Rafael Gallo

Rafael Gallo leaves us in body but never in spirit or mind

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The IRF, and indeed the entire rafting world, has been deeply saddened by the passing of Rafael Gallo, Honorary President of the IRF. The outpouring of messages has been huge and an indication of the respect that so many held for Rafa. A true show of the vast number of people from all round the world whose lives he touched with his positive energy.

From the forefront of rafting to a global leader in conservation strategies and engagements, Rafa’s life achievements will not be forgotten.

In understanding the history of the IRF, it is evident Rafa was prominent throughout. Rafa had a strong desire for the rafting world to unite under a common banner as it did with the IRF. Rafa attended the first Project RAFT event at the 1989 Chuya Rally in Siberia. This event proved to be a catalyst event that changed the world of rafting forever because of the contacts made and the friendships forged.

Rafa continued to be a strong force at the Project RAFT events, hosting the 1991 event on the Reventazón and Pacuare Rivers in Costa Rica. He continued to be ever present at the top level rafting events such as the Camel Whitewater Challenges from 1995 to 2001, and nearly all the IRF World Rafting Championships since then. Always leading and motivating for things to move forward under common goals.

Rafael Gallo – a leading protagonist of the IRF

Together, Rafa, Lee Porter and Peter Micheler were the spearheads of the IRF. After a rafting event in Italy in 1994, they determined that it was time to form an international body that could ensure consistent and safe rules, regulations and judging for raft racing. Additionally, to set standards for guiding for the entire world. In 1997 the founding meeting was held where Rafa was appointed first Vice-President. A position he held until 2006, when he then took over the IRF presidency until 2013. In 2013 he stepped down from the presidency to focus more on his passions for conservation and sustainability.

Throughout this time Rafa continued building Rios Tropicales, a rafting company he co-founded in 1985 as a simple dream to pursue a love of paddling, provide jobs for fellow Costa Ricans and support river and rainforest land protection. It became a leading, world class, award-winning adventure company and geo-tourism leader which won the Skål International’s 2014 Sustainable Tourism Award. During an interview with ‘Paddling Life’ magazine, fellow Costa Rican outfitter Tom Ranieri of Pacuare Outdoor Center had this to say about Rafa,  “He did more for the industry in 35 years than all of us other companies have combined and that was no exaggeration,” Ranieri adds. “While a few in the rafting industry came before him, he was the one that put it on the map outside of the rafting community. He brought it to a new level and was a leader that could be followed by other local companies allowing them to have success.”

Rafa was planting trees way before the idea become fashionable. In 2009, Rafa was inducted into the International Whitewater Hall of Fame for being an advocate for conservation and a leader in river rafting in the world.

Pioneering events to gain wider understanding of rafting and sustainabilityRafael Gallo launches WWWR Summit

Rafa’s foresight once again raised the bar in global sustainable environmental initiatives. He realised his ambition of holding the first ever Certified Carbon Neutral world championship sporting event by hosting the 2011 IRF World Rafting Championships in Costa Rica where it was certified by EARTH University as carbon neutral, an achievement that the IRF is very proud of and has him to thank for.

Following fractious developments in the rafting world, Rafa continued his efforts to bring the rafting world together under the IRF banner for safety and governance. Bounding forward with his pioneering efforts, Rafa launched the inaugual World White Water Rafting Summit. The summit was held in October 2019 with over 300 participants and included speakers including the Costa Rican Minister for Environment, United Nations Framework for Climate Change, and international rafting safety specialists.

Friend and mentor to many

IRF President Joseph Willis Jones confers the position of IRF Honorary President on Rafael Gallo in 2019

IRF President, Joseph Willis Jones, commented as a personal friend and on behalf of the IRF: “It’s difficult for me to process this very sad news. Rafa has been a close friend and confidant for over 30 years so it’s hard to see him go. But more important, it’s hard to see the rafting and environmental community lose such an impassioned leader and individual. Rafa’s been someone who I’ve greatly admired and respected for all that he has accomplished during his remarkable life.

