Back to the main page Aoraki Dragon Boat
Association (Inc)
Christchurch, NZ

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Water Safety - Principles and practical steps for Dragon Boating

Aoraki's Safety Manual has DB-specific procedures for making you safe. But there are general water safety rules and tips that we should all be aware of.

Organisers of any Dragon Boat event (including training sessions) activities need to take reasonable precautions to ensure the safety of participants. The following covers some basic principles and gives advice on general safety and water safety issues.

Where obvious hazards exist, the organisers should identify and take such precautions as seem appropriate and reasonable in the circumstances to provide for the safety of event organizers, volunteers and participants. These could include:

1. Conduct a risk assessment of the event or activity to establish that;

  • the activity is indeed safe and reasonable,
  • any identified hazard can be controlled,
  • monitoring activities for the event or activity are in place and
  • a 'cut off procedure' is in place.

2. Inform all participants of any hazards that may exist. For example, provide access to the ADBA Water Safety Policy and this Statement.

3. Ensuring that each participant has signed a disclaimer as shown in the Water Safety Policy (please email it to This does not absolve the organiser from responsibility to undertake reasonable precautions. It does, however, affirm that the attention of the person has been drawn to the potential risks associated with the activity, if such is involved.

4. Where 'open water' is involved in a competitive event or training, provide sufficient safety craft for any situation which could develop in the conditions in which the event, held in part or in whole on open water, is to be run.

5. Where training in winter and racing in adverse conditions is involved, all people in the craft must wear a buoyancy aid (such as PFDs). In fact, Aoraki now requires that teams wear PFDs in all conditions. Teams are encouraged to have their own sets, so they can be kept clean and dry, but Aoraki also has several sets available. See also the "hypothermia" Tab, re cold water immersion.

6. Participation in competitive events should be limited to those who declare themselves to be water confident and able to handle the physical demands of the sport, taking into account the amount of safety and medical cover available.

Other Areas:

Where electrical or mechanical apparatus is used in the running of an event, care should be taken to ensure that it is operated in accordance with the manufacturer's recommendations and instructions.

Safety - Avon River, Kerr's Reach and Owles Terrace

Christchurch City Council's "Community and Recreation Unit Sports Adviser" met with current river users in April 2004 to discuss safety issues for users of Kerrs Reach and the Avon River training and competition area. This was the first time most of users had got together to come to an agreement on these rules.

They agreed that Kerrs Reach and the lower Avon River required specialized traffic guidelines on top of the generic Marine Department regulations.

Direction of Travel

For the purposes of addressing safety issues, the user groups can generally be broken up into two main categories:

  • Large fast less-manoeuvrable craft (rowers, dragon boats, surfboats and six-man outrigger)
  • Smaller more manoeuvrable craft (kayakers, two-man outriggers).

It is safer to have those forward facing and relatively manoeuvrable craft paddling in the opposite direction to the larger less manoeuvrable and backward-facing craft. The reasoning behind this decision was based on the fact that a forward-facing kayaker will be able to see and avoid a backward facing rower coming towards them instead of the two craft closing on each other unsighted and back-to-back.

Therefore the rowing sweep and sculling craft plus the 6-man outrigger, dragon boats and surfboats will travel in an anti-clockwise direction whilst all other small paddled craft travel facing oncoming large craft above.

Direction of paddling for Dragon Boats on the Avon River

Direction of paddling for Dragon Boats on the Avon River. In this case "kayak" means smaller (more manoevrable) craft, while Dragon Boat is included in the description "Rowing Craft". Thus, KEEP RIGHT.

That is, as stated in Navigation Safety Bylaws 2010:

"11.2.2 (a) Rowing sweep and sculling craft and large paddled craft [6-man outrigger, dragon boats and surf boats] travel downstream and upstream on the right side of the river (i.e. they keep the nearest bank on their starboard side or bow side). [and] (b) Small paddled craft, [kayaks, 2-man outriggers] travel downstream and upstream on the left side of the river (i.e. port side to bank), facing oncoming large paddle or oared craft."

Rules and Regulations

During passing manoeuvres, paddled craft will keep close to the bank while larger craft will pass toward the river centre.

Craft travelling downstream must give way at bridges to crews travelling upstream.

That is, Overtaking crews must give way, and Crews travelling upstream have the right of way.

