More likely than not, you are reading this because you like floating adventures and you’re keen on safety as you have fun on the river. Or, you might be new to the whole boating experience and you want to give it a try.
Boating is fun! Whether you’re just feeding your passion, or you want to connect with nature, or you’re just looking for an opportunity to spend some quality time with your family/friends, boating has got you!
As much as rivers are fun, they also pose potential hazards that may put your merrymaking to a grinding halt.
I’m sure you wouldn’t want your fun abruptly cut off would you?
Rivers pose many different types of hazards that we all need to pay attention to. Unfortunately, there is no specific navigation tactic, there are so many variables to consider in rivers.
You need to remember that it’s not easy dealing with water that is constantly moving, at different speeds.
There is no one rule fits all, in identifying these potential river hazards but there does exist a general rule of thumb.
This rule states that immediately you notice a potential hazard ahead, you need to point your pontoon boat to the direction of that hazard, then start paddling away as the current of the river carries you past and around that hazard.
When you know how to identify potential river hazards, then you are guaranteed to enjoy your boating experience. So, if you want to enjoy your boating experience, it’s best to identify these potential river hazards that you may encounter.
Here are some of the potential river hazards that you might encounter and how you can navigate them. So, let’s get right to it, shall we?
So, what exactly is a strainer? Think of it this way, anything that moving water can flow through but get this, a pontoon boat or any other boat cannot, or even you as a swimmer can’t go through, is called a strainer.
They are quite a common potential river hazard. Not to scare you, but they can be the most dangerous feature you can encounter in a river.
They are known to cause many deaths, so with that said, they are definitely something you should pay attention to.
Most times, you find them half- submerged in water. A strainer could be man-made. For example, it could be a car that has been dumped in a river or it could be natural like a tree or root system.
As long as water is flowing through it but it’s an obstruction to you, then you can place it in the category of a strainer. Now that you have a clear picture of what a strainer is, you need to avoid anything that acts like one.
Strainers present a potential danger to your river expeditions.
So how does a strainer pose a danger to you?
What a strainer does, is it works by pulling obstacles underneath and out of the river current. You should really avoid as they are serious death traps.
It’s important that I also mention something about a form of strainer called a logjam. You can probably guess what it is from its name.
You get a logjam when logs and trees accumulate in a river. It goes without saying that this is something that you should avoid as it’s extremely dangerous. Also, important to note is that it can shift the river current.
So now that we know what a strainer is, the next thing we need to know is what do we do when we come across one. Detecting a strainer earlier on is definitely one of the best ways to navigate it.
One of the precautions you can take is scouting from your boat or even on shore for any strainer in sight. When you detect it early you can avoid it or steer clear off it. I cannot emphasize enough how dangerous a strainer can be.
The first thing you need to do when you spot an up-and-coming strainer in your path turns your boat in the direction of the trainer.
I know you’re probably wondering, wait, why would I do that? Isn’t that dangerous? Well, hold your horses, and let me explain. So, now that your boat is facing the strainer, the next thing you need to do is to start paddling away from that strainer with the help of the river current.
When you do this, you will be able to navigate away from this potential hazard.
So, you didn’t spot any strainers as you got into the water with your boat, but in the middle of your paddling, you spot one, at a distance.
What do you do? Well, first things first, make sure that you keep a good distance away from the strainer to avoid nasty surprises as sometimes strainers pose an unseen hazard underneath the water, out of your sight.
Think of it this way, I’m sure you don’t want a situation where your boat gets held on something because you were too close to it, right? Better to be safe than sorry, I always say!
Now, apply the general rule and point your pontoon boat on the path of the strainer then start to paddle away, simple, isn’t it? This should get you away from danger.
You need to do whatever you can to avoid this potential death trap. Be safe and don’t be a statistic.
The place where the current flows upstream in a river is what is called an eddy. An eddy line occurs when a division line is formed behind an obstruction like a rock, car, etc. on a river current.
What happens is, that the current will flow around an obstacle and then travel back upstream towards the obstruction.
The current will flow towards the object that created the eddy in the first place.
As a pontoon boat operator, if you cross into this eddy line, there’s a very high chance that your boat will be turned unexpectedly, creating a potential hazard. So, you need to avoid an eddy line at all costs.
If you find yourself in an eddy line, the first step you need to take is to try and get back into the current. Now, for you to do this, you need to make sure you that you are at least a few paddle strokes back from the upstream end of the eddy.
