Safety Code of American Whitewater

1998 revision, related articles

The following is the article that was included in the November-December issue of American Whitewater. This was part 2 of the introduction to changes in the rating scale and introduced the proposed benchmarked rapids. As noted in the article below, a public comment period was provided to allow for one more revision before the final version was later published.

American Whitewater Adds Benchmark Rapids to the International Scale of River Difficulty

By Lee Belknap, Chairman, American Whitewater Safety Committee

American Whitewater has introduced much needed revisions to the international scale of river difficulty. These changes, detailed in the September-October issue of American Whitewater, include the addition of plus and minus categories to classes 2, 3, and 4, and the open ended expansion of class 5 into an unlimited decimal system. With these changes, class VI becomes an exploratory rating and only applies to rapids that have not been run frequently enough to be placed in the class 5.x range yet.

Also in the last issue, American Whitewater announced that from now on, the ratings will be defined by a series of benchmarks consisting of specific rapids at specific water levels. This list of benchmarks will be distributed with the safety code in a document entitled “International Scale of River Difficulty - US Standard Rated Rapids.” This list was developed from ratings provided by some 80 paddlers from around the country. Unfortunately, introduction of this list had to be delayed until now while final proof reading was completed.

The list of benchmarks is designed to cover all major whitewater areas of the country with a difficulty range from Class I to class 5.2 and a size range from steep creeks to large volume rivers. Because of the obvious effect that water level has on difficulty, each rated rapids includes a flow range to control this factor.
Once again, please remember, this scale does not reflect any one person's or small group’s idea of how to rate rapids. Instead this is snapshot of how paddlers across the country are rating rapids and corresponding rivers. The list consists of average ratings developed from almost 3000 suggestions submitted by almost 80 of the 100 or so paddlers who responded to this effort. While there will be many paddlers who will believe the ratings are either too low or too high, this list contains what American Whitewater believes is the closest possible representation of middle ground in the sport today.

The purpose of this list is to provide the sport with a consistent standard, or set of benchmarks, that other rapids and rivers can be compared to and rated. Those who use this system will be able to compare the difficulty of any rapids to similar, more commonly run rapids found on this list instead of rating rapids on how hard they “felt.” With these bench marks, we can stop the long term drifting that has been occurring over the past couple of decades and preserve a system that everyone can use.

The 80 or so individuals who contributed directly to this list represent paddlers from all around the united states with an extensive variety of experience on whitewater rivers through out the country and even the world. To make a very long story short, the 3000 suggested ratings these folks submitted were averaged and culled out using numerous filters on both a database, and several supporting spreadsheets. It has taken a couple of years to gather the data and process it into a list that makes sense. After several additional proofreads the final list of benchmarks is finally complete. Again, American Whitewater believes that this list is the closest possible representation of middle ground for the sport today. We hope that public comment will confirm or refine this.

American Whitewater does not take these changes lightly. There will certainly be some disagreement from both sides of the difficulty curve. There will be discrepancies with many guidebooks and river management agencies on one side, and with some really good paddlers pushing at the limits of the sport on the other. There was no way to avoid this with the variation that presently exists. Without these changes the rating system would continue to deteriorate as it has for a number of years. Mainstream boaters simply no longer use the ratings that many guidebooks and river management agencies published (often many years ago), yet newer boaters moving up in the learning curve need to keep the lower classes intact without stretching them to the point where the steps that classes 1 through 4 provide become too big to be useful. These steps have already become so large that it is necessary to add plus and minus to each numerical rating.

No rating system can take every variable into account, and this system is no exception. Each paddler is responsible for learning what it means to paddle each class level when they are ready - a whole subject onto itself. Remember, this is an assumed risk sport. There are many factors that cannot be taken into account because of their wide variability.

A good example of this is boat type. Even among kayaks, some boats make big water easier while others have the opposite effect. Among boats other than kayaks the effect is even more pronounced. For instance, for certain types of inflatables, difficulty is particularly sensitive to specific wave height and small, constricted streams. Still other types of craft, including open canoes are more sensitive to bigger water. It continues to be the responsibility of the boater to know the relationships between equipment, water conditions and difficulty. With this in mind, the rapids list was initially intended to note which rapids were on small or large volume streams. Unfortunately, not enough information is available at this time to include this. The safety committee welcomes suggestions on which rapids on the list should be labeled as truly big water or really steep creeks. If enough information is received, future revisions will include this information.

Another area of concern is the reduced role that hazards now play when paddlers rate things. Several suggestions have been made to add a letter at the end of a rating to note the hazard level of a rapids. At this time American Whitewater feels that such a system would not be widely adopted but instead paddlers will be more likely to continue to note river hazards by describing them. This method of communication generally provides much more useful information than a letter that can only say “watch out” or “look how macho I can be.” If enough paddlers ask for and would use a lettered hazard rating, then we can add such a system at a later date.

American Whitewater will accept comments for the next 30 days. After that period, final changes will be made and the safety code will be formally updated to include the list of US standard rated rapids along with the changes outlined in the last issue of American Whitewater.

Please send comments to: (study over; don't send, please use homeboy form for other comments).

American Whitewater Safety Committee

Rating hazards:
Of the many proposals that have been made to rate hazards, the following is typical. Each letter would be added to the end of a difficulty rating, example: Class IV B.
Proposed difficulty ratings.

  1. No pain or undue hardship (wash up at the bottom with a smile on your face).
  2. Painful, but likely to survive with only superficial injuries.(bounce over rocks, get trashed in a hole, tear flesh from your knuckles, and wash up at the bottom an unhappy camper).
  3. Some deaths or serious injuries have occurred (fatalities, broken bones, paralysis).
  4. Death is all but certain (severe sieve, undercut, extreme wave train, terminal holes).

At this time American Whitewater feels that such a system would not be widely adopted but instead paddlers will be more likely to continue to note river hazards by describing them. This method of communication generally provides much more useful information than a letter that can only say “watch out” or “look how macho I can be.” However, if the above system, or one similar to it, becomes commonly used then we will add it at that time.

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