Prevention & Preparation - Rafting
Article from The Star on
Saturday, 17 July, Weekender Section
By: Chan Yuen-Li & Zoe Higginbotham
Last week, we explained how to
recognise potential hazards in a river environment. With this
knowledge, river users can make good decisions on how to prevent
accidents. If you are visiting a river to picnic or swim, you
can easily avoid any dangerous river features and still enjoy
yourself by visiting a safer spot.
However, if you choose to take part in
an activity that uses a more hazardous part of the river such as
whitewater rafting or kayaking in rapids, then you are likely to
need some self rescue skills. These skills are, of course,
relevant to all river users as river and weather conditions can
change rapidly and the unexpected can always happen.
If you are planning to swim, tube, raft
or kayak down a rapid then equipping yourself with proper
personal safety equipment is essential. Even if you are in a
very stable river craft, you must assume that you could end up
falling into the water.
The two mandatory pieces of equipment
are a life-jacket (personal floatation device or PFD) and
helmet. A PFD does not only help to keep you afloat, it also
acts as body armour protecting you from any rocks you might meet
while swimming. It also provides insulation against the cold –
an important consideration in colder climates.
Anyone who intends to be in a
whitewater environment needs to have a PFD, regardless of
whether they can swim or not. As discussed last week, river
currents are powerful forces that can overwhelm even the
When choosing a PFD, two important
factors are floatation and fit. Old PFDs which have deteriorated
over time tend to have less floatation. Inspect such gear
carefully.When fitting a PFD, ensure that it can be fastened
tightly. Make sure that it is the right size for you and that
the buckles or zips are secure.
A rescuer can also use your PFD as a
means to grab hold of you. So it is in your interest to make
sure that the PFD is snug or it might be rescued without you
inside it! When swimming, your PFD should not float up in front
of your face.
A helmet is a vital piece of equipment,
protecting your head from rocks, boats or even the flailing
paddles of your friends. A helmet should fit snugly, covering
the forehead and protecting your temples. It should not slide
around on your head and should fasten securely under the chin. A
head injury could easily knock you unconscious, immediately
creating a life-threatening situation. If you have a brain, then
you will want to wear a helmet.
When you swim down a rapid – either
inadvertently or for fun – a helmet and PFD will certainly help
to protect you. Another line of defence is to learn and practise
some self-rescue techniques.
To find yourself thrown into turbulent
water is quite a disorientating experience for most people. The
first thing is to relax. The more you thrash about, the more
energy and breath you will waste.
It is extremely important that you do
not try to stand up while in turbulent water. The water is
turbulent because there are rocks beneath the surface. You
should keep your feet off the riverbed to avoid getting a foot
trapped in between or under rocks. This is a severe hazard as
the current can push a person with a trapped foot face-down in
the water and hold him there.
The best way to survive a swim in
whitewater is to float on your back with your feet downstream in
front of you. Your head, butt and feet should be held high so
that you can see your toes. This position allows you to see
where you are going and look out for hazards and safe zones.
With your feet in front, you can fend off rocks using the legs
as a shock absorber. Men may prefer to keep their legs together!
While you are in this position, try to
look for calm pools and eddies which may offer a safe exit from
the rapid. Your primary goals should be to protect yourself, to
get enough air and to aggressively swim to safety when an
opportunity arises. As you see a likely exit spot, turn onto
your stomach and swim for it with determination.
If you get caught in a strong backwash
current of a waterfall, you may find yourself being tumbled
about like an old rag in a washing machine. Try to relax, take
breaths when you can and swim sideways out of the circulating
current. If you can’t escape sideways remember that waterfalls
contain a powerful downcurrent that you can follow and use to
push you under the backwash and out. In such a situation, be
prepared to make many attempts at self rescue. Whatever you do,
don’t give up!
Regular river users should consider
attending courses or reading books which cover some of the
following skills: rescuing other people, use of rescue
equipment, first aid and CPR. Rescuing other people is a skill
that requires training, practice and good judgement. It is
potentially very dangerous as would-be rescuers can easily
Remember that accident prevention
should be the primary aim of all river users. The best form of
rescue is the one that never has to happen.