Safety Duloup via Wikimedia Commons

Published on June 25th, 2013 | by Neil Egsgard

Photo by Duloup via Wikimedia Commons |  35

Your Life On A Leash: Ankle Leashes Will Kill River Surfers

If your ankle leash catches on a rock or tree the river forces your body straight, flat and underwater. There are three results: (1) you drown, (2) your leash breaks or (3) someone cuts you free or releases your leash.

You will not be able to reach your ankle leash to release it or cut it because you will not be strong enough to bend your body against the river. Imagine a giant grabbing your ankle and pulling your leash leg straight then another giant pressing your body flat. The more you fight to reach your ankle, the harder they push you down.

Two Near Drownings at the Kan

In winter 2013 over a span of four months two river surfers in Alberta, Canada, almost died because of their ankle leashes. In both cases the river was waist deep and not moving particularly fast. With no warning their boards went to one of side of a deep underwater rock and their ankles floated down the other side. Suddenly, they felt a huge force pulling on their leash leg. Their boards disappeared, their bodies were forced flat with their heads downstream and they struggled to keep their mouths above water.

How They Escaped

The first surfer had two friends nearby in the river who were barely able to fight the current and pull him upstream to release the leash. The second surfer was alone. He managed to get one leg underneath him and struggled to keep his head above the waist deep water. After 5 minutes he was about to give up and then his leash broke. Without slow water, friends and luck both of these river surfers would be dead. In a fast river, if your ankle leash gets caught your friends watch you drown.

Minimizing Leash Entrapment Risk

I heard five solutions to leash entrapment while talking with different river surfing communities:

  1. Don’t Wear a Leash: Learn to land on your board when leaving a wave and how to swim a river to catch your board when it escapes. You have the most control on your board and on it is typically the safest place in the river.
  2. Wear your leash on your back arm: Attach your ankle leash to your back arm. If your leash is caught you can release it with your other hand and if you can’t reach it you may just slide free. A downside is it may get in the way during more aggressive surfing.
  3. Use a waist leash: Waist leashes attached around the waist with a belt, the release mechanism is on the belt and reachable with either hand.
    An example of a waist leash.
  4. Never put your feet down when floating down the river: If you are floating down stream do not stand up. If you have to stand up, swim against the current to slow yourself down as much as possible before standing up.
  5. Wear a knife to save others: If a surfer’s leash gets caught you may be able to cut their lease with your knife unless you are to far away or the river is too fast or you left your knife on shore because you never use it.

I hope this article and the ones that follow will help us share information about river surfing dangers and safety so fewer surfers die as river surfing becomes more popular.

This article was brought to you by Neil Egsgard, ARSA President.
Alberta River Surfing Association —
Surf Anywhere Project —

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Brought to you by

Neil Egsgard

Neil Egsgard is the president of the Alberta River Surfing Association (ARSA) and leader of the Surf Anywhere Project -- a project to share wave building details and knowledge so waves can be built everywhere. He loves river surfing, believes surfing can be anywhere, built in 2009 to share and record the sport and since 2005 has surfed river waves from big to small all over Western Canada and the northwest United States.

  • Elijah Mack

    Great Article. I have never worn a leash.

    • Riverbreak Magazine

      Wow, didn’t know that — impressive! You didn’t even wear a leash at Skookumchuck?

      • Elijah Mack

        Yes I did and will always wear a leash at Skook….but Skook is NOT a river wave. Dealing with Skook takes it’s own set of risk management guidelines.
        I did NOT wear a leash at Rapid # 11 on the Zambezi.
        Leashes should be outlawed on rivers. Now do close friends of mine wear leashes…yes. Some of the best river surfers in Munich do and many other experienced river surfers around the world.
        But I have good friend who rob banks….yes, really that is what they do for a living….BUT I DON’T ROB BANKS!
        Asked Dieter about his daughter almost drowning in Munich because your strap on her booty got caught on the bottom of the river.


        I love you all and would hate to see what happened in Montreal happen again.
        To be honest I am surprised more people are not talking about the young woman drowning in Montreal.

        Elijah Mack

        • Riverbreak Magazine

          Thanks for your words Eli — it’s important for the safety in river surfing that pioneers like you speak up about leashes! BTW: Your very own piece on this matter will be online ASAP! Sorry for the delay ;-)

  • Shaun

    A very good option is using a special leash designed for riversurfing:

    • Riverbreak Magazine

      Shaun, thanks heaps for the link — the B leash is definitely a great way to make river surfing safer … especially the quick release feature! The only problem is that once trapped, it can be difficult (or impossible) to reach your ankle.

      What do you think of a leash with an automatic quick release that unfastens under pressure/drag?

      BTW: There is review of the B leash under the “Gear” category:

    • Franz Quehenberger

      I would not recommend that leash as “designed for riversurfing” and never call it safe.
      A leash designed for riversurfing should have predefined and recoverable breaking point by which the surfer is realeased if the pull exceeds a certain limit.
      In contrast to this the B Accessories leash is 6mm thick and has a strong velcro that will not ease away and that can only be untied with considerable force. The so called quick release ring (a pull strap that sticks out a little bit) is not much quicker than an ordinary pull strap. If it is fixed at the ankle it cannot be reached while fighting against the current as pointed out in the report. However, in a recent incident, the leash broke happily.

      • Riverbreak Magazine

        The actual benefit of the B leash is probably the reduced drag … Not sure about the safety though … Did your B leash break, Franz?

        • Franz Quehenberger

          The leash is indeed a performance leash. It broke when it got entangled with a rope. I consider this as lucky incident.

