Coaching Open Canoeing

Whitewater Tandem Canoe Skills

Gearing Up

Before venturing out onto the rapids of the world in your Canadian canoe some basic prerequisites are required. A suitable amount of practice on flat water to ensure a solid basic skill level, forwards, backwards, turning and support strokes should all be quick, easy and reliable. A basic knowledge of what to do when your canoe, or a friend’s canoe, capsizes is also recommended and advantageous to a having a successful and enjoyable day on the river. The whitewater open boat paddler also requires more personal equipment; a correctly fitting buoyancy aid is essential, as is a correctly fitting helmet. Suitable clothing for the prevailing weather conditions and solid footwear is also advised. The canoe itself also requires more equipment; airbags should be fitted and secured in the bow and stern of the canoe and a rescue line should also be secured to at least one end of the canoe. Extra equipment such as a spare paddle in case one is lost or broken, first aid kit and a throw bag are also recommended and should be secured well, but easily accessible.

Green & Dry

The open canoe, as the name suggests, is open to the river and therefore the most important factor to consider when navigating rapids and moving the canoe around in whitewater is keeping the water out of the canoe! The more water there is in the canoe the heavier it is and therefore the harder to paddle and manoeuvre, this will drastically affect your enjoyment of the river trip, so rule number one; keep the water out of the canoe. Two simple techniques for keeping the canoe dry are following the green path down the river and slowing the speed of the canoe to just below the speed of the river.

In all whitewater rapids there are breaking waves, rocks, stoppers and green water, (flowing but smooth water), by paddling through waves and stoppers water can splash into the canoe, so the clever line to take is to manoeuvre the canoe around the hydraulics and stick with the green, thus keeping the water out of the canoe. Slowly back paddling and maintaining a speed just below that of the water keeps you in control of the canoe and increases the time you have to react before reaching a hydraulic and so increases the chances of manoeuvring the canoe around obstacles successfully. Keeping the canoe on the green water will keep the water out of the canoe, and you able to manoeuvre easily, which, of course, is the aim of the game.

The Ins and Outs

When you are on the river there is always the opportunity to practice and master whitewater techniques, such as breaking into an eddy and breaking back out into the flow. And forwards and backwards ferry gliding. When open canoeing on flat water it is generally accepted that the paddler in the stern is in command of the canoe as they are responsible for steering, however on whitewater this role is reversed and the paddler in the bow is in command. This is because the bow paddler has a better view of the river and the rapids and can, therefore, identify obstacles quicker and react accordingly than the paddler in the stern, whose view is slightly obscured by the bow paddler. Obviously, when you’re paddling solo in a canoe you’re in command!

Breaking out is the term used to describe turning the canoe into an eddy and stopping. The break out can be deconstructed into several easy steps. Firstly select a suitable eddy, it should be big enough for the canoe to comfortably sit in and in an achievable location, trying to learn to break into an eddy you can not easily get to is not smart and will not help you climb the learning curve. Secondly make a plan of how you and your partner intend to paddle the canoe from where it is, to the destination eddy. Entering the destination eddy as far upstream as possible is the best way, as the eddy and the eddy line is most defined at the top and will give you the greatest chance of success. Build up forward speed before crossing the eddy line. As soon as the forward paddler can reach into the eddy use a bow rudder or cross bow rudder and place the paddle blade across the eddy line into the eddy, holding the paddle firmly in position and pivoting the canoe around the paddle and into the eddy. The stern paddler compliments the turn with either a forward or backwards sweep stroke.

Breaking back into the flow is essentially the same process. Make a plan of where you want to go, the next eddy or a route through a rapid. Use several forwards paddle strokes to build up speed and paddle out of the eddy with the bow of the canoe pointing upstream, as soon as the bow paddler can reach across the eddy line place the bow rudder or cross bow rudder stroke into the flowing water, again hold the paddle position firmly in the flow and allow the canoe to turn around the paddle stroke. Do not release the stroke until the desired change in direction has been achieved. The stern paddler compliments with the appropriate sweep stroke, a forward sweep for a bow rudder and a backwards sweep cross bow rudder. Before breaking back out into the flow do not forget to look upstream to ensure you don’t paddle into any oncoming kayaks, canoes or rafts!

Top Tip

Timing is the key to success when breaking in and out, as soon as the bow of the canoe crosses the eddy line the canoe will start to turn because one end will be moving quicker than the other. Lean slightly into the turn and turn your head to look in the intended final direction of your boat. The bow paddler should hold the turning stroke, bow or cross bow rudder, in position with the stern paddler performing sweep strokes until the canoe is pointing in the intended final direction. Then both paddlers perform several forward strokes to finish the manoeuvre. If the first bow rudder does not turn the canoe as fully as desired repeat the stroke.

Timing is the key to success when breaking in and out, as soon as the bow of the canoe crosses the eddy line the canoe will start to turn because one end will be moving quicker than the other. Lean slightly into the turn and turn your head to look in the intended final direction of your boat. The bow paddler should hold the turning stroke, bow or cross bow rudder, in position with the stern paddler performing sweep strokes until the canoe is pointing in the intended final direction. Then both paddlers perform several forward strokes to finish the manoeuvre. If the first bow rudder does not turn the canoe as fully as desired repeat the stroke.

