Should leashes be worn on rivers?

There are a number of ‘safety’ leashes on the market, and each designer and manufacturer has their own ideas of what constitutes a safe leash.

Words and pics: Corran Addison

Nothing is all encompassing and to assume that all leashes would always work in all conditions would be foolhardy. Like seatbelts in cars, while you can most certainly find some examples where a worn seatbelt has contributed to a fatality, the number of people whose lives have been saved by them, is in the tens of thousands times more.

On September 2nd, 2010, two experienced SUP paddlers, Markus Steininger and Nils Hornischer drowned on the Mangfall river in Bavaria. While there are a lot of factors that could have contributed to their deaths, including unusually high flows, night time paddling, relative apathy because both were experienced paddlers on a river well within their technical limits, there seems to be some indication that the leashes they were wearing contributed to their deaths.

This is speculation, but it is an educated guess. While it is possible that they could have been recirculated in the hydraulic at the base of a low head dam without being leashed to their boards, this is something that is fairly rare. Normally a person’s body density, even with a life jacket, is such that we tend to get pushed down and into the exiting flow of water after a few circulations – not always though of course.

However, being leashed to a giant floating balloon that’s about 200 litres, would almost guarantee that you would not wash out of the hydraulic. Even if your body was pushed down, the giant floating board would stop your exit and pull you back in.

Almost certainly, the leash contributed to their deaths.

No leash
In 2015, an unnamed man fell off his paddleboard on Lake Tahoe, into frigid 15C water. He was not wearing a leash or a life jacket. Certainly, the first place to point is at the lack of a life jacket, but, had he been wearing a leash, he would easily have been able to pull himself to the surface, or at worst, his friends would have been able to recover his struggling or even unconscious body and performed CPR, as they were nearby.

Not wearing a leash, contributed to his death.

In 2009 I was surfing a wave on the Lachines Rapids called Mavericks. This is an awesome, pounding, overhead river wave at the bottom of a giant rapid with 10,000m3 gushing down it. Right where the wave meets the calmer water after it, a seam is created, and the water careening downstream is pushed down under the still water at the rapids base. I can attest that the river here is almost bottomless.

A solid 45 seconds
While ‘suck downs’ are common here when you fall, you can usually count on them being no more than 5-10 seconds. On this fateful day, I was pulled down for a solid 45 seconds. When I finally broke the surface, I was barely five metres downstream of where I’d fallen off the wave. The safety jet ski was hundreds of metres downstream looking for me. What saved me was my leash.

As I was pushed further and further down, into pitch darkness, so I felt my SUP tugging at my ankle. The 100-litre board was trying to fight its way to the surface. I climbed my leash until I had the board in my hands and held on. After 45 agonizing seconds (according to the guys on the ski), the board brought me to the surface. Even though I was wearing a high floatation life jacket, without the leash I would most certainly have drowned.

I have just made the case therefore in favour, and against, the use of leashes.

Being on my board is the safest place to be in a whitewater environment. Everything I can do enable me to get back on it as fast as possible creates a safer environment. Swimming down class 3-5 rocky rivers where foot entrapment is a constant worry is not safe. So a leash in my opinion is a critical piece of safety gear. But it is also the most dangerous thing you can do – tying yourself to something with what is essentially a glorified rope on a river.

But here is the thing. In the case of the tragedy where the leash appears to have contributed to the deaths, the problem was not that they were wearing a leash, but that it could not be released. If you’re getting rag dolled in a massive hydraulic, or being tea bagged mid current behind a rock or a tree, where your leash or board is snagged, and you can’t release it, then it’s dangerous. The piece of safety gear that could save your life, now becomes a hazard to it.

Quick release leashes
There are a number of ‘safety’ leashes on the market, and each designer and manufacturer has their own ideas of what constitutes a safe leash. Most have some sort of quick release pull mechanism and attach either to the waist, or your life jacket, where it can be reached no matter how much you’re getting rag dolled.

This is undoubtedly a good start. You will never be able to fight the force of the current, to bend against it and reach your ankle to release a leash. Forget it – it’s just never going to happen! So having the release at about waist or chest level is key to being able to release the system. This system saved a friends life on the Kern River in California (see above).

