No one can argue that Biff Downdagutt is a stud. Among his friends none have taken more beatings, spent more time upside down in heinous rapids, and still rolled the boat when it counted. Yet a recent crash has left Biff with a pile of medical bills and a sliver of doubt.
Was Biff missing a critical piece of technique in his paddling? He tried to remember the details of the most recent accident. It had been a typical day with the boys on Mank Creek in North Carolina. The water was in the trees, and no one argued that it was quite pushy. Biff remembered bobbing in the river-left eddy above Bone Saw, preparing for the must-make ferry back to river-right to avoid ‘The Blade Rock’ in the center. It was only 15 feet, an easy move at normal water levels. However, with the river racing by and the roar of ‘The Saw’ just seconds away, the typically ‘easy’ 15 feet was looking more like a football field. Swallowing hard, Biff muttered a few words and peeled out. The power of the water absolutely shocked him. Despite furious stroking, the must-make slot on river-right quickly vanished and seconds later he was plunging over the lip of the ‘The Saw’. He experienced the elation of falling, a sudden stop, and wetness washing over him. The throbbing in his ankles woke him from darkness just in time to catch a rope from shore.
Though a bit extreme, Biff’s saga is not uncommon. We all blow ferries from time to time. We misjudge distance, or the speed of the current, or even our own strength. But more often we simply fail to use the water.
Let’s take a closer look at the situation: the move at Bone Saw is a classic creek situation, requiring a tight ferry above a gnarly feature. The distance from the staging eddy on river left to the must-make slot on river right is 15 feet – five strokes at most under normal conditions. At higher water however, no amount of strength will save sloppy technique. Biff needs to use the water. Period. But how?
First, he needs to find a wave. 99.9% of all eddies will be within one stroke of some form of wave. The wave might be 3 centimeters tall, it might be 3 meters. It might be wide, narrow, steep, flat, breaking, glassy, angled, straight, or any combination of the above. It might even pulse – disappearing and reappearing with the rhythm of the water. The important part of the wave is the trough – the lowest point (of elevation). This is where the magic happens. The trough is where the boat attains planing speed and begins surfing. And surfing is what supercharges a regular ferry into a power ferry. A power ferry, therefore; is nothing more than controlled surf.
Here’s how it’s done: before leaving the eddy, identify the trough. Most of the time the trough will be obvious. It may be at the very top of the eddy. It may be a few feet downstream. Still, it is the lowest point in the current. The strategy for exiting the eddy is the same as a normal ferry – speed, angle, edge. What changes is the point of entry. As you enter the current, focus on the wave and strive to drive your heels into the trough. When done correctly the boat instantly jumps to planing speed and accelerates into the current. This action produces two very desirable effects. One, it allows the boat to cover more distance faster and with less effort. Two, it can be used to gain upstream momentum – a vital advantage to ferrying in pushy water.
Let’s return to our friend Biff. This time instead of charging blindly into the current, he takes stock of a wave extending perpendicular to the eddy. Everything is the same as before, it’s just that now he’s honed his boat placement. Lining up parallel with the eddy line, he finds the trough of the wave and paddles toward it. Exiting the eddy Biff sinks a solid stroke on the downstream side and drives his heels into the trough. In moments he is surfing laterally across the river, propelled toward river-right. Upon leaving the far edge of the wave, he drives another left stroke and cruises cleanly through the intended slot. With just two strokes, he has made the same ferry that on a good day used to take him four. More importantly, he has learned to use the water.
You don’t have to wait until Bonesaw or Mank Creek to try your hand at power ferries. On any class II river there are dozens, if not hundreds of places to practice. The first step is to make a habit of finding them. Identify the troughs – those places where the ferry will be most effective. Think about speed and angle, and then go for it.
Don’t worry about purling the bow, or falling off the back of the wave, or flipping (unless it’s in a place where you should worry about it). Through practice and experience, the decision of where and how to leave an eddy becomes instinctual. In time stroke count decreases, ferries become more controlled, and moves that were once deemed out of reach become reality.