River Signals


Adapted from an article by Bill McGinnis

Used with permission


On the river, where distance and the roar of rapids can make it impossible to hear, hand and whistle signals can be useful for everything from coordinating groups of boats to aiding in fast, effective responses to life threatening emergencies. In the course of my 38 years of river running, I’ve adopted a "language" of hand and whistle signals. Some of these signals were already universal--coming as a byproduct of sign language--and we’ve tried to make them as intuitive as possible. Like any language, this one is ever evolving.


By facilitating clear communication in situations where it would otherwise be impossible, a widely used language of hand and whistle signals can enhance cooperation and goodwill within and between boating groups, and help make all of our river journeys safer, smoother and more fun.


Whistle Signals
Single, long blast: Pay attention to me for more signals, possible emergency. Three blasts or three long blasts followed by three short bursts: SOS, Mayday, universal distress signal.  (Other groups use two blasts to mean ‘Swimmer’)


While giving three long blasts on your whistle, wave a paddle, life jacket, helmet or hand over your head in a big arc from side to side. If you don’t have a whistle, use the visual signal alone. Help-emergency-assist the signaler as quickly as possible.


Hand Signals

Hand up, palm toward receiver in halt position-- alternating with pointing toward best stopping place: Stop where indicated. (Kayaker may raise and lower extended arms or horizontal paddle)


Are You OK?
With arm forming an O, repeatedly lift and tap finger tips on top to head or helmet (while pointing at person): are you OK?


I’m OK
Form an O with one arm with fingers touching top of head or helmet.


Long Distance OK
Form an O over head with both arms: OK. Same as smaller OK, but easier to see at a distance.


Group Modes of Operation –

When the group is getting ready to push off from shore

Are You Ready?
With a questioning look, sender holds thumb up and points at receiver with index finger. (May use ‘OK?” signal, above)


We’re Ready
With fingers folded, hold thumb straight up: We’re in good shape. Also, we’re ready to go  OR a paddle held with the blade up, T-grip on the raft (May use ‘OK” signal, above)


One Minute
Single, vertical forefinger: Wait one minute; or get ready to go very soon.


On River

We’re Going to Take Pictures
Hold hands as though holding camera--with one index finger moving: We’re going to go downstream and get into picture-taking position.


Speed Up
Working fist in circular motion like locomotive wheel: Speed up. It’s important that we make time.


Increase Spacing
Facing receiver--hand up, fingers inclined toward receiver, moving in pushing-back motions: Increased spacing, move back.


Decrease Spacing -  Arms wide spread, palms facing each other, hands brought together


Above Rapids & Drops

Directing through a Rapid
A paddle held with blade up or an arm held straight up means go down the center. If the paddle or arm is angled 45° one way or the other, go down the side indicated.


Note: Always point in the direction you want someone to go, never in the direction you don’t want them to go. Turn paddle blade flat to receiver for maximum visibility.


With index and middle fingers forming a V, point to eyes then twist and point out: Look


Eddy Out
With upraised finger make circles in a level plane: Eddy out.


Open, flat hand, palm up, moving in up and down, carrying motion above shoulder.


Flat, horizontal hand at brow, sometimes with slight forward and back motion: Scout. Usually combined with a stop (or eddie out) signal and an indication of which bank on which to stop.




River Emergencies - accompanied by three whistle blasts!

One hand pinches throat while the other hand points to victim: Oxygen supply endangered--begin entrapment rescue! One of the most urgent of all emergencies.


Boat Damaged
Form a circle with both thumbs and forefingers, hold hands in front of chest: Our boat is damaged.


Both palms clasped to forehead: A boat is wrapped.


Person Overboard_ A vertical paddle, blade up, moving up and down.  Point to swimmer with other hand.   or: With profile to receiver, make swimming motions in the air: Person overboard. Between every two or three air strokes, point toward swimmer with whole arm.


Starting with forearm horizontal and pointing to one side with fingers flat and extended, swing forearm up and over 180°: A boat flipped.


We need . . .

First Aid Kit
Cross forearms with one forearm vertical, the other horizontal: We need the first aid kit.


Keeping hands a few inches apart, move them up and down as though operating a pump: We need a pump.




River Etiquette

May We Pass
With both palms toward receiver, move one upwards past the other, as in one boat passing another. Note: Before asking to pass, have your entire group together and be ready to pass quickly.


You’re Welcome to Pass
Beginning with open hand in front of chest, swing your whole arm in broad welcoming gesture in the direction group will pass.




Camaraderie & Other Stuff

Straight forefinger pointing into open mouth: We’re hungry. We want to stop for lunch, or dinner.


Head tilted over onto hands, palms together, in sleeping gesture: We want to stop and make camp, or rest.


We’re Cold
Wrap your arms around yourself, making shivering motions, rubbing yourself as though to generate heat: We’re cold.


Oar or Paddle Overboard
Move hands together and apart horizontally, over and over, as though sliding hands along shaft of paddle or oar. Alternately point toward lost item.