Making the Grade
Canoeist Magazine Articles


a) - Introduction
b) - Absolute or Relative
c) - An Open Ended System
d) - Suggestions for a New System
e) - Making the Change
f) - Stop Press

The Dawson Grading System

a) Introduction

This article, the final one in the Kayak Control Revisited series, is about the River Grading System. In it I describe the many faults in the current system, and propose what I believe to be a better river grading system, a system which more closely meets the needs of modern canoeists. The present grading system desperately needs to be changed.

I have been a canoeist for quite a long time now, and a qualified instructor for twenty three years. I spent about five of those years designing and manufacturing buoyancy aids, throw bags and other safety equipment. In those years I must have contributed to improving the safety of a large number of canoeists. I might even have saved a few lives, directly or indirectly. Nevertheless I firmly believe that if this article plays even a small part in getting rid of the current grading system, then I will have saved more lives in the three hours spent at my word processor writing this article, than I will have saved in the entire remainder of my twenty eight years in the sport.

Whenever in the past I have criticised the grading system many paddlers have said why change it? The theory is that canoeists should not have to rely on a grading system. They should use their skill to get down a rapid, inspecting it properly. If they need a grading system to tell them where to paddle they should not be on the river in the first place.

I agree that you should rely on your skills to guarantee your safety, not the guide book. Nevertheless guide books and gradings have a place, even for the most carefull and skillful of paddlers. Canoeing is a recreation. We do it to enjoy ourselves. Many of us who work in big towns have little spare time, and we want to maximise the quality of the canoeing we can do by paddling the right rivers for our level of skill. Not too easy (and boring). Not too difficult (and stressful).

If we choose the wrong river because of a poor river grading system, and we find it is much too difficult for us, then we know how to use our skill to get down the river slowly, carefully and alive. Unfortunately at the end of the trip we will be stressed out. We will return home on Sunday evening totally unrelaxed, swear at the wife (or husband), shout at the kids (or granny), kick the dog (or cat) and go to work the following day with a high risk of getting sacked. The grading system will have failed us. Guide books and grades are not there simply to keep poor decision makers alive. They are there to help good decision makers have a high quality and enjoyable day on the water.

b) Absolute or Relative

The first main fault of the present system is that it is an absolute system. It describes the difficulty and risk involved in attempting a rapid. Grade three is easy and fairly safe, grade six is the absolute limit of difficulty and danger. It would appear from this description that the risk on any particular rapid is the same for everybody, no matter their personal level of skill.

Surely the risk is not determined only by the rapid. It is determined by the degree of difficulty of the rapid relative to your own skill and competence on the day you paddle it. If you are highly skilled and frequently paddle grade five, then a grade four rapid will be very safe for you. If you have never paddled before then you could well be in great danger on a grade three. If you are normally highly skilled, but have a bad hangover, you could also be in trouble.

I am writing this article in my house, close to Trent Bridge in Nottingham. There have been three deaths on the grade one river near my home in the past five years, two teenagers playing in a borrowed rubber dinghy, and one twenty-year-old leaping off Trent Bridge with five pints of beer inside him. There have been no canoeing deaths, and very few injuries, on the nearby Holme Pierrepont slalom course (grade 3-4?).

Similarly, In my canoeing career I have lost three friends through drowning, all on water classed as grade 4 (albeit one river was in high flood). I have lost no friends on grade 6 classified water, although many have frequently paddled rivers which are grade 6 in the guide books.

If you attempt difficult water with skill and preparation you are safe. If you attempt easy water without skill or preparation you are at risk. It is not possible for a grading system to describe the absolute risk based only on the river's properties. It must be a relative risk system, describing the risk based on the river's properties relative to your own skill and preparation.

c) An Open Ended System

The other vitally important change is to make it an open ended system. The present system stops at six and makes no allowances for the sport to develop as we attempt increasingly hard rapids. When we change the system we must not set a new upper limit of eight or ten or whatever. There must be no defined upper limit in the new system, thus allowing us to introduce ever higher grades as we get better and better.

Under the present system, in each new canoeing season, new ever-harder rapids are attempted, and these rapids then define the standard for grade five and six. The rapids which were grade five and six a couple of years ago are now frequently paddled, and these become grade four.