Dispute Resolution

Should a dispute over responsibility for a collision occur, a panel made up of a representative from the Rowing, Canoeing and Outrigger groups plus a Council representative will meet and resolve the dispute.


A forward facing, red flashing light, worn either on the athlete or fitted to the boat must be shown at all times from dusk to dawn.

Council paper on Safety Issues at Kerrs

Safety - Pegasus

The satellite town of Pegasus, just north of Christchurch has a magnificent man-made lake, which is ideal for dragon boating. The race course fits neatly within it shores so any capsize etc means the person in the water is only 45 meters (max) from the shore.

Known hazards

Crews must NOT go under the small bridge on the eastern side of the lake. The risk of hitting the bridge (esp with the Sweep Boom Arm) is too high. Any Sweep who disobeys will be accountable for the cost of repairs.

Stay out of this area

There are two floating water intake 'vents' on the main lake - one NW, the other SE. Paddlers should be advised at the captain's/sweeps briefing to stear well clear of these obstructions.

The major hazard is other lake users, in yachts or kayaks, or swimmers. The northern area should be cordoned off and sign posted during a regatta.

The Race Finish line is close to the Yacht Club/apartments just short of the bridge. Boats must ensure they pull up promptly, short of the bridge. Where possible, a boat should patrol under the bridge to keep swimmers and paddlers away.

Lighting and visibility

Dragon boats will not routinely be at the lake for training etc, only regatta - so it is very unlikely a boat will be on the water in even marginal light conditions.

All areas of the lake have good visibility anyway, unless a boat is being paddled under one of the bridges.


Regatta at the lake will have at least one 'chase boat', plus an onshore nurse or paramedic. Where numbers warrant it, an ambulance should also be provided, either on site or on call.

Safety - Lake Rua

This man-made lake on the northern outskirts of Christchurch is ideal for dragon boating. It fits a shorter race course length within it shores, and any capsize etc means the person in the water is only 45 meters (max) from the shore. The 40 ft container provides shelter for paddlers and can be used in case of capsize/hypothermia etc.

Inside the door is a plastic tub/container with First Aid Equipment, thermal blankets and so on.

See the Water Safety Protocol - App3 Emergency-training-contacts_Lake-Rua

Known hazards

Currently there are no known obstructions on, or near the surface of the water. However the lake was originally a dumping ground so there is a possibility of hazards 'coming to the surface'.

The major hazard is other lake users, in yachts or kayaks, or swimmers. Kore Sailing School share the lake, so if they (or others) are operating, approach them and discuss which areas of the lake you will use, and rules around sharing the space.

The Lake should be sign posted as exclusive use during a regatta.

The Race Finish line is close to the north east lake edge. Boats must ensure they pull up promptly.

Lighting and visibility

Dragon boats will not routinely be at the lake for training etc, only regatta - so it is very unlikely a boat will be on the water in even marginal light conditions.

All areas of the lake have good visibility anyway, unless a boat is being paddled in the north west corner.


Regatta at the lake will have at least one 'chase boat', plus an onshore nurse or paramedic. Where numbers warrant it, an ambulance should also be provided, either on site or on call.

Recognising a paddler in trouble:

In the event of a capsize or man overboard, crew members must look after their designated 'buddy'. The sweep will also ensure that all the crew are accounted for. Everyone should bear in mind that it may not be obvious that someone in the water is OK.

Francesco Pia, Ph.D., coined the phrase "Instinctive Drowning Response" to describe what people do to avoid suffocation in the water. And it does not look like most people expect (or is portrayed on TV). There is very little splashing, no waving, and no yelling or calls for help of any kind. Drowning can in fact be quiet and undramatic from the surface. In 10% of child drownings, the adult will actually watch them do it, having no idea it is happening (source: CDC). Drowning does not look like drowning – Dr. Pia, in an article in the Coast Guard’s On Scene Magazine, described the instinctive drowning response like this:

