Risk is part of what makes whitewater kayaking fun: it’s is a sport where accidents will happen. Prepare for the worst and learn about safety and rescue, because when the inevitable happens it’s good to be able to do something about it.
It is always better to avoid the accidents in the first place, so here I will share some tactics that I use to keep myself, for the most part, carnage free …
1. Learn to roll and practice freestyle
Even the best kayakers capsize; being able to right yourself will mean that you will avoid a swim and a rescue.
It’s all good being able to roll in the flat water, but the chances are you will tip over in a rapid, and by definition rapids aren’t flat, so practice a bomber roll that will work in all situations.
Freestyle kayaking will have you rolling a lot, so jump in a playboat and get stuck in. As soon as you start trying to throw some tricks down you’ll realise how easy it is to get out of a hole, you’ll spend most of your time freestyling trying hard to stay in the hole.
I recommend a trip to the White Nile in Uganda where you can merrily drop into the biggest holes and learn how to take a beat-down in beautifully warm water. The rapids on the Nile are short, powerful and a lot of fun. After you have conquered those mammoths, the sticky hole on your local run won’t seem so bad after all.
2. Wear a good spraydeck
Being able to choose when you swim is very important, having a good spraydeck that doesn’t pop off when you look at a wave is great.
Waterfalls, big volume, and rowdy holes will all put great deal of strain on your spraydeck, the water pressure will force it down towards your legs causing it to implode.
I’ve had to rescue a couple of friends from sub-optimal situations that came about as a direct result of having a poor quality deck. For both of these rescues I had to risk my own safety to save my buddy. Danger that would have been easily avoided by wearing a good spraydeck.
Getting a well fitting deck is a good start, and for grade 4/5 I would highly suggest a rand deck like the Palm Orbit, these stay on your boat much better and you can paddle hard whitewater with the knowledge that it wont pop.
3. Stay alert
Complacency will get you into trouble. We spend a lot of time worrying about a crux move in a rapid and once past the worst we often relax, sometimes a bit too much and find ourselves upside-down, bouncing off of rocks, reaching for that loop on the from of your cockpit.
Relax when you’re in a calm eddy that doesn’t cycle into a syphon or an undercut.
4. Know your own ability
If you think you’re amazing when you’re not you’ll paddle stuff that is too hard and eventually you’ll end up swimming, and your mates will have to save you at their own risk. Don’t be that guy. Push yourself, but do it gradually and in a safe way. Don’t get on a section of river that is far beyond your paddling ability. Work your way up!
5. Know the ability of your group
You may be a kayaking god, but that doesn’t mean your friends are too. Just because something is easy for you doesn’t mean it’s easy for everyone else. Pick a setting that suits the whole group. Class 5 kayakers can still have a blast on grade 3 but a class 3 kayaker won’t be having so much fun on grade 5. Remember it’s not all about you, and only boring people get bored!
6. If in doubt, scout
It’s never a bad idea to look at a rapid, sometimes it’s a bit unnecessary, but getting a good look will let you plan your line so you avoid a hazard. It’s also never a bad shout to pick up your boat and walk around a rapid. It will still be there for you to do at a later date when you are feeling more confident.
7. Don’t rush
Be careful, take your time, think things through, and don’t stress.