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.
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.
Most of us learned to paddle board on flatwater and then made the leap to SUP surfing, but whitewater SUP is a whole different kettle of fish. One you will want to ease yourself into. Because even though the thrills are a plenty, so is the danger!
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.
Do not even think about challenging a river while standing up without protection for your head, shins, knees and elbows. A first-rate PFD vest is also a must! The difference between running rivers on a SUP versus paddling flatwater and surf is the continuous flow of the water. If you were to compare it to mountain biking, river SUP would be the downhill version of MTB.
Learn about River Navigation and Hydrology
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 learning to surf these perpetual waves!
Now that you understand the basics of river flow, we’re going to focus on the 3 main techniques of SUP river 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 SUP 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 your down-river side and shift most of your weight to your down-river foot so that the current flows under your board and allows your SUP’s nose to naturally turn downstream.
Eddy Turn with Peel Out
This will be your maneuver to stop and get to shore. This move is basically a reversal of what you did in The Peel Out. While in the rapids, change your angle to 45 degrees towards shore. A 45-degree angle will allow you to cut across the eddy line 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 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 where your feet and hips are parallel and facing forward and adopt a surf stance with one foot forward and one toward the back of the board. This will give you more control of your 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/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 are typically 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 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.
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.