A passenger on one of our 5-day lower-Canyon motorized trips, asked:
“Any instances of raft turnover? And what needs to be done in the event of one, since some of us are not swimmers?”
We don’t want to scare you, but we’re sure as heck not going to lie to you. So here’s the lowdown: Yes, there have been times in the past when these boats have flipped in a rapid. But, passengers haven’t flipped on a motorized boat in more than 20 years. The most memorable motor boat flips happened in 1969 — when Life Magazine ran a picture of an upset at Lava Falls Rapid on its cover — and in 1983, when flood water surged through Glen Canyon Dam at such a force, it nearly broke the dam. The National Park Service eventually closed the Colorado River to Grand Canyon white water rafting trips in 1983, to reduce risk of injury to the passengers and guides.
The second part of Jag’s question is easier to answer. You don’t need to know how to swim to take a rafting tour of the Grand Canyon. Everyone is required to wear a Coast Guard approved lifejacket at ALL times on the boat, and to keep it buckled securely. The guides will give you a river safety orientation before you begin your journey, and they will tell you what to do in the event you end up in the water. It is not necessary to know how to swim but, if you end up in the water, you do need to be able to at least move yourself around, maybe toward the boats or maybe toward shore depending on instruction from the guides. We think the risk of ending up in the water on a motorized trip is low. It is higher on an oar trip so, if you don’t know how to swim, you might consider choosing a motorized trip rather than an oar trip. It is up to you to make a decision you are comfortable with.
Keep in mind, too, the Colorado River is what’s called a pool-drop water system. That means there will typically be calmer “pools” of flat water, and then the river will “drop” into a rapid (most rapids in the Grand Canyon last less than 60 seconds), and then it will pool out again. So, if you find yourself in a rapid, it will likely only last a few seconds before you enter a calmer, flat water stretch.