Play the Ferryman

Ferry gliding is the name applied to the technique of moving a canoe forwards or backwards across the flow of a river using the power of the water to push the canoe sideways, whilst the paddlers maintain the position of the canoe in the river. The name, as it suggests, comes from early river ferries, which were used to cross fast flowing rivers, a rope or cable was strung across the river and tensioned, a raft was attached be means of two ropes, the rope at the front was shorter than the one at the rear so the raft sat at about 45degrees angle to the flow and the force of the water pushing down on the upstream side and deflecting off at an angle moved the ferry across the river with no human effort. Ducks and swans are the ideal example to give when trying to explain a ferry glide, the duck sets itself at a slight angle to the flow and paddles forwards, the combined motion of the duck paddling upstream at an angle and the flow of the water pushing down moves the duck sideways across the current. This is exactly what you aim to achieve when ferry gliding in a canoe, practice is the key to understanding exactly how much angle is necessary; however as a simple rule for starting out is this. If there is no flow what so ever on the river it will be possible to paddle across directly to your destination at 90degrees to the flow, as the flow increases so must your angle. Technically speaking the fastest flowing river you can perfectly ferry glide across is one flowing just a bit slower than the maximum speed you can paddle forwards. As well as ferry gliding forwards it is possible to ferry glide backwards; exactly the same techniques apply except in reverse! Backwards ferry gliding is particularly useful for manoeuvring around obstacles in rapids, as the canoe approaches an obstacle the paddlers should be paddling backwards down the rapid, so all it is necessary to do is slightly open the angle of the canoe to the flow and the canoe will backwards ferry glide across the river and away from the obstacle. Cool!

Top Tip

As every river, every canoe and every different combination of different paddlers affects the way the ferry glide works the only real tip is to practice, practice, and practice! Start off with very slow moving water with your aim at understanding how the moving water affects the canoe and its direction. Practice both forwards and backwards ferries. Once this basic idea has been understood and practiced find faster-flowing water and set yourself goals. For instance ferry glide across the river from Point A to Point B the better and more confident you get the harder goals you can set yourself. When ferry gliding in turbulent whitewater it is advisable to lean slightly downstream during the ferry glide, this will assist with the balance of the canoe and minimise the amount of water shipped in.

Early Baths

Occasionally during an open canoe whitewater adventure, it is possible that the canoe will upset itself and tip its contents and paddlers into the river. Don’t panic, this is not a big problem and with knowledge and practice the situation can be corrected quickly. Your canoe should be fitted with airbags, which when correctly inflated should float the canoe upside down on the surface of the river. There are now two options open to the paddlers. Firstly if the river bank is near and a suitable and safe landing point can be identified, a big eddy is ideal, tow the canoe, by means of swimming, into the eddy, empty the water, recover your pride and continue. Secondly if dry land is far off or the rapid is rocky it is beneficial to try and climb back into the canoe and paddle the canoe full of water to the bank. This is advantageous for several reasons, it is easier, and safer, to paddle a canoe full of water down a rapid than to try and swim with one. At least when paddling you have some degree of control over the direction of the canoe.

Top Tip

Before starting on your whitewater adventure, ensure everything you are taking with you in the canoe is secured properly, excluding pets and passengers! There is nothing worse than capsizing and seeing your dry bag with dry clothes and a flask of hot tea floating off into the distance when you finally recover yourself and your boat to the shore. Ensure the airbags are fully inflated and securely attached to the canoe. Never swim downstream of the canoe, if you are caught between a rock and a canoe full of water you will be squashed, simple as that. Always remember to keep hold of your paddle in the case of a swim, as you will need it later. Practice capsize drills in a safe environment before relying on them in a real life situation, practice paddling the canoe around full of water and swimming with it to the side.

Before starting on your whitewater adventure, ensure everything you are taking with you in the canoe is secured properly, excluding pets and passengers! There is nothing worse than capsizing and seeing your dry bag with dry clothes and a flask of hot tea floating off into the distance when you finally recover yourself and your boat to the shore. Ensure the airbags are fully inflated and securely attached to the canoe. Never swim downstream of the canoe, if you are caught between a rock and a canoe full of water you will be squashed, simple as that. Always remember to keep hold of your paddle in the case of a swim, as you will need it later. Practice capsize drills in a safe environment before relying on them in a real life situation, practice paddling the canoe around full of water and swimming with it to the side.

Safety in Numbers

Lastly and most importantly when going on your first whitewater adventure as a tandem, going alone is not the best plan, remember there’s safety in numbers, so go with some friends (even kayakers will do) and let somebody know where you are going and when you intend to return. Ensure the river you intend to paddle is suitable for your ability. So now you ready to become a whitewater open canoe paddler or crew, pray for a week of rain followed by a weekend of sunshine and get out on the river with friends and enjoy.

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