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November 2019 Issue
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Packrafting Safely

Before hitting the water, ensure you have adequate safety gear. Photo: Martin Robertson
Packrafts are an inherently stable vessel and it’s possible to hit the river and blunder through. But a capsize can see rafters suddenly swimming in rapids they wouldn’t dream of entering without a boat. Martin Robertson offers some practical tips.

Prepare before you plunge
Rafters should be competent swimmers and experienced in swimming easy rapids with feet first and arms used to give direction. Before attempting to packraft, ask yourself if you would be happy to swim the rapid and if not, don’t paddle it.

Safety gear
At a minimum, rafters need stout footwear suitable for negotiating a river on foot, a safety throw rope attached to their person, a personal flotation device and a kayaking-specific helmet. In winter, a spray jacket and wetsuit should be worn.

Know your holes
When large boulders are submerged by the river flow, holes can be created. Packrafters must learn to read river features and recognise which holes are friendly, and which are dangerous.
Friendly – or smiley – holes: These have edges which curve downstream, and appear like a smile to the upstream paddler. These holes will push the paddler safely out the side.
Frowny holes: No surprises – a frowny hole is less friendly and is
likely to suck the boat back in and retain it. Strong paddling effort is required to exit from the centre. Paddlers can attempt to jump the hole by ‘boofing’ the packraft – digging the paddle in on the lip and keeping the nose high to land on the foam pile rather than in the hole.

Strainers occur when the rapids flow under a log or rock and create a suction that can lodge a paddler in a precarious position. Inspect all rapids where a log hazard would be difficult to avoid on the fly, and walk the rapid if not confident. If forced to confront a log, attempt to launch yourself over it. If a rock doesn’t have a pillow of water against it, there may be a siphon where water flows under the rock.

Rivers are graded based on typical flows, but this changes when they are in a flood state. A washed-out river becomes ‘pushy’, meaning the current is so strong you will have difficulty avoiding hazards or even to leave the river. Floods also carry new logs and move old ones.Rafters should learn to read weather maps and forecasts to avoid flood conditions.

Historical records of river flow and rainfall can be found on council websites and these can help you understand the response of a particular river to rain events and how fast a river rises and falls.