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More on White Water Right of Way Etiquette

White Water Right of Way EtiquetteThe following is the third and last  in a three part series of  an excerpt from an article written by Chris Joosse on the subject of White Water Right of Way Etiquette! This particular article is all about folks who love to Kayak. However these rules can equally apply to people who are part of a White Water Tour group. Lots can be learned from this article and that is why we wanted to post it on this web site. Hope you enjoy it and find it useful.

Chris Joossee’s thoughts go something like this:

Right of way is traditionally determined by necessity if you’re unable to deviate from your course, by necessity that course should be yours and nobody should get into your way. Hence, the paddler moving downriver, committed to their course, is granted right of way.

White Water Right of Way Etiquette

But what of situations where the upstream paddler deliberately places themselves in a position where someone else must avoid them? Say, for example, that I’m sitting in an eddy upstream of the hole and Joe Playboater has just entered the hole for a ride. Should I feel entitled to peel out of the eddy, proceed downstream into the hole, and expect him to yield the hole to me? (I would argue that this is a flagrant abuse of the traditional ‘right’ of way… after all. I was not compelled to go there out of necessity. We could have picked a line that skirted the hole. If I wanted to run down into the hole, I could have waited until Joe finished his ride, and then taken my turn.)

Avoiding collisions, and therefore avoiding potential injuries, is a priority of a higher order than concerns about Right of Way.

Given this, I would argue that my hypothetical decision to pick a collision course with Joe is reckless and irresponsible. After all, it’s not safe for me to assume that Joe has enough control in the hole to avoid me. For that matter, Joe doesn’t know if I can (or want to) miss him. In picking a collision course, I’m imposing on his sense of responsibility for our mutual well-being. In brief, both paddlers should be responsible for avoiding collisions. Because hey, people make mistakes – but if it’s not a mistake, you’re abusing the system. Whether you’re coming in from upstream or slipping in from the eddy and frustration about this kind of abuse is the reason this discussion came up in the first place.

Getting along with each other is a very important consideration – so respect and courtesy should not be undervalued as part of our paddling experience.


Sharing, taking turns, and simple line etiquette are all about respecting other people. Their right to a turn at time in the hole, and without that respect things can turn ugly. These are things we learned how to do in kindergarten, they’re not complicated, and are just as important in Kayaking as they are in real life.

Other reality – In our less-than-ideal world, the 300-lb Gorilla makes the rules. Because cops don’t generally paddle and when they do, usually they’re not on duty. There is no law on the water, even if it can catch up with us on land, so we’re all on the hook to get along. Even in the face of another paddler who’s not making the effort. In reality, might shouldn’t make right, but in practice, it means let them have their way for now and you can sort it out later.

If someone, say a raft or a kayaker cuts you off or makes a decision resulting in danger or discourtesy to you. It’s best to pursue the matter in a way that’s both safe and diplomatic- that is, by getting out of their way, *then* pursuing the matter, hopefully in a diplomatic manner. It’s possible, after all, that they just hadn’t considered that they were being rude or unsafe, or that their actions would bother you- give them at least the benefit of that doubt.

By the same token, don’t forget that if someone injures you, whether through deliberate action or through the consequences of deliberate action, there are laws that address this sort of thing. You are entitled to file a criminal report, press charges, and to recover damages if applicable. You are not, however, entitled to reciprocate their behavior, unless somehow that would constitute self-defense.

General best practices, and some rationale behind them:

For paddlers coming downriver:

If there’s a line for a feature and the feature is occupied, wait your turn if there’s an opportunity (like an eddy) to do so.- This is an exercise in simple respect. Respect can only be given. Folks who try to take it… obviously don’t understand it, and generally never get it. If you honestly can’t wait (there’s no eddy, no way to stop) ideally someone else should have seen you coming and will be taking steps to get out of your way, but you are still responsible to avoid collisions, even if the other guy cannot.

It’s important to recognize that a busy playspot is shared on a turn-taking basis, and that the playboater’s mindset about respect is based on taking turns and honoring a fair system where everybody gets to take turns fairly and equally. As the saying goes, ‘When in Rome, do as the Romans do’- it’s the best way to avoid misunderstandings. Bonus: as a courtesy to you, as the upstream paddler, you’ve got an honorary position at the head of the line.

For paddlers at the playspot:

If you’re in an eddy, yield to the person not in the eddy. If you’re in the eddy, you’ve got time- nothing is going to happen to you if you wait. The same is not true of the person in moving water. They have a limited time window in which to catch an eddy, catch a wave, or pass through. Because they are committed and you are not, common sense dictates that you yield to them.

Do your best to let the upstream paddler through- The less you make other people wait, the more everyone will be able to play and the less friction there’ll be all ’round. Downriver boaters aren’t especially interested in taking turns, nor do they want to interrupt yours- they just want through- do your best to avoid making them wait. This is especially important if there isn’t a place for upstream paddlers to stop.

For all paddlers:

If you’re in control, yield to the craft that is not in control, or which has less control than you. Both craft are responsible for avoiding collisions. So if you’re more capable of doing so than the other craft, your responsibility to yield increases. Whether you’re going downriver or not. If you’re surfing, do your best to get out of the upstream boater’s way. It’s the polite thing to do, do it. If you’re coming from upstream, don’t commit to the feature until you’ve got a clear route.

Before committing to the feature, check for traffic- If there’s someone already there, or headed there, yield to them. If you’re prepared to yield, you’re prepared to do the responsible thing. Avoid a collision, even if the other guy isn’t.

Avoid paddling over your head. If you’re not in control, all of this talk about courtesy is moot. If you can’t avoid the other guy, you’re relying on the other guy to avoid you. While we all do this on occasion, if it’s a regular or predictable thing, you’re imposing on everyone else.

The root of success is in common sense, courtesy and respect, rather than in dogma or tradition.

Flash Points

The commonest flash-points on rivers are between paddlers who are surfing and paddlers who want to run downriver in the places where the former are surfing. I feel strongly that if you want to use the hole and there’s a line, you should wait. Take your turn like anyone else if it’s at all possible. Common sense and courtesy (to say nothing of safety) should come first. Before any assertion of the traditional ‘right’ of downstream boaters to claim a particular spot. Regardless of who might be there or whether they’re in control enough to avoid them. As has been repeatedly stated, this discussion is about courtesy and safety first, and entitlement last. Nobody is entitled to any place on the river if the act of going there endangers another person.

Tradition holds that ‘the downriver boater has right of way’. This is a simple way of stating everything I’ve said above. But it does not entitle the upstream boater to force the issue and never has.

Respect is something you give, not take… and this is about courtesy and respect just as much as it is about safety and common sense.

Hope you found these three posts useful. Comments are welcome. For more posts about white water etiquette, click here.

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One Response to “More on White Water Right of Way Etiquette”

  1. medical coder Says:

    Keep posting stuff like this about white water rafting i really like it

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