Safety Third?

Complacency: “overconfidence from repeated experience performing a task.”

Nadia Almuti Alex Garhart Hala Surf

Most employees have had the “safety first” motto hammered into them in the workplace. This is particularly true of the oil and gas and construction industries but resonates strongly in the outdoor industry as well.  In my decade of working as a snowboard instructor at Powderhorn Resort, had I received a dollar every time I heard the mantra “safety, fun and learning!” I would be a wealthy man.  This safety precept is generally undergirded by good intentions, save the liability hawks. 

Most guides and instructors in the outdoor adventure industry understand the dangers of their particular sport and safety protocols are rigorously enforced. Raft guides double-check life jacket fit, climbing guides scrutinize knots, and ski instructors ensure brakes are functional.

Hala Gear G Loria Alex Garhart

The real problems often begin when we leave the workplace. Our concern for safety can become secondary to other considerations like efficiency or comfort when we’re no longer looking after clients or turning a wrench at work. We’ve all smashed fingers or cut ourselves doing home construction jobs because gloves reduce dexterity.

Recently I had a fully preventable “gloveless” moment on the river that is worth sharing. I was gearing up for a SUP surfing session at the Glenwood Springs whitewater park

Wetsuit, check.
River shoes, check.
Life jacket, check.
Helmet, check.
Releasable leash, check.
New paddleboard, check.

Ready to go, what could possibly go wrong?

Hala Gera Costa Rica Surf Alex Garhart

During my third surf of the morning, I fell awkwardly on the board and it capsized.  When I resurfaced, I realized my leash was no longer attached to the board. The Colorado was running at around 15,000 CFS, pushy to say the least. My thought stream went something like this: “I’m a decent swimmer, I’ve wearing a life jacket, that board is brand new, there’s no way in hell I’m losing it."

I chased the board. I swam and I swam for over a mile, never getting closer than 10 feet away. I was getting tired and decided to relax and let my legs dangle for a moment, suddenly my mouth and nose were below the waves. Panic ensued and I realized I was wearing a low volume PFD I had been using all spring for surfing low flow (600-800 CFS) features in Oregon. 

Hala Gear SUP Surf Alex Garhart

I’m in the middle of the river, on my way to exhaustion and the board is slipping away. “One more sprint and I’ll have it”, I thought. I sprinted; my hamstring cramped. My mouth was back below the waves, I swallowed. To hell with the board, I’ve got to get to shore.  After what seemed like an eternity, I was nearing the riverbank. It was choked with brush and saplings as far as I could see with no eddy in sight. 

I swam into the largest gap I could find and grabbed a tamarisk branch hoping for the best. The rushing water flipped me around into the brush and I
was underwater again. I climbed up through the brush and pulled myself onto shore. 

After vomiting copious amounts of river water and seriously contemplating my life choices, I began the long walk of shame up the shoulder of I-70, back to the whitewater park.

Alex Garhart Hala Gear SUP

There are two simple things here that would have prevented the whole fiasco:

1. Use a releasable waist belt or guide style jacket to clip your leash into. I clipped my releasable leash to the right side of my PFD and I’m fairly certain this is why the mechanism released. If the attachment point is on your back it significantly lowers the probability of an inadvertent release. While surfing in Bend, Oregon this exact scenario occurred to me twice. Luckily, lost boards are easily retrieved in a large eddy below the park.

2. Use a life jacket that is reflective of power of the river. There’s a reason people sometimes wear 2 life jackets when they surf the Skookumchuck Narrows, that being the 200 billion gallons of water that pushes through daily. Comfort and style are great, but breathing is better.

Hala Gear SUP Alex Garhart

If we can manage to bring our workplace safety culture home, we would all benefit from fewer superfluous injuries and unnecessary close calls.  Perhaps all those mind-numbing office meetings and banal safety clichés have real value after all.

One of the most salient points on river safety is that reckless and occasionally ego-driven behavior not only endangers the guilty party, but often endangers other paddlers and bystanders that are compelled to help in a rescue scenario. One person’s irresponsibility can result in several risking their lives.

The final upside here, other than having the complacency slapped out of me, is that a local rafting company found my board a few miles downstream and ransomed it for beer and whiskey, which I gladly paid.

Hala Gear SUP Whitewater Alex GarhartAlex Garhart is a Team Rider for Hala Gear. Photo credit Nadia Almuti, Alex Garhart, Guillermo Loria.
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