Most hand signals in whitewater have come from the rafting world where the system of signals is so elaborate it almost seems as though rafters can ask each other what they had last night for dinner over the roar of crashing waves. We’ll just stick to the basics for this level 1 course, though, and cover the most safety critical hand signals for now.
Note, many of these hand signals can also be performed with a paddle, allowing for the signal to be more clearly seen at a greater distance. We’ll indicate below which signals this applies to.
Hand pats top of head, elbow out wide. Are you OK? I am OK. Whomever initiates the signal is asking the question to the recipient–”are you ok?” If the recipient mimics the motion they are indicating that they are indeed ok.
Arm pointed overhead and making circle or [Paddle] doing the same. Eddy Out. This is often done with the index finger extended as well. The arm moves in a small lassoing motion. Usually whomever is making the signal will follow by pointing either to one side of the river to indicate the side he/she wants others to eddy out on, or sometimes even to a specific eddy. If pointing to a general side, use the ‘River Left/River Right’ signal. If pointing to a specific eddy, point into the eddy itself (not up at 45 degrees), and point with a finger.
Arms stretched out wide or [Paddle] held horizontally above head. Emergency Stop/go No Further. Use this signal to indicate that an incident has occurred that requires immediate attention and/or there is a hazard ahead (such as a river spanning strainer) that means everyone should get off the river immediately.
Arm or [Paddle] at 45 degrees to one side. Use River Left/River right. . Used on the river to indicate where following paddlers SHOULD go as in ‘move river right’ (paddle or arm held 45 degrees to right). In the river it is practice to always point positive, meaning that if you only ever indicate the preferred or safe route by using this signal, NEVER the location of a hazard to be avoided. In order to indicate the center channel of the river you can place your arm or paddle straight up but as we’ll see later this signal has a number of other meanings, depending on the context. This signal is performed with an open hand, not a pointed finger.
Swimming motion with arms. Swimmer. This tells other paddlers that someone has come out of their boat. It is usually made by someone who actually has eyes on the swimmer and is followed by that paddler pointing directly at the swimmer to help other members of the group locate the swimmer.
Come here motion. Speed up/Group up. This signal is used often in a guiding/teaching environment when a paddler is lagging behind the group is too spread out or needs to tighten up for some reason.
Arm outstretched, patting motion. Slow down. Again often used in group situations where paddlers are too bunched up or following too closely, such as sections of tight rapids.
Arms in X over chest or head. First aid needed. This signal can be given by the person needing medical assistance or someone attending to them.
Hands above head, thumb and pointer finger in a circle, moving outward (as if along paddle shaft). Paddle missing! This signal indicates that either the person giving it or someone else has lost their paddle and any available eyes should be scanning to help spot it.
Hand up or [Paddle] up. Come to me, take the center line, or OK to go. This often used signal is highly contextual. In a guiding or teaching situation it will indicate that students should gather up and/of follow the instructors line. In a group paddling situation where the lead paddler is telling later paddlers which way is best it will indicate the center line. In situations where safety has been set or paddlers are negotiating a rapid one at a time it will indicate that the next paddler is clear to head down the section.
Throwing motion from forehead. Rope! This signal means the giver is planning on throwing you a rope (assuming you are swimming) or in some cases indicates that the signaler is requesting a rope. This latter meaning is typical of more serious rescue situations where ropework is involved and resources carried by various boaters need to be shared to facilitate the rescue.
The next signal we hope you will never see or use as this indicates an entrapment. Bending over forward pointing in the direction of the entrapment.
Here are a few more signals which are sort of self explaining
In all cases hand signals need to be given as specifically as possible. If a signal applies to a single individual, then make this clear by pointing at the specific person before giving the signal. Additionally common gestures are often mixed in to communicate other ideas. If an all stop or an eddy out has been called and the party is split on opposite banks, whoever called the eddy out might explain by signaling to the other side that it is a lunch break by pointing to himself and then pantomiming eating (“I’m hungry”).
The final thing that you need to keep in mind regarding on-river communication is the importance of patience. Checking things out to make sure the way ahead is safe can be a time consuming process on an unfamiliar river, but is part of the process. If the lead paddler of your group has dropped around a blind corner investigate the next rapid and gives the ‘all stop’ signal, it might mean that he needs to get out of his boat and scout on foot to make sure whether the next drop is runnable or not, or to think about how to set safety. If more than one paddler is involved in making these decisions things can take even longer. These waits can be frustrating for newer paddlers who are anxious to get on to the next good rapid, but it is important that as part of a group you never try to rush the leaders. Instead, practice patience, ask questions when you can, and try to learn as much as you can about the decision making process so you are better equipped when you lead your own group down the river someday!