A Guide to Boater Slang

Expert Olivia Whitehead breaks down 34 common boater terms to give you a leg up on your next river trip.

Photo by Rachel Claire

When listening to two boaters speak to each other, it can almost sound like a foreign language. We’re here to break down some common boating slang and give you a leg up for your next river trip!

Big Water

A general classification of whitewater, meaning that the river is high rather than low volume. The classic “big water” run in the American West is the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon, and well-known, international “big water” rivers include the Zambezi, the Futaleufú, and the Ottowa.

Ex: I’d love to get on some big water before this year’s runoff ends.

Bony

A rocky, sometimes bumpy, run.

Ex: The Numbers gets bony below 450. I’d R2, but I wouldn’t want to take guests down that low.

Carnage

A swim, wrap, flip, or any combination of the three. When things on the water don’t go as planned, the result is often referred to as “a bit of carnage.”

Ex: You should have seen the carnage the first time I guided that section!

A raft of people navigating river rapids
It appears that this raft experienced a bit of carnage during this run. Photo by Max Brassfield

CFS

Cubic feet per second, or a way to measure the volume of a river. This is the most common unit of measurement in the United States used to determine a river’s volume, although there are other units of measurement as well, such as cubic meters per second or even in feet on a gauge (this is specific to the individual river).

Ex: Did you check the CFS this morning? It looks like it dropped overnight.

Dig It In

A phrase often yelled by distressed guides to encourage their paddlers to give it even more energy. The louder they yell, the more dire the scenario.

Ex: Forward, dig it in!! (Self-explanatory)

Double End Broach (Rotisserie)

A tricky mistake where both the bow and stern of a boat get stuck on stationary objects—most often a rock. If you’re unlucky, water will sink the upstream tube of the raft and flip the boat as you would when cooking a rotisserie chicken. Comical, but undesired.

Ex: Once upon a time, a first-year guide named Miller actually rotisserie-flipped in this very spot.

Dry Flip

A rare and difficult feat; when a guide makes it onto the top of their upside-down boat without getting thrown into the water themselves.

Ex: I thought he was gonna dry flip there for a minute.

Dumptruck

An unfortunate move where a raft hits a violent feature and actually dumps everyone (or almost everyone) out without flipping.

Ex: The boat in front of us dumptrucked, so everyone was pretty worked up after Grumman.

Eddy

A section of river where the current changes and flows back upstream. These calm pools are often found along the bank, and they’re a great place to recover after a particularly spicy run.

Ex: There’s a massive eddy bottom right, we can pull in there for lunch.

Eddy Out

The action of maneuvering your boat into an eddy.

Ex: Eddy out after Pinball, I need to drop a layer.

Endo Flip

A beautiful, but unwanted, flip where the boat rotates end over end rather than rotating over one side.

Ex: Be careful in Twin Falls at this level. I once saw a lighter raft endo.

Ferry

The act of moving across a river without moving downstream. (An upstream ferry actually moves the boat upstream, as the name implies.) Having the proper angle is incredibly important.

Ex: I’m gonna ferry over and see what’s stuck in that tree, hang on.

Groover

The common nickname for a river toilet. Originally, the go-to latrine was simply a rocket box, which left grooves on the user and gave all river toilets this beautiful name.

Ex: I’ll start setting up the kitchen if you find a nice place for the groover.

High Side

An acrobatic move where you attempt to weight a raft against a solid object or large wave. The goal is to get as much weight as you can toward the object and avoid an actual flip. (Note: This is different from the popular rafting brand, Hyside.)

Ex: Be ready to high side if we can’t break through that wave.

Hole

A steep river feature formed by water flowing quickly over a rock then doubling back onto itself. Often called a hydraulic.

Ex: You can surf Mezcal Hole when it’s a bit lower, but I wouldn’t try it today!

International Scale of River Difficulty

A way to classify a river section’s difficulty on a scale of I to VI. This will give you a general idea of what to expect and is an okay gauge about whether or not a particular stretch is within your skill set. There is a great, more detailed description of what to expect with each rating here.

Ex: I don’t think I’ve ever heard someone use the International Scale of River Difficulty in a sentence, have you?

