Whitewater safety can be a tricky thing. While it is generally better to stay with your kayak, canoe, or raft while floating or swimming in whitewater, there are times when it can be dangerous. Being able to discern when to stay with your kayak or canoe and when not to can mean the difference between a funny story you tell around the campfire and a tragedy you’ll never have the chance to tell.
First, if you can’t get your boat in front and downstream of you then you need to get away from it. You don’t want it getting thrown onto you if you go over a ledge or waterfall. You are also liable to get pinned between it and an obstacle if it is directly behind you.
Second, if you are trying to stay with your kayak, canoe, or raft and are about to go over some sort of drop or into a hole you need to let go of it. Your boat might get stuck in the recirculation since it is more buoyant than a person.
Let the hole keep the boat and make sure you swim out. It is also common in these situations to let go and steer clear of the boat prior to going over a ledge and then swimming back to it as long as it doesn’t get stuck.
In most cases, whitewater safety requires split-second decisions on the part of the paddler. Do what commonsense tells you to do. There should be other paddlers out there who are trying to rescue you also. Always be safe. Remember your goal is ultimately to get to shore.
Finally, never risk staying with your equipment at the expense of getting safely to shore. You can always replace your boat or paddle, but you only have one life. Once on shore, you can chase your boat down the river on foot. At least you’ll be out of the water. In most cases, other boaters will rescue your boat or paddle and leave it on shore for you. Just hope they don’t leave it on the other side of the river.
Remember, Remember, Remember, Be safe!