Georgia River Network plans beginner river safety classes

Sep. 11—ATHENS — After initial offerings sold out almost immediately, Georgia River Network has added additional introductory kayaking and water safety classes to its September events calendar to help train new paddlers who are finding their way to Georgia's rivers as an outdoor escape from the pandemic. One of the class offerings, Rescue for Rec Boaters, is possibly the first time a comprehensive safety and rescue class has been offered for lake and Class I river paddlers in this region.

Recent increases in paddle sports participation have also resulted in increases in accidents and fatalities. Georgia River Network wants to help paddlers enjoy the state's waterways more safely and for many years to come.

Georgia River Network Board Member Bill Cox, who retired from the position of Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area Park Superintendent after 40 years of federal service, underscored the importance of offering rescue training for entry-level boaters on the Metro Hooch section of the Chattahoochee River.

"Georgia River Network's new class offerings are impressive and very timely," Cox said. "While sea kayakers and whitewater paddlers have had access to this kind of safety and rescue training for a long time, entry-level paddlers on lakes and Class I rivers have seldom had a class designed specifically for their level of paddling. I am excited to see this new offering in our region because I know it will greatly benefit our growing paddling community."

Introduction to River Kayaking (Class I River), Sept. 18 & 19

—Lower Chestatee River, $75 per person plus optional kayak rental

—Rescue for Rec Boaters (Lake & River, One-Day & Two-Day options available)

—Sept. 25, Lake Day, Galt's Ferry Landing at Lake Allatoona

—$75 per person plus optional kayak rental

—Sept. 26, River Day, Akers Mill/West Palisades Trail on the Chattahoochee River in Atlanta

—$75 per person plus optional PFD rental (no boat needed)

—For both days, the cost is $125 per person.

The Introduction to River Kayaking class will focus on basic paddling skills, boat control, trip planning and prevention, as well as skills like how to climb back in your boat if you capsize in the middle of a lake, how to read the river, and how to identify and avoid hazards.

Rescue for Rec Boaters is an entry-level safety and rescue class for paddlers who plan on paddling flat water lakes and slow-moving rivers. In addition to learning how to avoid unsafe scenarios on the water, participants can expect to learn how to rescue themselves, how to rescue others and how to be rescued by someone else.

"As this pandemic drags on, it is more important than ever that we have safe opportunities to connect with each other outdoors," Rena Peck, Georgia River Network's executive director, said. "We are so lucky that Georgia has a longer paddling season than a lot of places. We want to help folks explore these gorgeous resources safely and come to love them as much as we do."

In July, the U.S. Coast Guard released the Recreational Boating Statistics for 2020, and it was no surprise to see that boating activity increased significantly in 2020, which also resulted in an increase in accidents and fatalities. Across all types of boating, fatalities increased 25.1% and accidents increased 26.3% compared to 2019.

Paddle craft consistently comprise about one-quarter of boating fatalities. In both 2019 and 2020 the data held steady at 24 percent of all fatalities represented by canoe, kayak, standup paddleboards and inflatable craft. According to the USCG, paddle craft fatalities nationwide jumped from 149 in 2019 to 182 in 2020, a 22.1% increase.

A more detailed analysis of paddling trends is available in reports from American Whitewater, a national nonprofit that tracks river-related paddling accidents and fatalities. The underlying cause of growing paddling fatalities nationwide is attributed to the increase in activity among paddlers with little to no training having accidents on easier waterways. According to American Whitewater, in 2020 there were more incidents for paddlers on flat and Class I rivers than there were on classes III, IV and V rivers combined.

"The pandemic spawned an explosion in interest in paddle sports," Joe Cook, Georgia River Network's Paddle Georgia coordinator, said. "Kayaking, in particular, has really taken off. Now we want to help folks paddle safely whether they are joining our trips or leading their own."

Georgia River Network traditionally hosts more than 300 people during an annual weeklong river adventure known as Paddle Georgia held each June, but due to the COVID-19 pandemic, this year the group organized a series of 15 small-group river adventures that have highlighted all 14 major river basins in Georgia.

To bring these classes to life, Georgia River Network is bringing in Andrea White, a Level 2 River Kayaking instructor certified by the American Canoe Association, which is considered the gold standard in paddle sports curriculum in the United States. Georgia River Network Board Member, Francheska Hebden, an ACA-certified Level 5 Swiftwater Rescue instructor and Level 4 Whitewater Kayaking Instructor Trainer will be the lead instructor.

"Nationwide we are seeing a huge jump in participation in paddle sports without a commensurate increase in training and safety education," said White, currently serving in a volunteer capacity as the ACA Tennessee state director. "Georgia has a particularly long paddling season, and we want to help folks make the absolute most of it. Just a few skills and a little prevention can go a long way toward giving you more boat control and making your paddling more enjoyable for years to come."

Founded in 1998, Georgia River Network is a nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization that serves as the voice of Georgia's rivers and works to empower everyone to enjoy, connect with and advocate for economically vital and clean flowing rivers.