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Keep it Clean! – Evolution of the Clean Principle

Keep it Clean! – Evolution of the Clean Principle

When I attended my first whitewater rescue course in 1996, I was a fresh faced nineteen-year-old kayaker hoping to learn about river safety and performing rescues. At that time, a simple idea was gaining traction in the United Kingdom and Europe: the “Clean Line Principle.” This idea was in response to stories where swimmers or rescuers became trapped in the looped-rope handles of their throwbags.

What is the Clean Principle?

The Clean Principle began life as the “Clean Line Principle.” This principle advises that any webbing or rope loop on a throwbag is a potential snag hazard. These loops can become snagged in trees or on rocks, creating a serious and possibly fatal entrapment hazard. Rescue instructors often point out that “rope and moving water are a bad mixture.” This is because a swimmer or equipment can become entrapped or tangled in the line, escalating an already risky situation. Any throwbag loop large enough to get a hand through is an entrapment hazard.

Over the years, I’ve seen the Clean Line Principle evolve into simply the “Clean Principle.” The Clean Principle directs paddlers to actively identify and mitigate potential entrapment hazards on our Personal Flotation Device (“PFD”) or equipment.

As I travel and paddle, I still hear stories of entrapments and near-miss situations which could have been avoided by applying the Clean Principle.

Below, I’ll give a few illustrative examples and discuss solutions to avoid them.

Open-Gate Carabiners

Open-gate carabiners attached to rafts, PFDs, or around the waist, are one of the biggest entrapment hazards.

The video below has been on YouTube for a while. In it, the guide falls back onto an open gate carabiner securing his throwbag to the raft. The carabiner attaches to his PFD, locking the guide and raft together as it surfs the hole. This could have been very nasty.

For attaching throwbags to straps or thwarts, always use locking carabiners and keep them locked. The same goes for carabiners mounted on PFDs.

Notice how the open-gate carabiner has forced its way through the pocket of this PFD!

Notice how the open-gate carabiner has forced its way through the pocket of this PFD!

Ill-Fitting Equipment

Loose PFD straps or poorly-designed kit pose an entrapment hazard. The video below demonstrates this risk. In it, the kayaker is entrapped by a loose PFD strap.

Waist Flip Lines and

I’ll be the first to admit, when I began guiding I wore my flip-line around my waist. I was taught that storing the flip-line this way made it quickly accessible without fumbling through the pockets of your PFD. Later, this was corrected when I learned about a fatality incident where a kayaker was entrapped by his waist-mounted flip line.

Webbing around the waist is a massive entrapment risk. Note the open gate carabiners combined with a overly long cow tail.

Webbing around the waist is a massive entrapment risk. Note the open gate carabiners combined with a overly long cow tail.

I recommend storing your flip line between your body and PFD, neatly rolled up. This way, the flip line can double as an accessible five-meter throwline.

Oversized Cow Tails

Another common entrapment hazard are cow tails or towing tethers. The cow tail was first introduced by German paddlers in the 1980’s to attach a rescuer or line to an entrapped victim.

Over the years, paddlers have adapted the cow tail to towing swamped kayaks. This has led manufacturers to increase their length and market them as tow tethers. These long tow tethers often dangle from PFDs and are almost always attached to solid non-releasable points. These present a massive entrapment hazard.

Here, both paddlers are wearing PFD mounted cow tails. The paddler to the left has a loose and oversized cow tail, presenting an entrapment hazard, while the right paddler’s cow tail is snug and tight fitting.

Here, both paddlers are wearing PFD mounted cow tails. The paddler to the left has a loose and oversized cow tail, presenting an entrapment hazard, while the right paddler’s cow tail is snug and tight fitting.

Many paddlers have been to avoid commercially-available cow tails or tow tethers because they are too long and present entrapment hazards. My solution has been to cut down a piece of webbing to create a snug fit cow tail, reducing the risk of entrapment.

Summary

Every paddler must make their own individual judgments when assessing the risks associated with your personal paddling equipment and setup. Here are my top tips for implementing the Clean Principle to reduce risk of entrapment:

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  • Always carry a knife which is easily accessible with one-hand;

  • Periodically review your personal setup to identify and mitigate entrapment risks;

  • Always check that your PFD is correctly fitted and adjusted;

  • Retie throw bags to remove large loops;

  • Attend whitewater rescue courses with qualified instructors; and

  • Protect your fellow paddlers by teaching the Clean Principle and sharing this article.

We don’t need more “near-miss” stories for the bar.

Safe Paddling

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