How To Paddle On Whitewater: Your Guide To Riding The Rapids

If you’re a paddler who wants to level up the fun, launching your inflatable in Category II+ rapids might be the real deal. However, knowing how to paddle on whitewater would need a higher level of skills. Learning to ride the rapids is a challenging task and if you don’t know the basics, you’re exposing yourself to a deadly risk.

Before you launch your boat and grip the oars, there are some steps you should take. Take time to read the following:

CREATE A PLAN

Never go to the rapids without a solid plan for your trip. Remember that Category II and up waters are highly dangerous especially if you don’t have a contingency plan during emergencies. The first thing to know is on what category your skills fall. Class I is the calmest possible form of rapids and it goes wilder as you climb up the ladder of whitewater extremes.  The Category VI, or the most extreme level, is only for professional paddlers and those who have prior experience riding such waves.

After identifying which rapids would suit your skill level, map your route. Make sure that you have a specific end and starting point including the distance of your trip. One thing you shouldn’t forget is to check the water level on the day you’re paddling so you’ll know what to expect.

how to paddle on whitewater

In case you’re going with a raft with more than one person, make sure that you’ll assign the strongest and most skilled persons as co-paddlers. Make sure that the other passengers know some precautions and self-rescue drills as ways on how to paddle on whitewater.

PRIORITIZE SAFETY

Whitewater could be very wild so it’s mandatory that you and your passengers (if there is any) wear U.S. Coast Guard-approved life vests. You might consider tucking a small knife in the pocket of your vest so you can cut free from a rope in case of an entanglement. You should secure a whistle on your vest to act as a signaling tool during emergencies. For rescue situations, it would be a good move to carry with you a throw bag tied on a rescue line. Knowing self-rescue would also make a difference.

Always bring means of communication like a radio or a cell phone on a dry bag. Adding a first aid kit and a sunblock would be advantageous too as the temperature can be very intolerable. If ever the weather is too hot, it’s best to ditch the full wetsuit but not the life vest.

GET THE RIGHT BOAT

Kayaks are the usual choice among inflatable as it’s easy to maneuver and very stable. Beginners prefer this over a multi-passenger raft, as kayaks are faster to turn on Class III rapids. If you’re fit for a Class IV whitewater, a raft would be the most stable choice but it is a bit slower to turn. Choosing the right boat depends on your skill level and if you’re going alone (this is a no-no!) or not. Practicing how to paddle on whitewater should always be accompanied by another boater.

Always invest on RIBs as the hull of these boats can withstand the scraping and impact of the water. You can’t afford to have a deflating vessel in the midst of a raging current.

MASTER THE STROKES AND TURNS

Whitewater boating is far different from the usual afternoons by the lake. The current is stronger and you have to master strokes before launching your vessel. For sure, you have tried or even mastered the basic forward or backward strokes. It’s best to add the following strokes and turns on your paddling arsenal before going for a wild ride.

Draw Stroke

This stroke allows you to have a steady course and maintain your tracks while on the water. To do this, you have to reach out to the water, with your upper body exposed outside the boat. The surface of your paddle’s blade should be placed parallel to the side of the boat. Afterward, make a strong stroke of pulling the boat to the paddle with the help of your lower body. You should pull the boat to the paddle’s direction and not the other way around.

The slower and larger the draw stroke is, the more effective it would be. Too much noise coming from the draw stroke means that it’s ineffective.

how to paddle on whitewater

Ferry turn

If you’re stuck in an eddy, a ferry turn would help you get back to the raging waters. To do this, whitewater paddling instructor Paul Kuthe suggests that you follow the ATM: Angle, Tilt, and Momentum. This way on how to paddle on whitewater is applicable for kayaks or canoes.

For the cross-ferry turn, position your boat at a 45-degree angle relative to the current. Start paddling vigorously as you leave the eddy. Tilt your kayak or canoe sideways so you can let the incoming water go under the hull and prevent your cockpit from being filled with water. However, practice enough caution as the tilt is a critical balancing act. Once you’re faring well in the current, maintain your momentum by paddling continuously.

PREPARE FOR THE POSSIBLE HAZARDS

Whitewater tracks are filled with large rocks and uneven surfaces so make sure that you include this in your planning stage. Some parts of the rapid could be a plunging hole of drifting water so you should be prepared for the possible harm.

Look for the large waves that pile on the upstream side, as this is a red flag for a large boulder on your way. Watch out for fallen trees too as these strainers are major culprits in capsizing a boat.

It’s best to anticipate the possible scenarios if ever you’re going to pass a hazard point. If you’re going to go creeking, is being ejected can be too harmful? Are there large rocks where you’ll be thrown into? Do I know how to paddle on whitewater?

Be careful on parking on eddies as the seemingly calm waters would play a big role once you’re going to ferry your way back to the rapids. If the current form a smile-like image to you or like a U-shape from your view on the boat, it’s a safe eddy. In case it looks like a frowning current, you’ll be trapped on recirculating waves if you park on it.

GO WITH THE CURRENT

When you’re already in the water, follow the current if you can. It’s best to go with the “tongue” that the rapids create as this will bring you to your desired direction. From your point of view, it will look like a V-shaped track.  If you think that the current you’re in isn’t where you want to go, paddle harder to regain your control.

Be careful with going with the flow as there are rocks that you might not see. Always have a watchful eye and if you’re on a raft, create a team plan.

EXTEND, DON’T SHRINK!

The tendency of most beginners when they face a crashing wave is to shrink onto their boat. This shouldn’t be the case if you want to succeed on your trip. When you’re being overcome with the gushing water, lean forward and paddle harder to regain your control.

Never huddle to protect yourself as you’ll only end up in a more serious situation. One way to know how to paddle on whitewater is to paddle away from the water trap. This is the same reason why you should gear up before launching the boat into the water.

how to paddle on whitewater

THINK OF IT AS SURFING

If you’ve been to surfing once, you’ll probably have an idea how harsh waters can be. Think of it as surfing where you have to be agile and in full control. The discipline of catching a wave could apply in riding the rapids as well. Always hang onto your vessel whatever happens even if you’re already unsure whether you can finish the trip or not.

Surfing through the incoming waves will make it easier for you to advance. It will also give you a floating feel. The rapids aren’t really as frightening as you thought it would be.

GRAB THE LINES

For dear life, hold on to your raft’s grab lines whenever you’re facing an intense series of waves. This is important for non-paddling passengers to reduce the risk of being thrown out of the vessel. Those who are riding kayaks are less likely to be thrown out as they are ‘wearing’ their vessels and there are leg straps inside.

UTILIZE THE EDDIES

The eddies are the respite point in the middle of the rapids. You can utilize this to gain your composure after an ordeal with a strainer or to plan your escape from the large boulders. Just be careful on choosing the eddies, it should be ‘smiling’, right?

Knowing how to paddle on whitewater is a crucial skill if you’re a serious boater. Surviving the raging waves is a fulfilling act, not to mention the collection of candid snaps you’ll have on your photo album. Do you find this post helpful? We’ll be happy to know below!

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How To Paddle On Whitewater: Your Guide To Riding The Rapids

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