folding saw, fire starter, guide books, maps, food, extra clothing and other rescue or survival items suggested by conditions. Each item is not required on every run and this list is not meant to be a substitute for other rescue or survival items suggested by conditions.

D. Keep the group compact, but maintain sufficient spacing to avoid collisions. If the group is large, consider dividing into smaller groups or using the “Buddy System” as an additional safeguard. Space yourselves closely enough to permit good communication, but not so close as to interfere with one another in rapids.
    1. The lead paddler sets the pace. When in front, do not get in over your head. Never run drops when you cannot see a clear route to the bottom or, for advanced paddlers, a sure route to the next eddy. When in doubt, stop and scout.
    2. Keep track of all group members. Each boat keeps the one behind it in sight, stopping if necessary. Know how many people are in your group and take head counts regularly. No one should paddle ahead or walk out without first informing the group. Weak paddlers should stay at the center of the group and not allow themselves to lag behind. If the group is large and contains a wide range of abilities, a designated “Sweep Boat” should bring up the rear.
    3. Courtesy. On heavily used rivers, do not cut in front of a boater running a drop. Always look upstream before leaving eddies to run or play. Never enter a crowded drop or eddy when no room for you exists. Passing other groups in a rapid may be hazardous: it’s often safer to wait upstream until the group ahead has passed.

E. Float plan. If the trip is into a wilderness area or for an extended period, plans should be filed with a responsible person who will contact the authorities if you are overdue. It may be wise to establish checkpoints along the way where civilization could be contacted if necessary. Knowing the location of possible help and preplanning escape routes can speed rescue.

F. Drugs. The use of alcohol or mind altering drugs before or during river trips dulls reflexes, reduces decision making abilities and interferes with important survival reflexes.

G. Instructional or Guided Trips. In these trip formats, a person assumes the responsibilities of trip leader. He or she may pass judgment on person’s qualifications, check equipment and assume responsibilities for the conduct of the trip normally taken by the group as a whole.
    1. These trips must be clearly designated as such in advance, as they could expose the leader to legal liability. Trip or personal liability insurance should be considered.
    2. Even on trips with a designated leader, participants must recognize that whitewater rivers have inherent hazards, that each person is still responsible for their decision to participate and their safety on the water.

IV. GUIDELINES FOR RIVER RESCUE

A. Recover from an upset with an Eskimo roll whenever possible. Evacuate your boat immediately if there is imminent danger of being trapped against rocks, brush or any other kind of strainer.

B. If you swim, hold on to your boat. It has much flotation and is easy for rescuers to spot. Get to the upstream end so that you cannot be crushed between a rock and your boat by the force of the current. Persons with good balance may be able to climb on top of a swamped kayak or flipped raft and paddle to shore.

C. Release your craft if this will improve your chances, especially if the water is cold or dangerous rapids lie ahead. Actively attempt self-rescue whenever possible by swimming for safety. Be pre pared to assist others who may come to your aid.
    1. When swimming in shallow or obstructed rapids, lie on your back with feet held high and pointed downstream. Do not attempt to stand in fast moving water; if your foot wedges on the bottom, fast water will push you under and keep you there. Get to slow or very shallow water before attempting to stand or walk. Look ahead! Avoid possible pinning situations including undercut rocks, strainers, downed trees, holes and other dangers by swimming away from them.
    2. If the rapids are deep and powerful, roll over onto your stomach and swim aggressively for shore. Watch for eddies and slack water and use them to get out of the current. Strong swimmers can affect a powerful upstream ferry and get to shore fast. If the shores are obstructed with strainers or undercut rocks, however, it is safer to “ride the rapid out” until a safer escape can be found.

D. If others spill and swim, go after the boaters first. Rescue boats and equipment only if this can be done safely. While participants are encouraged (but not obligated) to assist one another to the best of their ability, they should do so only if they can, in their judgment, do so safely. The first duty of a rescuer is not to compound the problem by becoming another victim.

E. The use of rescue lines requires training. Uninformed use may cause injury. Never tie yourself into either end of a line without a reliable quick- release system. Have a knife handy to deal with unexpected entanglement. Learn to place set lines effectively, to throw accurately, to belay effectively and to properly handle a rope thrown to you.

F. When reviving a drowning victim, be aware that cold water may greatly extend survival time underwater. Victims of hypothermia may have depressed vital signs so they look and feel dead. Don’t give up; continue CPR for as long as possible without compromising safety.

Trip Organizer/Participant's responsibility

Return to KHCC Home page