A Whole raft of non-problems

We went to a family reunion over the weekend, and one of the activities was a raft trip down the Provo River. Mind you, these are not rapids, and they let drinkers on inner-tubes float this river, so this was not all that dangerous. Even so, we had enough to do just steering to keep us busy so that it wasn’t a lazy float down a limping river. My neice’s husband has some experience as a river guide, which was interesting to see in practice. I’ve known for years he’s a good guy, but watching him in action boosted my estimations of him.

For starters, though we were all assured this was about as tame a river as they come, he didn’t take that for granted. The road to the launch point ran along much of the river we would raft, and he was watching carefully, doing his best to memorize the layout of the river, the potential areas to watch out for, and so on. No one got on the raft without a life jacket. As we got in the raft he gave us a rundown of safety instructions, what commands he would be giving, and how we were to respond to them. As soon as we launched we practiced maneuvering.

As the trip progressed it became evident that, while this river was ideal for tubing and indeed rather calm, there could still be unexpected hazards that, while perhaps not dangerous to us, could damage the raft. He immediately assigned people up front to keep watch for hazards. He acknowledged their warnings, even if he’d seen the hazard himself already.

There was one particular hazard he was especially concerned about. Near the bottom there was a bridge over the river, with pylons spaced not much wider than our raft. As we got close to it he began talking to other rafters to see what they knew about it, what their experiences had been. We decided to go for it, but for whatever reason (wimpy paddlers like me, most likely) we missed our mark and nearly got hung up on a pylon. Our captain leaped from the boat (it was shallow enough he could easily stand) and physically pushed the boat back into the channel. We slid through the gap, safe and sound. He knew what to do and acted while the rest of us were still trying to figure out what could be done.

One aspect of piloting a raft that I found interesting was that whenever we needed to steer our guide would instruct us to row. In hindsight it made perfect sense, but in an un-powered craft drifting with the river about all you can do is rotate. You cannot change your course. If you want to change your course you need to be going either faster or slower than the river. I’m sure there’s a life-lesson in that, but I’ll leave it for you to find. We sped up frequently in order to get into the right position on the river.

The other point that interested me was that many times when approaching a bend in the river he would have us adjust our facing well before we reached it. Part of the reason, I think, was because the river would change our direction, but not our facing. We’d change direction, but instead of facing down river we’d be facing the bank. By changing our facing in advance we would ensure our facing the right way.

The other reason, I believe, was the potential for sudden course changes. If we came around the bend and saw hazards ahead suddenly it would be much harder to avoid them if we first had to turn, and then row out of the way. By facing us down river in advance it increased our ability to respond to and avoid threats.

Most of the hazards, as I said, were only to the raft, not us. We all had life vests, and most of us could have stood up in the water and had our heads above the surface. Had our raft sunk we likely would have been fine. But there’s always that element of unpredictability with water, boats, and people (and kids). I’m quite happy our guide took even a placid river seriously and did his best to avoid trouble rather than just letting us bounce and bump our way down the river.

My respect for my neice’s husband increased on that trip. I’d trust him with my family on the water before I’d trust myself. I appreciate a guy who would rather take things more seriously than needed than not seriously enough. It’s harder to measure, but I often prefer to measure life by the avoidable problems that never happened.

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