Whitewater Leans

This scenario is often played out in whitewater canoeing and kayaking classes around the country. Leans, and the resulting good balance, are an important part of learning to paddle, but are rarely described with precision. Leans can be organized into three basic types: the J lean, the Bellbuoys lean, and the body lean.

Instructor: "Lean, Lean, Lean"

Student: "I am leaning"

Students' thoughts: "If I lean any more I know I will flip"


This scenario is often played out in whitewater canoeing and kayaking classes around the country. Leans, and the resulting good balance, are an important part of learning to paddle, but are rarely described with precision. Leans can be organized into three basic types: the J lean, the Bellbuoys lean, and the body lean.

The "J" lean, named for the "J" shape of your spine, is a boat lean with your body weight centered over the boat. This lean keeps most of the weight off your blade so you can use it for balance and for strokes. The "Bellbuoy" lean is named for the stiff rocking action of an ocean bellbouy. Navigation bellbuoys are so bottom-heavy that they are self righting. Boats aren't that way! So bellbuoy leans in a canoe or kayak require support from the paddle. As we will see, this makes it a less usable whitewater lean. The final lean, the "body" lean, leaves the boat flat while the body leans. Beginners like this lean since the boat stays securely flat. Of course that usually defeats the purpose. This frequent misunderstanding underscores the importance of describing exactly the type of lean required for each whitewater maneuver.

Probably the most graphic demonstration of the different leans is in sidesurfing. A sidesurf in any boat is exciting, and comfortable surfing requires understanding which lean is correct.

Sidesurfing requires a J- lean to the downstream side. With this lean you can teeter totter your weight over the boat. This allows you to put nearly no force on your paddle blade, so you can use it to move around in the hole or to quiet the bouncing of your boat. Meanwhile you can adjust the exact lean of the boat to try to keep the water from grabbing the upstream edge.

Sometimes beginner paddlers are fooled into thinking they are leaning the boat when in fact they are just leaning their body. This is actually just opposite to the correct J lean, since the boat is flat and the body is leaning out over the water. Instructors refer to this as "I'm leaning, I'm leaning", for the replies students shout when told to lean more.

Even good paddlers fall prey to trying to sidesurf with the bellbuoy lean. The bellbouy does lean the boat, and it satisfies the paddlers' instinct to get the paddle far away from the boat

for more outrigger type support. The flaw to this approach is subtle, but important to understand. The further you reach the blade from the boat, the more you pull your torso out of balance, and the more paddle pressure it takes to maintain. Paddlers sidesurfing with a bellbuoy lean often feel that their paddle is sinking in the water.

A classic whitewater joke speaks of the redneck who takes up sidesurfing his kayak. Before he jumps in to try it he summarizes the three things he knows he will find true.

"First, I know this is going to be really hard"

"Second, I know I need to have a really reach out to get leverage"

"and third, I will have to put a lot of pressure down on the blade."

Of course this is all wrong. Easy sidesurfing requires that you keep the shaft horizontal and slide the blade in close to the boat to make it easy to keep your weight over the boat. The blade should only be used to help you move from side to side in the hole. Typically the high brace position (with elbows down, knuckles up) is rotated slightly to the stern and the blade angle turned to move forward. To move the other direction, use a low brace (elbows up, knuckles down) and move into a reverse stroke with the back face of the blade. If you have trouble moving the paddle around while you are sidesurfing, you probably are in a bellbuoy lean. Move the blade inboard, closer to the boat, to help center your weight over the boat.

Learning and practicing the J- lean is best done on flatwater. First lean your boat, and feel how the weight and pressure changes from both cheeks of your butt to one cheek and the opposite knee. Notice how a good J lean requires that your head be cocked away from the direction of lean. If you can hold that lean for a while, try paddling forward while you maintain a slight J- lean. Your comfort doing this will be directly related to your enjoyment of sidesurfing. Transferring this drill to mild rapids will be even better for developing your whitewater balance.

Canoeists often have a bad habit of riding their braces down rapids. These paddlers use their brace as a crutch, and immobilize the effectiveness of the paddle to do proactive strokes. The irony is that the brace most of these people use is really similar to a bellbuoy lean. True, without the blade in the water they would flip, but that is because they have a bellbuoy lean, not because they have a successful brace. You should be paddling with a minimum of braces, so your weight is balanced over the boat and so your strokes can be effective.

Eddy turns and peelouts are another showcase for proper leaning technique. Practice them without using strokes to adjust the turns. You will learn to feel the hull of the boat smearing across the water, sticking to initiate a good turn. It may feel more dynamic to do a turn with some of your weight riding on a

brace stroke, but in the long run this impairs the effectiveness of corrections you can do with the blade. Duffek and turning strokes should be gently placed to fine tune turns. The paddle shaft should be vertical, so the blade reaches deep into the water rather than with any angle toward horizontal. The more vertical the shaft the better. Even when you use strokes to catch the eddy, avoid depending on them to provide the turn.

Paddlers often develop a misconception about what sorts of leans are required in the middle of a jet of current. To understand correct leaning think of standing on a moving sidewalk in an airport...Do you need to lean while you are moving along? NO...only just when you step on or off the conveyor belt do you need to compensate differently with momentary leans. The same is true for whitewater. You only need to lean when you are in transition from an eddy to the current, or from the current to an eddy.

In small waves, practice floating sideways with no lean so that you are comfortable as you and your boat bob up and down. Your weight should be low in the boat: centered in your butt for kayaks and shared between your knees and butt for canoeists. You can add new twists to this drill by spinning in circles as you drift through standing waves. Only if you encounter holes (that stop the boats momentum) or rocks (remember that bellbuoy lean!) will you need some sort of a lean. Big water open canoeists actually add an upstream J lean to keep tall waves from coming in over the gunwales. To catch eddies gracefully, with a minimum number of strokes, you will need to be somewhat sideways in the current to get the proper approach angle.

Good balance on whitewater is really nothing more than understanding how to keep your body weight centered over the boat with proper leans. When we walk on the moving sidewalk these leans are quite automatic, so we describe them as balance. Work on some of the mentioned balance and leaning exercises, and you will be amazed at the improvement in your paddling.