By Rachel Davies
With the roar of the rapids, communication on the river with your paddling party and others can be challenging. Fortunately, there are river signals that are mostly the same around the world to allow paddlers who have never met to communicate hazards on the river, ask for help, check in before dropping a line, and so much more. Here are the top 5 most used signals, plus some general guidelines and tips to get you started.
Arms or paddle straight out horizontally. This can mean “not ready to go,” “do not start,” “it’s not safe this way,” or just straight “no.”
Arm or paddle straight up and down vertically. This signal means “ready to go,” “ready to leave the eddie or continue downstream,” “this line is good to run,” or just straight “yes.” If a pumping motion up and down is added, it can also mean “please hurry up.”
Go that way
Arm or paddle pointed in a specific direction. This one is always given in a positive manner, meaning to point towards the way someone should go, not towards a hazard or danger to be aware of. Similar to a go signal, a pumping motion adds urgency to the move.
Hand on top of the head in a fist or pointing to the top of your head. Can mean “are you okay” as well as “I am okay” in response. It’s most often and best used for people in distress, such as a swimmer, to see if they require assistance.
Arm or paddle moving in a circle, followed by a directional signal to river left or right. This signal is used to communicate when someone in the party needs to pull over.
The golden rule with all river signals is to chat with your party to get on the same page before launching. Just like double checking safety gear and going over your route plan, double checking river signals should be part of your pre-trip checklist. While these signals are commonly used, they can still vary slightly around the world.
All signals work as a call and response system, meaning if someone sends you a signal and you understand or agree, it’s good practice to send it back so they know you’re on the same page. If you don’t agree, make sure to communicate that. For example, if someone sends a “go” signal, but you’re not ready, send back a “stop.” It’s also useful to pass along signals to people along the river as needed. For instance, if someone at the front of the party sends an “eddie out” signal and you are the second boat, pass the signal along to folks paddling behind you.
These signals are useful to communicate when voices don’t carry, however, it can be challenging to get people’s attention when they’re focused on their own line or something going on in their boat. Paddlers often pair throwing up a signal with calling a “whoop whoop” or other noise to get others to look up. Some folks will use a single whistle blast for attention, but some like to reserve those only for serious situations - another point to check in with your crew about before launching.
There are also many other signals for communicating messages like “hey check out that wildlife,” “swimmer!” “first aid needed,” “tighten up” or “space out,” “only room for x number of people in this eddie” and so on, but these tend to be less universal. Similarly, there are signals that are inherently regionally specific, like caution for wildlife like bears, crocodiles, or aggressive birds. This is another important reason to check in with your paddling team before the put in to review all paddle and whistle signals you might use to make sure you’re on the same page. Some groups also like to make up their own specific signals, but just make sure it’s simple and clear to understand from afar and won’t be mistaken for another similar signal.
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About the Author
Rachel Davies is an avid paddler, both professionally and personally. She has made home bases in the South Island of New Zealand and in the Canadian Rockies, where she has worked as a hiking, cycling, rafting and kayaking instructor. Packrafting came into her life to piece together her love of all these worlds while exploring new places through challenging, type-two fun adventures. Rachel aims to share this passion through her writing and artwork - follow along on IG @rachelmydavies and racheldaviesart.com.