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Community Voices: Respect the River, River Surfers Should Wear PFDs

Posted: 07/09/2019
by Brittany Parker

I can't keep my mouth shut any longer. I've been troubled the past couple weeks with the direction river surfing is going. I've been wrestling with bringing it up because I'm afraid of alienating myself and getting crucified online by the river surfing community. But this isn't about me, this is about the future of our sport and the lives of others. 

I don't like surfing in the river alone. And lately, even with a 15 person deep line up at the wave I feel alone. I feel alone because I am one of maybe two or three there wearing a PFD, or sometimes the only one. I feel alone because if something were to happen, like getting knocked unconscious or my body cramping up, I don't have faith that the people in the line up could save me.

What I love about the river surfing community is how everyone looks out for each other. When I began the community was filled with people from a river background. They understood the power of the river, respected it, and may have even lost some people to it. You could always trust that your people were looking out for you. And you knew they were prepared if things went bad, which it can in some of the most unlikely of places. But now we're losing that. 

Surfers from the ocean always talk about respect. Respecting the ocean, the culture and the people that have built it. As a newcomer, you're encouraged to educate yourself before paddling out into the lineup. Why isn't the same respect being shown on the river? There's a reason a river rescue course is going to be much different from an ocean life saving course. They are VERY different. The water moves differently and there are unique hazards that don't exist in the ocean. 

When I see people not wearing a helmet or pfd...it makes me cringe. If they get knocked unconscious they're not going to float. Chances of survival go way down. But, if you're wearing a life jacket my odds of rescuing you and pulling you to shore go way up. And, if I myself am not wearing a PFD, as well as you, and I try to swim out to rescue you, there's a good chance I too will become a victim. I would hate to know that i couldn't rescue you just because I wasn't wearing a PFD. 

I should also note, the fact that people drown in PFDs does not mean you shouldn't wear one. That's like saying just because people die in car crashes with seatbelts on you don't need to wear a seatbelt.

I've been hearing the words, "I have a high risk tolerance," being thrown around a lot. This is the antithesis of what the river community is built on. It's not just about you when you're out there. Your negligence puts those that have to rescue you at risk. If something happens to you, say you dislocate your shoulder and can't swim to shore, I may now put myself at risk to attempt to rescue you. I'm not going to stand on shore and let you drown. You have to think bigger picture when you're on the river. 

The next thing I hear is, "I can't paddle on my stomach with a life jacket on." Surfers paddle at Skookumchuck sometimes wearing TWO lifejackets. When they swim they often have to paddle half a mile up a mile long eddy. If they can do it, so can you. If I can do it, so can you. You can get used to it like all of us wearing one have. 

Regularly, when I'm out surfing I have kids and beginners asking me why im wearing a PFD and the rest aren't. I have to hope that what I say is enough to ensure they wear a PFD when river surfing. I am writing this for them, because I hope to set a good example and help people with no river background understand why safety is important on the river. I don't care about how I look out there in the water. I know my PFD and the helmet isn't "sexy". All I care about is being able to look out for my fellow river users and not becoming a victim or endangering others due to carelessness.


Editors Note: American Whitewater will be asking our community for their voice in safety issues during the second half of 2019. If you have an idea for an article please contact evan@americanwhitewater.org . Brittany Parker is a professional river surfer and freelance writer in Glenwood Springs, CO.


Evan Stafford
516 Stover Street
Fort Collins, CO 80524
Phone: 970-420-5377