You need to make sure that you paddle at a 45-degree angle to the eddy line. The speed of the current is a factor to consider because when the current is fast, it is recommended that you use a less angle and vice versa.
Lowhead dams are also known as “drowning machines” scary huh? Well, you should be scared. And if that’s not scary enough, you should know that they are the most difficult to detect!
So, what is a Lowhead dam exactly?
First of all, it’s a structure that is man-made. A lowhead dam presents danger above and also below it.
When water fills over a drop it forms a hole which then forms a recirculating current below the dam, sometimes called a “boil”. Now, that force of the “boil” can trap your boat and pull you under the water.
That recirculating motion keeps repeating itself as you are drawn. If you’re trapped, rescuing you becomes a big problem.
To avoid getting sucked in a lowhead dam the first thing you need to do is be sure to scout the river for such a hazard. You can also get information from other boaters in the area who will be more familiar with the river.
This will make your work much easier. Something else you can look out for is where the stream meets the sky, check for a smooth horizon line. This will tell you that there’s a dam. You can also check for concrete retaining walls, which will be part of the dam. This is easier to spot.
Not to scare you, but it’s nearly impossible to escape when you’re trapped in a lowhead dam.
But this is worth trying. If you find yourself stuck inside a lowhead dam, I recommend that you assume the fetal position and draw your knees up to your chest and wrap your hands around them, while your chin is tucked down. Then, hopefully, the current will push you along the bed of the river.
Gravel Bar/ Sand Bar
Sometimes you may come across an elevation in the river that’s made up of either gravel or sand. This is what is called a gravel/sandbar. They are considered to be some of the most deceptive in terms of submerged objects and you can find them in different shapes and sizes.
They are known to form and change very quickly when the water is high. It’s important to note that the water that flows around it becomes fast water. In case your boat runs into one, it can be just a minor inconvenience or on the other hand, it could be fatal. It could go either way.
How to Navigate a Gravel Bar/ Sand Bar
The same rule of thumb applies here. Once you notice this kind of hazard, you need to make sure there’s enough distance between you and the gravel/sand bar then point your pontoon boat in its direction, then paddle away.
Islands in the river cause current that flows into it to split up into two. After the split, the current meet back together.
When the current meet back together, it can bring about different streamflow speeds.
This, in turn, can cause your pontoon boat to turn unexpectedly. The differing current flow speeds can also cause a sort of a whirlpool which will not be safe for you and your boat.
The Same rule of thumb applies here. When you spot an island, you should turn your pontoon boat to face it, then start to row away.
Sometimes you notice trees and branches that hanging down over the water, protruding from the river bank. These are called sweepers and you need to avoid them like the plague. They are very dangerous.
How to Navigate Sweepers
A sweeper is just like an obstacle in the river that should be avoided at all costs. You should apply the rule of thumb here too.
When a lot of water flows over a rock that is submerged, the feature this water forms is what is called a hole. So, this just means that that water flowing over the rock generates a hole with a frothy backwash. Or in other words, the water on the top of the river tends to flow upstream.
For you to spot holes, you need to look downstream and even beyond to check for any clues in the current. So, what are some of the clues you should be looking out for?
You need to check whether the current is moving in waves, whether the water is splashing up which would mean that it’s rushing to a steep drop, and then pours over into a ledge hole.
Pay attention to the amount of water that will rush back upstream as this will be a good measure of the holes power. If you find you find yourself inside a hole, you need to hit it straight on, which will be perpendicular to the ledge.
The next thing you need to do is to dig into the downstream current and paddle through it.
This is a water feature where you find that a slab of rock, or something that has the shape of a rock, forces the current flow to go under the surface.
How to Navigate Undercuts
So how can you spot them? On the upstream side of the rock, see if you can sport a dark shadow, or if there is no evidence of the pillowing action by oncoming water and also check if you can’t see a predictable eddy on the downstream side.
The best way to avoid this hazard is to scout from the shore. I recommend you walk to the end of the rapid and look back upstream. You should also make a point of speaking to the locals as the most dangerous undercuts will most likely be well known.
River Current (streamflow) speed
The speed of the river is also a potential river hazard that you need to look into. To identify this, you can throw a stick into the current and then walk with it
To identify this, you can throw a stick into the current and then walk with it along the bank, this way you’ll get an idea of the speed. If it’s more than your walking pace, then this means that crossing the river is dangerous.
If you somehow get caught up in a strong current, you need to immediately make your way to the shore.
