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Tips and Techniques - Running Big Water

Running Big Water

Does the mere thought of running big water in an open boat make you break out in a cold sweat? With the right technique, big water can be big fun! Yes, it will be a challenge, but don’t let it intimidate you! Here are a few pointers to get you started:

Set Up and Go Early

What really sets big water apart from an average river is the speed and force of the current. The key to a successful run is to set up early for the rapid. As you approach the drop, pick a line and get in position. Then, pour on the power and get going! Don’t hold back and drift toward your line. You’ll be much better off if you hit your mark early—even if it means having to hold back on a stroke. The alternative is misjudging the speed of the current and completely missing your line. Frantic last second-strokes rarely work to get you back on line. Be aggressive—set up and go early.

Take the Highway

The main goal (besides surviving) when running long, big water rapids is to stay dry. As you take on more water, you lose speed and stability. One of the best ways to stay dry is to ride the “highway.” The highway is what I call the low spots (valleys) between the big waves. These “valleys” tend to be flatter areas of current with solid water. This is opposed to highly aerated water (in more turbulent areas) that offers less purchase for the paddle. That’s not to say it will be an easy line, but your chances of keeping the boat dry will be greater. If you go for the top of the waves or “peaks,” expect a wild, wet ride!

Face the Action

Another key to staying dry in big water is to approach things head-on. Whether it’s a diagonal, concussion wave, chop at the end of a rapid, or giant swirlies, your best bets will either be to line up in advance or spin the boat to face it. Hitting something sideways (or being hit) will fill your boat, slow you down, and generally make you lose control.

Let’s take a diagonal as an example: Most big water drops will have a large, pronounced tongue. Quite often there is something nasty waiting at the end of the tongue. To avoid it, you’ll want to get off the tongue before the end, and that typically means cutting a diagonal wave. If you try to slide up the diagonal from a (more or less) parallel line, it will roll right over the gunnel and onto your lap. On the other hand, if you line up properly or spin to face it, you’ll ride right up and over. Just keep in mind that the momentum of your boat will still be moving downstream, no matter which way your bow is pointed. The mere act of facing something won’t do it all—you’ve got to paddle! Remember that speed is your friend.

The Big Kahuna

If you can’t resist (or avoid) going for the big waves, you’ll need to be aggressive and under control. As you approach the face of a big wave, the water tends to accelerate and will exceed the speed of your boat. To stay under control, you need to tap into that speed. Do this by leaning forward and planting the paddle firmly in the current. You won’t actually be taking a stroke, just use the paddle as an anchor (or connection) to the fast current. The forward lean will load the front of the hull, giving the current more of a grip on it. This will help you stay on line and it will further increase your speed. Without sufficient speed, your stern will have a tendency to break loose and the boat will spin around backwards.

(Webmaster’s note: I experienced this very thing several times while paddling in the Grand Canyon. I would slack off on my power stroke just as I rode up the face of a wave, and at the top it would spin me around backwards. Coming down 15-footers in reverse usually resulted in a spectacular trashing…)

When you are just about to hit the top of the wave, pull back on the paddle and do a powerful forward stroke. This gives you a push to break through the top. At the same time, lean back and unload the bow, keeping it high and (hopefully) dry. Don’t be surprised if you get some air in the process!

Break it Down

Whenever you can, try to break the rapid into several small moves. It’s far better to run a long, big water rapid in small increments rather than trying to tackle it all at once. Sure, this is going to be more difficult and will take some skill, but it beats the alternative—a kamikaze run to the bottom. Look for the highway and use the mid-river eddies, don’t just focus on the pool at the end. 

When scouting a rapid, look at where the water flows and figure out how to put it to use. Ask yourself this: If you were a log floating down the river and entered the rapid at certain point, where would the river take you? Then, where should the log enter so that it ends up where you want to go? From there, where should it go to get to the next point? By running these scenarios over and over, you’ll learn how to use the flow rather than fighting the river every step of the way.

Big Water Rolls

Sooner or later, one of those big waves is going to get you. Even if you have a bombproof roll, there are a few differences between rolling in the big stuff and your home river. Timing is everything. It’s just about impossible to roll while traveling up the face of a big wave. Why? Because at the end of your roll, you will be on the face of the wave (at a steep angle) rather than on flat water. Due to the steep angle, you’ll have no stability and will flip right back over. What you should do is wait and feel for the backside of the wave, rolling when you hit the bottom. Since the water will be moving fast, this doesn’t take long, usually it’s only a matter of seconds. But it means that you have to resist that urge to get back to the surface RIGHT NOW!

The force of the current will probably be much greater than you are accustomed to. You’ll need a solid (and automatic) set-up to get you in position and ready to roll. Also, your outfitting needs to be tight, otherwise you’ll never stay in the boat long enough to roll.

Know Your Limits

Don’t be afraid to portage all or part of a big drop. Remember that in big water, rescue will be more difficult. You should approach a rapid as if you were on your own, because if something goes wrong, you might very well be. Don’t put yourself or someone else at risk because your ego or peer pressure pushed you into a situation beyond your ability. Big water can be the ultimate in big fun but it should never be taken lightly.

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