January 28, 2013

Whitewater Kayaking Stuff I Wish I Had Known Early On


OK, I’m not exactly a guru of whitewater kayaking, but I have done enough things wrong in the past four years of paddling that I feel like pointing out some tips to new people in the hopes that it will save you time, stress, maybe injury, and very possibly extend your time in this sport.  A lot of this has to do with the fact that I see a lot of people (including myself) deal with a fear element that can actually push people out of paddling.  Some of that is just part of the deal (and part of the attraction), but there are some simple tips that make life easier and can help you progress faster.

By the way, this post is pretty much for beginner-stage paddlers, although if you’re more advanced and ever in a situation to give newer kayakers advice you might want to read through this and see what you think.

“Find a happy place, find a happy place!”

The goal is to mentally feel like one of these two mice.

First of all, here’s a basic and very important concept: The experiences you have whitewater kayaking tend to get hardwired into your brain strongly associated with certain emotions.  Those can be joy, exhilaration, fear, humiliation, excitement, etc.  But in the end, the fact that we’re dealing with a sport that at times involves the inability to breathe and/or leaves us out of control should not be underestimated.  Humans are huge fans of breathing and not being helpless, and we are created to do everything we can to keep on doing those things.  When we can’t, panic often ensues, and that’s not something you want connected to your kayaking experiences.

So… do everything you can to not experience actual panic more than you have to.  (It’s so simple! :))  You will still probably never feel shorted in the fear and helplessness department, trust me.  My point (yes, I do have one) is basically this:

Fear is fun, terror is traumatic.  If you love whitewater kayaking you love the part of it that is scary along with everything else and that’s a huge part of the thrill, but when fear devolves into terror (too frequently, anyway) you are now at risk of injuring your kayaking career, either because the ensuing mental baggage starts to override the fun and shortens your time in the sport, or it affects your mindset to the point that you’re paddling gripped all the time.  I’ve seen plenty of strong kayakers – often people who progressed quickly because they had a go-for-it attitude and a roll that bailed them out of stuff that was over their heads – tell me they’re taking a break for a while for that very reason.  And there are far more kayakers who still paddle but who would be better at it and enjoy it more if they weren’t dealing with that kind of stuff.

Please understand, I’m a bit of an adrenaline junkie myself and I’m not saying you should be paddling around on a lake.  But I now look at terrifying kayaking experiences (not plain old scary ones) the same way I look at shoulder injuries – in a way they can be just as debilitating to your kayaking career, and maybe even worse because they can take the actual fun out of it.  And as my husband Mike reminds me frequently, the whole point is to have fun. :)

As silly as it might sound, the stuff that leaves people with mental baggage can start in the pool, and this is a post for beginners, so here goes.  Everything I’m pointing out here has either happened to me, or someone else has told me about in a semi-traumatized kind of way.

First Step:  Practice the Wet Exit

This should be the very first thing you learn when you are learning to kayak, but often it’s not.  Wet exiting involves getting out of your boat when you’re upside down in water, meaning that while underwater you reach forward, pull the grab-loop of your sprayskirt to release it from your cockpit, then push yourself out of your boat (and shortly afterwards, breeaathe….)

Here’s the catch.  The absolute last thing your mind wants to do once it realizes that your body is attached to a solid object upside down in water is force you to push your hopeful nostrils even deeper below the water line and serenely reach for your grab loop.  If you haven’t specifically practiced the wet exit and suddenly realize mid-roll attempt that you can’t roll and need to wet exit, your first impulse might instead be to thrash as close as you can to the water line, which means that your nostrils are still under water but your eyes are not and you now have a good view of the other people starting to cast concerned glances your way as they realize a ruckus is starting up in your corner of the pool.

So first thing when you’re beginning to kayak, practice the wet exit.  If you’re afraid of being under water, put the grab loop in your hand before you flip over, and from there progress to finding it under water.  Many things involving successful kayaking have to do with developing muscle memory that kicks in when every molecule in your body is telling you passionately to do something different.

Do A Pre-Flight Check

Nothing implied. ;)

It’s hard to pull a grab loop that mistakenly got tucked under the front of your sprayskirt.  The best way to prevent this is to always (always, even if you can see it plainly) run your fingers around the front of your sprayskirt until you feel the grab loop where it’s supposed to be.  Make this a habit, so that you automatically do it no matter what – the same way that if someone hands you a gun you’re supposed to check to see if it’s loaded, even if you just saw them unload it.

It has to be muscle memory, so that someday you could be putting your sprayskirt on in some challenging eddy getting ready to ferry out into a scary rapid (scary could be Class II or Class V) and even if you have 50 other things on your mind you still check to make sure your grab loop is free.

Some Other Pre-Flight Checks:

Make sure your relief zipper is zipped completely.  I always do this when I take mine off its hook to pack it before a run.  No matter when you do it, I think always doing it at a specific time makes it easier to remember.

Never partially zip up any zipper.  If you do, counting on remembering to completely zip up before starting the run, just know that someday you will almost certainly experience the joy of snowmelt gushing into the comfy warm interior of your drysuit during a swim.  (And as Mike says, seeing as you also end up weighed down with gallons of water you’d pretty much be better off naked.)

Feel around the side and back of your sprayskirt to make sure it is securely around the rim of your cockpit every time your put your sprayskirt on.  One of these days you most likely will realize that it was starting to flip up on one side and would have come off in the next rapid.

Practice Wet Exiting While Keeping Hold of Your Paddle.

Photo courtesy of Jeff Dwyer and Renee Paradis
Jeff Dwyer did not actually swim here, but I just love this shot.

Yes, gear is less important than human life and sometimes you’ll decide to ditch your gear and just swim for it, but it should be a conscious choice, not something you need hypnosis for later on just to figure out what happened.  I only recently started trying to learn this and my first instinct when I’m going to swim is still, “I’m out of here!”  No forwarding address, no looking back, and usually… no paddle.

This is incredibly inconvenient, and there are many times that it’s not at all dangerous to keep hold of your paddle while you rescue yourself.  Paddles are also much harder to find in the river than boats, and they’re expensive.  So, practice wet exiting while keeping your paddle in your hand.  If you decide to ditch it later at least it will be on purpose instead of something you can’t remember doing.  Again, you want to make it muscle memory because when you’re running low on air and at the pull stage your first thought is generally not “Wait, what am I forgetting?”

There’s more, but I guess this is a start.  I love the “gnar” videos that I put on here, mostly because they often involve my friends or people I think are amazing boaters, but I always wanted this blog to also be a source for people new to whitewater kayaking or the Seattle paddling scene.  Those posts take more time, which is why you don’t see them too much.  I am calling this Part 1 though, in the hopes that it will encourage me to do a Part 2. :)


Jeff D., kayaking tips, Mike N.

You may also like

Boofing Waves and Holes Video

Boofing Waves and Holes Video
{"email":"Email address invalid","url":"Website address invalid","required":"Required field missing"}