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White Water Right of Way

White Water Right of WayThe following is the second in a three part series of  an excerpt from an article written by Chris Joosse on the subject of River Etiquette!  We decided to focus on white water right of way.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 about white water rafting and that is why we wanted to post it on this web site.

White Water Right of Way

Often it’s argued that by convention the downstream boater always has right of way, but there are courtesy, common sense, and safety considerations that, to my way of thinking, require clarification this long-held tradition. ‘Right of Way’ is a commonly misunderstood doctrine, and these misunderstandings often create as many problems as RoW is meant to solve.

The biggest problem with stating that one paddler has ‘right of way’ is that the word ‘right’ is in it, and this seems to confuse everybody. The commonest misunderstanding of this rule is in the notion that somehow while one paddler should give way, that the other paddler should TAKE it, as if their prerogative was sanctioned by holy writ. In reality, both boaters should be prepared to yield, and each should yield to a place where the other isn’t. This requires communication- if it is impossible to establish eye contact or communication of intent (I’ll go this way, you’ll go that way) then it’s the responsibility of the party in control to avoid a collision.

White Water Right of Way – Maritime Law

Right of way is an operational doctrine derived from its utility, and from the demands imposed upon us by the realities of the river. In maritime law, (which is not applicable to the river in the context of kayakers and rafters- the coast guard doesn’t know, doesn’t want to know, wants no part of regulating, policing, or enforcing the rules of the road on waterways it doesn’t consider to be a road in the first place, and among craft it doesn’t deem necessary to register or regulate for that matter.) it is full of rules and exceptions for example, craft under power are responsible to give right of way to craft not under power.

Shallow Drafting Vessels

At the same time, however, shallow-drafting vessels must yield a navigable channel to deep-drafting vessels. Even if the deep-drafting vessel is under power and the shallow-drafting vessel is not. Why? It’s done that way because it makes sense. In other words, there’s nothing holy or important about being the one going downstream. There never has been- the important consideration is whether you’re committed to going where you’re going. Still, too many people behave as though simply being the upstream paddler is the only valid consideration worth mentioning.

On the river, among kayakers, where there are no codified regulations in effect. We must also conduct ourselves in a sensible manner, in accord with the realities we face. The reality is that we have no inalienable right to go anywhere we want if there’s a chance that exercising our prerogative to do so will result in harming (or arguably even disrespecting) another paddler. In this sense, a paddler’s ‘right of way’ is more a courtesy granted to one by the other guy than it is an actual ‘Right’ to be exercised. Let me repeat that last bit- we’re not talking about rights, here- this is an exercise in courtesy.

White Water Right of Way – Respect

Like respect, Right of Way cannot be taken- it can only be given. As it is with all such things, it can be taken for granted, abused, or flouted. Some paddlers routinely steer themselves into collision courses. They are expecting the other paddler to take responsibility for getting out of their way. They don’t consider that this is not only rude and unsafe. But violates one of the prime tenets of fairness in our culture (and for that matter, most cultures): do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

For clarity, I suggest that we let go of the notion that ‘the upstream boater has right of way’. Instead focus on the equally shared responsibility that each paddler has to avoid the other. In other words, instead of one paddler being responsible for yielding to another. Both paddlers should make an equal effort to do so. If you’re in the hole surfing, keep an eye out for upstream boaters. Head for the shoulder to let them through downriver paddlers just want to run through. The less they have to wait, the better. If you’re coming downstream, don’t commit to the hole until there’s an opening. Or until the paddler who’s there has acknowledged you.

At the same time, if you’re a play boater, you’ve got all day in this hole. Do your best to let people who want to come through do so. Get out of their way as quickly as possible, it’s the courteous thing to do.

White Water Right of Way – Paddlers

This is the system by which most play spots I’ve seen tend to operate. Everyone shares, everyone respects everyone else’s right to have time in the hole, everyone takes turns. But there are exceptions. Rafts are less maneuverable and generally big enough that nobody wants to get run over. They tend to claim their line regardless of whether someone happens to be there.

Some paddlers who mistake being yielded to for being respected, force the issue in unsafe ways. Some paddlers who believe that their right of way is more important than your mutual safety do the same. It’s true, not so long ago (before play boating became popular) it was popularly held that the downriver boater always has right of way. But in situations where exercising that prerogative is unsafe, common sense, courtesy, and respect dictate what makes sense.  Nobody really has any ‘rights’ on the water in this regard. Save for the basic rights we all enjoy on land. Such as the right not to be injured by other peoples actions or negligence, for example.


We all seem to agree that Joe play boater who zips out into the hole in front of Jim downriver boater is in the wrong. We seem to disagree, however, about why we agree on this point and by extension. Also we disagree on another point- on whether it’s appropriate for Jim Down river boater to expect Joe Play boater to exit the hole. If he was there before Jim put himself in the position of being committed to the hole.

Is this reasonable?

Watch for the next post in the last of this 3 part series. Comments welcome! For more posts about white water etiquette, click here.

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One Response to “White Water Right of Way”

  1. The new route is from Drawbridge Road to the Decoursey Bridge a 3 hour leisurely pdalde through marsh and forest. The forest shades the trail a bit and offers a buffer for the wind. Susan will even provide maps with a turn-around point for those that may get tired. So I’m comfortable that all will be safe and enjoy the pdalde. Susan will launch us and pick us up.

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