The Ultimate Question: Is White Water Rafting Safe?
On The River:
Rafting is a participation activity. What you do DOES matter. Every seasoned guide has seen a guest take a much longer swim than needed because they did little to help themselves, and others who averted that long swim by following the procedures reiterated in our safety videos, by the trip leader and the guide.
As soon as you put on the river, your guide will lead you through paddling practice, emphasizing both individual technique and teamwork. Paddling together as a team provides vastly more power and control than a disjointed group can produce, regardless of athleticism or strength.
That teamwork can make the difference between great routes and fun rides while keeping everyone in the boat and a less than stellar day. There is just no substitute for the exhilaration of working together to get the most out of your run. Striving to be part of an effective team goes a long way toward making YOUR day the best it can be.
Swims and spills do happen. They’re part of rafting. Prompt response to your guide’s paddle commands, and leaning or moving across the raft if instructed can lessen your odds of a swim, but raft often enough and some day you will find yourself in the water unexpectedly. How you react next is a major factor in how you’ll remember THAT day’s adventure.
Often by the time you fall out of a raft you’re already through or near the end of the rapid and have calm water to work with as you get back to the boat. If not, your choices or absence of them will be very important.
The majority of swimmers surface close to the raft. Every raft has either handles or straps on the outside of the boat. Everyone in the raft has been instructed to use the t-grip of their paddle as a rescue device. The raft is sitting on top of the water. The swimmer is more deeply immersed and often subject to different currents that could move them away from the raft.
All of this creates what amounts to a “magic moment” when the swimmer is close to the raft and can be quickly retrieved. Even before you clear your eyes just make a grab in front of you. There’s a very good chance you’ll clutch either raft or t-grip and before you know it, you’ll be back in the boat.
If the moment passes and you’re still in the river, pull your feet up to the surface of the water. Trapping a foot between two rocks or in other underwater debris is a very rare but very serious situation. If you don’t remember anything else, do remember to keep your feet up near the surface.
This is a good time to orient yourself, see what’s coming, look around for the closest raft, and run over in your mind whether your guide gave any special swim instructions for this rapid to steer you away from known hazards. Time your breathing for opportunities between waves.
Know that everyone not in the river is focused on getting everyone in the water quickly retrieved. You may hear whistles as guides alert each other that there are one or more swimmers to go after. Your role is to be an active part of your own rescue.
In some circumstances a guide may elect to throw you a rope. If that happens grab the rope, not the bag it was stuffed into, and simply hang on to it without wrapping it around any part of you. If the rope lands a few feet away, swim to the rope.
Often your guide or some other guide close to you will simply point in the best direction for you to swim. Guides will always point toward safety, never toward a hazard. The most effective way to swim in whitewater is to roll over on your belly and swim in the proper direction. This is known as aggressive swimming, in contrast to passive swimming (on your back, feet first).
In lieu of specific instruction, remember that rocks are not your friends and should be avoided. Trees in the water, rare on the New and Gauley rivers, are of special concern and should be avoided at all costs.
Every situation is unique, but the one common bit of useful advice is if you find yourself where you don’t want to be, figure out where you do want to be, and do your best to get there by whatever means you have available. If a t-grip or rope is presented to you, take it. If you’re pointed in a direction, go that way. Most of all, continue to make an effort to improve your situation. The most challenging swimmer to retrieve is the swimmer who drifts aimlessly downstream.
When looking for an adventure outfitter, the safety points mentioned in this three part series are important to consider. Every outfitter operates under different safety precautions. At ACE Adventure Resort, safety is our first and top priority.
For the vast majority of guests who raft with ACE, the only physical change they experience is a bigger smile on their face at the end of a wonderful day. But there are risks involved in any outdoor adventure, including rafting. We do all we can to assure that bigger smile for you. All we ask is that you too pay attention to your safety, making our job that much easier and your visit with us that much better.