The earliest rafts weren’t made by anyone at all. The basic principle of a raft can be seen almost anywhere there is a body of water with trees and plants nearby. Perhaps people first witnessed a collection of tree branches, mud and leaves, and thought, “I wonder if I could float like that?”
Characterised by its simplicity, a traditional raft carries its passengers across the surface of the water enabling them to travel from place to place, either by the currents, or under their own power using a single or dual-bladed paddle.
It is important to explain the difference between traditional human-made or natural rafts, and those that are used for recreational rafting on white water.
Materials and Construction
Rafts were originally built from natural materials by river dwelling people who used them to travel down river with the flow of the currents. They were simply made by lashing together sections of material that they found or collected from the surrounding area. Modifications were sometimes made, but this kind of raft differed from boats as they didn’t have a hull. Rafts would float either due to the naturally buoyant properties of the raw materials, or in more modern cases, by the addition of pontoons or air filled containers at even intervals around the exterior of the structure.
The development of the inflatable raft has led to new and exciting applications, as they can now withstand the bumps and knocks of river rapids and Deep Ocean swell.
The First Modern Inflatables
The modern inflatable raft was not initially used for recreational purposes. Rather it was developed for transportation, and as lifeboats on large passenger, military and commercial ships. The inflatable raft could be packed down minimising space, increasing its versatility in a number of situations. Inflatable rafts are usually propelled by a number of paddlers who use single or dual-bladed paddles. Some rafts are configured similar to rowing boats in that they use lightweight oars that are connected to the boat by an oar lock.
Inflatable rafts were employed in World War II and used by crews whose vessels had been sunk by enemy attacks. Over time the design was built upon, incorporating a v-shaped hull and rigid structures making them more suitable for extended use. The inflatable raft was getting closer to a boat than the floating pontoon from which it evolved.
Fast forward to the mid 1970s and rafting is fast becoming one of the most exciting extreme sports that anyone, even the whole family, could perform.
Recreational rafting is performed by enthusiasts over the world, and more commonly by tourists in countries that feature large river systems with a lot of white water.
The modern raft has evolved from its placid predecessors: inflatable and lightweight, utilising materials that can cope with the tumultuous ride experienced on white water – rafts are designed to carry a number of passengers.
These days, manufacturers use rubberised reinforced fabrics for their strength and because they are fairly easy to patch and repair.
Tour companies operate in many countries around the world offering people the opportunity to ride the river’s rapids as part of a team. The boat itself is steered by a guide using a long paddle as a rudder at the stern (back) and propelled and controlled by the passengers who sit around the edge of the craft.
Rafts are sit-on-top craft, meaning the passengers / paddlers are not enclosed within the craft. It is important that the paddlers are able to fall out of the raft easily, as rafts sometimes flip, and getting caught on the surface of the boat as it is carried downstream can be fatal.
Rafts used recreationally do not have solid structure. It can get pretty bump going down rapids, and so it is important to reduce the amount of hard objects into which the paddlers could potentially bump. For this very reason rafters are required to wear a helmet at all times, and a personal flotation device (life jacket) to ensure that their head is protected, and that they can float easily if the boat happens to capsize.
Every year the World Rafting Championship draws teams to exciting locations from around the world to race down some of the most challenging white water rapids. There are four main events in which they compete:
The sprint: A quick short race from point A to point B, teams set times for the course and earn points based on their standing that contributes 10% to the overall final score.
H2H: A head to head race between two teams down a short section of the course leads to thrills and spills and some seriously exciting spectating. This event accounts for 20% of their final score.
Slalom: Considered the most challenging event - no doubt because rafts are so hard to manoeuvre - teams race through gates to set a course time. 30% of their overall score comes from the slalom event.
Downriver: A long race down multiple sections of the river, contributing 40% to their overall score. This race shows the true endurance and skill of the teams.
White Water Grades
Sections of rivers that are particularly turbulent are graded based on the size of the rapids and how difficult they are to navigate. Grades run from 1 through to 6; 1 being basic and fairly easy for anyone to navigate; 6 being incredibly dangerous, nearly unnavigable, the chance of injury or death being very high as most rafting equipment is not designed to cope with the forces experienced on such waters.
See also: Learning to waterski with Pete O'Neill
While they are not common, accidents do occur while rafting. This is due to the sometimes unpredictable nature of the waters that are being navigated. However, if the tour guides follow the correct safety guidelines, and if rapids are only attempted that are suitable to the skill level of every member of the crew, the chance of incident or injury is greatly reduced, and like all extreme sports, when performed correctly is just a whole lot of fun.
Rafters should always use the correct safety equipment, (life jacket, helmet, wetsuit, booties, gloves) ensuring that all members of the crew can float, are protected from rocks and other hard objects, and from the cold.
There are two sides to the story of the raft and the river. In some cases, rafting has had a negative impact on the rivers on which it is performed; some tour operators have even gone so far as to dredge or blast the river to remove potential hazards, or to adjust the flow of the river making it more entertaining to ride. This is not so common anymore, however, and there are some rafters who would argue that spending time out on the river is a great opportunity to educate the crew about the surrounding ecosystem and help change people’s attitudes towards the environment which they are exploring.