Whitewater SUP Basics
These are the basic techniques that you will want to master to have an enjoyable and less dangerous time whitewater paddle boarding.
When we started Glide in 2010, our whole reason for existence was to create a SUP that would survive the carnage that rivers can dish out. As whitewater paddlers who had always taken kayaks down whitewater, we were looking to see how a stand up paddle board would do in rivers. We ended up becoming early pioneers in the sport of whitewater paddle boarding.
Rivers and paddle boards
Trialing our new designs was half the fun of being part of a paddle board manufacturing company! But enough about us, part of our mission at Glide has been to make the thrill of whitewater SUP more available to everyday paddlers. We hope to improve your skill level by order of magnitude and open up a whole new world of SUP for you.
Most of us learned to paddle board on a lake and then made the leap to SUP surfing in the ocean, but whitewater SUP is a whole different kettle of fish (which reminds us: fishing on a paddle board is a blast too) One you will want to ease yourself into. Because even though the thrills are a plenty, so is the danger!
Safety equipment is key on a white water paddle board
Before you consider taking your SUP out to your local river, you will want to check out our article on the safety gear that you will need. Whether you are using hard boards or inflatable SUP boards, the same safety equipment is required.
Do not even think about challenging a river while standing up without protection for your head, shins, knees and elbows. You will likely be in shallow waters where rocks are close to the surface.
A first-rate PFD vest is also a must! Investing in these accessories could make all the difference for you.
The difference between running rivers on a whitewater SUP versus paddling a lake or ocean is the continuous flow of the water. If you were to compare it to mountain biking, whitewater SUP would be the downhill version of mountain biking.
River Navigation and Hydrology and Paddle boarding
Once you commit to pointing the nose of your SUP down current, you are truly at the mercy of the river so it’s a good idea to understand some basic river terminology. For starters, you need to understand how an “eddy” works. An eddy is a river feature that is formed when the current flows around an obstacle and water flows back upstream to fill in the space left by the deflected current. The current inside of eddies flows upstream. Eddies are great for resting and getting out of the current. It’s important to be aware of the “eddy line” which is the swirly and unstable place where the current flowing downstream meets the eddy current flowing upstream.
A “rapid” is the section of river where the gradient increases which causes the water flow to speed up which creates more turbulence. A “hydraulic” (also known as a “hole”) is a river feature created when water flows over a rock or shelf in the river, drops, comes back up, mixes with the air and travels upstream back toward the obstacle that it flowed over. This creates green water that is flowing downstream and a foam pile or backwash of aerated water that flows back up and into the green water creating a continuous flow cycle. Lastly, a “river wave” is formed when the current hits an obstacle and forms an actual wave that faces upstream. One of the great joys our river SUP is river surfing these perpetual waves!
Now that you understand the basics of river flow, we’re going to focus on the 3 main techniques of SUP whitewater stand up paddle running: The Peel Out, the Eddy Turn and the Ferry.
The Peel Out
The Peel out will get you skillfully from the shore to the rapids. Find an eddy that is close to shore and stand on your whitewater paddle board in the middle of it as there will be less turbulence in the center of the eddy.
Then paddle into the rapids at a roughly 45-degree angle (if the river were a clock and 12 o’clock is directly upstream, you are aiming the nose of your board at 2 o’clock). Once you cross the eddy line, which you now know is the more turbulent part of the eddy, place the paddle on the down-river side of your whitewater paddle board and shift most of your weight to your down-river foot so that the current flows under your board and allows your whitewater inflatable SUPs nose to naturally turn downstream.
Eddy Turn with Peel Out
This will be your maneuver to stop your river board and get to shore. This move is basically a reversal of what you did in The Peel Out. While in the rapids, change the angle of your inflatable SUP board to 45 degrees towards shore. A 45-degree angle will allow you to cut across the eddy line as you are river paddling while keeping turbulence to a minimum.
It Is important to pick up speed at this point as it will assist with your stability as you blow across the eddy line. Make sure that you are leaning upstream during the turn so that the rushing water can assist your turn and get you to the calm waters of the eddy.
You will also need to learn to “ferry” your SUP board which is the act of crossing the river without being pushed downstream. Your setup here is going to be very similar to the two movements above. Speed is again your friend when ferrying so paddle hard with the nose of your paddle board angled upstream (use 1 o’clock as your target for this maneuver). As you did in the initial Peel Out, you will want more of your weight on your downriver foot.
Surf Stance vs Neutral Stance
Once in the rapids, you will want to switch from a neutral stance on your inflatable stand up paddle board where your feet and hips are parallel and facing forward and adopt a surf stance with one foot forward and one toward the tail of the board. This will give you more control of your paddle board as your back foot can be used to help lift the nose to easily initiate turns.
Three-points of contact are safer than two and provide far better control and stability. Use your paddle as the “third leg” completing the “tripod effect”. When entering a rapid section on the river, maintain your balance in a “modified surf stance” – additional balance and control can be added by planting and performing a solid paddle stroke and repeating this technique to maintain forward momentum and drive to effectively overcome the obstacle.
The key to falling is to “fall shallow” because rivers typically have lots of shallow waters that are littered with rocks that can be close to the surface. Thankfully the water aids in cushioning the fall but it will serve you well to practice falling as shallowly into the water as possible.
Ideally you will be able to pull on your waist leash to bring your SUP board back to you and climb back on, but you may need to float to a less treacherous part of the river to accomplish this.
Your safest maneuver in this case is to lie on your back with your feet facing down river. You will be less likely to be pinned or snagged by rocks if you maintain maximum buoyancy and float over the rocks. In this position, keep your knees bent so that your feet can absorb any impacts from rocks.
Always try to remount your board and lie flat which will allow your board to protect your body from possible rock impacts and steer yourself towards eddies and out of the flow.
Try to swim with one arm (you will need one arm to grip your paddle) and head for the eddies (left or right) and out of the main flow of the river to get to the shore more efficiently.
Inflatable paddle boards vs hard boards
Whitewater sup boards tend to have cutting edge board designs that allow them to perform well in the challenge that rivers provide. The boards tend to be super stable with a wide tail and full length deck pad. River surfing is possible on river paddle board but typically river surfing boards have a shorter length and features like a multiple fins in their fin setup. Hard board designs will suit river wave surfers a bit better than inflatable SUPs will.
Where inflatable paddle boards really shine is for navigating pure whitewater. Because the best inflatable SUP boards use 3 to 4 layers of military grade pvc that are fused together, you won't need to worry about them getting banged up in shallow rivers. Inflatable paddle boards typically have multiple d rings that will allow you to store your important items in dry bags. Inflatable SUPs also offer full length deck pads that will cushion a fall. Their fin set tends to consist of one center fin. It's a good idea to make sure that the center fin is either made of flexible material or has a shorter stature so it doesn't snag on rocks.
Those are the basic techniques that you will want to master to have an enjoyable and less dangerous time whitewater paddle boarding. You will want to scout out your rivers carefully before heading out to make sure that none of them are running above a Class II and aren’t flooded. Never whitewater SUP alone and never attempt to navigate a river without the safety gear that we recommended in our previous article.