Safety Riverbreak Magazine

Published on March 1st, 2015 | by PhilB

Photo by Riverbreak Magazine |  0

Risks in River Surfing: Lessons Learned

As river surfing becomes more popular, we believe it’s our duty to share information about risks and safety in river surfing. Being a responsible river surfer has nothing to do with your level of surfing, it has to do with how responsible you behave on the river and with your ability to judge and cope with river hazards. The explosion of river surfing has triggered heated debates on safety issues in many communities. The Rivermates Surfclub has teamed up with water rescue experts and organised the world’s first river surfing safety workshop for river surfers from Austria, Germany and Switzerland. Here, we have summed up the key take aways for you.

Learn to Read the Water

Hans and Nicole from the Austrian Water Rescue Federation (ÖWR) started the workshop with pointing to an important skill: reading the water. Experience and knowledge can help experienced river surfers to discover and judge risks in the river only by looking at how the water flows, how it “behaves” so to say. Learning how to read the water can be crucial for when you decide to go in or not. Hans detailed the various “faces” and flows of water and how to interpret them.

Avoid Getting Trapped by Your Surfboard

If there is one thing that you don’t want to see happening in the river it is getting trapped by your own surfboard. Here’s an example: if you stand still in the river at a flow of 2m/s, more than 40kg of water constantly keep pushing against your neck. While your neck provides only little windage to the water, the story changes with your surfboard. With its much larger windage the pressure can easily increase to 500kg or even reach up to 3.000kg (depending on the size of your board and the speed of the water). No man on earth could withstand this enormous amount of pressure. So what does that mean for us river surfers? If you fall off your board and for whatever reason are not able to get back up on it, always keep swimming behind your surfboard. Swimming in front of your surfboard increases the risk of getting trapped between your board and an obstacle (e.g. rock) in the river. So you better want to stay behind your surfboard when floating down the river.

Understand Different Types of Currents

There is a number of different types of currents (features) that river surfer should be familiar with. These features result from the interplay between the shape of the riverbed and the velocity of the water. In this workshop we’ve discussed pressure waves, pillows, boils, chutes, wave trains, channels, holes, eddies, eddy-lines, backwash, outwash, whirlpools and curlers. A lot of these terms have been developed and used by kayakers since forever — so you might check with local kayakers to find out which of these are relevant at your spot and what they mean for your safety. At the very least you should make yourself familiar with the dangers of a recirculating current and how to escape if you should ever find yourself in such a scary situation.

Deal with Hazardous Objects in the River

Objects in rivers are distinguished between natural and man-made. Rocks are probably the most common natural objects that river surfers have to deal with. Here, one particular threat are undercut rocks, that you want to avoid in any case as you can get trapped underneath them underwater. Rocks that are undercut on the upstream side are particularly dangerous. Once pinned against the rock underwater, there is hardly any chance to escape — this situation has already resulted in numerous whitewater deaths. Cataracts, falls, drops, sieves, trainers and sifts are among other natural dangers that river surfers need to be aware of when navigating in the water. Man-made objects that can pose threats to river surfers are stepped weirs, lowhead dams, compound weirs, concrete slope weirs, weir pools and other types of dams and weirs. What is particularly dangerous for river surfers are bridge pylons, poles and iron installations in rivers. If your leash wraps around one of these objects you’ll find yourself in real trouble. Read this story on a near-drowning accident involving a river surfer who got trapped under water on one side of a bridge pylon while his board got trapped on the other side of the pillar.

Use Safety Gear

There is still no specific river surfing safety gear on the market. Yet, there are safety devices that river surfers can (and should) borrow from other sports that face similar risks in whitewater. Though it depends on the spots, context and individual preferences there are certain devices that river surfers can choose from to make surfing in rivers safer: helmets, PFDs, knifes, throw bags, wetsuits and whistles. Even if the debate on wearing leashes and PFDs and other devices has become hefty, there is one thing that pretty much every river surfer seems to agrees on: the importance of wearing a helmet.

Key Take Aways for River Surfers

There are no universally accepted safety rules in river surfing and there will probably never be any. Yet, there are at least 4 tried and tested recommendations that could make river surfing safer:

  1. Never surf alone
  2. Always wear a helmet
  3. Always swim behind your surfboard
  4. Make yourself familiar with leash-related risks

More Impressions from the Workshop

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Phil is a passionate riversurfer based in the capital of urban hydro power, Graz / Austria. He graduated from the International University for Riversurfing (IUR) in 2008 before he got married (to PhilK) in 2009. Instead of children, they gave birth to the probably most awesome riversurfing magazine on the planet: Riverbreak.

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