GRADES OF WHITE WATER
Otherwise known as the International Scale of River Difficulty, below are the six grades of difficulty in white water rafting. They range from simple to very dangerous and potential death or serious injuries.
Grade 1: Very small rough areas might require slight manoeuvring. (Skill level: very basic)
Grade 2: Some rough water, maybe some rocks, might require some manoeuvring. (Skill level: basic paddling skill)
Grade 3: White water, small waves, maybe a small drop, but no considerable danger. May require significant manoeuvring. (Skill level: experienced paddling skills)
Grade 4: White water, medium waves, maybe rocks, maybe a considerable drop, sharp manoeuvres may be needed. (Skill level: white water experience)
Grade 5: White water, large waves, large volume, possibility of large rocks and hazards, possibility of a large drop, requires precise manoeuvring. (Skill level: advanced white water experience)
Grade 6: Class 6 rapids are considered to be so dangerous that they are effectively unnavigable on a reliably safe basis. Rafters can expect to encounter substantial white water, huge waves, huge rocks and hazards, and/or substantial drops that will impart severe impacts beyond the structural capacities and impact ratings of almost all rafting equipment. Traversing a Class 6 rapid has a dramatically increased likelihood of ending in serious injury or death compared to lesser classes. (Skill level: successful completion of a Class 6 rapid without serious injury or death is widely considered to be a matter of great luck or extreme skill and is considered by some as a suicidal venture)
Rafts in white water are very different vehicles than canoes or kayaks and have their own specific techniques to manoeuvre through white water obstacles. The following lists give examples of these techniques.
Punching – Rafts carry great momentum, and on rivers hydraulics that is dodged by canoes and kayaks are often punched by rafts. This involves the rafting crew paddling the raft to give it enough speed to push through the hydraulic without getting stopped.
High siding – If a raft is caught in a hydraulic it will often quickly go sideways. In order to stop the raft flipping on its inside edge, the rafters can climb to the side of the raft furthest downstream, which will also be the side of the raft highest in the air leading to its name. In this position the rafters may be able to use the draw stroke to pull the raft out of the head.
Dump truck – Rafts are inherently stable crafts because of their size and low centre of mass and often they will shed gear and passengers before they actually capsize. In the industry if a raft dumps some or all of its passengers but remains upright, it is said to have dump trucked.
Left over right or right over left – Rafts almost always flip side over side. If the left tube rises over the right tube, the raft is said to have flipped left over right and vice versa.
Taco – If a raft is soft, or underinflated, it may taco, or reverses taco. Rafts are said to have tacoed if the middle of the raft buckles and the front of the raft touches or nearly touches the back of the raft. This often is a result of surfing in a hydraulic. A reverse taco is when the nose, or stern of the raft is pulled down under water and buckles to touch the middle or back, or nose of the raft.
End over end – Occasionally rafts will flip end over end. This is usually after the raft has dump trucked to lighten the load, allowing the water to overcome the weight of the boat flipping it vertically before it lands upside down. Rafts will more often taco and turn sideways, making an end-over-end flips a very rare flip in most rafts.
Down Stream Flip- A raft capsizes after encountering an obstacle i.e. rock, feature like a hydraulic or even another raft. These objects are usually stationary or possibly surfing in a hydraulic. On this occasion the raft becomes unstable and usually flips over downstream or in the direction of travel. A downstream flip may be exacerbated by the load or people in the raft. People may physically assist in the inertia of the flip by pulling the boat over on top of themselves.
Back roller – A broad reversal such as that formed below a dam or ledge. Rafts can be particularly vulnerable to these, because they can quickly fill a raft and then push it down at the back. It there are snags at the bottom of the river, dumped rafters can be caught and drowned in the aerated and therefore less buoyant water. See more information on back rollers and other dangers in the White water article.
Flip line – The flip line technique is the most used in commercial rafting where flips are common. The guide will take a loop of webbing that has a biner on it and attach it to the perimeter line on the raft, Standing on top of the upside down raft they will hold the line and lean to the opposite side from where the flip line is attached, re-righting the raft.
Knee flipping – Capsized rafts that are small enough with little or no gear attached can be knee flipped. This involves the rafter holding the webbing on the underside of the raft, and pushing their knees into the outer tube, and then lifting their body out of the water, leaning back to overturn the raft.
T rescue – Somewhat like the kayak technique, some rafts are large enough that they need to be overturned with the assistance of another raft or land. Positioning the upturned raft or land at the side of the raft, the rafters can then re-right the raft by lifting up on the perimeter line.
T-grip re-flip – The T-grip on a rafting paddle may be used to re-flip light rafts by inserting the Tee into the self-bailing holes around the floor perimeter and re-righting the boat in the same manner as the flip line technique.
Rock splats – If the rafters load the back of the raft, they can paddle the raft into a rock on the river, having it hit the bottom of the boat instead of the nose; if done correctly this can raise the raft up vertically on its stern.
Surfing – Commercial rafts often use waves on rivers to surf.
Nose dunks – Large self-bailing rafts can enter hydraulics called holes from downstream and submerge their nose, or reverse taco. This can be a safe way to get rafters wet in a hydraulic.
Pirouette – A move executed by either a sweep or draw stroke, sending the raft spinning with the current. Often useful for avoiding obstacles.
Back Pivot – Turning the raft from a ferry angle to a bow-downstream position. Used in tight places to recover from an extreme ferry angle, this manoeuvre narrows the passing space of the boat and allows it to slide closely past obstructions.
Depending on the area, safety regulations covering raft operators may exist in legislation. These range from certification of outfitters, rafts, and raft leaders, to more stringent regulations about equipment and procedures. It is generally advisable to discuss safety measures with a rafting operator before signing on for a trip. The equipment used and the qualifications of the company and raft guides are essential information to be considered.
Like most outdoor sports, rafting in general has become safer over the years. Expertise in the sport has increased, and equipment has become more specialized and increased in quality. As a result the difficulty rating of most river runs has changed. A classic example would be the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon, which has swallowed whole expeditions in the past, leaving only fragments of boats. In contrast, it is now run safely by commercial outfitters hundreds of times each year with relatively untrained passengers.
Risks in white water rafting stem from both environmental dangers and from improper behaviour. Certain features on rivers are inherently unsafe and have remained consistently so despite the passage of time. These would include “keeper hydraulics”, “strainers” (e.g. fallen trees), dams (especially low-head dams, which tend to produce river-wide keeper hydraulics), undercut rocks, and of course dangerously high waterfalls. Rafting with experienced guides is the safest way to avoid such features. Even in safe areas, however, moving water can always present risks—such as when a swimmer attempts to stand up on a rocky riverbed in strong current, risking foot entrapment. Irresponsible behaviour related to rafting while intoxicated has also contributed too many accidents.
One of the simplest ways to avoid injury while out of a raft is to swim to an eddy to avoid being taken downstream.
To combat the illusion that rafting is akin to an amusement park ride, and to underscore the personal responsibility each rafter faces on a trip, rafting outfitters generally require customers to sign waiver forms indicating understanding and acceptance of potential serious risks. Rafting trips often begin with safety presentations to educate customers about problems that may arise.
White water rafting is often played for the adrenaline rush and this can become a problem for participants’ safety. White water rafting accidents have occurred but are not common.
Due to this the overall risk level on a rafting trip with experienced guides using proper precautions is low. Thousands of people safely enjoy raft trips every year.