Northeast Whitewater Safety Speech by Matt Hawkins
My Personal Account of How (I Think) I Deliver a Safety Speech:
Shortly after leaving Base and playing an ice-breaking game (or two), the Moosehead Bus pulls onto the Dam road, leaving a small amount of time for final crew preparations. Previously hidden by thick tree-cover, the morning sun unexpectedly hits your back through the rear windows. It begins to ease the nerves that have been crawling up your legs with the anticipation of your adventure.
Seeing the excited jitters of those around you, you are reminded of why you awoke so early on the first morning of your vacation. Like the “Hotels.com” commercials, you pretend to pat yourself on the back for what you’re about to provide for yourself and the ones you care about.
But then, with the click of a helmet buckle, you snap out of your quiet self-appreciation and notice a figure emerge at the front of the bus. It’s your raft guide, rising in the dusty morning light to bring everyone together.
Rushing air from the open windows slightly rustles their hair as they prepare for what appears to be a glorious reenactment of a speech by the Spartan King Leonidas. Yet, because of the way the morning light shines through the cabin of the bus and hits their face, the image of Leonidas begins to fade. However, it becomes replaced by a silhouette that uncannily resembles a young David Coverdale, lead singer for Whitesnake, in the 1987 video for “Here I go Again” (Google search: “1980s”).
Up at the front, the guide sings to himself (or herself) that chart-topping hit from decades ago: “I’ve made up my mind….I aint wastin’ no more time”. With a stare previously shrouded by a helmet, the guide finds the eyes of everyone on the bus, even your eyes, and cracks a smile. This is the moment that the Northeast Whitewater Safety Speech - the all-important, un-missable, and temporarily spellbinding safety speech - begins.
“Alrighty! Who’s ready to go WHITEWATER RAFTING?!?!”
(Give a high-five to the nearest crewmember)
“Before we can hit the river, we have to go over a few things with you. First and foremost, you all brought your passports right? The border is just up the road…..”
“Oh you didn’t? Well it was in the email. Gary, it looks like we aren’t going to that river today.”
“Okay, well nonetheless, we are on a journey today. In whitewater rafting, just like in life, you should have a general sense of how not to get yourself hurt. The first step in knowing that is understanding how your equipment works.”
“First is your helmet, which adjusts just like a bike helmet. If you’ve never worn a bike helmet before, make sure that you sit in the front of your boat today.”
“The second piece of equipment is your Personal Flotation Device, otherwise known as a Life Jacket or “Floaty”. You’ll notice that there are 4 buckles, the last being hidden near your belly button. All of these buckles must be fastened. For each one that isn’t, your raft guide will be fined 50 DOLLARS. We only make 32 cents a day, and it would take the entire summer to pay off that fine.”
“Now, it’s very important that you understand how the third piece of equipment, your paddle, works. You may have seen me using it as an air-guitar earlier this morning. Notice, though, that that was in the parking lot. I would never do that in a boat. This is because the paddle is the most dangerous object on the river, besides Brandon of course (taps fellow guide on the shoulder). Two parts, the blade and the T-grip, can be very hazardous if moving through the air at uncontrollable velocities. Not sure why? Just ask Rileigh (softly pats other guide on the head). The best way to prevent an injury caused by the T-grip is to have everyone in the boat never let go of their T-grip while in the boat. If we don’t do this, we risk having an episode of what we call “Summer Teeth”. This is when summer in your mouth, summer in your friend’s mouth, and summer floating down the river. So I can’t emphasize it enough: ALWAYS KEEP YOUR HAND ON YOUR T-GRIP. The other dangerous part of the paddle is the blade. But we can minimize injuries from the blade by always resting our paddles on our laps when we aren’t paddling. Further, when we are paddling, the blade should be all the way in the water. In everyday life, nobody likes “just the tip”. Here at Northeast Whitewater, we are not satisfied either, and we like to see blades fully in the water so that we can paddle most efficiently.”
