The Dawson Grading System
Canoeist Magazine Articles


1. - Introduction
2. - The Grading System
3. - Grading Conventions
4. - Personal Grade
5. - Environmental Conditions
6. - Standard Reference Grades

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1. Introduction

1.1. The River Grading System is designed to assist canoeists to select those rivers which enable them to achieve their individual canoeing aims. This selection is based on matching the degree of difficulty of the river to the skill level and requirements of the canoeist.

1.2. If the river is too difficult for the paddler it may lead to too high a risk of injury or loss. Even if the danger is controlled through careful precautions, unnacceptably high levels of personal stress may prevent enjoyment and recreation, or prevent the acquisition of skills on training courses. Alternatively, too easy a river may not provide sufficient excitement and enjoyment (if this is what the paddler is looking for).

2. The Grading System

2.1. River grades are defined as follows:

Grade 0 Open air swimming pools, small sheltered lakes and waterways with no water flow. Calm water normally unaffected by changes in weather conditions.
Grade 1 Large lakes, rivers and estuaries. Normally calm, still or slow moving water, but conditions may become difficult in poor weather conditions, especially high winds and/or flood.
Grade 2 Simple white water consisting of shallow drops, waves and obstructions. Large unobstructed eddies. Suitable for initial white water training. Suitable for open cockpit kayaks and open canoes.
Grade 3 A grade harder than grade two, with larger and more complicated falls, waves and obstructions, and with more complicated route finding. Normally unsuitable for open cockpit kayaks and open canoes unless fitted with additional buoyancy or spray covers.
Grade 4 A grade harder than grade three
Grade 5 A grade harder than grade four.

2.2. The grades continue, with no upper limit.

3. Grading Conventions

3.1. In practise, few rivers are all one grade. The following conventions can be used to indicate how the grades vary along the length of a river:

Grade 3 The section is virtually all grade 3, apart from the stretches of flat and low grade water to be found on virtually any river
3-5 The section has various stretches running between grades 3 and 5
3 then 5 A stretch of grade 3 leading into a stretch of grade 5
Grade 3 (5 ) Mostly grade 3, with one or two grade 5 falls. This classification means that the river can be run at grade 3 with a reasonable number of portages, "grade 3-5" classification would require an excessive amount of portaging to run the river at grade 3

4. Personal Grade

4.1. The degree of difficulty and risk in attempting any rapid will depend on your own personal skill level in relation the river. The personal grade is defined as the highest grade of water which you routinely paddle with no difficulties. The suitablity and risk of any river can be assessed by comparing personal and river grades. Note that your personal grade is not fixed. Factors such as illness, tiredness or stress may sometimes reduce your personal grade, and extensive recent practise may raise it.

Paddling rivers at your personal grade An acceptable degree of difficulty and risk using normal precautions
Paddling rivers one grade higher than your personal grade Harder water conditions, requiring an increased level of preparation and inspection, and probably increased safety and rescue precautions if the level of risk is to be acceptable. Increased levels of personal stress.
Paddling rivers two grades higher than your personal grade Appreciably harder water conditions. Unlikely to be an acceptable risk even with increased levels of preparation.

5. Environmental Conditions

5.1. River grades vary markedly with environmental changes especially water level. If possible river grades should be given at a stated water levels. If not then guide books should give the river grade at the average water level in the canoeing season.

5.2. If no specific guidance is given in the guide book about the effect of water level changes, then add one grade to the quoted river grade from the guide book if the river is in high water, and two if in flood. Lower than nomal water flow will often reduce the grade of a river, or make technically difficult rivers less hazardous by making safety and rescue procedures easier.

6. Standard Reference Grades

6.1 The following are examples of each grade of river in the British Isles. Note that this grade is the average grade over a normal canoeing season. Environmental conditions may alter the grades on a particular day.

Grade 3 Washburn. Serpents Tail (Dee). Warden Gorge (Tyne). Dart loop
Grade 4 Llangollen Town Falls (Dee). Holme Pierrepont Slalom Course. Spean Gorge
Grade 5 Ogwen. Upper Dart. Randophs leap (Findhorn)
Grade 6 Fairy Glen (not central falls or Conway Fall). 

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