There is a frequent debate within the rescue/instruction community about what really matters in swiftwater safety. The conflict is that we can spend a lot of time practicing technical systems that might be very useful but are rarely used in real rescues. It is a numbers game.
The problem is time. If we had enough time, we could cover everything. But Swiftwater Rescue Technician training courses (SRT, known as Whitewater Rescue Technician training in Europe) are actually getting shorter in an effort to match busy lifestyles (and by pushing prep work into online modules—which is great). A typical SRT covers foundational skills such as swimming, wading, and using throw ropes. Everyone agrees that this time is well spent … the debate is over more technical rope systems.
There is regional variation too; swiftwater courses in New Zealand have a reputation for spending more time running scenarios from boats on the water. This fits with the experience of Charlie Walbridge, manager of the American Whitewater accident database, who shared in an email:
Most rescues are routine and low-stress. Help a swimmer. Grab the boat and paddle.
Which is typically done by another paddler in the water. This is where boat control plays a critical role—boat control improves our ability to get where we need to go to help others. And, of course, boat control helps us avoid river hazards in the first place.
Tasmania’s paddling and risk expert Mark Oates put it this way in a chat last week:
The paddler’s ability is what really matters.
The problem is that boat control is not part of a traditional SRT! At least, not in the US.
This isn’t an either-or argument … we need both. An SRT is the right place to learn shore-based rescues (because things really do go wrong while practicing).
So, how do we get better at boat control?
Moving water is a ‘wicked’ learning environment, meaning that the feedback we get while paddling isn’t always complete or relevant. Learning on snow and water requires motivation—we have to be curious. I had this wrong in an early draft of The Packraft Handbook. I wrote something like, “The more time you spend on the river, the better your boat control.” Friend and mentor Trip Kinney corrected me, “It isn’t enough to just float down the river, you have to actually challenge yourself to make moves and do it right.”
Put another way, experience doesn’t equal expertise—we have to be intent on learning.
Time vs. Money
The many paths (channels?) toward better boat control fall along a time/money spectrum. I’ll start with the low-budget and slower options and then move to higher-budget, accelerated options.
Many paddling techniques are “self-correcting,” meaning that you know when you haven’t done it quite right. I have vivid memories of my first effective bow draws (Duffek strokes) to catch eddies, marveling “Oh, that’s what it is supposed to feel like!”
The challenges with this approach are that it takes longer because you have to discover what works. It can also be difficult to know what ‘perfect’ looks like. And it is easy to develop bad habits—I’m certain that my kayak roll would be better if I had learned it in a course.
Speaking of kayaks … your learning efficiency will depend on your boat. River kayaks force you to develop edge control because they are less stable than packrafts. Again, you can figure it out in a packraft, it just takes longer.
Books are a minor investment that can be a big help. I bought a few random used ‘how to kayak’ books when I was learning about different paddle strokes. But I was underwhelmed by their explanations and photographs, which is a big part of why I wanted Sarah Glaser’s illustration work in The Packraft Handbook—she can show motion and what happens under the water.
For me, videos are more effective for learning paddling techniques. I can’t tell you how many times I watched Roman Dial’s clip of Paul Schauer on Montana Creek trying to understand what the heck he was doing with his paddle.
The problem with videos is that there is an overwhelming number to choose from. It takes time to search for and find the best videos.
Some of my preferred sources include:
- Paddle Education
- Jackson Kayak
- Everything by Mark Oates (these are packraft-specific)
A mentor or instructor will be a huge help in identifying appropriate places to practice, setting safety, modeling ‘perfect’ form, and providing relevant feedback. If you are lucky, you can find this relationship with friends or within a paddling club. But there are more and more paid instructional packrafting opportunities across the world each year.
Here’s what I’d look for when choosing a provider:
- Do the instructors have teaching certifications? This isn’t a deal-breaker, but a certification means they have been vetted—trained to teach.
- Do the instructors have rescue and medical training? This is a deal-breaker, for me. A current SRT and WFR are industry standards in the US.
- Do the providers welcome questions and take the time to respond? These conversations build trust and convey expertise, or not.
