River Safety

Top tips for keeping safe on rivers

Kayaking is an extreme sport and carries the inherent risk of serious injury or death.

As club members we must all do our best to minimise the risks as much as possible and there are certain things we can do to minimise the risks.

Be aware, though, that even following these tips does not mean you will come to no harm. Personal preferences do come to play as some people choose to do things in different ways.

Kayaking is a growing sport and total beginners are welcome in our club. The information below is for all our members and is a “one stop” introductory stop for how we at BKC run rivers.

We recommend that everyone attends a “White Water Safety & Rescue” 2 day course.

The performance star system also is extremely useful to gauge progression of personal competency.

So here is a list of “Top Tips” which BKC recommend members to be aware of. This list is by no means exhaustive.


Know your own competency

When being led down a river if you don’t feel you want to run a particular stretch – don’t hesitate to let the others know. Any “egos” should be left at home so that everyone can feel they can decline to run a stretch without having to justify themselves.

If you are not happy (a) let the others know you don’t want to run it, then you will (b) “Portage” your boat around an obstacle on the river bank and join the others below the stretch.

No-one will think less of you for making a decision to walk around.

The club encourages paddlers to increase their confidence but don’t read this encouragement as an instruction to do something to are not willing to do.



There are lots of books / websites / advice from the British Canoe Union, and magazines etc. on kayaking, there are even videos on Youtube to peruse on your iPad.

Spend those winter evenings in front of the log fire and kayak (in your mind) on your sofa – it’s warmer, takes less time and petrol to get there, you’ll stay dry and you’ll have a great time. The information here is only made available by BKC to complement formal training.



It’s probably worth saying that this isn’t a list of everything a beginner is expected to carry.

The BKC has river running boats, spraydecks, paddles etc so as to make it really easy for total beginners to start to get involved.

a. Helmet – CE approved

One that fits properly i.e. you can’t move it from side to side or front to back. If it is able to be pushed back then you need to tighten the front straps. Will you need to fit a neoprene skull cap or a peaked cap underneath if planning to throw some moves down in a play spot?

b. Throw rope

Palm 20m Alpine has a thick line which is easier for a swimmer / rescuer to hold. Do not put a knot in the free end. In the bag there is a steel ring and the bag is connected to this. Be aware that this rope can be unknotted and separated from the bag, if required. Learn how to throw the rope – underarm, side arm and overarm. Butterfly coil the rope ready for another throw. 10m is about the max of accuracy. Shout to the swimmer so they know there is a rope coming.

Throw so the rope lands on the person. The swimmer can twist their upper body slightly and open their arms wide to increase the (length of) target. Thumbs up with hands close to the body, one above and behind the other to cause the rope to have to form a slight Z shape.

The swimmer uses the same grip and keeps the rope on their shoulder nearest the rescuer.

Pack your own bag – make sure it will come out cleanly. Before deploying make sure the bag neck is loosened and widened. Be aware that, when re throwing, you might not have to throw all of the rope, and so only spend time coiling the length you need to deploy.

c. Carabineers

2 screw gate, 1 quick snap (unscrewed) All large enough to snap over a paddle shaft, pear shaped. Store these dry and make sure they are lubricated regularly.

d. Buoyancy aids

Quick release buckle. The metal 2 slot. There is no need to thread your belt through this buckle! If you do then your belt will not quick release. It is acceptable for the belt to go through ONLY one slot. On some buoyancy aids there is a “Cows Tail” – which is a rope which comes from a steel ring on the back. This cows tail could snag so think carefully before buying one as it contradicts the “Clean” system of not having anything which might snag.

e. Paddle

Put your phone number on your paddle (In fact all your gear behind the other to cause the rope to have to form a slight Z shape. The swimmer uses the same grip and keeps the rope on their shoulder nearest the rescuer. Pack your own bag – make sure it will come out cleanly. Before deploying make sure the bag neck is loosened and widened. Be aware that, when re throwing, you might not have to throw all of the rope, and so only spend time coiling the length you need to deploy. No paddle leash is required for a river (we just use them in the sea).

f. Sling

Long has more uses than short.

g. Tape

3 to 5m long thick mountaineers tape

h. Hot drink, food, chocolate, plastic bottle of coke

Urban Legend No. 243 “Good for killing bacteria in any river water you might swallow”…

i. First aid kit
j. Shelter tent

This is used to warm up group members following a mishap, or even just in a break, or when off the water. All the people hold the edge of the shelter then parachute the shelter over all of the group then each person pulls the edge behind their knees and sits on it. Groovy & warm.

