Sunday, September 28, 2014

The Art of Whitewater: On or Across the Water

This is the third in a series of posts about whitewater kayaking and some philosophy beyond the basics; ideas and concepts meant to help intermediate paddlers improve and get more out of the sport. As parts are added, these links will go live:

Part 1: Technique
Part 2: Momentum
Part 3: On or Across the Water
Part 4: Group Management
Part 5: Fear Management, Part 1
Part 6: Fear Management, Part 2
Part 7: Focus

On or Across the Water

The Theory

My last post talked about momentum and its role in whitewater kayaking, a common theme among coaches. Another way of looking at things has served me well, though it's harder to summarize and not something that I've heard from others. When paddling, you want to move on the water or across it, never against it.

Every drop of water in the river is moving somewhere, including the water beneath your boat, and you want to follow it or flee from it. To know which, you have to look downstream, to watch the little bubbles and swirls in the water that tell you which piece leads where, and decide accordingly. This is what the great ones do when they scout, seeing every line, knowing where the water that flows cleanly through the carnage begins its route. Some even toss in a stick or leaves to help the reading. It's an art dictated by science, a skill worth time and practice.

The paddler's riding the water that skirts the hole, but also
pointing downstream to move across the water when it turns
sharply to drop into the second hole.
Seeing the water you want is the first step, but once you are are on it you are not done. To stay with it requires constant adjustment of boat and momentum, sometimes matching its speed but often moving a little faster and a little sooner to stay one step ahead. Move left before the water hits the rock and moves left; drive forward to accelerate just before the water falls off the lip of the drop. Find the safe route down by following the safe water.

But more often than not, there is no single piece of water that will guide you safely through an entire rapid, or even a single move. Quite often, the water that is in the perfect place is not headed in the right direction. You need to pass over that water, moving across it in the direction of your goal.  This requires moving across the water, for fighting against it will gain you nothing. The key lies in knowing when and how to disengage from the current..

This connects to the idea of momentum, where I said that in order to get right you have to start on the left. You start moving right by disengaging your boat from the current you are in. Change your momentum by turning your boat away from the flow, edge away if necessary, and paddling. This may take one stroke or many, a slight edge or a hard lean, all depending on how far you wish to move and the strength of the current you are in. Spot the new current you want to reach and continue to drive until you get there. Match its flow, its angle, and follow it for as long as it takes you in the right direction.

Just like with momentum, the key is to start upstream. If you wait until you reach the point where you want to be disengaged, then it's too late by the time your boat is moving across the current. You need to get your boat unstuck from the current upstream in order to be able to make a quick movement across the current when needed. The stronger the current the earlier you need to escape it.

The paddler is sliding across tongue to avoid the rooster tail.
There's a few different ways in which this all goes down. The simplest example of staying on the water is a tongue that leads you through the rapid. Start early and get on that tongue, matching it's movement, and ride it out. As you step up in the difficulty of rapids, it's less likely that a single tongue will get you all the way through. It might take you halfway through the rapid, or even more, but at some point you'll need to get off and find new water. In this case, you don't want to simple float on the water, you want to separated from that current. That means that your speed and/or direction should be different than the tongue - ideally moving across it in the direction you ultimately want to go, but it could also mean paddling faster, or even slower. Any difference will help raise your boat out of the water and make it more responsive to changes that you make.

Another key place where the idea of separating from the water comes up is on boofs, or any significantly vertical drop. The reason we don't want to get stuck with the water is that it normally lands in a hole and recirculates. Once again, our goal is to separate ourselves from this and going across the water is often the best way. When approaching a lip, have a slight angle in the direction you want to go on your landing, or if that's not possible, accelerate to separate yourself from the current. This will make the actual boof easier and allow you to launch clear or the hole at the bottom.

When the vertical drop gets higher, and boofing the waterfall a bad idea, we return to the concept of being on the water. Match it's speed and direction as you go over, plugging the drop and staying with the water that goes under the hole, popping up beyond the recirculation.

The Practice

Start by just noticing the difference in flat water between floating along and paddling across the water. Feel the difference when you try to move left - how much easier is it if you already where sliding in that direction, or if you were moving faster than the current, compared to when you floated on the water.

Find your favorite boof and try it with different approach vectors. Launch from the same spot, but see if it's easier coming from one side or the other; see if you go further when you come in with speed instead of relying on the last boof stroke; see what happens if you plug it (caveat - make sure you know the landing is deep and safe before you try any plugging).

When you're scouting a rapid, watch the water carefully and see where it goes. Start at the bottom and follow a bubble line upstream until it runs into trouble, then see what other line you'd want to be on at that point. Work the whole rapid backwards, and then follow it forwards, maybe even tossing in a leaf at different points to see where the water takes it. Plan your transitions from on the current, to across it, to back on again. It's a positive way of looking at the water on how to move on it, instead of watching the hazards and worrying about avoiding them. And whitewater kayaking should always be a positive experience.

Here's a little video that shows more of this in action:

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