- And, borrowing from Hugh Canard‘s insights: Do the instructors teach you how to make decisions, or just guide you down the river? The former is preferable.
I’m sure that someone will make a formal directory at some point, but these are the folks I know who offer boat control courses.
- Alaska Packraft School (Anchorage, Jule Harle)
- Courses with Things To Luc At LLC (me!)
- Kennicott Wilderness Guides (McCarthy)
- New Wave Adventures (Denali, Russ Hathaway)
- Traverse Alaska (Denali)
- Turnagain Kayak (Levi Hogan, Patrick Higgins)
The rest of North America:
- Ascent Guides (Cam Fenton, BC)
- Four Corners Guides (Colorado)
- Nik White (Colorado)
- Packraft Colorado
- Packraft Maine (Alejandro Strong)
- Packrafting Adventures (Eastern US)
- Swiftwater Safety Institute
- Whitewater Attainment (Colorado)
- Yukan Canoe (Whitehorse)
- Emmaus Adventure (UK)
- Norges Padleforbund (Norway)
- Packraft Europe
New Zealand / Australia / Tasmania
- Blue Duck Packrafting (Hugh Canard, New Zealand)
- Packrafting Queenstown (Huw Miles, New Zealand)
- Packrafting Tasmania (Mark Oates)
- Paddle Tas (Tasmania)
If you know of a business that does boat control work, leave a comment below and I’ll add it.
For folks who don’t have access to in-person courses, or who really like the style and content of The Packraft Handbook, I created an online course to improve boat control. John Schauer nailed it in his review:
This online course isn’t intended as a substitute for on-the-water experience. Rather, it is structured to accelerate progress in developing safety and paddling skills.
This is the best introductory paddlesports resource I’ve seen in over four decades as a paddler, 25 years as a wilderness river guide, and nine years as a packrafter.
“Accelerate” … exactly right! Of course, John is biased … I learned the ‘paddle up a level’ concept when I asked his son Paul how he got to be such a good kayaker. Paul was required to paddle all of the easy rapids backward before moving on to harder rapids.
Paddle Up a Level starts with a review of equipment and outfitting (reducing entanglement hazards on the boat), then covers swimmer and equipment recovery so that you know what to do when things go wrong, then paddle strokes, and finally, boat control. Group Q&A sessions, including video reviews, are held throughout the paddling season.
Whichever channel you choose, I hope that your learning curve is a blast. This is really just glorified play—discovering what our minds and bodies are capable of in a beautiful setting. And the play is meaningful! We learn how to support partners, communicate, and problem-solve. My time developing outdoor skills has absolutely helped me with the other aspects of my life. Enjoy!
Keep it up Luc! This such good thinking for so many people.
Great post, Luc! Love that video of Montana Creek. Paul took me down it in may kayak the week before and Roman saw my flip cam video and called him up to go. That was Paul’s first time in a (borrowed) packraft.
I didn’t know that was Paul’s first time in a packraft! Cool!
Nice! Yea, I love the Safety from Skills theme!
Some really interesting stuff here Luc, thanks for putting in the effort and thought to put this out there. Some thoughts of mine jumped to mind.
For me, and all Rescue 3 instructors, the end game for SRT course’s (and any other course we execute) is not really about the delivery off specific skills (although, obviously that is important). The philosophy is about setting those students off on a path to develop good Judgement. We cannot turn anyone into a river ninja in a weekend, I think we can all agree on that.
What we can do is teach skills and then nudge people out into the world to go and Practice. This deliberate practice (just like Mark’s Paddle with Purpose or “Boat don’t Float”) leads to the development of Experience. This experience and repetition of skills aids development in a variety of ways, the most notable for me being two fold.
Firstly, the development of GOOD heuristics short cuts or good habits or muscle memory. If you’re instructor is a member of a reputable organisation then the skills taught at the beginning are going to be evidenced based best practiced that are reviewed and reassessed all the time by instructors with decades of experience individually (possibly millennia collectively!). They are the result of critical thinking and examination and should therefore help you develop objectively good habits, rather than hoping you’re getting it right (there’s a whole blog on “hope” not being a plan of action).