All rivers have river banks and more often than not, the river bank presents more of a hazard than the actual river. Sometimes a river bank has loose rocks and it’s slippery.
Just like most of the other hazards, apply the general rule, which is, point your pontoon boat on the path of the river bank and then start to paddle away from it.
It’s common knowledge that rivers go through different transformations. A river will go through various transformations when its water volume increases.
It’s important for you to check the river levels. You can use guidebooks to do this or even look at the weather forecast before getting on the water.
In case there are high winds, they can create a very hazardous condition for you.
Firstly, I recommend monitoring the weather forecast before you start your boating journey and also in the course of your journey. In some areas, storms can start abruptly. Storms are usually accompanied by strong winds that can easily overturn and capsize your pontoon boat.
Make a point to keep a watch of your sky for signs of any change in weather. The best thing to do when you encounter high winds is to exit the river immediately. In case you’re facing downstream in a crosswind, you are in danger. You need to make sure your pontoon boat is parallel to the wind, as you’re heading toward the shore.
The best thing to do when you encounter high winds is to exit the river immediately. In case you’re facing downstream in a crosswind, you are in danger. You need to make sure your pontoon boat is parallel to the wind, as you’re heading toward the shore.
Even if you are an experienced boater, it’s always a good idea to try and identify any potential river hazards before you start on any boating expedition. I cannot emphasize this more.
It’s very important that you make a point of talking to the locals to get more info about the river. I can assure you that you will get to know something you didn’t from the locals. You can never have too much information, you know.
Another thing is that, even after you have all the information you need, you have scouted the river for potential hazards, and gotten more information from the locals, just to avoid any surprises, I would advise you to always operate at a safe speed at all times.
If you do this, you will have the advantage of steering clear of any surprises, in terms of river hazards that you were not able to pick up beforehand.
It’s always good to analyze the potential accidents that you may come across while boating in a river and most importantly you need to ask yourself what the worst-case scenario would be and what you can do to reduce that potential accident.
Most times you can detect an upcoming hazard by sound, even before you sight it. If you can hear rushing water then you shouldn’t ignore it.
The sound could be from a harmless hanging tree limb or it could be a dangerous potential obstacle in the water. So, it’s a good idea to find out where the sound is coming from, so as to rule out any hazards.
It’s good to also look out for warning signs and marker buoys giving information about potential hazards concerning dams.
Scout the river, my advice is to do it down from the top and up from the bottom. You can use binoculars for a better view. Check the weather conditions before going out. Sometimes the weather may change
Check the weather conditions before going out.
Sometimes the weather may change abruptly. If you notice this, you need to be off the water like yesterday!
Don’t take any chances!
As a boater, you should always study the potential hazards and take all the necessary precautions.
Don’t take risks. Always look ahead, keep your eyes on the horizon.
It’s important to know the proper hand signals for communications in case you encounter an emergency. Swimming is a skill you should Know, as this may come in handy in case you find yourself in the water.
Also, make a point of talking to the locals who are familiar with the particular river. Even if you feel you are an experienced boater. Use the internet too and even physically inspect the river.
When you do all your groundwork you can be almost sure to enjoy your floating experience!
Remember rivers can be very unpredictable so you still need to keep your eyes and ears open in case of any hazards that may crop up.
I don’t know how to swim, is it still safe for me to go out into the river?
If you’re going out boating, it’s a good precaution if you can actually swim. The river has so many potential hazards, and you never know when your swimming skills may be put to the test.
While scouting the river for potential hazards, I would like to cover even longer distances, what’s a good way to scout ahead?
You can invest in some lightweight binoculars for this.
I have read that sometimes eddy lines are used as a spot for resting pontoon boats before continuing with the journey. Isn’t it supposed to be a river hazard?
This is true. Some boaters use eddy lines as resting points. But eddy lines are more dangerous that they are safe. Remember that. So, it’s best to avoid them.
I am a newbie in the boating world. How long will it take me to learn boating and river safety?
Boating is super easy to learn. You can find literature everywhere on how to boat, identify and navigate potential river hazards.
If the weather suddenly changes while I am boating, what should I do?
The first thing to do is abort your expedition and turn back. Weather changes are not a risk you want to take.
Is there a general rule of thumb when I come across a potential river hazard?
Yes, there is. The general rule of thumb is to first point your boat at the hazard then row away to a safe area.
There are no specific navigation tactics on rivers because there isn’t just one answer. There are so many variables to factor, and one answer doesn’t fit all of them.