A raft of people on a raging river
The guide is likely yelling “Dig it in!!” as paddlers prepare to skirt a small hole. Photo by Erin Lidsey

J Stroke

A technique often used by guides on flat stretches of water, especially on commercial trips. Paddlers don’t tire themselves, yet the boat still moves forward.

Ex: I was J stroking for my life in that wind above Siedel’s.

Keeper

The gnarliest of holes. This feature will continue to recirculate a trapped object (boat, swimmer, paddle) instead of flushing them back into the current.

Ex: Stay left at the bottom, there’s a nasty keeper far right.

Line

A path through a rapid, ideally a clean one.

Ex: Hey, what’s the line at the bottom of the Maze? I haven’t seen it at these flows.

Manky

See: Bony.

PFD

Personal Floatation Device, or the preferred term for a life jacket.

Ex: Yeah, my PFD has seen better days. I’ll probably retire it next summer.

Pool Drop

A style of river with drops, or rapids, followed by big, calm pools and room to recover from any carnage.

Ex: It’s fine, it’s all pool drop. Hold your breath if you swim and I’ll scoop you up at the bottom.

Portage

The act of walking around a particularly difficult rapid. This isn’t too strenuous when you have a kayak or a nearly-empty raft, but it gets more time-consuming when you factor in overnight gear or multiple boats.

Ex: Back in the day, I hear that portaging Quartzite was an all-day affair.

R2, R3...

A system of getting a paddle raft downstream without a designated guide calling commands. Two (R2) or three (R3) people work together to get the raft where they want it to go with mixed success.

Ex: I enjoy R2ing with Flocks, but I almost killed Jesse last time.

Safety Talk

The pre-trip speech often given by the designated Trip Leader. They’ll cover everything you need to know from flips to strainers, and they’ll likely glare at you should you not pay attention.

Ex: Can you guys double-check the boats while I give the safety talk?

Scouting

The act of looking at a rapid before running it. Scouting provides a great opportunity to pick your ideal line and plan your moves in advance.

Ex: We were scouting Black Rock when this coati ran up out of nowhere!

Shuttle Bunny

A river angel. Someone who will run your group’s shuttle without actually boating themselves.

Ex: I’ll shuttle bunny today, but you owe me at least a six pack.

Sieve and Strainer

Similar to a pasta strainer, both a sieve and strainer are features in a river that will let water pass through while trapping most solid objects. A classic strainer is usually made of wood or foliage, while a sieve is typically a rock feature. If you happen to come around the corner to see a half-submerged picnic table though, that can qualify as a strainer as well.

Ex: Yeah, I need to report a river-wide strainer about halfway through the Miracle Mile. I’m pretty sure it was just an entire tree.

Aerial view of three kayakers on crystal clear turquoise water
Three kayakers regroup in an eddy. Photo by Rok Romih

Sleeper

A barely-submerged rock that can be difficult to see until you’re right on top of it.

Ex: Careful, there are tons of strainers bottom left.

Stamp (Postage Stamp)

See: Wrap.

Spicy

A casual way to describe a moment when things didn’t exactly go as planned.

Ex: House Rock got a bit spicy yesterday, I heard there were three flips?

T Grip

The T-shaped handle at the top of most rafting paddles and one of the most dangerous things you’ll encounter on your typical commercial trip. A rogue T grip (when you don’t keep your hand on your paddle as instructed) can cause chaos, hitting anyone within reach.

Ex: Any carnage on your last overnight? Not exactly. Some kid gave his mom a black eye with his T grip, but nothing else.

TL

The designated Trip Leader on an adventure. On commercial trips, they will likely give the safety talk and split up boat loads amongst guides. This term is also casually thrown around when attempting to delegate certain chores to others.

Ex: So, do you want to TL dinner tonight or not?

Wrap

One of the classic carnage scenarios. A wrap usually occurs when a raft (most often the broadside of the boat) collides with a solid object. The current presses the boat against the object, and it can be tricky to get the boat unstuck once it is wrapped. A high side can help prevent a wrapped boat, but is typically a last resort.

Ex: If you wrap on the F Street bridge, I’m swimming away and leaving you there.

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Written By
Hello! My name is Olivia, and I have five seasons of experience working as an overnight river guide on several different rivers in the Southwestern US. I also enjoy backpacking as often as possible, and I have been lucky enough to chase this sport everywhere from the Southeastern US to the Candian R...

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