Coaching How To Whitewater

How to Kayak Down Big Waterfalls

Running big drops in a kayak on white water rivers carries a risk and a mistake in judgment or technique can carry heavy consequences, so it’s important to have a good idea of what you’re about to do. ‘Huck it & Hope’ is not a wise course of action. When he’s not out winning freestyle competitions or flying on big waves our man Ed Smith loves to challenge himself on steep whitewater and gnarly drops, so he seemed the ideal candidate to run through the correct techniques for getting the best outcomes from running the big ones.

With big, gnarly drops on every video and in every magazine we look at, it’s hard not to be inspired to get out on the creeks and have a go! Just like in freestyle paddling, techniques are getting refined on the rivers and creeks, enabling limits to be pushed and when executed correctly, manoeuvres look effortless. This side of our sport provides us with a huge adrenaline rush and an overwhelming feeling of exhilaration when we push through our own boundaries. If freefall is new to you and you want to give it a go then I hope this article provides you with some of the knowledge needed to kick things off slowly and safely. If you’re already a junkie, then maybe this can help you refine some edges and strokes to help keep your head dry.



Make sure your equipment is suitable for running a waterfall. Your boat will need to be fitted well with plenty of padding on the seat and full-plate footrests. Make sure that central pillars, airbags and backrest are secure. Helmet and PFD need to be tightened up; if you go deep the last thing you want is to lose these!


When running falls, a good safe team, that you trust, is essential. Throw lines, knives, slings, carabiners and handy first aid kits should be carried along with the knowledge to use them. Always make sure you can get out; if it’s a roadside run then all you need is some car keys if it’s a committing gorge then take climbing equipment and a map.


By the time you come to run a freefall you’ll have probably experienced grade 3 to 5 whitewater, but this doesn’t always mean you’re good to go. Whether it’s a river you’ve run 5 or 500 times, each day on the river is different so you need to make sure that if you’re going to run a hairy drop, you’re focused and confident at that moment and can visualise yourself successfully running the fall.

Lead in

With a lot of drops, it’s often the lead in that’s the most challenging part. I’m not going to go into huge details with this as there are just a couple of basic things that will help you be where you want to be as you go off the lip of a fall.

The first thing is keeping good posture in your boat with your head up looking where you want to be. Looking at where you don’t want to be is the surest way to end up in trouble.

The second thing is a simple rule taught to me by my father after one of my first out of control experiences on the river; “There are two ways to be in control as you go down a river: either go slower or faster than the water. If you’re unsure or need to make a line P.L.F. – paddle like *!#@” This remains my number one emergency rule of river running and creeking.


Launching off a waterfall is the bit where a lot of people go wrong. This is due to the very brief heart-stopping moment, which causes people to stop paddling and look down in horror. A bad take off generally means a bad landing!

At the lip of a fall once again look where you want to be going. Obviously down, but no waterfall is perfect, so most of the time we want to be landing in a particular place or at a particular angle. As you look where you want to land, plant a stroke, which will help you maintain control as you follow it through and use it as a leaver for you to change both body and boat angle as you fall.


During freefall, I don’t take my eyes off where I’m wanting to land, but one of the most important things to me in freefall is to keep your body in an upright or forward position, ready for action. Leaning back is a sure way to injure your back very badly. By keeping upright or forward you keep control. If you are in a position where you need to pull the bow up because you have too much angle, you can move your body slightly back and use the active body momentum to pull your legs and boat up. On the other hand, if you are falling with a flat angle then a good forward lean should help your bow drop and arch into a nice freefall.

As my body moves in a freefall my paddle follows for leverage – if I need to drop the bow my arms and paddle are over the bow. If I need to pull the bow up, I pull my arms and paddle back.


The main objective in landing is to reduce as much as your surface area possible to minimise the impact. To do this, you need to adjust your head, shoulders and paddle. Shoulders should be turned at an angle so they don’t face on to the water – around 45 degrees – your paddle should be kept parallel with your shoulders, again at around a 45-degree angle to the water. Having shoulders and paddles parallel keeps you stable and solid.

I like to keep my eyes on my landing pad as long as I can, so I generally keep my head up on falls around the 25-foot mark, as there doesn’t tend to be too much impact if things go to plan. On larger falls, or if things don’t go to plan, tilting your head down and to the side means that the top of your helmet will take most of the impact and there is less chance of your nose making an impact with your cockpit rim.

If things go horribly wrong and you’re heading for a flat landing, the forward position mentioned earlier will prevent the shock from travelling up your spine, hopefully preventing a compression or breakage. However this may provide you with the harsh alternative of your face making contact with your cockpit or deck but given the options, my face is nowhere near pretty enough to take the risk of injuring my spine.


If everything goes well, all you may need for a recovery is to shake the water out of your eyes before heading on downstream. If you’ve gone deep, then trying to get your body forward as you’re under water will help you resurface in a stable position and prevent being back looped. If you end up upside down then a quick roll will help you be in position for the next rapid or prevent you from heading into that corner where you don’t want to be.

The Dry Line

Remember, just because you know how to do something correctly it doesn’t mean you should! Your biggest tool in running big drops is your judgment. Just because someone else ran it successfully doesn’t mean you will. Unless you are one hundred percent focused and sure of a successful outcome take the dry line and walk around. Macho chest beating and peer pressure have no place anywhere on the river or creek, but especially when it comes to big drops. Your friends won’t think your so cool after they have to come visit you in a hospital! Assess each fall carefully; check the lead in, the lip and the landing. If your team are happy for you to go and to run safety for you. You’re clear of your technique and you’re feeling focused and charged go for it. If you’re not, again leave it for another day!


  • Have the right equipment and knowledge.
  • Don’t get pushed offline before you’re at the edge – P.L.F!
  • Spot your landing and paddle for it as you launch. Don’t freeze.
  • Keep your body active in freefall to maintain a good angle.
  • Tuck up to reduce the surface impact on landing.
  • Be on the ball for the next rapid or any hazards.

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