His successes in protecting Costa Rica’s ecosystems and especially his beloved Rio Pacuare, would have satisfied the goals of most people years ago. But for Rafa, enough was never enough because he could see there was always more that could be done. Rafa never shied away from any project, no matter how big or small if he believed that it would benefit a river, or the sport of rafting, or the environment.

The bond we shared was due to our mutual love of wild rivers and ecosystems, however, Rafa’s first love has always been his beautiful family – and his desire to leave a world behind for them – and all of humanity – better than the one we inherited. This he has accomplished, and more. Thank you Rafa…it’s been an honor to have known you and to have called you my friend. You’ve made us all proud. My thoughts and condolences go out to Rafa’s family and to his many close friends for their loss.”

A very “crazy” selfie. After running the river, Rafael Gallo is photographed with former FARC guerrillas, guides and members of the UN mission

Rafa’s constant upbeat and infectious positive attitude to everything carried all on his journey. From the early days of the IRF, Rafa has engaged people in the sport and adventure of rafting. With early advances in raft racing and uniformity in the delivery of raft guide skills across the globe, Rafa pioneered the way in which rafting has been viewed for many millions of people who have ever stepped foot into a raft.

IRF Vice President of Sport & Competition, Eric Boudreau, said “the rafting family lost a crucial member, a leader, someone that has invested a big part of his life for rafting because he loved it and believed in the power of such a great sport. Most of all we lost a friend but what he did for the rafting community will always stay alive! Rest in peace Rafa and my deepest condolence to your family”.

Rafa leaves behind two distinctive legacies. The first, his passion and drive for rafting from which the IRF has been built with his leadership and guidance. The second, his great passion and love of the planet. In his unique position to see the impacts of devastating climate change, Rafa adopted sustainability practices at an early stage when many were still wavering in their understanding.

Rafael Gallo
Rafael Gallo – IRF President 2006-2013

Sue Liell-Cock, IRF Secretary General, said “I first met Rafael Gallo at Project Raft Turkey in 1993 and was privileged to work closely with him in the IRF, particularly through the years when he was President. We weathered some hectic ups and downs together during that time. When it comes to conservation he was way ahead of his time.

The fact that the IRF now has a solid sustainability base is thanks to Rafa and his vision of where we should be aiming. We will continue this legacy of his and he’ll always be a part of it!

The IRF owes a huge debt of gratitude to Rafa for all he did for the IRF, it would never be where it is now without his determined Can-Do attitude and stepping up so often when others didn’t. He leaves a really big, unfillable hole in the rafting world.”

IRF GTE Secretary General, Mark Hirst, noted that “Rafa was the man who brought the world together through rafting. His legacy runs deep in the veins and DNA of the IRF. Rafa’s spirit will still continue to influence the IRF and sport of rafting for generations to come”.

Paddling Life’s Eugene Buchanan shared a heartfelt piece on Rafa.

An enduring legacy none shall forget

Rafael Gallo was a man of many actions and passions. His impact on those he met and worked with will not be forgotten. He leaves behind a raft of advantageous projects and actions that have made the rafting world a better place.

Early last year Rafa found himself with a whole new challenge called pancreatic cancer, and one he fought with his usual determination and positivity. Even there he beat the odds and gained precious extra time with his family and loved ones.

Over the past few months, Rafa and some close friends started work on forming a conservation initiative for Rafa’s beloved Pacuare River region. The aptly named Project RAFA – Rivers and Forests Alliance. When the family is ready, this will live on as part of Rafa’s legacy.

At this time of grief, we ask all our river family to come together and share memories of Rafa. Please share your memories on your own social media or on Rafa’s personal Facebook page and include the hashtag #projectrafa

This way we can all share his enduring love for rafting, the planet and each other.

Other links you may like to read about Rafa:

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