Guide School: Damage Control


Even on a stretch of river we run every day, our lines can vary. Water levels change, rocks move, oars break. Sometimes we misjudge the ability of the crew, the speed of the current, the power of a hydraulic. Since we don’t always have a clean line, we should at least be able to clean up whatever mess we make.

This is why guiding is as much about damage control as it is about raft control. Guides need to anticipate what features may cause people to fall out of the raft and take measures to mitigate these mishaps. And when things don’t go as planned, guides have to take the appropriate actions to correct mistakes.

Preventing Swimmers
Rafts don’t flip people; people flip rafts. Or more specifically, it’s the act of weight shifting from one side to other that turns most boats over. If you ever watch a raft without gear or people float through a monster rapid and reach the bottom, unscathed, bobbing upright like a rubber duck in a bathtub, then this fact is apparent. That is why guides should teach their crew skills that will prepare them for the jolts and jostling, tilts and turns that make whitewater rafting so fun.

“Bump” In shallow rapids, it’s not so much a matter of not hitting rocks, it’s hitting only the right rocks. That is why it’s not uncommon to style a class V rapid but have multiple swimmers in a no-name class II. Calling out “Bump,” or a similar command, alerts your crew to a potential hit, whether it be from colliding into a rock or clipping another raft as you pull into an eddy.

“Lean-In, Lean Right, Lean Left”A “lean in” command is useful for little drops and big wave hits where you don’t need everyone to paddle; you just need them to stay in the boat. “Lean in,” means everyone leans toward the center of the raft, putting their weight on their inside leg. If someone loses his or her balance, you want that person to fall into the raft rather than out of it.

Sometimes you need to go over drops sideways in order to make a move downstream. Whenever you hit a ledge or slide with a steep angle, there’s a risk that the paddlers on the upstream side of the raft will fall into the people on the downstream side at the moment of impact. Then one or both of these people tumble out of the raft, and in some cases, the force of all this weight going from one side to the other can flip the raft.

To prevent swimmers when taking angled drops, you can have the crew lean upstream by calling a “lean right” or a “lean left.” The upstream side will lean out of the boat while the other side leans toward the middle. The impact should put everyone into his or her normal position. This is the type of command that works best if you prep your crew just before the rapid where you plan on using it.

“Get Down” With big drops and shallow ledges the impacts are so violent that it is difficult for paddlers to remain in their seat no matter which way they are leaning. The main purpose of the “get down” command is to keep guests from falling into one another, knocking people out of the raft.

For this command, the paddlers crouch into the compartment, assuming a ball catchers position with their behinds and knees off the floor of the raft. You can instruct everyone to keep their T-grips covered or have your crew place the paddle outside the boat so it’s easier to grab a thwart strap or handle in the middle.

The “get down” is the ultimate damage control command for trying to save a less than ideal line. When you don’t know what to call, this position has the best chance of keeping everyone in the raft and keeping the raft upright. But “get downs” aren’t just for big rapids or bad runs. The good routes in small rapids can be riddled with ejector rocks that often send paddlers on a manky swim. Even if you don’t have a particular rapid where you need a “get down” on a daily basis, it’s a great command to teach your guests and have in your quiver.

“High Side” If a boat is pushed sideways into a boulder or canyon wall, the pillow of water that’s building on the obstacle can transfer on the upstream tube, tilting the raft while forcing it up the face of the rock until the boat pins or flips. The same effect can also happen in a large hydraulic, when water flowing into the hole places pressure on the upstream tube while the other side rises up the foam pile. But in both scenarios, if the crew gets enough weight on the downstream tube, they can sometimes counteract the force of the water and keep the raft close to level.

For the “high side” to work, the crew has to be aggressive. When the guide yells it, the paddlers on the upstream side will leave their seat and dive onto the downstream side, putting their upper body on the tube across from them. Most crews will need to practice this maneuver a couple of times in calm water before they will be able to do it in a rapid. And they should be prepped above rapids where “high sides” may be needed.

The best “high sides” happen when the crew recognizes the situation and gets into position before the guide gives the command. Even with diligent training, some crews don’t have the physical ability to pull this off. When in doubt a good “Get Down” is more effective than a bad “High Side.”

Getting Yourself Back in the Raft
Despite a guide’s best efforts, people swim. Your first priority needs to be getting yourself back in the raft. As long as you are in the water, you are just another victim. Once you are in control of the boat, then you will be in a position to help others.

Getting in a raft from the water is more a matter of proper technique than brute strength. With that said, a combination of pull-ups and push-ups will benefit any commercial guide’s regular workout routine. And every guide needs be comfortable climbing into his or her raft even if it means rigging up special straps to make it easier.

