To Paddle Or Not To Paddle!

Last year while teaching a private lesson on the Ocoee River, the person I was working with and I were sitting in the eddy at the top of Tablesaw Rapid.  I asked him “How many strokes are you going to use to run this rapid?”  He looked at me sort of confused and replied “As many as it takes!”  That wasn’t the answer I was looking for, so I suggested that he try paddling the rapid from the top to the bottom, including catching the eddy at the bottom, in three strokes.  “No way! Impossible! Show me!” was his immediate response.  I peeled out of the eddy with one stroke, set a left angle with another, drifted through the rapid and cruised into the eddy at the bottom with one last stroke.  My friend joined me in the eddy shortly and was amazed at that it only took him five strokes to accomplish the same run.  “So what did you learn?” I asked.  His answer was what I was looking for “I’m working way to hard!”

So when do we need to paddle and when can we take a vacation and save our energy for playing?  There are times when you definitely want to have your foot on the gas pedal.  Diagonal moves across the current necessitate speed.  If you are paddling down the river, misread your line and suddenly find yourself zeroed in on a big hole, you want to make a diagonal move from one side of the river to the other.  Floating will land you in that hole!  Or if you are making a move into an eddy, you are setting yourself up on a diagonal path to the eddy.  If you do not accelerate, you will miss your line because the current moving downstream is working against your diagonal move.    But setting such scenarios aside, too often paddlers are busy stroking just because they think they need to do something.

How many paddlers were taught early on that “When in doubt, paddle hard”?  Nothing could be further from the truth!  In fact, paddling hard in many situations usually leads to some upside down time, or at the very least, loss of control.  There are several reasons this is true.

Reason number one is that speed (as a result of random stroking) works against you is in regards to decision making.  You are participating in a sport in which you need to make both long-term decisions  (to determine where you will end up at the bottom of the rapid) and short term decisions (to determine what you have to avoid between where you are and where you want to end up).  All this while trying to remain balanced and looking cool!  You need to give yourself as much time as possible to make your decisions.   It helps to remember that the current is going to carry you downstream regardless, so paddling hard just makes things (like rocks) come at you way too fast.  Approaching warp speed, rocks become impossible to avoid.  This approach is much like being on autopilot and having the plane pointed at the ground. The faster you paddle, the less time you have to make decisions.
The second reason is that “paddling for the sake of just paddling” makes it difficult to have the control to set whatever angle is necessary to make your move.  In the heat of running a big rapid, it is easy to forget that unless you have to punch a hole, it is advantageous to have the boat pointed in the direction you want to go (which rarely ever is straight downstream, since eddies are normally set on one side of the river or the other).  Once your angle is set for the direction you want to go, all you have to do is maintain your cruising speed.  And check out the scenery!

How do you make this sport feel easy?  Slow down, look downstream and angle the boat in the direction you want to go.  Don’t be surprised if you need to change that angle several times in one rapid.   All you have to do is always keep a small downstream lean on the boat and be ready to “calmly” take a stroke or two when the time comes to avoid something or get somewhere.

Having precise angle is far more important then having a lot of speed.  Leading a group of paddlers through a rapid on one of our Costa Rica trips this year, we had someone almost miss an important eddy because the boat was pointed downstream when it should have been pointed into the eddy.  The paddler was stroking for all he was worth, but because the boat was not angled for the eddy, he was accelerating and trying to redirect the boat angle at the same time (and at the last minute).  If he had been maintaining cruising speed with the boat angled toward the eddy, it would have only taken one stroke to catch the eddy and there would have been much less potential for GHF (Guide Heart Failure).
In addition, having some angle to the right or left makes it much easier to balance the kayak because you are reconfirming which is the downstream side of the boat.  Not having to think about where you should be leaning the boat allows you to use your paddle strokes for angle management rather than spanking the water to stay rightside up.  This also leads into the third reason for slowing things down–so that you can think about the timing of your strokes.

Just paddling hard makes it impossible to time strokes so that they are being done on the correct side of the boat, at the correct time.  The timing of these strokes is crucial to successfully making a move on the river.   Unless you are practicing advanced racing moves, make sure that you always stroke, or at the very least have a brace, on the downstream side of the kayak when you come up against a wave or side curler.  If you are taking a stroke on the upstream side of the boat, your weight tends to follow your paddle stroke.  So you hit a wave on the downstream side of your boat while stroking on the upstream side, and suddenly your boat is on an upstream edge and over you go.   Timing your strokes will help avoid those times when you find yourself upside down and can’t figure out why or how it happened!

Even when it is necessary to paddle hard, boaters sometimes forget that you can get the kayak moving as fast as it will go in about four strokes.  If you take many more stokes than that at full speed, it becomes harder to paddle straight, and harder to keep your angle under control.  The most important thing still is to paddle on the correct side of the boat– at the correct time.  This is true with simple moves like eddy turns, or leaving an eddy to do a ferry, or more complicated moves like wave wheels and boofs.

Boof moves are a classic example of not paddling so hard as to lose angle control.  Most times boof moves are done with angle set to one side or the other.  Maintaining that angle usually depends on taking the last stroke coming off the drop on the opposite side of the kayak from the direction of the boof.  If the boof move is to the right then the last stroke is normally taken on the left.  That stroke holds the boof angle you have set up on the approach to the drop.  Timing that last stroke becomes pretty hard if you happen to be paddling for all your worth.  And landing with the wrong angle on most boof moves definitely provides entertainment for the people you are paddling with.

Remember that kayaking is supposed to be fun!  And relaxing (if you so desire).  If you want to work hard, go backpacking.  You’re out to enjoy yourself, so think before you paddle and paddle only when there is a reason to.  Keeping that motto in mind, you will be the very stylish and proficient kayaker that everyone is admires on the river.

Happy Paddling!