The second benefit of the experience you build up is the expansion of the “rollerdex” of scenarios you’ve faced previously. When you come up to a new river, a new feature, a new accident etc, your brain will be searching or situations you’ve been in before that look similar. The more you’ve had, the bigger this cognitive “google search” and the more chance of you coming up with a good response.
Ultimately what the experience is going to help you build (and the end game) is good judgement. It’s a path that not everyone will complete. Not all experience is equivalent (I’m so glad you’ve said this!) not all practices have been well informed and not everyone will reach good judgement. For me, the most important element of your training is your brain and that path to judgement. Ideally worked on in parallel with your boat control because ultimately both are tools in prevention.
What we teach on our courses in New Zealand are: Boat control (prevention of fuck ups), Rescue Skills and River Running Considerations (this is what rescue 3 call it, but it’s basically decision making). Doing an SRT on it’s own, as you’ve so rightly pointed out, won’t teach you how to improve the control you have over your boat and the river. Similarly attending a paddling skills course only teaches you half the story too. I think these 3 elements are so intertwined, especially at the beginning of your development. Maybe further down the line you might recognise that, “hey, you know what, I need to work on boof stroke” or “I actually wouldn’t have a clue what to do if I got my boat wrapped on something”. In those situations I can see an advantage in taking specific courses for specific skills, but to get a good grounding at the beginning, over a wide base of skill sets, sets you up best for that journey towards good judgement.
Loving your work mate, its good to see thought provoking pieces like this.
Well said Huw and thanks for sharing more context here! I’ve always had the sense that NZ was ahead of the curve on this stuff … probably because what you call Class III is actually Class IV. 😂😂😂
> develop good judgement
This blog post brings to light an essential topic for anyone that wishes to progress on whitewater.
Especially the emphasis on self responsibility and focus while paddling and not simply following someone else or floating down a river.
Good WW training will focus on the core fundamentals essential to becoming a safer, and more competent paddler. You can think of these two fundamentals as the foundation on which we stand, just like two legs.
On one leg we have safety and rescue: In order to become safer packrafters we need river reading skills, an understanding of river hydrology, an understanding of the risks involved in moving water, knowledge on how to identify hazards, river communication skills, knowledge about where to position ourselves on the river, self rescue and team rescue skills. We learn how to identify hazards so we can avoid them and we also learn how to rescue ourselves, others and gear when things don’t go as planned. We also learn about pre trip planning and preparation.
On the other leg we have paddling skills and techniques: We learn how to hold a paddle properly, correct and efficient forward paddle strokes, sweep strokes, draw strokes, when and how to brace, paddle timing and placement, angle and edging skills. These are needed to become skilled and competant paddlers so we can move more easily around the river, avoid the hazards, catch eddies, boof over drops and holes, help others when needed, paddle more challenging rapids and have more fun.
As a Rescue 3 Whitewater Rescue Instructor, Kayak & packaft instructor I aim to combine the two elements as best as possible with an emphasis on self responsibility.
Awesome. Thanks Seon. It will be interesting to see if course curriculums evolve into something that blends the rescue and boat control work to a greater degree.
While they do not cater to packrafts that I know of, Riversport School of Paddling out of Confluence, PA have historically been a great east coast/mid Atlantic option for instructor led, paddling technique and kayak skills courses.
If they don’t already … they probably will soon! Demand has increased everywhere.
Great content. As usual. Thank you for the list of regional guiding services. Years ago I searched for something on the East Coast and couldn’t find anything even on the APA message boards which were pretty quiet. So I focused on sea kayaking. I can be in the kayak in 10 mins whereas “packraft country” is at least a two hour drive. Your safety content is equally relevant to kayaking. Nice to know there’s a guide service in NJ now, albeit a 3 hour drive. Might make for a nice summer overnighter course; wouldn’t have found it without your links!
Awesome Robert! Mike Aronoff teaches out east too … maybe closer to you? He just got some packrafts last year and will be adding those courses this season, I believe. https://www.ckapco.com/
Two components. River understanding and personal competence.
1. Know where you need to go,
2. Know that you can get there.