National Livery Safety System: Risk Management in Recreational River Paddling

By Dillon, Pamela; Chambers, Virgil | Parks & Recreation, July 1995 | Go to article overview

National Livery Safety System: Risk Management in Recreational River Paddling


Dillon, Pamela, Chambers, Virgil, Parks & Recreation


Alex and Seth arrived at the park excited about the canoe trip that they had been talking about ever since college got out two weeks ago. Both were athletic and enjoyed water sports and activities. Waterpark rides were their passion, but this canoe trip was their first real experience on a natural river. The trip was a six-mile run down the area's wild and scenic river and sounded so adventurous.

On arrival at the outfitters, they signed a release form, received life jackets and paddles, and were pointed in the direction of the water's edge.

The 15-foot aluminum canoe was on the river's bank, with a "Wear Your Life Jacket" decal stuck on the bow plate of the craft and another which read "Return This Canoe To The Edgewater Park Canoe Rental." The two young men readied for launch without waiting for assistance from the staff person.

The two boys delighted at being on the water All of their past "adventure-based" experiences were in controlled situations in water parks; however, a waterpark ride is hardly the same as a trip down a natural river. Alex and Seth did not really think about possible danger, nor were they verbally warned of it. Additionally, they had signed the release form without reading it and saw no warning posters or signs prior to launch.

The staff person at the put-in was busy with a larger group at the time of the boys' launch and did not include them in the pre-trip safety talk. The boys believed there was nothing dangerous about this river. After all, their friends had paddled it without incident.

Having received no direction on how to wear their life jackets, the boys placed them in the bottom of the canoe. They stepped in, sat down, and grabbing a paddle, they shoved off and entered the river Caught up in the current and unschooled in how to paddle and control the craft, the boys' canoe was carried directly into the downed tree with surprising force. The boat swung sideways against the tree's branches as the force of the water gushed under the craft. Almost immediately, the canoe rolled upstream against the current; and the boys were tossed into the cold water and carried against the downed tree.

Neither boy was a strong swimmer, but they both had been told the river averaged only three feet deep. The water against the tree was much deeper and both boys tried to gain a foot hold on the bottom in order to climb up into the tree. They struggled to swim upstream against the river's power.

In their struggle, both boys were pushed through the underwater web of branches and exited coughing, gasping, cold but alive, in the quick moving downstream current. They barely made it to shore as the cold water zapped what energy they had from them. 7hey had no idea where to go or how to summon help.

Accidents generally occur in situations where there is exposure to risk that has not been checked to its safe level. The National Association of Canoe Liveries and Outfitters estimates that 20 million people rent canoes each year. The majority of them launch on moving water without a guide, armed only with the paddling information that is provided to them at the time of the rental.

While the majority of the canoe liveries provide ample safety advice and direction, it is possible that during periods of peak use, customers may "slip through the cracks" and launch on the water without attending the pre-trip safety talk standard in many operations. To provide a consistent "baseline" of safety information for the new paddler, the National Livery Safety System (NLSS) was developed.

NLSS Comes to the Rescue

The National Livery Safety System is a public education program dedicated to recreational river paddling. The program is geared not only for use by canoe livery operations but also by individuals, groups, or organizations to better prepare for river trip activities. The NLSS consists of two videos and posters aimed at informing the general public, while a third video and an 85-page risk management manual are for use in training livery staff.

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