Safety on Canoeing Trips

Like the rest of SOC, Canoe Section has an excellent safety record. But like our other activities, canoeing is an "assumed risk activity" which means that we expect those on trips to be aware of the risks they are taking on and take responsibility for their own safety decisions at all times. For those under 18, ultimate responsibility for those safety decisions lies with the parents or guardians, either to approve these young people being on trips of a suitable standard where they can indeed make their own decisions (usually only for those 16 and over) or by being on the trip with them, or nominating a specific adult trip member who will act in loco parentis during the trip.

Of course, those new to the sport are not in a position to appreciate every risk and consequence and must rely on the more experienced members of a trip for advice and guidance, and at times for assistance and rescue. Part of your decision making involves being sure that there are enough adequately experienced people to look after you although trips designated as "coaching" or for beginners will always be organised to meet this criterion (which may mean limiting numbers of participants so be sure to get in touch with the organiser early).

Traditionally, "senior" clubs have introduced people new to the sport by a process of trust building in which you get to know the experienced paddlers and they get to know you and each will be aware of the others' experience, skills and limitations. This is rather different from the system of certification and leadership remit used by the British Canoe Union which is designed for paid coaches and outdoor centres who must, by their nature, deal with large numbers of people whom they do not know well. A person new to the group is welcome to tell us what star tests etc. they have achieved and we will take note of this as a guide, but not as a substitute for getting to know you better on the water. Please don't feel aggrieved if we are not happy to have you on the harder trips until we have paddled with you a few times. We are affiliated to BCU, but we use our own whole club insurance which is not dependent on keeping strictly to the BCU remit. Consequently many of our very experienced and skilled paddlers are not involved in the BCU schemes and may not have a single piece of paper to their name - we hope you'll get to know their strengths and weaknesses at the same time as we are getting to know you.

This does not mean that we don' t take safety seriously, and we developed long and detailed formal risk assessment documents for both river paddling and sea paddling, which were reviewed both annually and after any incidents. Other sections preferred a far more concise format, which Canoe Section has now also adopted, though I'm not sure whether or when this will be made pubically accessible. Logged in members can download a handy single-page checklist-style risk assessment which acts as a reminder for trips. These are by their nature quite generic and are intended to ensure that people are aware of the various possible hazards and the strategies we use to reduce the risks, but don' t allocate points scores in the way that a detailed risk assessment for a particular trip or event might. Doing a risk assessment is of no use if no-one ever reads it, and a checklist style, whilst useful, is no great help if the reader does not fully understand the risks being sumarised there. We hope members took the opportunity to read through the detailed documents whilst they were here to see if they contain anything that might alert them to risks of which they might be unaware, or new ideas for ways to deal with situations. The original risk assessments tried to be pretty comprehensive, so enumerated a lot of hazards that will not apply on most trips - they will be worth a review if you intend to paddle somewhere new where these hazards may be relevant, so we hope to add links to their new location (probably no longer on the club site) shortly. We do appreciate that more experienced paddlers are doing dynamic risk assessment throughout a trip, so written documents act as a "primer" and not as a reference document for blind obedience. Whether or not you are one of those more experienced paddlers, we welcome feedback on these documents, especially if anything is unclear or you think there is something we've missed.

Most accidents happen because of a combination of different things going wrong, so all participants in trips should be aware of developing situations and take action before things start to escalate. Good group communication is the basis of a safe trip, so don' t assume that everyone else is seeing the same things you have noticed, and ensure that people are not becoming isolated, either ahead or behind the group (or off on a different course altogether!). Be sure you know what hand signals other members of the group understand and are using and remember the convention that you always point to a safe route and not at the hazard so that misunderstandings don't lead directly to disaster.

We try to have ten minutes at the start of each river trip during which we'll check that we have adequate safety equipment (and who is carrying it) and that everyone is using the same river signals. We'll note any particular features of this river that everyone needs to know in advance, and aim to do a few bits of ferrying and surfing to get everyone comfortable on the water. The latter also serves to ensure that anyone we haven't paddled with before really is OK with the particular grade and water conditions on the day. Be aware that there are a few rivers where there's nowhere good to do such a warm-up before committing to the flow and being whisked to a point of no escape (more common on our alpine trips) so a bit of pre-trip risk assessment on the bank may be appropriate, too !

Decision-making - FACETS

It's fashionable to use mnemonic acronyms to remember useful ideas, as anyone who has had some paddlesport coaching is likely to know all too well. FACETS is one of these which arises from recent research into how people assess risk during outdoor activities.

River running is all about making quick decisions as hazards appear and must be dealt with:- Which side of the rock to go ? Punch or avoid the stopper (or stop and play) ? Bale out or try to roll up ? It's rare that we have all the information to make a considered decision and even rarer to have the time to take it all into account, and yet we make these sort of decisions all the time with barely a thought. Very often this is because we have learned from the outcomes of thousands of similar decisions in the past and have each evolved a raft of rules-of-thumb which we can apply very quickly. These are known as heuristics and, whilst they are extremely effective a lot of the time, do incur a risk that we short-cut decision making in situations when the heuristic maybe shouldn't apply. There are six particular classes of heuristic that can be identified as having contributed to accidents, and these provide the source of that mnemonic:

Heuristics are useful, and if we had to stop to assess everything all the way down the river, we'd find ourselves exposed or benighted, so every decision is a trade-off between risk now and risk later. But it is important to recognise that the heuristics are shortcuts and may not always be the best way to make a decision. Accept that if you are paddling near your envelope you may need to inspect more and ask more questions. Allow extra time for these sorts of thing and don't get into a situation where time- or peer- pressure leads you into these sorts of decision-making traps.


We have more confidence on familiar terrain, and are less likely to get out and check a rapid we have run many times and know the line. However, rivers change, whether by the appearance of transient hazards like fallen trees or other river users, or by more major changes in the river bed. If you can't see over the horizon line, do you really know what you are going to find ?


If everyone else is running the rapid (or the river at this level), we feel peer pressure to do so ourselves or be thought to be a wimp. If everyone feels this but doesn't communicate, you can end up with a group, none of whom feel confident, all running the river because they think everyone else is happy. If you are worried - speak up !


The more you have put into getting to a river, the higher the pressure to run it, even if conditions are not as you would like or had expected. If there are no fallback trips nearby, or the fallbacks are also out of condition, there is a great reluctance to just go home without paddling anything. The river will be there next time, but if you get this wrong, you may not be.

Expert Halo

The person who has paddled this before knows what he is doing and is not worried, so there can't be any cause for concern. But if he is the expert, he probably knows something you don't about how to avoid a hazard and it would be a good idea to find out. If in doubt, ask, or inspect, don't just rely on being able to follow a line ...


This gives away that the research came from skiing and no-one in paddlesport has yet thought of an appropriate word beginning in "T" to apply to rivers. This is also known as the Scarcity heuristic and refers to running a river now (whether or not we are really suitably prepared) because it will very soon go out of condition. If you've driven to do a grade 3, and find a grade 4, which is rarely at a suitable level, in perfect condition, will you run it despite being harder than what the group set out signed up for ?

Social Proof

This is what lemmings do - just follow everyone else without regard to whether those ahead survived the experience or had a hard time. Easy to do when there's a horizon line, you see people go over it, and again when they wave a paddle to say they're OK. You didn't see what went on in between, so how do you know that they didn't get a trashing on the way, or that your boat will fit through the same gap theirs did ?

Read 1772 times