They also come in 2 and 4 person sizes and can be called bothy’s.

k. Knife

If you carry a rope, carry a knife. Single handed operation is recommended – but it is now considered uncool (and a little dangerous because it is not a clean system) to have the knife on the outside of your buoyancy aid as if you were a member of a SWAT team. The attachment you have chosen for your knife should be such that you can give your knife to someone else.

l. Clothes

Choice of several types.

i. Wet suit – can restrict paddling movement if it has the arms – long john wetsuits are preferred.

ii. Two piece semi dry suit. You will not stay totally dry but a good interim all round solution at a reasonable price.

iii. One piece dry suit. Top stuff. Dear price but how much is your smug grin worth as you strip off totally dry at the bottom car park eh? Priceless.

m. Spare clothes

Spare clothes (in a dry bag) to carry in your kayak depending on the weather.

It’s good to know you have something warm & dry to change into.

n. Whistle

Plastic – without pea. Stored so as to be easily reached, retained on a light piece of nylon string.



In normal paddling, if you see a swimmer capsize then you should shout “capsize” or “Swimmer”.

If you hear someone else shout “capsize” or “Swimmer” then you should also shout it as well so that the whole group knows what has happened.

Unless you know you should be helping in the rescue get yourself into a place of safety until the rescue is complete. If you do not know what you are doing you will get in the way and make the situation worse.

Move down carefully with the group if you have to in order to maintain line of sight with the main group. The reason for all the shouting is that the swimmer might be just behind his (future) rescuer.

The protocol for the leader when considering a rescue is : Self; Team; Swimmer; Kit.

In moving water you should make sure your feet are on the surface, lie on your back and keep your arms outstretched to each side to maintain balance. Look out for obstacles downstream and try to aggressively swim over anything rather than go under it.

Use a swimming backwards motion with your arms to move to the side of the river then roll over the eddie line onto your front and swim aggressively for the side. When swimming on your back ONLY try to stand up when the water is barely moving. This is in case your foot gets trapped and the force of the water pins you on your front.

If you do get “Pinned” there are various rescues which can be attempted – so keep an eye out for tension ropes or even a paddle coming your way which you may be able to lean on.

a. Swimmer protocol. The first priority is the swimmer. The equipment can be rescued later. If possible hold onto your paddle and boat.

b. If this isn’t possible swim defensively and try to reach the bank yourself. If assistance is offered by another kayaker, gently crawl onto their back deck and hold onto their waist and kick aggressively to assist you both getting to the side.

c. If you have been trashed a little when you have been swimming try not to feel sorry for yourself. I know this sounds a little harsh but eh.. “man up” if you are able to and get back into the fight as soon as you can.



There is not enough space to describe the numerous aspects of this subject.

For now:-

a. When going to assist in a bank based rescue remember to bring your paddle, sling, carabineers, rope.

b. If you get stuck – know that the others will be working hard to get you out. Look out for ropes to grab and if you are swimming keep looking around – the best direction to swim to MIGHT NOT be the nearest person – look for the direction they are pointing to and swim in that direction. Take big deep breaths when you can and try to stay calm.



When you have paddled into an eddy move up to the top so as to allow room for the others to enter the eddy. Leave from the top when its your turn. The person coming down has right of way so make sure you stay out of their way.


Group control

The leader is in control of managing the group.

It isn’t always a democracy about what the level of control should be.

The leader will inspect drops to see if they are clear of obstacles and recommend the best line to take.

The leader will choose a safe eddy for the group to wait.

The leader may choose another smaller eddy below this (attack position) so that he has clear line of sight from the bottom of the drop to the attack position eddy. The person in the attack position eddy MUST wait until he sees a POSITIVE signal from the leader to run the drop. Even if this seems to take ages (for example if the leader is busy rescuing someone) you must wait to be called by the leader. DO NOT go without a positive signal.

a. “Stop” is a stationary horizontal paddle raised above the head.

b. “ONE person go” is a vertical paddle

c. “Go this way” is a paddle held chest height on the side you should go.

d. “All come” is a horizontal paddle being moved up and down (“Tooting a train”) – this signal is almost never used!

e. The leader may be facing away from you when he gives a signal so watch out for this.

f. If a direction is shouted it is the “good direction” – the direction to paddle to. All directions shouted is with respect to the direction of the river. “Right” is always river right no matter which way the person shouting is facing.



Avoidance is the key to happy paddling.

This is especially true when the water is fast moving – you need to look well ahead and see where the water you are sitting on is going.

If, up ahead, it is heading for somewhere you don’t want to go (ramming onto the outside of a bend, heading for a tree, going towards an unplanned drop etc , you must paddle AGGRESSIVELY away in good time. Just (dreamily) paddling forward is not an option. Wake up.



The plan is to get as many vehicles at the bottom as possible.

This means a few people have to ferry drivers back up to the top (the put-in). You therefore may have to place your change of clothes in a bag in someone’s car. Remember this!

When changing into and out of your clothes at the bottom near the vehicles please be aware of members of the public when you are changing so as not to cause offence.


Write a trip report

If you have enjoyed your run then why not write a trip report and let other BKC members know all about it? Email your report to Malcolm Vincent.