Words of Wisdom to Avoid

Kayaking is a counterintuitive sport, so perhaps it should be no surprise that we occasionally offer erroneous advice to people learning the sport. I frequently wince when I encounter students who have developed bad habits, resulting from well meaning words of wisdom. These are some of the classics that should be avoided.

PADDLE! PADDLE! PADDLE! is frequently heard along the river, as beginner paddlers are encouraged down their first rapids. This advice occasionally improves a beginner’s odds of making it through a drop successfully. However, the tip encourages the bad habit of flailing, and taking too many strokes. The neophyte paddler is left unaware of the magic of proper stroke timing and placement.

A better approach is a systematic explanation of the places where speed is useful, like for punching a hole. Or for punching into an eddy once the boat is on the right approach path. In either of those cases, 3 strokes of acceleration is all that is necessary. Speed doesn’t help very much in waves, in fact, rushing to fit in extra strokes often throws a paddler off balance.

So next time you cheer for a friend bouncing through a rapid, try making noise. Pound on your boat, and make a racket. You are more likely to be heard, and less likely to start bad habits!

LEAN DOWNSTREAM is another overused tip, offered to keep beginner paddlers from getting violently flipped as they peel out of an eddy. It is good advice, if explained thoroughly. First, the paddler you are coaching has to understand the different types of leans. There is the beginner’s instinctive lean, which leaves the boat flat, while the paddler leans his body forward and a bit out over the water.

kayak lean

For most whitewater moves you actually want a boat tilt, which is accomplished by curling the body and head up over the boat, jutting out the ribcage. (When washing sideways into rocks or other obstacles the lean is like a bellbuoy, boat and body together.) So understanding and practicing this sort of balance, without the paddle as a crutch, is the first step to less power flips on eddy lines.

Next is the issue of how long to keep the boat tilted when entering the current from an eddy. I have diagnosed an amazing number of self-taught paddlers who have the disability of trying to lean downstream all of the time while on the river. WRONG! Not only wrong, but really hard to do. The proper boat tilt downstream advice only applies to a few moments in the transition from eddy to current, and in a few miscellaneous instants, like floating into a hole sideways.

Imagine for a moment walking in an airport with a moving sidewalk. When you step from solid ground onto the sidewalk you need a few moments of balance, leaning, until you have adapted to the speed of the sidewalk. You would sure look funny leaning forward the entire length of the sidewalk! The river is the same, except the look is tippy and awkward, and not as obvious. You only want to tilt the boat for a few moments as you make a peel out, gradually setting your boat flat as you adapt to the speed of the current.

KEEP THE BOAT STRAIGHT is a third oversimplification that beginning paddlers often hear, and follow to their own demise. It is the correct reaction for heading straight into a breaking ocean wave, but for a variety of reasons, rarely do whitewater paddlers keep the boat straight. A quick glance around at expert boaters will confirm that floating sideways is a valuable part of paddling. You can’t get into eddies, or even avoid rocks, while keeping the boat pointed straight downriver. In fact, many of the best instructors teach spinning circles in current to improve the comfort level of students. The ultimate comfort comes from developing the boat control so it is easy to be perpendicular for curling breaking waves, or for ledges.

So the next time you hear one of these bits of paddling "wisdom", keep in mind it may well meaning advice, oversimplified. Tilt the boat when making the momentary transition across different speed current. And keep the boat straight for more predictability in curling breaking waves. So paddle, paddle, paddle, frequently! But not in a frenzy!