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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

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 pronto!

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.)

Across the River

Now here it is by the numbers:

  1. Point your boat upstream

  2. Aim the bow in the general direction you want to go. To go to your right, angle your boat's bow to the right. To go left, angle left.

  3. Paddle. This keeps you from drifting downstream. The current striking the boat's side does the real work.

  4. As you begin to move across the river, adjust your angle. Keep your eye on your destination. If you find yourself climbing the river, simply allow your boat to "fall off" till it's more nearly broadside to the current. On the other hand, if you notice that you're drifting downstream, close the angle, pointing your bow upriver a bit. If your best effort just manages to hold you steady against the force of the current, you'll be pointing almost directly upstream. You'll still be sliding sideways, though.

    And what happens when the river's speed exceeds your own? Then you'll need to open the angle again. You'll drift steadily downstream, however, so don't dawdle!

Confusing? Yes. If you try to figure it all out on paper, you'll find that it's a moderately complex exercise in vector arithmetic. But you really don't need a pocket calculator. You just need a little practice. Be sure to pick someplace where the water's not too cold and the current's not too swift.


So much for the upstream ferry. Now suppose that you're headed downriver, and you don't have time or room to turn round. (This was the case in the two examples I gave earlier.) Or suppose you don't fancy running even a short stretch of the river backwards. What then?

It's time for the back ferry. That's "back" as in back-paddle. To be sure, ducks don't often back-paddle — they can turn on a dime, after all — but our expert is willing to make allowances for human handicaps. Here's how he back-ferries right back to where he started.

And Back Again

What's going on here? Things are turned around, aren't they? Our expert points his bill at the place he's leaving, and angles his cul-de-canard where he's headed, instead, back-paddling all the while. As he reaches the faster current in mid-stream, he straightens out a bit, closing the angle. Then, as he approaches the shore and the pace of the water slackens, he allows himself to fall off again. So long as the current never exceeds the speed he can back-paddle, he won't lose any ground. And he'll end up directly opposite the point from which he started.

Our expert makes it look easy. That's what experts do. But there's still something a little counter-intuitive about the back-ferry. Most of us prefer to look where we're going, rather than where we've been. Still, it's a great "Oh my God!" move. Remember the sweeper that blocked your way on the Battenkill? There's no need to panic. Just face your troubles and back-paddle for all you're worth. You'll slide away out of danger in no time.

Not convinced? Then get out on an easy river with a friend or two and try it. Don't go looking for a sweeper, of course! Just practice the upstream ferry until you know all the angles, then turn around and start working on the back-ferry. It'll soon be second nature.

Still having trouble? Here are a few of hints from our expert:

  • Make sure that your canoe or kayak is trimmed more or less level. This is easy for a duck, but we boaters need to watch how we distribute our weight.

  • When leaving the shelter of an eddy for faster water — as, for example, when you leave the shore eddy to enter the main current — always lean downstream, so that you take the force of the current on your bottom. "Bottom's upstream!" is the rule here. Then, when you pick up the eddy on the other side, reverse your lean. Don't be fooled by the switch. The direction of the current in the eddy runs counter to the main current, so it's still "Bottom's up!"

  • Where you put your paddle in the water matters. (Ducks don't have to worry about such things, but we do.) Solo canoeists using a single blade will want to paddle on the downstream side of their boats. It's easier to hold the angle this way, and you're less likely to be levered out of your seat by an unexpectedly strong current. Kayakers, with blades on both sides of the boat, have it easier. This goes for canoeists using a double blade, too.

    Tandemistas, however, have to observe an enforced division of labor. Each has clearly defined responsibilities. Moreover, their jobs change with changing circumstances. When the bow of a tandem canoe is pointed upriver — as in the upstream ferry — the sternman wields her paddle on the side of the boat away from the current. She holds the angle, while her partner in the bow provides the major muscle. Once they've turned around, though, it's the bowman who needs to have his paddle on the downriver side. He now holds the angle, back-paddling in a sort of reverse J-stroke. And it's the sternman's turn to do the heavy lifting.

Tricky? Yes, particularly for tandem teams. But don't be discouraged. As always, practice makes perfect, and the ferry is one slick trick to have in your bag. By the time you've hauled out at the end of your first day of practice, you'll be well on your way to mastering the art — and I'm betting that you, too, will be convinced it's…er…ferry useful, indeed!

Copyright 2003 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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