Communication on the river is key to a successful whitewater run and it’s a good idea to make sure that your group is on the same page with river signals and what they mean. Here is a list of basic international river signals that are used by kayakers all over the world. Learning and using them can help keep your group out of trouble, help you direct paddlers on where to go and help you communicate effectively in a rescue situation. And don’t forget to choose a vocal sound or whistle that indicates when you are trying to get your group’s attention so you can make eye contact to initiate these signals!
Holding your paddle straight up vertically means go and good to go.
Holding your paddle horizontally over your head means stop. What I tell my students is this signal means to stop in the next available eddy or calm spot.
Go That Way
When I go over these signals at the beginning of a clinic or trip and ask people what this signal means I often hear the answer: “Go left,” or “Go right.” It’s important to not try to figure out left or right when you see this signal. Simply go the way that the paddle is pointing. It’s important to always point in the positive – where you want the paddler to go – to set them up for success.
Are You OK? I’m OK.
Tapping the top of your head is a question and an answer. The question is: “Are you OK?” And the answer using the same signal is: “I’m OK.” If you don’t answer by signaling back then, as an instructor, I assume that something is very wrong and that you need help. So I always tell my students that even if they’ve taken a swim and they are out of breath and shaken up and need to rest, they’re still OK. By letting someone know you’re OK you free them up to get your gear or take care of anything else that needs to be taken care of before making their way to you.
Photos by Stef McArdle