Illustration by Paul Mason
Photo by Paul Villecourt
When learning to kayak, you're often taught that if in doubt, keep paddling. The reason is simple. Every paddle stroke that you take effectively acts as a brace. When learning, you don't have enough experience to anticipate how the river will push you around, so you're best off paddling and bracing your way through a rapid. As you gain experience and confidence, you gain the capacity to foresee the effects that waves and currents will have on your boat. As this happens, you will change your approach to running rapids. Continuous paddling will no longer be your "default" action. Your default action will now involve floating downstream sideways with your eyes scanning ahead for obstacles.
There are a number of reasons for this. Firstly, a river's current is usually carrying you downstream at a horse's pace without any forward paddling. Unless you're in a hurry or need to build downstream speed to clear an obstacle, then there's no real use in speeding up your descent. Secondly, if you do see an obstacle or a danger ahead, paddling forward is just taking you there more quickly! It also means that you have to turn your kayak almost completely around to establish an effective ferry angle. When floating downstream sideways, just a small sweep stroke will move you onto a powerful ferry angle in either direction. You are also moving the same speed as the main current, so that catching any waves to help you ferry out of the way will be much easier. The key to floating sideways through waves is staying loose at the hips, so that your kayak can follow the contours of the river while your body stays balanced over top.
Reaching a level of comfort on the water where you can float downstream sideways is a significant milestone for any paddler. It indicates that you have developed the balance, confidence and awareness to go with the flow, and to effectively read whitewater from within their kayak. Not only will it let you challenge more difficult and continuous whitewater, but it also marks a new level of paddling independence. Once you reach this point, your next major challenge involves learning to use river features and the power of the river to help you establish lateral momentum. But that's another story…