“The final piece of equipment is the raft. Plain-and-simple: It’s a beast. It can handle a lot. But, it doesn’t like it when people sit in the middle of the cabin. Here, there are grey, bench-like tubes that run across the boat. We call them “Thwarts” because, in a rapid, they will thwart anyone’s attempt at remaining in the boat. In other words: Don’t sit on the Thwarts. The other part of the boat you will notice is a bright red perimeter tube. That is what you will be sitting on for the majority of the day. Once we get to the boats, your guide will demonstrate the proper techniques on how to sit in the boat.”
“So that’s our equipment. The next thing you need to understand is that your guides are here to be your friends, to make you smile, and to get you wet. That being said, we’ll be yelling at you a lot today. We have a series of commands that we tell our crew so that we can get down the river as safely as possible while having the most fun. So the commands are as follows:
- ‘All-Ahead!’: This is when everyone, paddling in perfect unison (of course), puts the blade of the paddle all the way in to the water ahead of them and pulls the blade backwards through the water, driving us forward.
- ‘All- Back!’: A command used to slow the raft down. It also requires paddling in unison, but this time it is in the opposite direction of ‘All-Ahead’.
- ‘Back on the Right!’: This is where commands get tricky, but your guide will go over it again with you. When we say ‘Back on the Right!’, we are telling the right-hand side of the boat to paddle backwards. But this doesn’t mean that the left-hand side gets a break. They must paddle forwards while the other side paddles backwards. This will turn the boat faster and put us in a better position on the water.
- “Back on the Left!’: Same idea. Left side paddles backwards while the right side paddles forwards.
- ‘Hold on!’ (or any four-letter explicative you wouldn’t say in front of your mother): When this command is yelled, you take your outside hand and reach across your body to grab the black lines running along the Thwarts (now you realize their importance). The key point of this command: Don’t panic. We’re here for fun, remember? Panicking makes you take a hand off your T-Grip, and when that happens, you might realize at lunch that you have less teeth than you started the day with.
- ‘Stop!’ or ‘Take a break!’: Everyone’s favorite command. Just rest your paddle on your lap and enjoy the scenery, letting the warm river water run off of your head. Don’t lose focus though, you will be needed soon.
- ‘Shift Right/Shift Left!’: Your guide will go over this with you once we get to our boats, but it is simple. Without throwing yourself out of the boat, and while keeping a hand on your T-Grip, shift your body in the direction that the guide commands. …. Here, lets practice!”
(We basically rock the bus now)
“Those were the commands, and now I need to outline a few guidelines to further keep you safe and having a great time.
“The first is that should anything unexpected happen, do not panic. Your guides have experience in many different situations on the river, and you’ll notice that they will always have a smile on their face, so you should to.”
“Nonetheless, if you take a voluntary self-guided tour of the river today (i.e, go for a swim accidently), here’s what you need to know:
1) Never try to stand up. Maine’s rivers are infamously known around the world for being the only native home to bottom-feeding river Sharks. If you try to stand up, you may feel them bite your legs. You may also feel like you just hit a rock really hard. If you attempt to stand up, you could get what’s called a foot entrapment, where your feet are caught underneath the rocks, which is a situation we don’t want anybody to find themselves in. Either way, you don’t want to stand up in the River.
2) Never swim to shore. The boat is the safest place on the river for you and your guide. The riverbanks are littered with sharp rocks and booby-traps set by the elusive Appalachian Purple Gremlin. You don’t want to fall into their traps, because then your guide will have to come get you. Then you will swim downriver to the boat with him or her, who is now frustrated that they had to defeat a Gremlin King without the other guides watching. (Just for your understanding, river guides and Gremlins haven’t seen eye-to-eye since the late ‘70s. )
3) There are two types of swimming: “Offensive” and “Defensive”. Offensive swimming is the technique you use when you are actively trying to get back to the boat, when you’re swimming like you would at a pool: on your chest, kicking your legs, and using your arms to get you back to the boat. Defensive swimming is your best attempt at evading the river sharks that I just talked about. You are lying on your back, keeping your ‘nose-and-toes’ above the water, with your feet pointing down-river. If there was any confusion, you keep your nose above the water because you can’t breath underneath the surface of it.”
