Flatwater SUP is safe and relaxing. But sometimes, you want to try something challenging. Every once in a while, it is good to get out of your comfort zone. For many standup paddlers, this means whitewater paddling.
The risks of whitewater SUP are well known. This explains why it is a scary idea. You never know what danger the water is hiding.
If you are looking to try this cool activity and still come back home in one piece, you are in the right place. The key is understanding whitewater, learning proper techniques and taking safety precautions. That is the point of this guide.
What You Need For Whitewater SUP
a. A Whitewater SUP
The right river paddle board ensures safety and a great experience. You need to carefully consider factors such as the type of whitewater use, the fin system, the deck pad, among others.
When it comes to the type of whitewater use, there is downstream, river surfing and all-around use. Downstream or river running involves rough environments. The board you choose should be easy to control and stable. For stability, wider is better. If you can get a 36-inch wide paddleboard.
While a short and wide paddleboard is stable and maneuverable, it is not ideal for speed. Tracking straight is something else you will have to forgo.
Assuming you are a beginner, find an all-around whitewater SUP board. This way, you will be comfortable paddling on flat spots.
The fin system of a paddleboard is important for its performance. Choosing the right fin system can be a little tricky. Hopefully, understanding a few things will make the decision easier.
A large center fin will help with speed. However, it can pose a challenge when turning. For lateral control, it is advisable to have two extra side fins. The length of the fins matters as well. Shorter fins are more suited for shallow water.
The best thing to do is to get a river paddle board with a removable fin setup. This will allow you to remove and attach fins depending on the situation. You should also be prepared for the possibility of a fin breaking. There will be rocks and other obstacles in the water. Some whitewater paddleboards come with a retractable fin.
Being able to stay on your board is crucial when paddling on whitewater. Look for a board with a traction pad. When tackling a rapid, the last thing you want is a slippery deck pad.
It is not enough to have a pad with maximum traction. Make sure it covers a large area. You never know how much you will move. You may not even have time to look where you are stepping. That is why a large traction pad is necessary.
Inflatable or Solid Paddle Board?
This debate will not end any time soon. Whenever you are shopping for a new paddleboard, you have to decide between the two.
For whitewater, an inflatable river SUP is the best. Here is why.
First, you can travel with it wherever you want. Not everyone is lucky enough to live near a river. Some paddlers have to travel for a real adventure. iSUPs fit in a bag when deflated making them ideal for transport and storage.
The second reason is durability. If you go white water paddling with a hard SUP, you will be lucky to bring it back home without a dent. The obstacles in the water are likely to cause serious damage.
Inflatable whitewater SUP boards, on the other hand, are hard to puncture. Most of them are advertised as virtually indestructible. They are made for use in any kind of condition. Besides, they are affordable compared to epoxy paddleboards.
b. A Whitewater Paddle
For a whitewater paddle, you have to consider the length, blade size and material of the paddle.
The right length depends on your height. Generally, you should add 10 inches to your height to get the perfect paddle length. But this mainly applies to other SUP variations such as recreation and racing. For whitewater paddling, add 8 inches.
You may come across whitewater paddlers who prefer an even shorter paddle. They will only add 6 inches to their height. This is because you bent a little when paddling white water. If you can find an adjustable paddle, go for it.
A whitewater paddle should be durable and lightweight. With these two factors in mind, carbon fiber paddles are the best. However, they are usually expensive. For a lower price, you can get a comfortably light fiberglass paddle.
Plastic paddles are durable but they are the heaviest.
Typically, bigger paddlers prefer bigger blades. Beginners may also find them comfortable because they offer a certain degree of stability. But know that you will have to use a lot of energy with every stroke.
Smaller blades are ideal for smaller paddlers. The strokes are more in a minute but they don’t require a lot of energy. This makes small blades good for people with injuries.
To get the perfect paddle, you have to try out a few choices. The above factors are supposed to act as guidelines. At the end of the day, you want something that feels right for you.
c. Other Essentials
You must never go whitewater paddling without a personal flotation device. If you forget it at home, stay away from the water. PFDs have saved the lives of many paddlers.
