Extensive coverage for outdoor activities

Playing it safe

A recent whitewater rafting-related death in Sabah’s Padas River is once again giving the sport a bad rap. Is rafting really unsafe or do we just have to be a tad more careful and choose a “safe” operator?

By LEONG SIOK HUI

It happened in a split second.

One moment we were hurling down the swirling rapids and relishing the adrenaline rush, and next we were flying out like rag dolls as the raft flipped.

Pay attention: Listen to everything your instructor tells you.

I went under, and all I recalled was lots of froth and chaos. Just when my lungs felt like it was about to burst, the river spat me out to the surface.

I grasped a paddle that was held out by one of the rescuers and was quickly hoisted back into another raft.

In the two hours spent rafting Selangor River, I was dunked upside down three times. Yet, what I felt was a weird mix of stomach-knotting fear and euphoria. But most importantly, I felt safe because of the experienced guides and the rescuers who were on standby.

Yes, whitewater rafting is great fun and challenging but the risks, like injuries and death, are always there. Last month, a Dutch tourist drowned while rafting down the Padas River, 170km from Kota Kinabalu. The sport, however, can be safe if you choose a responsible operator who is prepared for the hazards.

Doing it right

I had joined Tracks Adventures, a Selangor-based rafting outfitter in Kuala Kubu Baru, to find out what kind of safety measures they took when bringing clients down the river. About 90% of our group of 13 on this trip were whitewater “virgins”.

Before we got started, one of Tracks’ directors, Marjorie Gabriel, 42, ran through the safety procedures, from fitting your lifejacket and helmets snugly (a definite “lifesaver”), to holding your paddle correctly so you don’t whack another person on the head, to the correct paddling techniques.

Getting dumped in the river is pretty much a certainty in rafting, so Gabriel briefed us on self-rescue.

Selangor River is a challenging run, especially during the rainy season, with rapids ranging from Class I to Class V (Class I is “easy”; III is “intermediate” and V is for the experts, with turbulent rapids, waves, holes and tough routes).

Where capsizing is commonplace, Tracks Adventures pre-position rescuers with a throw bag to assist in the event of a flip. The primary rescue tool for river runner, a throwbag is a nylon sack stuffed with a rope and a disk of foam to float the bag.

With the help of two safety kayakers, Gabriel and her friend Mei, the raft guides took turns running the rapid while acting as rescuers.

“The safety kayaker goes ahead of the rafts, scouts the river and checks if the lines (routes) are clear so the rafts can proceed,” explained Gabriel, a whitewater kayaking instructor. “It’s important to have safety kayakers, as they’re mobile and can move in faster to reach a swimmer to pull them to safety if they miss the rope thrown by rescuers.”

Tracks Adventures’ guides are all trained in Swiftwater Rescue, a course that teaches proactive prevention of river accidents and injuries. Guides learn to recognise and avoid common river hazards like “holes” that can trap and hold a buoyant object, and strainers (usually partly submerged trunks or logs) that can trap a swimmer underneath with the force of the current will hold him there.

They practise self-rescue and methods of rescuing swimmers and recovering rafts and gear based on the American Canoe Association’s (ACA) syllabus (www.americancanoe.org).

Operators’ say

There are a host of rafting operators in Malaysia running the various rivers. While some are half-assed outfits with dubious experience, there are a few reliable operators who are pioneers in the industry with a good safety record.

One of the oldest rafting operators in Malaysia, Tracks Adventures has been running Selangor River since 1994.

Whoops!: A flipping raft is common in Class IV & V rivers. — By LEONG SIOK HUI and RAYMOND OOI / THE STAR

“Many beginners are blissfully unaware that whitewater has swift and strong undercurrents. Please don’t think you’re here for a ride in the park. This is not Sunway Lagoon,” said Gabriel, an ACA-certified whitewater kayaker.

“Listen to safety briefings carefully, follow instructions, and exercise more care. I would advise participants who are hydrophobic not to raft at all,” added Gabriel.

Tracks Adventures also has a policy of not taking large groups down the river at a single run.

“We keep it to a maximum of 30 to 40 participants. It’s easier to handle, and you can keep an eye on everyone,” said Gabriel who also runs trips in Kampar, Sungkai and Slim River in Perak.

“Operators shouldn’t just think about reaping profits. If the water level is too high due to flash flood, postpone the trip or return the money to the customers,” Gabriel advised.

One other early pioneer, Khersonese Expeditions doesn’t take chances when it comes to safety.

“When clients sign indemnity forms, it is to tell them that while the sport is fun, there are still risks involved,” said Yushaak Md Noor, one of Khersonese’s directors. “And operators shouldn’t think they’re exempted from liability even when people sign the form, so it’s no excuse for negligence on the operators’ part.”

Khersonese also uses top-of-the-line equipment like Extrasport PFDs (Personal Flotation Device) with the high flotation support and top-notch Californian Wing rafts.

“We have rescuers on stand-by with throwbags on any rapids above Class II,” said Yushaak, 55.

In its 10th year of operation now, Kota Kinabalu-based Riverbug has an impeccable safety record. The company operates on Padas River and Kiulu River in Sabah, and Sg Kampar in Perak, and has offices in Perak and Kuala Lumpur.

“Most minor accidents occur when clients don’t listen to instructions or they’re too playful and hit their friends with a paddle,” observed Riverbug’s sales and marketing manager Valentine G. Willard, 37.

All Riverbug guides are trained in swiftwater rescue techniques certified by New Zealand Canoeing Association, and they go through a refresher course every six months.

“Our trainees have to run Grade I and II rivers at least 60 times, and grade III and IV 80 times before they are allowed to guide clients,” said Willard. Riverbug also uses safety kayakers on their runs.

“We encourage potential clients to observe our safety procedures and inspect our gear before they sign up for a trip.”

It’s heartening to know that there are responsible operators out there. If you’re put off by all the horrible news of a rafting trip gone wrong, consider giving some of these “safe” operators a try.

Once you’ve had a thrilling and safe outing, you will, like a junkie craving for the next shoot, leave with a burning desire for more epinephrine highs.

Have a blast but remember to always stay safe.

Rafting tips

Questions you can ask an operator before signing up for a rafting trip:

a) What grade is the river? Is it suitable for beginners?

b) What is your company’s safety track record like and what are the safety-and-emergency procedures?

c) Are your guides trained in Swiftwater Rescue and equipped with CPR and First Aid skills?

d) What kind of gear do you use and provide for participants (e.g. raft, helmet, PFD)?

e) Do you include insurance coverage? If no, can you arrange for us? Some companies like Pan-Global provide extensive coverage on outdoor sports

f) What is included in the cost?

g) What kind of clothing and things does one bring?

h) Do you have any referrals or testimonials from past participants?

Contacts for some reliable operators:

Tracks Adventures
Tel: (03) 6065 1767; 016-321 5409
E-mail: tracks@tm.net.my
http://www.tracksadventures.com.my

Tracks is running a three-day Swiftwater Rescue course at Kuala Kubu Baru from Nov 30-Dec 2.

The course will be conducted by ACA-certified whitewater kayaking and swiftwater rescue instructor Carl Traeholt. Cost: RM600 per person (including gear and lunch).

For inquiries, call Tracks at 019-344 3214.

Khersonese Expeditions
Tel: (03) 7722 3511; 012-216 3400 (Rusdy)
Email: info@thepaddlerz.com
http://www.thepaddlerz.com

Riverbug
Tel: (03) 2162 0114; (088) 260 501
http://www.traversetours.com

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