The River Roos love rafting, but ill-fitting equipment and a feeling of inferiority are big issues they want heard

In the niche world of rafting, safety comes before all else, but when the industry hasn’t opened itself entirely to women, it’s no surprise their safety hasn’t been fully considered.

In its simplest form, rafting only requires a raft, a paddle, a life vest, and a helmet, yet women working as commercial guides and as outdoor education teachers are still struggling to find equipment in their size. 

Access to well-fitting equipment is essential to safe rafting, but competitive and recreational participants find it nearly impossible to find life vests to comfortably and securely fit over women’s chests.

Meanwhile, others are struggling to maintain control of paddles with shaft diameters and handles bigger than their hands can hold.

Sia Kanellopoulos (front left) says she loses grip of paddles designed to fit in men’s hands.(Supplied: Ashleigh Smith)

“Life jackets squeeze down on your chest. We have to give them to clients knowing they could be uncomfortable all day.”

With hands smaller than the average man’s, Kanellopoulos is “constantly losing hold” of her paddle while trying to guide down often dangerous waters.

While manufacturers have reduced the weight of paddles and different paddle lengths are readily available depending on the user’s height, shaft sizes are mostly made to fit an average man’s hand.

A rafting boat full of women goes over a rapid.
Some women find it hard to find a personal flotation device that fits well over their chest.(Getty Images: Robertus Pudyanto)

International racing rules require competitors to use C1 paddles and Kanellopoulos’s own teammates were even surprised to hear how often the issue impacts her.

She said that crossing white waters, she often has her paddle slip from her grip, at best losing her time in a race, at worst reducing her ability to safely guide her raft.

While for one-day tours, an ill-fitting paddle shaft is a mere inconvenience, for competitive and white-water rafters losing or not having full control of a paddle can be a genuine safety issue.

When working in an environment as unpredictable as river ways, safety is a team effort between competitors and the water.

A rafting boat is covered in white water as the water splashes.
Rivers can be unpredictable, which is why safety equipment and strong teamwork are so important.(Unsplash: Julie Thornton)

Women want to feel welcome, seen and heard

While adventure sports and recreational activities are popular tourist activities, women in the field have been left feeling unwelcome.

An outdoor education teacher, Kanellopoulos has traversed rivers across the country but said she’s heard countless stories of women being disrespected.

River Roos team captain Ashleigh Smith said the biggest cultural issue in the adventure sport industry is a lack of awareness from some men.

A photo of a rafting boat abandoned on a river bank.
The River Roos say they want more respect from men in the sport.(Unsplash: Amruth Pillai)

“They hold this physical apex male physique as the standard.

“[They say,] ‘you should be able to lift this. You should be able to throw this far. You should be able to turn this without using your crew at all.’

Expectations leading to injury

The expectation that guides can, and will, move heavy equipment is contributing to both long term and acute injury within the industry.

“We started a season off with six girls, and at the end of the winter, I was the only girl working because other people had been injured,” Amy Rella, who has 15 years of experience in adventure sports said.

Four women with various fun poses standing in front of a four wheel drive, with a raft on top of the car.
The Australian women’s rafting team, the River Roos, (l-r) Charlotte Bond, Emma Johnson, Ashleigh Smith, Sia Kanellopoulos.(Supplied: Ashleigh Smith)

Since studying outdoor education, she’s seen a huge increase in female interest in the field.

But this hasn’t eliminated all the problems women face.

“There’s a lot of misogyny and general expectation of dragging a huge raft along, which just seems ridiculous to me. When I work with another female guide, we’d work together to get our equipment, then a bloke would come down and do it themselves.”

Rella said the interruption of men taking over is frustrating and perpetuates the idea guides have to do everything alone.

Four women in a raft are paddling on a river.
The River Roos say women tend to navigate rivers differently to men. (Supplied: Ashleigh Smith)

Using a team mentality rather than focusing on individual physical strength, Rella has been able to prevent personal injury.

Using brains, not brawn

Getting equipment to the riverbank isn’t the only difference the women have noticed among male and female guides. The actual experience of traversing rivers and rapids changes drastically between guides.

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“It’s amazing watching a woman guide down a river and a man guiding down that same river, they’re working completely differently,” Rella said.

Teammate Emma Johnson agrees, saying women tend to traverse rivers in more methodical ways, not relying solely on their strength to take on strong currents.

“You might look a few rapids ahead and see where to go around some, rather than just smash through the middle.”

A community working together

Despite some paddlers facing challenges with certain individuals, team member Charlotte Bond has found the community as a whole to be welcoming to her.

“I was a sporty kid, I did all of them, but the river community is just a different level of lovely,” she said.

Working together, the River Roos have facilitated their own culture of positivity and empowerment, culminating in their latest challenge, competing in the 2022 International Rafting Federation World Rafting Championships in Bosnia at the end of the month.

Four woman, with a man in the centre, look at the camera and smile.
The River Roos have travelled to Bosnia to compete in the 2022 World Rafting Championships.(Supplied: Ashleigh Smith)

“It’s exciting to meet other women from other countries that are amazing athletes and rafters. It’s amazing to watch these gifted female kayakers show everyone up,” said Bond.

Kanellopoulos got a late call up to join the team, and said she relishes the camaraderie from other women in her sport.

“As a female in paddling, [other] females in paddling are looking back for you. They’re like, ‘I’m not going to hold your hand, but I’m right here, you got this, show me the potential I know you have’. It’s amazing.

“We’re not just gung-ho, try and do it faster, bigger, better. It’s just beautiful.”

ABC Sport is partnering with Siren Sport to elevate the coverage of Australian women in sport.

Tahlia Sinclair is a journalist based in central NSW with a passion for women’s sports and community stories.