Reading the River
Ferry Useful, Indeed!
By Tamia Nelson
October 21, 2003
Not too long ago, many canoeists and kayakers
thought that there was only one way to get through a rapids: paddle like hell
and hope for the best. Some paddlers still think so, of course, but most boatmen
have come to realize that faster isn't always better, and that it doesn't always
make sense to go with the flow. Sometimes the best thing you can do on a river
is stay put.
Stay put? On a river? In a current? When there's no eddy to park in? How?
Easy. But first, let's look at a couple of examples where staying put beats
charging ahead. Suppose you've scouted a
drop from shore. So far, so good. Once you're out on the water, though, you
realize that you're in the wrong place to catch the chute. What do you do now?
You need to hold your ground, then scoot sideways across the river to recover
your line. But how? That's the question.
Or maybe you've started down a lively little stream like the Battenkill.
There are no boat-eating rapids here, just deep pools and fast riffles. It's a
warm fall day, and you're bewitched by the vibrant colors in the hills. Perhaps
that's why you're not paying as much attention as you should to the run of the
water. Suddenly, without warning, you find yourself sailing around a bend in the
river, just beneath an undercut bank. You see a sweeper dead ahead. If you don't
do something fast, you're in for a close brush with Whispering
Death. But what can you do? Paddle like hell? No way! You don't want to go
faster. You need to put on the brakes and move toward the inside of the bend,
away from the lethal embrace of the overhanging branches. And you need to do it
No problem. Life is full of apparent contradictions. Sometimes less is more.
And sometimes slowing down is the best way to get out of trouble in a hurry. In
both of the scenarios I've just outlined, the ferry will take you where
you want to go. Next to a solid eddy
turn, it's the most useful move a paddler can have in his bag of tricks,
particularly if he's paddling a long, lean, straight-keeled boat. And listen up,
sea kayakers! River paddlers aren't the only ones who can take the ferry. Anyone
paddling on waters with tidal currents will find that this trick is well worth
mastering. All it takes to make it work is moving water.
But what, exactly, is the ferry? The name gives the game away. Back in
the days when farm wagons were state-of-the-art transportation and roads were
built and maintained by local labor, bridges were rare and costly structures.
Most small streams were crossed by fords or ferries, and the cable ferry was a
common sight. It wasn't much to look at just a flat-bottomed barge
tethered to a cable strung across the river. The tether, a V-shaped bridle, ran
from a free-moving ring on the cable to the bow and stern of the ferry, where it
was led by a series of eyes and blocks to a windlass. When the boatman needed to
take a wagon from one shore to the other, he just cranked the windlass,
shortening one tail of the V and lengthening the other, till the upstream
end of his boat pointed the way he wanted to go. Once he'd poled his ferry
away from the landing, the river shoved hard against the turn of the bilge, but
the bridle kept the boat from drifting downriver. So it moved sideways instead.
Of course, canoeists and kayakers can't count on finding cables where they
need them. (Good thing, too. A cable strung across a river is a hazard.) But
they can use their paddles to check their drift downstream. And that's
the secret of the paddler's ferry: just hold the boat against the current and
angle the upstream end in the direction you want to go. The river does the rest.
It's simple, elegant, and efficient.
Now let's see how an expert waterman does it. Some time back, while
revisiting a stretch of the Raquette that I hadn't paddled in a while, I found
myself below a fast chute. Looking upriver, I noticed a mallard drake paddling
toward me. He caught sight of me, too, and I guess he didn't like what he saw.
In any case, he eddied out behind a near-shore rock above the lip of the chute.
Once there, he took a few minutes to rest, groom, and think things over. Then,
having apparently decided that the river downstream was too crowded I
could almost hear him muttering, "We get all the riff-raff nowadays!" he
headed for the other bank. But he didn't swim straight across. The current was
too swift for that. Instead, he left the eddy with his head facing upriver,
pointed his beak where he wanted to go, and paddled just hard enough to keep
from being swept downstream. In seconds, he'd crossed to the other side. It was
a virtuoso performance, a classic upstream ferry. It looked easy, and so
it was, for a duck.
But you can do it too. The picture shows you how: from left bank to right in
one smooth move. (Trouble telling left from right on the water? Remember the
Rule of the River. Face downstream. The bank to your left is always the Left
Bank; the bank on your right, the Right Bank. The labels you give things
change as you turn around, but the river always faces the same way. The Right
Bank will stay the right bank until the water starts flowing in the opposite
direction. So unless there's a tidal bore due soon, don't expect the names of
the banks to change.)