“If you’re having a great time, getting into an intense rapid and screaming with joy, we’ve accomplished our goal for the day. But, what if, all of a sudden there's a jolt and great splash of water?! You hear a distressing scream come from your friend’s Grandmother in the back and there’s a mess of paddles in the air before everything goes dark…..”
“No, you’re not unconscious. But you are under a flipped raft. So here’s my best advice: Don’t Panic. If you are under the raft, you’ll find the message in brail that we have written on the underside of all of our boats that says “GET THE HECK OUTTA HERE!”. Then, you just pick a direction and go. The rafts are, at most, 16 feet long, so you will pop out on any side that you go to. Once you pop up, you’ll notice your guide on top of the boat, dry as a bone, helping people back into the boat. Once everyone is in, you will continue down the river with a newly-found appreciation for your seat on the raft.”
“Now, if you’re swimming and cannot grab the side of the boat while someone pulls you in, there are two ways to get you back in the boat. The first is with a ‘T-Grip Save’. Whichever crewmember is closest to you will extend their paddle to you and yell “GRAB MY T-GRIP!!!”. After waiting for you to grab the paddle, the crewmember will pull you to the side of the boat so that you can be pulled back in. Now, let me be clear, this is the ONLY time that a guide will instruct someone to take their hand off of their paddle grip.”
“But if you are a further distance from the boat than the length of a paddle, the guide can use their handy Throw Bag. If this scenario arises, your guide will yell “ROPE!!”. However, you’ll only here “….Rope…” because you’re swimming whitewater! Then, like an Aaron Rodgers hail-Mary as time expires, the guide will throw the bag in a graceful arc directly into your arms. It’s important that you grab the ROPE, not the BAG. This is because the bag contains 75 feet of rope in it. If you are 20 feet from the boat and grab the bag, you will float another 55 feet from the boat before the guide can get tension to pull you in. When being pulled in, you should put the bag over your shoulder and face away from the boat. Otherwise, you will be pulled back to the boat with A LOT of water rushing into your nose and mouth. Unless you have a sinus infection, you won't like this.”
(Take a brief pause to let it all soak in)
“Does anyone have any questions at this point? That was a lot of stuff to be thrown at you, but don’t worry, your guide will go over it again.”
“Well we’re almost there so I have only have a few small things to say:”
“First, this is strictly a chem-free trip. If you brought anything that would be classified as “not chem-free", please leave it here on the bus. Our bus driver will hold onto it and sell back to you whatever is left at the end of the day. If you bring anything on the river, SHAME ON YOU. Technically-speaking, you are operating a vehicle under the influence, and we don’t want to deal with any of that today. So, if we suspect you of doing anything illegal, your guide will take your paddle and have you sit on the Thwarts. When we go down the river, anybody that sees us passing by will notice you, bored and without a paddle, and quickly realize that you were caught doing something bad.”
“Second, know that we are here to help you enjoy this experience as much as possible. If you are cold, let us know. We have extra cloths in our dry bag. If you are thirsty, we have water for you. If you are hot, we will (gently?) throw you in the river.”
“If you have any concerns, don’t hesitate to reach out to us. Further, if you have any medical conditions or allergies that we should know about, please let us know.”
“So I can only speak for myself here, but I am STOKED to get to the River! Anybody else?!”
We approach the gate to the Dam, another successful safety speech delivered. You still see a little bit of David Coverdale in that silhouette now laughing and jumping at the front of the bus.
In their head, with full confidence for the day that lies ahead, they think to himself or herself: “Here I go again”.
Finally, the real adventure begins.
Guide Profile: Matt Hawkins works for Northeast Whitewater as a Maine Raft Guide, Trip Leader, Creative Videographer and is quite frankly, an all around great guy. For a young man born in the mid-90's, his love for 80's rock bands is a bit confusing, yet charming (especially when he plays air guitar "to really get in the groove" each raft day morning). Matt is a full-time student at Colby College in Maine and just returned from a semester abroad in Scotland. To meet Matt or request him as your river guide, call Northeast Whitewater 207-695-0151.