The Essential Whitewater Paddling Skills And Safety Recommendations

Paddling a kayak down a scenic river is a wonderful experience, and under most circumstances, a peaceful easy one.

But rivers are not static. Unlike lakes and ponds, they are constantly changing, and no one can stay completely current on the conditions for very long.

The river course, and speed gets changed by erosion, falling debris, changes in water levels from rains and snows, sometimes hundreds of miles away, or by the release from dams upstream, or maybe even something as innocent as a few new beaver dams. In past times when river travel was very important, steamboats hired special pilots for that specific river.

The pilots were locals who were very familiar with a particular stretch of river, and its behavior.  Today is no different. You can never take anything for granted on a river. Rivers can become very dangerous, very quickly.

Even if you never plan to do any whitewater paddling, you should at least have a working knowledge of the techniques, just in case you get caught in fast water.

It can happen to anybody. 

Basic Skills To Master Before Paddling on Rivers

Before paddling on rivers, you should be sure you know how to perform basic maneuvers. You should be able to execute the Forward Stroke, and Reverse Stroke smoothly. The Sweep and Draw Strokes are necessities on a river run, so be sure you are comfortable with these strokes. They can quickly move you out of harm’s way when unanticipated obstacles appear. You also need to be comfortable with both the High and Low braces.

These skills are doubly important with a Sit On Top Kayak, as rolls are not feasible in most cases.

Practice these skills in slow, shallow water, and preferably with some supervision, until they become second nature.

The Ins and Outs: Wet Exit

Chances are at some point you will become one with the water. You need to be able to smoothly execute the Wet Exit without panic, if for some reason a roll is not possible. In a moving river, time is critical so you don’t hit your head on an obstruction or the bottom of the riverbed while drifting upside-down with the current.

Fortunately, the Wet Exit is very easy. All you have to do is pull the elastic release on your spray skirt, and pull your lower body out of the cockpit. It is then a simple matter to either right the boat and do a Wet Entry when the water slows down, or kick-paddle you and your boat to shallow water and re-enter. If you have an SOT, it even easier. If you flip, you will have already done a Wet Exit, like it or not. Just right the yak and do a Wet entry, which is basically just climbing back aboard. Then you can start looking for all your stuff that went into the drink with you….

Practice these exits and entries in shallow slow water with an experienced observer before trying them on a real trip.

Rolling With The Flow: The Eskimo Roll

Rolling a kayak is not just for impressing your friends. It is a vital skill that could save your life. There are several types of rolls and which one you use is up to you. The most basic is the Screw Roll, also known as the Eskimo Roll.

This is the most basic roll of all of them. It takes a little practice, but works well.

The drawback is that it does take a bit of water to execute, and does move the boat around quite a bit. When done properly, you can be back up and paddling in as little as 50 ft in a moderate Class 3 flow. To execute the roll, when upside-down, make a wide sweep with your paddle from bow to stern. Lean back as far as you can while sweeping.

At midpoint, the boat will have rotated you to the surface with the yak on its side. Now just continue to apply power towards the stern, and flip your hips to throw your yak under you. You should rotate upright and not much worse for the wear. Use your paddle to brace for stability to avoid rolling all the way over again. In rougher water, you can execute the Reverse Screw Roll which is the same maneuver, only backwards. It’s a little faster.

Again. Practice these rolls in shallow slow water under supervision before trying them on a float trip.

There is no such thing as too much practice.

Rules Of The Road: Things To Watch Out For

On anything up to Class 3 water, as long as you pay attention to your surroundings and the river, stay in the middle of the downstream channel, stay pointed downstream and move as fast, or a little faster than the current, and watch as far ahead as possible for obstacles and hazards, you should be fine.

The sooner you see an obstacle or hazard, the more successful you will be in avoiding or negotiating it. When you are moving at a good clip, it’s hard to avoid a rock if you don’t see it until it’s right in front of you. Don’t just look directly in front of your bow.

Scan forward as far as you can see, and pay attention to things like waves, riffles, eddies, or changes in sound.

Hit waves head-on, as close to perpendicular as possible, so that your bow can slice through them. Even small waves can capsize you if they hit you at an angle. Angled waves will also throw you way off course. The wake from a powered boat can travel for incredibly long distances, and you may not even see the boat that made it. To make matters worse, waves from several boats can cross each other, creating a stronger and more complex wave pattern. Pay close attention to the water at all times.

Dangerous waters require skills.

Proper position is very important, especially in rivers.

You want to be upright and leaning slightly forward. Leaning back is a great recipe for flipping, because it changes the center of gravity, as well as the weight distribution.

As long as you have a paddle in the water, it is acting like a brace to keep you stable.

Whenever you are in doubt, or feel threatened, don’t stop paddling. As long as you are moving as fast or faster than the current, you can still maneuver. Once you stop paddling, you are no longer a boat. You are an uncontrolled unstable raft.

Dangerous Waters: Class 4 and 5 Waters

Anything above Class 3 water involves the risk of serious injury or worse, and should only be done by experienced paddlers. If you accidentally get caught in Class 4 water, by following the above guidelines, chances are you’ll come out scared, but alright. Class 5 and above, there are no guarantees for anyone, regardless of experience.

If you get caught in these, you just have to do your best and hope you are lucky. Class 4 and 5 waters are usually clearly marked on maps, signs, and most locals know about them. It’s always a good idea to scout a river before paddling it, and talk to other local paddlers.

Like most things, a little common sense goes a long way.

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