          • Riverbreak Magazine

            Sounds you were really lucky!! Good on you…

  • Riverbreak Magazine

    Shaun, thanks heaps for the link — the B leash is definitely a great way to make river surfing safer … especially the quick release feature! The only problem is that once trapped, it can be difficult (or impossible) to reach your ankle.

    What do you think of a leash with an automatic quick release that unfastens under pressure/drag?

    BTW: There is review of the B leash under the “Gear” category:

  • David Fugere

    A girl died riversurfing in Montreal a month ago because her leash got caught uin a fallen tree.

    • Riverbreak Magazine

      That’s horrible! I guess you’re talking about the incident near LaSalle:

      • Igor Goni

        Yeah thats the one.She should have not been there to begin with but she did drowned cause she could not detach from her leash.
        Maybe to install a leash plug towards the middle of the board so you can tie it to your “fprward wrist”

        • Riverbreak Magazine

          yes, she shouldn’t… was she a beginner? did she surf a river for the very first time that day? interesting idea with the leash plug! it’s about time people start thinking about ideas and ways how to minimise the (under-explored and under-researched) risks associated with leash entrapment…

  • Catherine Lussier

    i was stabbed by my board underwater in the river. Board probably hit the bottom and ricoched because of the leash. Lucky no vein was slashed, i would be gone. but am left with a huge gap. the very same thing happened to another surfer a few days later.

    • Riverbreak Magazine

      That’s another danger that comes with the leash — probably unknown to many river surfers out there… Thanks for that comment … glad that you weren’t injured even more seriously! Did you get stabbed by the nose of the board? Where did it hit you?

      • Catherine Lussier

        I don’t really know what hit me. At 1st i thought the tip and then figured it would be difficult, my leash isn’t that long. so I guess it was a fin. I was a bit deep under in the current and just felt a violent stabbing. I looked at it and saw a huge round hole in the front of my upper left thigh, lymphatic liquid coming out, no blood. The fat layer was smashed and left an ugly gap but am ok otherwise

        • Riverbreak Magazine

          This doesn’t really sound good to me … glad that you’re ok now! Funny that you didn’t bleed … Hope the “ugly gap” will recover! ;-)

          • Catherine Lussier


  • Hugo Benício

    This is a must-read article for all riversurfers (specially beginners). Great work!

    • Riverbreak Magazine

      Thanks Hugo — same here! We think every river surfer (and especially beginners) should very well be aware of the risks associated with wearing (ankle) leashes. This does not imply, though, that leashes are bad, but people should at a minimum KNOW the risks.

  • Dieter Stangl

    We had a short discussion about that dangers yesterday here in Munich at an international riverwave forum (Flusswellen Forum). I think what is absolutely needed is a leash that has a predetermined braking point, at best near the surfer side velcro. The breaking point should be exchangeable and be available in different strengths.

    • Dieter

      …and I started a discussion on Facebook and there the best idea IMHO was the solution to fix the leash on the arm, but with only a part of the velcro, in a way that part of the velcro is bended downside up, covering itself. Thus, a not too strong force may open the velcro (and not hurt your shoulder joint)

      • Riverbreak Magazine

        Hey Dieter, thanks for tacking up the leash issue — the dangers and risks that are associated with wearing a leash can’t be stressed enough. Great to see you bringing in the results of the current discussions of Facebook. Could you post a photo showing how you would fix the leash on the arm? Cheers!

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  • Tommy

    Wear a quick release leash around your waist or arm. No velcro whatsoever.

    Also, wear a damned helmet and pfd. You’re just as likely to need them as any other kayaker out on the river who’s been using the proper safety equipment for years.

    • Riverbreak Magazine

      Tommy, thanks — any quick release leashes you could recommend? The release system would need to be at the end of the leash that is attached to your body.

      • Tommy

        This would work; Patagonia P-Vest Rescue Swimmers Quick Release Belt. Give it a google. But as I said in my post, if you’re on a river you need to be wearing a pfd, no excuses., its low profile and has quick release options.

        I think river surfing is extremely cool and fully support it. If it’s done safely. If your not wearing the proper equipment you put yourself and those who try to rescue you in danger. I’ve been a whitewater professional for 20 years, with that said anyone on a whitewater river in any capacity needs to be wearing a pfd, even river surfers.

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  • Philip Mather

    Same has been discussed on the Thames in London, I’d suggest a quick release belt like the one I bought I have not however, luckily, had to use this in anger. Nice bright ball to pull and release and would allow those with ankle leashes to simply “convert” them. As an engineer I can’t suggest trying to design a system with a set breakage limit, seems overly complex and the only benefit would be if you were unconscious or otherwise unable to operate a quick release but I’d imagine in most situation like that you’re going to be relying on others anyway and into a whole new world of trouble.

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  • Jbones

    An easy solution I came up with is to attach the leash to your board using a zip tie as the middle connector between the two. Standard zip ties can withstand 50lbs of pressure, so if you get hung up the zip tie should break easily. Because everyone is a different weight, you can use different strength zip ties to add or subtract as needed, or double them up if you find that a single one breaks too often and too easily.

    • Loren Lebowski

      jbones, Ive tried regular zip ties and they seem to break too easy. Have you had any luck with 120 lb rated zip ties? I think the zip tie is an easy solution to help with the leash problem. In boise, we have deep eddys around the wave. The most significant hazards at boise are 1) getting struck by your board, ending up unconscious 2) chasing an unleashed board down river towards numerous hazards. Leashes help eliminate these two hazards, but obviously create another hazard. Many of us use DK leashes with quick release pins, but I think a zip tie that you could break would improve things and be cheap.

  • Jesse Marohn

    any thoughts on if board builders should not include a leash cup with a board. O’fishl and I believe there are some other brands of stick-on leash plugs on the market, that could be purchased and placed on any board.

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