  1. Drowning people cannot call out for help. The respiratory system was designed for breathing, and speech is the secondary function. In time of extreme peril in water, breathing must take precedence over speech. Breathe first, talk later...
  2. A drowning person will 'bob' in the water, their mouth alternately sinking below, then reappearing above the surface of the water. The mouth is not above the surface of the water long enough to exhale, inhale, and call out for help. When the drowning person’s mouth is above the water, they exhale and inhale quickly as their mouths start to sink below the surface of the water.
  3. Also, drowning people cannot wave for help. Nature instinctively forces them to extend their arms laterally and press down on the water’s surface. Pressing down on the surface of the water, permits drowning people to leverage their bodies so they can lift their mouths out of the water to breathe.
  4. During Instinctive Drowning Response, you cannot voluntarily control your arm movements. Physiologically, drowning people who are struggling on the surface of the water cannot stop drowning and perform voluntary movements such as waving for help, moving toward a rescuer, or reaching out for a piece of rescue equipment.
  5. From beginning to end of the Instinctive Drowning Response peoples bodies remain upright in the water, with no evidence of a supporting kick. Unless rescued these drowning people can only struggle on the surface of the water from 20 to 60 seconds before submersion occurs.

This doesn’t mean that a person that is yelling for help and thrashing isn’t in real trouble – they are experience aquatic distress. Not always present before the instinctive drowning response, aquatic distress doesn’t last long – but unlike true drowning, these victims can still assist in their own rescue. They can grab lifelines, throw rings, etc.

Finally, remember: children playing in the water make noise. When they get quiet, you get to them and find out why.

Look for these signs of drowning when someone is in the water:

  • Head low in the water, mouth at water level
  • Head tilted back with mouth open
  • Eyes glassy and empty, unable to focus
  • Eyes closed
  • Hair over forehead or eyes
  • Not using legs – Vertical
  • Hyperventilating or gasping
  • Trying to swim in a particular direction but not making headway
  • Trying to roll over on the back
  • "Ladder climb", rarely out of the water.

So, if a crew member falls overboard and everyone looks OK – don’t be too sure. Sometimes the most common indication that someone is drowning is that they don’t look like they’re drowning. They may just look like they are treading water and looking up at the deck. One way to be sure? Ask them: “Are you alright?” If they can answer at all – they probably are. If they return a blank stare – you may have less than 30 seconds to get to them.

Hypothermia - the risks in cold water:

"It is impossible to die from hypothermia in cold water unless you are wearing flotation, because without flotation – you won’t live long enough to become hypothermic"

What happens to people who get in really cold water?

Below, say, 10 degrees C, significant physiological reactions occur:

  1. You Can’t Breath: cold water immersion produces a cold shock response, characterised by increased heart rate and blood pressure, uncontrolled gasping, and sometimes uncontrolled movement. Lasting anywhere from 30 seconds to a couple of minutes depending on a number of factors, the cold shock response can be deadly all by itself. In fact, of all the people who die in cold water, it is estimated that 20% die in the first two minutes. They drown, they panic, they take on water in that first uncontrolled gasp. For those with heart problems, the cold shock may trigger a heart attack. Surviving this stage is about getting your breathing under control, realizing that the stage will pass, and staying calm.
  2. You Can’t Swim: when the water is cold – none of us can swim for very long. The second stage of cold water immersion is called cold incapacitation. Without insulation your body will make its own. Long before your core temperature drops a degree, the veins in your extremities will constrict,  you will lose your ability control your hands, and the muscles in your arms and legs will just stop working well enough to keep you above water. Without some form of flotation, and in not more than 30 minutes, the best swimmer among us will drown – definitely – no way around it. Without ever experiencing a drop in core temperature (at all) over 50% of the people who die in cold water, die from drowning perpetuated by cold incapacitation.
  3. You Last Longer than You Think: In water of say 5 degrees C, it typically takes a full hour to approach unconsciousness from hypothermia, the third stage of cold water immersion.  But remember, you must be wearing flotation to get this far. We are all different in this regard, but it probably would have taken another hour to lose consciousness, and an hour after that to cool your core to the point of no return. The bodies efforts to keep the core warm – vasoconstriction and shivering – are surprisingly effective. Shivering and blood shunting to the core is so effective, that twenty minutes after immersion, you can have a fever of 37.9.
  4. Out of the Water is Not Out of Trouble: The final killer of cold water immersion is post-rescue collapse.  Hypothermia does things besides making everything colder.  Victims are physiologically different for awhile.  One of the things that changes is called heart-rate variability.  The hearts ability to speed up and slow down has been effected.  Getting up and moving around requires your heart to pump more blood, being upright and out of the water is also taxing, then any number of other factors collide and the heart starts to flutter instead of pump – and down you go.  Victims of immersion hypothermia are two things; lucky to be alive, and fragile.  Until everything is warmed back up – out of the water and dry is good enough – mobility comes later.

