An instructional piece that I read recently advised paddlers to remove their Personal Flotation Device (PFD) when caught in a weir. This reminded me of the period when I started doing river races in the early 90s. Back then, PFDs were not compulsory at most river races, and certainly not on flatwater. When CSA got more serious about safety and insisted on the wearing of PFDs, there was a lot of resistance to this decree. After all, it was cool to be so good that you didn’t need to wear a PFD to paddle rapids…

The reluctance to wear a PFD, and the advice to remove a PFD when caught in a weir, both come from the same place: an unhealthy mixture of ego and ignorance. Probably more ego in the not-wearing-of and more ignorance in the removal of a PFD, but the effect is nonetheless the same.

There are many legalities involved regarding PFDs and it is an ongoing battle to get CSA, SAMSA, commercial operators and paddlers aligned. In my opinion, this is simply a matter of statistics, common sense and creating safe habits. When you get in a car, you don’t think about the trip you’re about to take and then decide whether a safety belt is a good idea or not. You simply put the safety belt on. When you get on a motorbike or bicycle, you put your helmet on. There is no serious thought process: it has been proven beyond doubt that safety belts, helmets and PFDs save lives.

In the USA, where the paddling industry is much more mature, incidents (both fatal and non-fatal) have been recorded in much detail for many years. At a seminar that I attended in Oklahoma a few months ago, hosted by the ACA (American Canoe Association), statistics were shared about the number of paddling-related drownings that occurred on lakes, rivers and the ocean. A surprising number of drownings occurred on flatwater, on clear days, where paddlers either didn’t take a PFD along at allor they attached their PFD to the deck of their kayakthinking that they would ‘just’ grab it to put on while in the water if they capsized. This almost never works.

On flatwater, it is easy to think that a PFD is not needed, especially if you are a good paddler and a strong swimmer. The reality is that shit happens. Your muscles could cramp and prohibit you from being able to swim. You could suffer a heart attack and be unable to keep your head above water. You could be knocked unconscious by a motorboat or jet ski. You may simply be too tired to even tread water. A PFD, if you were wearing it, would keep you afloat, make it easier for would-be rescuers to spot you, and give rescuers something to grab to get you out of the water.

On rivers, wearing a PFD at all times is even more of a no-brainer. There are so many more reasons why you might not be able to swim if you exit your boat. Without the added buoyancy that a PFD provides, you will have big downtime every time you swim through a hole and you will disappear on eddylines for extended periods. You fatigue much faster if you try keep afloat without a PFD. The simple fact is that your chance of drowning increases exponentially if you donot have a PFD on. Apart from being stupid, it is also incredibly selfish to force others into the position of having to try rescue you without being able to see you properly, and without anything to grab.

On the ocean, it appears that surfski paddlers are now going through the same process that river racers went through not too long ago: having to adapt their mindset to the benefits of wearing PFDs even though it doesn’t look as macho when paddling through the surf… It is true that it is easier to swim in the surf without a PFD. But, to quote a friend, “it is much easier to drown without one”.

To be clear, unconscious people have been saved because of their PFDs. People who have been lost have been found because of their PFDs.Countless exhausted paddlers have recovered from bad swims by simply floating down the river in their PFD.

To get back to the weir issue that I raised earlier: If you get stuck in a weir, KEEP YOUR PFD ON!

Below are the correct steps to deal with weirs:

  1. Avoid running weirs, especially if no safety has been set up.
  2. If you swim and get trapped in a weir, keep your PFD on but let go of your boat and other equipment.
  3. Swim towards the weir(upstream).
  4. Go down with the current and swim with the current (downstream) beyond the boil line (line between suck back and outflow).
  5. Make your way to the closest bank and get out of the water.

It is a common misconception that it is not actually possible to do step number 4 with a PFD on. I can assure you that it is very much possible to dive down with the current. I have personally done it countless times during swiftwater training exercises, and a couple of times when I got stuck and couldn’t extract myself from the weir without leaving the comfort of my boat.

If a hydraulic is strong enough to keep you trapped, it is almost guaranteed that there is sufficient water coming over the drop for you to use the flow to get yourself down and under the boil. The key is to actively get yourself into the water that is falling over the drop. You can’t try to stay away from it and then somehow try to get under the water. That is exactly how people drown in weirs; they try swim away on the surface, which is impossible. Eventually they get too tired to work against the current that flows back towards the weir. The current then pushes them into the water falling over the drop, which takes them down and flushes them out, but by this time they have no energy left and they drown.

If there is not sufficient water coming over the drop to help you get down and out, then the water at the bottom is either not very deep, which means you can just stand up and walk out, or it is not too turbulent, which means you should be able to stabilise yourself well enough to work towards the side of the weir, where you could most likely get out or get help.

You may wonder whether there is ever a time when it is a good idea to take off your PFD. The answer is yes, there is one situation that may necessitate it. If you get caught in a bad strainer, like getting stuck in the branches underneath a tree block or in rebar after a man-made obstacle, and you simply cannot get out of it after a good period of struggling, only then may it be a good option to take off your PFD. But, even in this situation, taking off your PFD is a last resort, not the first call of action.

For completeness sake, below are the PFD specifications as currently specified by SAMSA and CSA:

  • It must be able to float a minimum of 6kg lead weight.
  • It must carry the appropriate labelling.
  • It must be in sound condition.
  • It must not be loose fitting.
  • Shape and design of the jacket must allow freedom to twist and lean the torso.

Although not an official specification, I would add this: make sure your PFD has a bright colour. It makes rescue operations so much simpler if you are easy to spot. As an added bonus, a bright PFD looks better in pictures too!

Finally, if I may adapt a common meme that is doing the rounds: It is lekker to survive a swim because you kept your PFD on. Don’t be a doos. Be lekker.

Author: Celliers Kruger.

This article was originally published in the June/July 2019 issue of The Paddle Mag. This digital publication is free to view and download.