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:
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)
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!