Article: Safety in Recreational Paddling
As paddlers, we have all been in situations where we have regretted for exposing ourselves in such environments without doing our homework. I certainly have, several times I have been in situations where I have blamed the entire world why things are going so wrong. I write this article to illuminate some of the little things that can be manipulated in order to enjoy a pleasant float in any given day. As a paddler, I have learnt that we need to rethink our preparation, timing, the gear we carry and the rescue skills within the group embarking on our voyages.
Lessons from the past.
As I emerge from my tent, I am confronted by the snow-capped mountains of Patagonia. It is a fresh look that reminds me why I am camped on the shores of the Futaleufu. I look around the camp and there is a sign of slow movements around the campfire. As I approach the immobile small gathering, I can smell the freshness of coffee as each individual is nursing a strong cup of the South American brew.
After the festivities encouraged by vino negro the previous night, it is midday and we are walking to the put-in just below the bridge. A good, but late start for the distance we are planning to navigate, nevertheless we are on the Futaleufu. We have made the very challenging trip to the river and now we are about to hit the waters of Patagonia.
We were a group of four. I was fresh from the Zambezi, plus I had just done a season in Colorado, paddling such rivers as the Gore Canyon, I felt strong and untouchable. Gringo had been paddling in Peru where I had met him and paddled with him on the Apurimac. Geo was from Germany, not a solid paddler so he was to join us from the second bridge. Then Amigo was a native Peruvian, a good paddler but lacked self-confidence and leadership. None of us had done the Futaleufu, but Amigo seem to think he knew the river. We had some instructions from the local paddlers so we kind-of had a good idea of what to expect.
As this was in February which is late for the season, we were worried about The Terminator, so we identified that in time and took a sneak run on far left. Everything was eventuating accordingly until we got to the second bridge. We stopped and had a bite at the local shop on river left. I would admit that was the tastiest raw sausage I have ever had. It might have had to do with the fact that I had only had coffee the whole day.
With Geo in the group it was now four of us enjoying the wave train as we disappeared from the bridge. That was not to be enjoyed for too long. Geo somehow bailed out of his kayak or the spray deck came off. Somehow he managed to swim with all his gear to an island about 30m from river left. We all eddied out and tried to rescue Geo. This was the start of a bad ending to the day.
We only had two throw bags (15 and 20m) which was not long enough to throw to Geo on the island. So I had to use my cow’s tail with the two ropes joined together. I managed to get to the eddy on the island. I got Geo to hold-on to the end of my Necky zip with his boat and paddle in the other hand. Considering Geo was well over 100kg coupled with the gear, the little zip was no match for the weight.
On the way back the little boat was turned and tumbled by the current. Somehow I managed to get very close to river left before I was upside down. My paddle got tangled with the rope which was still on my cow’s tail. I tried to open the quick release but the system did not oblige. The two guys on the line managed to pull everything into the eddy, one of them had to jump into the water to help me up and grab some of Geo’s gear which at this point was floating free.
All this took us to the last visible rays of the day’s sun. We still had a fair distance to cover. With the doubts on Geo’s paddling skills we decided that Geo and Amigo should walk up-stream to the shop. I paddled down for another two or so km with Gringo to the next campsite on river right. We had to run down stream on the main road with all our kayaking outfits to the shuttle which was waiting probably worried at that stage. It would have been a sight to watch two dudes in full paddling gear just jogging down the road. We made it back to the camp before midnight. Vino negro was already warmed. Man! were we ready to tell the story to the party???
Lessons to learn
Put simple that could have been a nice enjoyable paddle on one of the most beautiful waterways on the planet. Had we made our research, persuaded someone who knew the river or hired a guide to accompany us. All this drama could have been avoided. We should have had a plan and started the trip early. For some reason only known by karma, incidents happen in the late afternoons. By then we do not have enough time to plan and execute proper rescues plus everyone is tired and working in a rush. We should have assessed paddling skills, Swiftwater Rescue skills and even a consideration of rescue gear on the trip. Two short throw bags, with a few carabiners among a group of four with only one person with formal rescue skills was a good recipe for disaster. It seems unreal to think about that trip with my current knowledge now. I will highly recommend a serious consideration of the elements above and more, before embarking on the next expedition.