Water Safety for Flatwater Paddlers

When training and racing throughout the year we often find ourselves in unknown territory. However the same risks often exist in familiar territory. Do not get complacent, river current and levels can change quickly and submerged objects often move.

Before entering the water

  • Check PFD is in good condition and ensure size is suitable for your weight
  • Wear PFD correctly or only when race officals allow it stow it in your boat.
  • Check boat has positive and fixed buoyancy (flotation) at both ends. If in doubt fill boat with water to ensure boat deck remains above the water.
  • Check boat has no holes or cracks and is not relying on duct tape to stay afloat!
  • Check the current before entering the water, throw in a twig or leaf to assess speed.
  • Observe the surface of the water, swirling and rough water indicate submerged objects or shallow water
  • Wear bright clothing
  • Read and obey the signs (safety signs are usually near boat ramps and docks)
  • If water is rough, choppy or has power boats or paddle steamers consider fitting a spray cover

Before a Race

  • Arrive early and check out the local conditions.
  • Ensure adequate food and drink supplies are on board, appropriate for the nature and duration of the event. It is recommended that high-energy foods should be carried particularly in colder weather.
  • Notify the race organisers if you have a medical condition that could impact your well being while on the water
  • Listen carefully to the pre-race briefing 
  • Ask questions about known hazards on the course and expected weather conditions
  • Launch your boat to warm up and use this time to also assess conditions and to ensure rudder and pump work adequately

During the race

  • stay on the right side of the river, near the centre
  • in fast flowing rivers take all corners wide and avoid turbulent water

If you capsize

  • float with legs pointing downstream, try to float feet first in a half sit position
  • try to keep your boat upright so it does not fill up with water
  • if possible keep a hold on your boat
  • do not attempt to stand up if water is fast flowing and water is deeper than your thigh
  • do not attempt to swim against the current, gradually make your way to the bank with the current
  • if you find yourself being swept under willows float feet first, do not try and stand up
  • if you are being blown off shore hold onto your boat, use one arm to signal for help
  • cold water, often found in lakes can be lethal, seek the fastest and safest exit from the water

Other hazards

  • If trapped in deep mud spread your body weight by lying flat on the surface, and move by slow arm and leg action or partially lie over your boat to take your weight off your feet
  • Usually snakes on land will detect your presence and will move away before they are sighted. To reduce the risk when walking look for snakes in front of you, if possible stay on open ground and stamp your feet.
  • Do not panic if you see a snake swimming across the water. Staying calm and quiet is usually the best option. If it is heading towards you move away from it slowly and if necessary slap the water or your boat with your paddle to make noise and vibrations. Keep your boat moving so it does not resemble a hollow log!

After a Race

  • Move away from the race finish line
  • Avoid swimming near boat ramps, pontoons, docks and in boating areas.
  • Do not dive into the water to cool off, slowly walk into the water
  • Beware of boats using the waterway and keep clear of canoe and kayaks still competing.
  • Read and obey all safety signs.

Additional Resources

The above points have been collated by Peter Goldsworthy from a variety of sources and personal experience. This article is intended to be a draft checklist so we would welcome any feedback or comments (to the editor).