The Hole Story
Tips for getting out of those sticky situations
By Bryant Burkhardt
In whitewater kayaking you’re taught right at the start to avoid holes. “Just go around them”. Or if you can’t miss them, “just hit them head on and paddle through. If they flip you you’ll flush out.”
And that works for beginners - most of the time. But eventually you’re going to hit that big monster of a hole that you should have avoided, you won’t have time to square up to it and once it flips you you won’t flush out. To prepare for this eventuality you need to know some strategies to get yourself out.
Quick review: a hole is a hydraulic feature where the water on the surface is re-circulating upstream. It’s the re-circulating surface level water that pushes you and your boat upstream, essentially holding you in the hole. But underneath the upstream current the deeper water flows downstream – in large holes that downstream flow may be quite a ways below the surface.
|Drawing by Alex Horangic|
OK, you’re in a hole
Here’s the situation: you hit a hole, flip and stick. What do you do now? The first thing to do when stuck in a hole is to keep your wits about you - and stay in your boat. Swimming is an option but a safer and generally smarter strategy is to first try to get out of the hole while staying in the boat. The ability to think clearly and use specific techniques to escape the hole often makes the difference between a short surf and an epic swim. Begin your exit strategy by tucking tight with your paddle in a set up position for the roll – this will protect your shoulders. That re-circulating water we talked about earlier can be your friend – it’s circular, meaning that it will actually help roll your kayak back up if you go with the flow of the water. Don’t just throw out a roll attempt – work slowly and feel the direction the water wants to roll you and go with it using a small paddle motion and hip flick. This motion should bring you up sideways in the hole leading to a side surf. To stay upright in this side surf make sure you lean downstream as much as possible to keep the water that is pouring into the hole from catching you and flipping you again (and again and again – something referred to as window-shading).
Surf it sideways
From the side surf you can make your first and safest attempt at getting out by paddling or ‘surfing’ your kayak to the side of the hole and escaping. Holes are generally weakest on the side so if you can make your way over there you might just wash out. Use your brace (high or low depending on what you’re most comfortable with and what the environment is like) to move yourself forward or backward to get to the side. Make sure to try both sides – if you can’t get out forwards don’t forget to try going backwards. If you can get yourself to the side of the hole don’t be afraid to reach for the water flowing by with your paddle – it will help to pull you out. Side surfing takes some practice and the best place for that is the ocean surf. If you don’t live near an ocean find a small hole that you know will release you and practice with that.
Surf it straight up
If the side surf isn’t working – you can’t make it to the side or once there you can’t break out - then you have to be prepared to surf the hole straight up. Point your nose upstream into the hole and drive forward. This will take you into the current of water that pours into the hole and hopefully that water will drive you and your boat down deep and take you under the hole with the downstream current. Yes, this action will likely flip you - so get a big breath and hold it before you dive in.
If you’ve tried to surf you way into the heart of the hole and it didn’t spit you out then you are most likely going to begin a rodeo session whether you like it or not. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Try to ‘throw down’: get the ends of your boat into the current as much as you can, potentially getting your boat into a vertical position. Often a vertical boat (especially a creek boat) will be sticking down into the water far enough to catch that downstream current. Many a boater has done a tail stand going through a hole and washed out the bottom still vertical. By rodeoing the hole the same motion can work to get you out after you’ve gotten stuck.
This approach is generally a last resort since it puts your shoulders under strain. Since we know that the water underneath the hole is going downstream we can go down there and grab it. The first step is to flip upside down. Again, take that big breath before if you can. Once upside down start in a safe tucked position and slowly reach a paddle blade over your head (this means reaching towards the bottom of the river). Try to keep your elbows in as close to your body as possible but for really big holes you may have to extend your arms quite a ways. Once the downstream water grabs your blade you need to hang on and let it pull you and your boat downstream and out of the hole.
|Drawing by Alex Horangic|
Sometimes you just can’t reach that downstream water while you are in the boat. That boat, after all, is just a huge plastic balloon full of air that floats on the surface. So one final trick is to let the air out – go ahead of pull your skirt. The boat will flood and sink below the surface – if you manage to stay in the boat you can catch the downstream current and ride it out. Most boats have enough flotation to bring you back up to the surface once past the hole and you will then have the fun task of paddling a kayak full of water to the shore. Not easy or graceful but it helps keep you with your gear. Another advantage to this technique is that it is also the first step in the final option:
During all these techniques you will be flipping and spinning and underwater at times. While it is generally good to stay in your boat sometimes it makes sense to wet exit while you still have some air in your lungs. The exact timing of when you decide to swim is a judgment call but the more you can mentally focus and remain calm the better your decisions will be. If you do exit your boat and find yourself still in the hole you will need to swim towards the downstream current once again. Most of the same techniques you tried in your boat can be tried without a boat. As you get pushed back upstream into the falling water tuck yourself into a ball and go as deep as you can and let that water carry you under and out the hole.
With all these techniques you will most likely come out of the hole upside down. Don’t forget to roll up. I’ve seen many folks fight a hole and make it out but then pull their skirt because they weren’t aware they had escaped. It all comes back to keeping your wits about you. One of the best ways to work on your mental control is to do some playboating – working on your physical control. Practice in friendly situations so you will be prepared for the less friendly ones. Remember: knowing is half the battle.