Water flows. ‘Flat, undemanding water’ is an exception, and sooner or later you will want to paddle waters that are moving, either a river in flow or an estuary with tidal currents.

For rivers, there is an international grading scheme. The complete list is in Appendix B of the Australian Canoeing Safety Guidelines, but we are interested only in the first grade:

Grade 1: Easy

Slow to medium flowing water with very small, regular waves or riffles. Relatively few obstacles, with an easy path to find and follow. Suitable for novices.

Beyond that, and we are starting to get into white water. Nevertheless, Grade 1 moving water presents a number of hazards.

Flow in a stream is not uniform. In general, the flow is fastest in the middle of the stream, and slowest along the banks. Where the river bends, the flow tends to follow the outside of the bend, which will be deeper. The inside of the bend may be quite shallow, and may be the best place to launch and land. As a general rule, avoid launching directly into or landing from the fastest current, and you will also want to avoid damaging vegetation or eroding the bank.

Irregularities along the bank and elsewhere in the stream will disrupt the flow, forming eddies, areas where the water will be moving upstream, and may be turbulent. Sometimes the main current will be under low-hanging tree branches, which are a definite hazard.

If you’re heading downstream you’ll naturally want to use that flow to gain the extra speed. The temptation may be to drift with the current, but that will limit your ability to manoeuver. You need to be moving faster or slower (i.e. in reverse) than the current.



Eddies often form convenient places to stop and look around, or wait for others to pass an obstruction.

Entering and leaving you will be crossing water moving in different directions. To enter an eddy from upstream, head towards the eddy and use a turning stroke (e.g. low brace turn or bow rudder) to cross the eddy line. Edge the boat to the local downstream side as you cross the eddy line.

Leaving an eddy is a similar process. Paddle upstream and cross the eddy line with a turning stroke, and edging the boat.


A ferry glide allows you to cross a current without moving up- or down-stream. Paddle into the current at a slight angle, fast enough to maintain your position up- or down-stream, and you will move across, driven by the current. The diagram illustrates heading into the current in order to cross directly across the current. Practise facing both up- and down-stream, and paddling forwards and backwards.

Ferry gliding can be used to position the boat to make the best use of the current, and to avoid obstacles.

Ferry Glide across a current - need to head into the current to result in a path directly across the current.

Ferry Glide across a current - need to head into the current to result in a path directly across the current.



In moving water, rescues may have to be completed before both the capsized and the rescuing craft meet the next obstacle. Rescues must therefore be fluent and effective. Sometimes a second rescuer can tow the rescuing craft to keep the rescue clear of hazards (short Bungee Tow - see Equipment below). 

Make sure swimmers keep themselves safe, at the surface and clear of anything that may trap them. If floating downstream, swimmers should float on their backs with feet pointing downstream, so as to enable them to see and fend off any hazards.


Whether it is attached to the boat or the paddler (waist mount on PFD), a towline system needs to be readily available at all times. There must be a quick-release mechanism on at least one end.

More information on rescues and towing is in the ACAS Rescues resource.



Fallen trees in streams are important habitat for fish and other river life, but for paddlers can be deadly. Water can flow through the branches, but boats and people cannot, and can be held fast, possibly under water.

If you are swept against a log or strainer lean downstream, towards the obstacle. You may be able to support yourself against it, and either push yourself around it, or even climb up on to it. Either way, you are in a dangerous situation, and need to take care not to make things worse. With an open canoe, make sure the downstream gunwale also remains above the water level.

Lean away from the obstacle, upstream, and capsize will be instant, leading to a trapped boat, and perhaps people.


Where possible, keep clear of them, even if it means paddling in water that is less deep or slower moving. If you must go beneath them, lean close to the deck to avoid contact.

Grabbing a branch will usually result in you stopping while the boat keeps moving, leading to a capsize.


In whitewater, the technique is to float on the back, feet at the surface and downstream, so as to float over rocks. This technique can also work with snags, but often you may need to swim aggressively to swim over strainers. As you change from defensive to aggressive swimming, keep at the surface to avoid being trapped by anything beneath.

Make for the bank, or the nearest eddy, making use of the current where possible. If you have hold of the boat, stay on its upstream side.

Don’t try to stand up in water more than about knee deep, and never underestimate the power of moving water.


Whitewater paddlers often deal with ‘stoppers’, caused by water flowing over rocks. Weirs generate stoppers of the worst kind, because they extend the whole way across the stream. At the surface, the flow immediately downstream of the wall is upstream. Floating objects (boats, people...) are pushed under by the downward flow, then when they surface, are pushed back toward the wall. Round and round...

The message is clear: keep well away from weirs, both upstream and downstream.


The general rule with traffic is simple: if it’s larger, faster, or more expensive than your canoe or kayak, keep out of its way. In other words, avoid other boating traffic.

Where there are established channels, it’s best to paddle outside them. If you must paddle in a channel, follow the rules: keep to the right and give way to the right. Keep the group together, so that you appear as a single vessel, rather than many spread over a wide area.