For me this is not enough. It makes the assumption that your hands are free. They might not be. Rivers are funny environments – dynamic, ever changing, oscillating and unpredictable. Maybe your hands are being used to grasp onto something. Maybe the force of the current is so powerful that you can’t even reach your waist. If you can’t reach the release, you can’t reach the release.

‘Break away’ points
Therefore in my opinion, the leash needs to have at least one (more is better) fail safe ‘break away’ points where under a certain amount of pressure, it releases on its own: hands free release.

I’ve taken this to extremes with my leash because I’m paranoid. I have an adjustable tension release system where I can set it according to the environment I’m in. In massive whitewater that’s all water and no rocks or trees, I set it tight. Most likely, I’m going to need this leash to hold under severe pressure as I get sucked under and I don’t want it releasing on me when I need it most. If I’m on some rocky creek, I set it to a very weak release. There will be minimal pressure on the boar after a fall. All it needs to do is hold enough for me to give the leash a jerk to pull the board back to me. Any more than this, and I want it to release as most likely the board has gone one side of something and I’ve gone another. At this point I want the board to detach from me instantly.

Above: Soul’s waist leash was designed with the assumption that in an emergency you will not have a free hand, and the leash should separate from you in an instant. Firstly, the leash is constructed from a low yield urethane cord, which is coiled so it doesn’t dangle in the water. Avoiding a snag is the best way to avoid problems. There are then two places where you can regulate the ‘separation tension’ – the force required to release the leash. Stronger for big volume rivers with few possibilities of snagging, and low force for rivers with many trees, rocks and other potential snag points.

But people make mistakes. It’s even happened to me where I forgot to reset the leash to low pressure. Thankfully nothing happened and I never needed it to release, but at the take out I realized my mistake. This is why I have also built in to ‘fail safe’ points where the leash will simply snap. It’ll take something close to my dragging body weight to do it (just under 200lbs of force), but it will snap. So if the leash gets snagged and I’m in a strong enough current that prohibits me from reaching the release mechanism, the leash itself will simply snap. The whole system is attached to a D ring that’s sewn to the attachment belt, which also tears at about 200lbs.

Failsafe, upon failsafe, upon failsafe.
Nothing is all encompassing and to assume that even my leash would always work in all conditions would be foolhardy. But it’s a numbers game. A little like seatbelts in cars. While you can most certainly find some examples where a worn seatbelt has contributed to a fatality, the number of people who’s lives have been saved by them is in the tens of thousands times more.

Forty years of whitewater experience has taught me that the safest place to be when paddleboarding a river, is on my board, and whatever I can do to accelerate and facilitate that process, ultimately creates a safer environment for me. However, I am aware that this piece of safety gear that helps me to that end, is on its own, a potential hazard if not used wisely and correctly.

Up to you
All of the manufacturers of safety leashes have in their own way attempted to address this problem, and all are better than a standard leash, of this there is no question. Now it’s up to you, the user, to use common sense, good judgement, and make sound decisions as to where and how to use these in order to make your paddling experience a safer, and more enjoyable one.

For more information on how a safety leash works, go here:

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1 Comment on Should leashes be worn on rivers?

  1. I think this is a really excellent article. I have been using a standard QR waist belt since my very first event on the River Thames where it was mandated. The idea of a secondary release (‘a fail-safe’ release) is available on some belts. I have enquired from the manufacturer for the calibration and testing of this but there is no supplied data or evidence of this, so it is good to read that their is a supplier that has considered this. I am aware of the difficulties of calibrating Velcro or even a rope to a precise breaking strain as I looked into this topic for a ‘fuse-break’ in a rope restraint system. In the end we instigated management safety controls: reduced the allowable operational wind speed and monitored the wind very closely with a networked monitoring system. With so many leashes being used around the world perhaps some sort of standard should be considered. This article it is all about risk reduction, risk-assessment – risk preparation – buddy checking etc. Not putting yourselves in harms way is the No1, knowing your limits and skills No2, Getting the right kit No3!

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