A leash keeps you attached to your board at all times. When you fall in the water, it is easy for the board to float away—which may leave you at risk.
Some experts argue that a leash is not necessary – or even dangerous – for white water. It could trap you and make it hard for you to swim to safety.
While this is a good argument, it is never advisable to go without a leash. The better option is to find one that has a quick-release mechanism. If you get trapped, you can release yourself quickly and get to the shore. The leash should also be attached to your waist and not your calf, so that you can easily reach the quick release mechanism in case of an emergency.
Invest in the right kind of clothing, such as drysuits and wetsuits, for the weather you will be paddling in. Always prepare for immersion. Buy a helmet as well. The board is not the only thing that can be damaged by rocks.
Note: Don’t forget to carry a whistle, knife and a first aid kit.
White Water Paddling Techniques
The first and most important step is assessing the water. Analyze the strength of the current and the direction. You should know where it leads. Does it lead to a dangerous place? Can you paddle against it?
a. Entering and Exiting the Water
Identify an eddy and use it to enter and exit the water. An eddy is a spot of calm, slow-moving water. For total beginners, this is a great spot to practice what you have been learning.
Entering the water in a fast-moving rapid is dangerous. You will not have time to look around and see what obstacles are in your way.
You have to adopt a proper stance for river SUP. The most basic and common one is the surf stance. Put one foot in front of the other, either in the regular or goofy position. With the latter, your right foot will be at the front. While standing like this, your weight should be evenly distributed on the paddleboard.
The front foot helps with speed and the rear one is used in turning. As you become better at white water SUP, you can try other advanced stances.
You will fall off your paddleboard. It is good to prepare you mentally. But you don’t have to fall every time you hit a rough patch. Bracing is a whitewater SUP technique that you can use to stay on your board. Bracing techniques are divided into two: the low brace and the high brace.
The Low Brace
When making a forward stroke, there is the part of the blade that pushes the water back. It is known as the power face. The opposite side is the non-power face.
When the board starts to become unstable, bend your knees a little to lower your center of gravity. Place the paddle in the water, with the power face up. The blade should be several inches from the side of the paddleboard. With the blade in that position, slap the water (see video). You will regain stability.
The High Brace
It is similar to the high brace. But in this case, the power face is facing down. Paddle the way you would with a forward stroke, but slap the blade as it comes into contact with the water.
c. Recovering After a Fall
You already know you are going to fall. When that happens, you need to know what to do.
Assess the Situation
Instead of getting into a fight with the water instantly, stay calm and look around. See what options you have and the dangerous obstacles surrounding you. Will you detach yourself from the board and swim? Can you get back up and continue paddling?
White Water Swimming
If you cannot get to the board immediately, float on your back. Keep your feet up and pointed towards the rapid. This is known as defensive swimming. After you get through it, turn back up and quickly pull your leash to get your board.
Getting Back on the Board
Hold the paddleboard at the center and get on it along with your paddle. If it has been flipped over, don’t try to turn it up from anywhere. Move to its center and flip it from there.
Once you are stable, either continue paddling or go back to the shore and start over.
Safety Tips For Whitewater SUP
Paddle away from trees: while in the water, trees are not your friends. Avoid them completely.
Attend a program: there is a lot to learn about white water paddling. Some things, such as understanding white water situations, can only be learned practically. Find a pro or instructor.
Don’t whitewater SUP alone: always go with a friend who is more experienced. Both of you can keep an eye on each other.
Hold on to your paddle: when you fall, try not to release your paddle.
Don’t stand: the rules of white water are a little different. When you fall off the board, never stand.
White water paddling is an amazing way to challenge yourself. But it can also be very dangerous. You need to be fully prepared even before you get into the water.
Learn all you can about rapids and buy the appropriate gear. If you fall off the paddleboard, relax and do the right thing. This means swimming defensively and not standing. Get back on your board and get to the shore or continue with the adventure. Remember to have fun and collect awesome memories.