See also the very good article on Cold Water Recover, which includes the steps:

Be careful getting them out: Pressure of the water on the limbs – particularly the legs (because they are deeper) forces blood out of the legs and into the core and this raises blood pressure. When a paddler spends long periods in cold water, their bodies contain warm blood plus very cold blood; their heart has a decreased ability to speed up when it needs to, and veins and nervous systems have been temporarily altered in such a way that may have them on an edge very close to significant heart malfunction.  They are fragile – and must be treated carefully. In brief:

  • Recover them as horizontally as possible.
  • No walking until the are completely recovered.
  • Don’t make them work for it: Don’t ask them to “pull” or to exert themselves in their own rescue if it can be avoided.
  • Remember – None of this is as important as getting them out
  • Stay calm – move slow: Pounding through waves is just as bad for them as any other rough handling.

Get Dry:

  • Wet clothes continue to cool them off and hinder their recovery. Once they are out of the elements, absolutely every stitch of wet clothing comes off. 
  • Use towels to gently pat the water from their skin and hair – NEVER rub them dry. Trying to rewarm a victim by vigorous rubbing of their skin actually has the opposite effect.
  • Thickness equals warms: wrap them in layers of loose fitting blankets and keep them inside a warm, dry place. Prevent further heat loss.

Keep Down - If they are intensely shivering, that’s good - it is just the body trying to regulate temperature.  The first ten minutes out of the water is far more painful than any ten minutes in it. What you do next is help them keep shivering.

Replace Calories - If the victim has been in the water long enough to be shivering violently, then they have been burning an awful lot of calories - they may be running low on available fuel and need a boost. A warm sugary cocoa is ideal, but calories are more important than the temperature of the drink. 

Warm Up (maybe) - Add heat to help rewarm hypothermic victims. Eg a simple heating blanket on low to medium to provide radiating heat. Heat packs can cause problems – even blistering – if they stay in contact with very cold skin.  Simply cranking the heat up in the cabin is another way to assist in recovery.  A warm bath or shower may seem like a good idea, but it isn’t. What feels warm to you may be scolding hot to them. Do not “climb in the sleeping bag with them”. They do not need anyone pressing up against their cold skin and agitating their cold muscles.

Watch - People recovering from cold water immersion can look miserable.  Their skin may be a red like a bad sunburn, they can shake violently, and they just sound like they are in pain – and they are.  But if you have done everything above and they are red and shivering and complaining about how miserable they are – they are probably just fine.  Just watch them  until they are absolutely bored from laying there.  None of this “get back to work” stuff until hours have passed.  Of course, contact your medical authority and pass all pertinent information for recommendations.

Keep a Weather watch:

Web cams can be useful for keeping an eye on the weather. A couple that can be seen in NIWA site - "Cam-Era: video-monitoring New Zealand’s environment". Views are from Pier A (toward Sumner) and Pier B (out to sea). These are update every hour.

Lyttelton Port Company has some excellent detailed weather data online (showing wind trends over the last few hours etc etc). A Sumner website posts a webcam, updated every minute or so.

See also Water Safety and Training tips

Safety information:
All teams must complete the "Safety Notice and Waiver" form. Each member signs it to show they understand the safety precautions.
Aoraki has developed a fuller Safety Manual (click for a copy). This gives rules and guidance on such things as 'capsize prevention and procedures' transporting boats, and identifying hazards.

"Drowning: New Perspectives on Intervention and Prevention", edited by John R. Fletemeyer, Sports Aid Intl Inc, Samuel J. Freas.

Chapter 14, Reflections on Lifeguard Surveillance Programs, by Frank Pia, Ph.D.
Pia, Frank (1971). On Drowning (2 ed.). Larchmont, NY: Water Safety Films, Inc. 
Pia, Frank (1974). "Observations on the drowning of nonswimmers". Journal of Physical Education (Warsaw, IN: The YMCA Society of North America). 
Drowning article by gCaptain.
gCaptain article by Mario Vittone
Affiliated to NZDBA updated: 22-Jun-2016 :: (c) Noel Anderton