Unfortunately at the other end of the sport, the novice end, there is a requirement not to change the system. If we are not to confuse and frighten novices then grade three must be a clear and simple step above grade two, and grade four must be a clear and simple step above grade three.

This then forces us into a position where there is only one grade left to deal with the whole remaining spectrum. Grade four includes a massive leap from "just above easy" to "just below what the best kayakers in the world find to be at their limit".

We end up spending hours in the bar trying to sort out the difference between "grade 3/4", "easy grade four", "a good grade four","a tricky grade four" and "grade four (perhaps almost a five)".

As if this was not enough for the intermediate canoeist to deal with, the grades change by the year. What was a grade four last year may not be a grade four this year. Look at the following two descriptions, taken from Royal Navy Alpine canoe trip journals:

"The afternoon was used to paddle the classic "Pop-Out" section of the River Inn. The bottom of the second rapid contains a superb looping stopper which has entertained RN canoeists for generations. The river continues downstream through enjoyable but simple bouncy grade 3 water to the campsite at Sur-En. A good work-up paddle for the first day".

"Improving weather the next day saw all start out on some superb grade four rapids, just below the Ardez gorge....................... near Pradella the water swung from the right into a series of stepped cliffs, each step forming rolling diagonal stoppers and waves. Hard enough to force Clive to roll in the thick of it, and Cliff to swim.........we had found our grade five, and very impressive it was too".

Both sections describe exactly the same bit of water, but written in 1987 and 1975 respectively.

How can it be sensible to have a grading system where you have to study the date your river guide was published in order to work out whether when it says grade five, it actually means grade five, or now means an easy grade three.

It is not surprising that under the present system most white water canoeing deaths happen on grade four water not grade five or six. At grades five and six there are relatively few paddlers, and they know what the grades mean. There are proportionately many more paddlers attempting grade three and four, but this is where the confusion and uncertainty is to be found in the current system. It is vitally important that in a new system we find a workable method of grading the many different levels of rapid in what is now classed as grade three to four, where most canoeing activity takes place. The new system must then stay constant, and not drift over the years as the sport develops.

The Current System

Difficulty of River
Original 1 2 3 4 5 6
Now 1 2 3 4 5 6
Future 1 2 3 4 5 6

This graphic shows the problems with the current system. The relatively few paddlers on grades 5 and 6 are OK. They can use the current system to meet their changing needs as years go by. The problem is how their use of the system distorts the gradings for the remaining paddlers (the vast majority) using grades 3 and 4.

As the expert's skills improve, they can apply grades 5 and 6 to more and more difficult rivers. This forces the rest of us to use of only 2 grades, 3 and 4, to cover everything from just above easy, to just below what the best paddler in the world finds reasonably difficult. No wonder it causes confusion.

The solution is an open ended system, shown below. In this system there are no confusing changes as years go by. What was once grade 4 stays grade 4, so we all know what to expect. 

An Open Ended System

Difficulty of River
Original 1 2 3 4 5 6
Now 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9
Future 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12

d) Suggestions For a New System

Having criticised the present system, my suggestions for an improved DAWSON GRADING SYSTEM are given by following this link. It may be worth studying the system before reading the following notes.

Grades 0 and 1 (Para 2.1) are provided to make it possible to manage safety in instructional institutions, eg Outdoor Centres or the Scouts. A basic instructor can be authorised to instruct on grade 0 with few restrictions, because the water will always be simple and safe. On grade 1 water, although it may normally be calm, there is the potential for changes in the weather to markedly increase the risk. Grade 1 water might require a more skilled instructor, or at the very least, each individual trip which is led by a basic instructor must be authorised by a skilled instructor who should check weather forecasts, water condition etc. As an example, at Holme Pierrepont, the Winfield Pool would be grade 0, the Regatta Course and River Trent would be grade 1.

One of the most important factors in any grading system is taking into account how your own personal grade, or the river grade, can vary with time. For personal grades (Para 4.1) one of the major factors is recent practise, how "in date" you are. At the end of a two week trip to the Alps your personal grade will probably be one or two grades higher than on day one. If you then spend eight weeks in the office without paddling once then your grading will plunge. Similarly a river like the Ogwen in N Wales which is normally grade five would be grade seven in a good flood (Para 5.2). If you normally paddle at grade five and find yourself in a cloudburst then look in the guide books for a grade three river.