It’s easiest to get inside an upright raft along the sides of the raft, where the top of the tube is closer to the water. Place one hand on a D-ring, or a perimeter line to pull yourself up, put the other hand on top of the tube. Loose perimeter lines can cause your hands to be closer to the water rather than the top of the raft, making it more difficult to swing your body over the tube.

If there isn’t anything else to use, then grab the perimeter line on either side of a D-Ring, to keep your hands higher. Or if your arms are long and the tube is small, you may be able to place one hand on a handle, and the other on top of the tube. Go from a pull up to a pushup, leaning your upper body over the tube while kicking your feet simultaneously. Once you get your upper body on the tube, get a handhold on a strap, thwart, or frame to help pull yourself into the raft.

Getting People Back in the Raft
How much time people spend in the water can make the difference between a swim they tell their friends about next week or a swim they tell their therapist about next year. This is why you should train every member of your crew in self-rescue and how to pull other swimmers back in the raft.

Most of the time, a person who falls into the water pops up within a body length of the boat. If you can encourage that person to swim toward the raft, he or she may be able grab the perimeter line and better positioning themselves for a rescue. Other paddlers can help out by taking a hand off the T-grip and extending it to the swimmer.

Even a small person can pull in a quite large person by using some simple body mechanics. When helping a swimmer get out of the water, make sure the person is facing the raft. Bend your knees as you reach over and grab the swimmer either underneath the arms or by the shoulders of their PFD. Then stand up and fall backward. By standing up, you will lift the swimmer higher than the tube. By falling backward, your weight will leverage him or her into the raft. The swimmer should be kicking and helping to pull his or her self out of the water.

With a larger person, it’s sometimes necessary to dunk the swimmer underwater in order to pull him or her back in the raft. The buoyancy of the PFD will make the swimmer shoot to the surface, and you can use this momentum to help pull him or her out of the water.

Dealing With an Upside Down Raft
The most common and easiest way to get on top of an upside down raft is usually on its ends. This is because on a raft with lots of rocker, the bow and the stern may be the only parts of the raft consistently touching the water.

 When getting on a flipped raft, keep one hand on the back D-ring or handle and place the other hand on top of the floor or upside down tube. Then push down on your hands while straightening your arms to get your upper body as high out of the water as possible. When your weight is over the raft, fall forward kicking with both legs at once. Keep wriggling your body onto the raft like a seal crawling up a rock until you are stable.

Flipping the Raft
Once you’re on top of the upside-down raft, you will need to make some quick judgment calls on what to do next. Most of the time the best move is to get the raft under control by either flipping it upright or trying to paddle it into an eddy. But sometimes it may be best to ride out the next rapid on top of the raft, encouraging your guests to hold on to the sides of the boat to keep them above water, or even pulling them on top of the upside-down raft with you. Other times it may be better for the guests if they swim to another raft, the shore, or a rescue rope.

Most guides keep a long piece of webbing and a carabineer attached around their waste or in the pocket of their PFD to be used as a flip line. By hooking the carabineer onto one side of the raft, you can stand on the other side and lean back while holding onto the tail of the webbing. Sometimes you have to rock the boat back and forth a little to get it started, but as you commit your weight over the side and fall into the water, the raft should right itself.

Some guides also rig cam straps through the bail holes and across the floor of the raft so they can get on the bottom of the raft from the middle. As the guide climbs up the side of the raft, going from the perimeter line to the rigged cam strap, he or she may be able to pull the raft upright by tugging on the middle the strap and falling backward.

The downside of the cam strap method is that it can cause the raft to hang up on shallow rocks or submerged wood. If you use this system, make sure it’s tight and warn your guests about the dangers of getting feet tangled in the strap. Also, have the cam on the inside of the raft, so if the strap does get caught on something you can easily release it.

Another variation of this technique is to run a small cam or piece of webbing from adjacent bail holes along the side of the floor rather than across the raft. This offers a convenient way to climb on top of the raft from the middle while reducing the risk of people or wood getting hooked in the strap. However, the guide will still need a separate line to flip the boat.

If the raft has gear tied into it, a single person probably won’t be able to right it mid-current by just pulling on it with his or her weight. Flipping loaded gear boats usually involves multiple people and elaborate rope systems.

A true measure of when a guide is ready to be “checked out” is not how well he or she can replicate a route, it’s how well he or she can correct a bad run. Being able to remain calm and act accordingly comes with experience. However, by becoming familiar with preventative tools and practicing rescue skills, a new guide has a better chance of controlling the damage rather than becoming part of the carnage.

Editor’s Note: Photos courtesy of Southeastern Expeditions and Chugach Outdoor Center