Be aware that your favorite waterway may be closed for some event such as a regatta or water skiing competition. Closures and other warnings are always publicised in Notices to Mariners and other publications.

(You might also remember that, technically, you are propelled by machinery, even though you are providing the energy. The paddle is a lever: a machine. You don’t have right of way over sailing craft.)


River levels vary according to rainfall in their catchments, and in some instances heavy rain can lead to a rapid rise in river height, turning a placid stream into a raging torrent. Keep an eye on the weather. On other streams, the flow may be controlled by dam, in which case you need to refer to announcements by the relevant authorities.

If you paddle on tidal estuaries you need to be aware of the tidal predictions for the area, either published or from the Bureau of Meteorology Web site, or calculated by computer software. Some areas can change significantly according to tide height: you may find yourself on soft mud where, a few hours earlier, there was ample water. Tidal streams can in places be faster than people can paddle, so you will want to go with them rather than against. (For more details on tides, see the ACAS Navigate in Tracked or Easy Untracked areas: Sea kayak resource, or any book on coastal navigation).


It goes without saying that all boats have secure hand-grips at both ends, and adequate buoyancy. See the AC resources for kayaks and canoes for descriptions of these craft and their safety features.


Your personal equipment should reflect the additional circumstances encountered on moving water. The possibility of capsize is greater in moving water than in 'flat, undemanding water' so it is vital that your kayaking clothing will allow you the remain warm if you get wet and will dry on you. See our Clothing page for recommendations. Footwear is essential - they should not fall off if you are out of the boat and enable you to have secure footing on slippery surfaces. 

As with all paddling activities, a Personal Floatation Device / Life Jacket should always be worn. It should have attachments for your rescue equipment - a quick release waist belt.

A helmet suited to kayaking and canoeing is essential. A good helmet will

  • Give good protection to the back, temples and front of the head
  • Be made of strong, lightweight material - plastic or carbon fibre
  • Be a good fit - not so loose that it moves and not so tight as to give you a headache
  • Have a good system to absorb the shock from impacts and to provide a separation distance between the outside of the helmet and the your head
  • Have an effective fastener to fix the helmet securely in place
  • Be positively buoyant
Helmet for kayaking and canoeing

Helmet for kayaking and canoeing

Rescue Equipment

The key rescue device is the throw-bag, which should always be stowed within easy reach.

To use it, make sure you are in a secure position and will not be pulled into the water. Take out sufficient rope to be able to throw the bag, and call to the swimmer. When you have the swimmer’s attention, throw the bag over the swimmer, so that the rope drops within reach. Whether you throw overarm, underarm, or round-arm may depend on the circumstances: practice all three so that you are familiar with the rope’s behaviour. Beware of loops or handles in the end of the rope. They are a tangling hazard, and are best removed.

If you miss with the first throw, pull in the rope into a series of coils, then throw the coils.

Throw bags

Throw bags

When the swimmer takes hold you are in a similar situation to a climber belaying another. Sit if necessary, braced against a rock or branches, with the rope around behind you. Let the swimmer swing towards the bank, and let out some rope if there is a better landing a little downstream. The swimmer should be on his or her back, holding the rope over one shoulder, with feet downstream.

To repack the bag, spread the rope on the ground behind you, with the rope over one shoulder. Stuff the rope in a little at a time so that when thrown it streams out without tangles, or the whole lot coming out at once

To extricate trapped paddlers and craft you will need lengths of rope and slings and karabiners. You will also need a knife for cutting that rope if someone becomes tangled in it. The rope should be floating, and have high tensile strength — Spectra® is the usual choice in whitewater — and there are safety knives for cutting rope without risking injury.

Rescue knives such as the Gerber River Shorty are designed for whitewater rescue where they may be used not only for cutting rope and entanglements, but also if need be, puncturing a raft, cutting materials or PFDs in rescue situations.

Safety Knives (rope cutters)

Safety Knives (rope cutters)

Gerber River Shorty rescue knife

Gerber River Shorty rescue knife


A Bungee Tow is a means of securing the canoe or kayak and moving it short distances. The closed end is attached to your PFD by means of a quick-release waist belt and the karabiner clips to the loop at bow of the canoe or kayak. It is then used as a short-line tow.

Bungee Tow

Bungee Tow

Whitewater paddlers have a repertoire of methods for attaching lines to trapped boats and hauling them, described in whitewater rescue references. The simplest is to put a line on one end of the trapped craft and have everyone pull to free it. If you need more ‘pull’, a 3:1 Z-drag system can be set up with slings and karabiners to give more mechanical advantage. (See the ACAS Knots resource for the Prusik loop and other knots involved.)


A rescue scene needs to be managed. Capsized paddlers need to be attended to, rescuers need to be put in places where they can be of most use, and anyone else must be in a safe position.


The ability to paddle safely on moving waters opens up whole new areas to explore. Remember, as noted earlier, never to underestimate the power of moving water.


This resource was written and illustrated by Peter Carter and adapted by East Coast Kayaking.
Photos and some illustrations by East Coast Kayaking and Bax Gear.