Many fatal accidents in canoeing are caused by incorrectly estimating the effects of lack of recent practise, or flood water. By having a grading system where you make a deliberate attempt to estimate your own personal grade and the river's grade, and where you can think about all the relevant factors which may alter the grades on a particular day, it will be much easier to make sensible decisons about what to paddle. This approach is used widely in the management of Health and Safety in industry. It is called risk assessment, trying to find a way to write down on paper the sort of assessments that skilled exponents make intuitively.

The best way of ensuring that the grading standard stays constant over the years is to have examples of standard reference grades (Para 6), suitable rivers which give an indication of each particular grade. If a river is defined by the grading system as grade 4 because it is broadly similar to a reference grade 4 rapid, then hopefully it will stay grade 4, and not slowly drift towards grade 3 and then grade 2 over the years. The rivers I have quoted are simply suggestions, what ones would you use? What are standards for grade seven and eight (in the UK?). Remember that grade six in this system is not necessarily life threatening, it is simply one step harder than grade 5, and one grade easier than grade 7.

e) Making the Change

If the present grading system is so poor, then why hasn't it been changed before? It is a question of politics. What is the mechanism for changing it? Who is responsible for managing the River Grading System? One interesting point is to look at who has the power to change things. The people who find it easiest to meet and discuss these sort of matters are the World's top paddlers. If they wanted to they could change it, perhaps at the International Safety Symposiums which happen occasionally. Unfortunately these top paddlers spend their time paddling on grade 4 (top end), 5, and 6. The system works for them, so they see no reason to change things.

The people who have to struggle with the imperfect part of the current grading system are those who spend their time entirely on grade 3 and 4. But these people are the average club level paddlers with no voice and no representatives at the international level.

What responsibility do top level paddlers have for looking after the needs of intermediate paddlers (i.e those using grade 3-4 classifications)? Are the experts discharging those responsibilities by keeping the use of grades 5 and 6 for their exclusive use, and and making the the use of grade 4 classification increasingly meaningless.

It might be possible to change things through the BCU / WCA / SCA if the support was there. The Committees who deal most with the grading system are Access, Touring & Recreation, and Coaching. If one of these Committees thought it was worth starting an attempt to change the system, then there is no theoretical reason why such a proposal could not be taken up through the BCU system, and if agreed by all commitees then taken to the International Canoe Federation.

What do you think? Are you happy with the present system, or should we change it? If you think it needs to be changed then please tell the relevant BCU Committees.

Note by Simon Dawson (written June 1999)

The above article was written by me in February 1996, and sent off to the editor of Canoeist Magazine.

A few days later I chatted to Geoff Good (the then BCU Director of Coaching) about grading systems, and found out a bit more information. As a result I quickly wrote a STOP PRESS addition to my article, which appeared alongside it. The text is given below.

Stop Press

Reference the section above labelled "making the change". A day or two after posting this article to the editor of Canoeist, I found out that the subject of amending the grading system was discussed at the 1994 International Safety Symposium, and proposals for a new system are being developed. I do not yet know much about the proposals (which are still I think in the early stages of discussion) but two points are clear:

Firstly, it will not be an open ended system, so in order to get the required detail into a six point system there will be the following grades: one , two, three minus, three, three plus, four minus, four, four plus, five minus, five, five plus, and possibly various levels of six (and even seven). Is this a six grade system, or a thirteen grade system in disguise? Is it clear and easy to use?

Secondly, and most importantly, there is the consultation. Making a change to the International Grading System is a major step, and we should all have a chance to put our views forward and comment on the plans. It seems that I was right in my comments above. Only those at the top end of the sport, some of the professionals and semi-professionals who regularly meet and work together, have been asked to comment. The many thousands of club level paddlers, who have an equal ownership of the grading system, have not even been told that a review is underway. If you want to get involved, and you want to know what is going on, then make sure the BCU knows that you want a proper, well designed, consultation process.

I don't know what happend with that review, but I know that nothing has changed, and that the old six point grading system is still there, serving the needs of top level paddlers, whilst totally failing to meet the needs of the vast majority of intermediate paddlers, who spend all of their life paddling grade 4 water, no matter how easy or difficult it happens to be.


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