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SOL: Surviving a Capsized River Raft

Whitewater rafting is an adrenaline-packed summer activity, and part of the thrill is the danger of going into the drink.

Even the most experienced paddlers can easily be taken by surprise by a quick flip, but it doesn’t need to put a damper (so to speak) on the weekend. Here’s a primer on how to make the best of a big swim.


Paddle Hard
Heed whatever paddling instructions the guide is shouting at you. Some flips can be sudden and violent, but the majority of rafting flips involve at least a few seconds of warning. If you start hearing expletives from the stern, it’s a good time to hang on.

Brace for Impact
Weight-shift flips are common. An impact from a big rock or wave can send bodies flying like rag dolls, throwing off the balance of the boat. Keeping your feet braced in well can prevent weight shifts that result in flips.

Get to the High Side
No, not the side of the boat with all the hippies. When one side of the boat starts to dive down, scramble for the opposite higher side, and hang on. The extra weight can help sit the raft back down to prevent a flip.


Keep Your Mouth Closed
It’s shocking to suddenly find yourself in the water, but try not to take big gulps of air out of panic. Keeping your mouth mostly closed, try taking small sips of air, like you’re drinking through a straw, and only when you can see that you’re not about to get smashed in the face by a wave. Once you aspirate water, all the coughing makes it difficult to catch a breath, which is how you end up on your hands and knees puking in the sand while your friends laugh.

Get Your Feet Up!
As humans, our reflexive response to being plunged into the water is usually to try and put our feet down, but in a whitewater setting, that’s the worst thing you can do. The topography of the riverbed is usually uneven, covered in boulders and rocks of all shapes and sizes. If your dangling feet get wedged into the rocks, the force of the current at your back can push you down like a pendulum to the bottom of the river, which is called foot or leg entrapment. To prevent this, use the defensive whitewater swimming position. Lift your feet to the surface and use your arms to maneuver. Lying on your back, point your feet downstream so that you can see any approaching obstacles. This is commonly called “nose, knees, toes” because these are the appendages that should be sticking out of the water.


When the raft flips, you will almost always surface in one of two places:

Location 1: Underneath the Raft
Congratulations! You know exactly where the raft is. Now get out from under it. It’s tempting to get comfortable for a moment; the compartments of the raft form cozy little air chambers that momentarily shield you from the waves and chaos on the other side. Whatever you do, don’t hang out under there–somebody on the other side is doing a headcount and panicking when they come up short! Put your hands above you and walk yourself out, hand-over-hand, in one direction.

Location 2: Near the Raft
Remember, self-rescue is always the most effective. As soon as your head surfaces the water, identify where the raft is, roll onto your stomach, and aggressively swim back towards it. Once you reach the raft, grab on to the chicken line (a length of webbing rigged around the perimeter of the boat) if possible.


Pillow Rock Rapid, Upper Gauley, West Virginia. Photo Credit: Kip Conklin


Once the raft is upside down, the guide has two possible courses of action. Now is not the time for a test of wills or second-guessing: roll with whichever he or she chooses.

Option 1: Flip the Raft Back Over
Depending on several variables (the size of the raft, the amount of gear rigged into it, and whether there’s an oar frame involved) the guide may or may not be able to flip the raft back over single-handedly. If they need help, they’ll let you know. The guide will scramble onto the bottom of the upside-down raft, grab (or clip in) a flip line, and then lean back to use gravity to flip the boat back over. However, this task is virtually impossible if there are people hanging onto the sides of the raft–so if your guide is screaming to let go, for the love of all that is holy, LET GO. Once the boat is right side up, the guide will climb back in and start shouting instructions, but as soon as that happens, feel free to take the initiative and start climbing back in so you can help others.

Option 2: Pull Everyone onto the Upside-Down Raft
Guides may resort to this option for any number of reasons: serious danger downstream, the length of the rapid, or dangerously cold water temperatures. If the guide pulls you onto the upside-down boat, turn around and help the next person. Never try to pull people by the arms, as this can dislocate and break bones; always grab the shoulders of the person’s PFD.


If you’re lucky enough to be on a multi-boat trip when your raft capsizes, here are some ways to assist your would-be rescuers.

  • If you see another paddler patting their head at you, pay attention. The universal river signal for “Are you okay?” is patting one’s helmet. If you’re okay, then pat your head back. Note that being scared or having swallowed a little water does not qualify as “not okay.” If something is seriously wrong, (e.g., potential broken bones, serious lacerations, asthma attack) then shake your head no.
  • If someone in a nearby raft is blowing a whistle or screaming at you, stay alert! If they are wildly motioning for you to swim in a certain direction, do it. Rescuers will always point to the direction that they want you to swim, never towards the danger.
  • If a nearby paddler extends you the T-grip of a paddle, grab it and allow them to pull you to the side of the raft.
  • If a throw bag lands anywhere near you in the water, do not just gawk at it or wave helplessly. Roll onto your stomach, and aggressively swim to the rope. Put it over your shoulder like a baseball bat, and allow your rescuer to pull you in backwards. Be sure to grab the rope, and not the bag itself; if you grab the bag at the end of a 70-foot throw rope when you’re only 15 feet away from your rescuer, the current will carry you all 70 feet until the bag runs out of rope.

Before a high-water trip, I once overheard a veteran guide placidly explain to a hysterical mother the basic facts of risk and whitewater like this: “Thousands of people all across the world go whitewater rafting every day. Some of those people end up in the water. Almost all of them are fine.”

And he’s not wrong. Whitewater is exhilarating! Flips can be a part of the excitement, but remembering to act when something unexpected happens is key. In the age of reality television, it’s easy to go passive in moments of crisis to see what happens next. Don’t just observe; respond and react. Life is happening now, in real time.


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