Monday, September 10, 2007

Getting though holes and moving on

Second Ledge, Chattooga River
photo: Jon Clark

Holes suck - both literally and figuratively. In the last article I discussed ways of increasing comfort (assuaging fear) with regards to holes. I remembered a story recently that demonstrates what it means to be comfortable in a hole. So if you don't mind the digression...
I found myself paddling Yellowcreek near the Cheoah five or six years ago with Eric Slover and Team D member Andrew Holcomb. I always really enjoy paddling with boaters that are better than myself and that I can learn from. Without going into too much detail though, Eric "forgot" about the seemingly innocuous looking rapid below us. To make a long story short, Eric peeled out and disappeared over the horizon line, then Andrew, and lastly me. When I reached the lip of the drop I saw that Eric was stuck against a rock and Andrew was below me in this nasty little hole. As I approached the lip Andrew looked up and saw me, our eyes met, and as I boofed he flipped intentionally. I landed on his hull and skirted into an eddy. Downstream of this hole was an unpleasant looking sieve/undercut. Andrew rolled up (after I had boofed onto him), looked at me calmly, and without a hint of panic in his voice asked politely, "Could you please get me a rope"? He was being worked in a hole, just had another boater land on him, faced a sieve immediately downstream, and still thought to use the word please. That's being comfortable in a hole.

Cascades, Low water
photo: Chris Port

Assuming most of us aren't pro paddlers though, and aren't that relaxed while a hydraulic is peeling our eyelids back, we should think carefully about our strategy for punching holes to avoid these unpleasant situations.

Many beginner and intermediate paddlers believe that the most important key to success for punching a hole is the strokes you do when you hit the hole. Others conversely believe that its simply a matter of "paddling hard",and building up speed before you get to the hole. (For more on "paddling hard" click here.) While there are some elements of truth to these beliefs, they are not the most important keys to success. The primary key to success is boat angle.

Lower Wacas, Rio Pacuare, Costa Rica

I was taught, as I imagine many were taught, to hit holes perpendicular, or "dead-on" as the common phrase goes. This approach does often work, but usually only because the hole you were punching wasn't that sticky to begin with, or you executed a well-timed stroke to lift the bow onto the foam pile. The reason it often doesn't work is due to the factors which create a hole in the first place- namely a quick change in elevation and water recirculating upstream. Because you are travelling from a point of higher elevation to lower(the hole itself) your bow will naturally point downward, even if only a little bit. If you hit the hole perpendicular, your bow has no choice but to submerge, or partially submerge under water (or the biggest part of the foam pile) which kills your speed. You now are either stuck in the hole, about to get backendered, or paddling aggressively to exit it.

Rob Barham punching holes in Panama

A better approach is to hit the hole with slight angle. (Slight being the key word here - too much angle and you get to practice sidesurfing and windowshades) With a little angle, the brunt of the hole hits your boat around your knee bump (which unlike the bow is difficult to submerge), allowing the bow to clear the hole and not killing all your downstream momentum.

About to get worked at the bottom of Oceana, Tallulah
photo: Rob Barham

As far as the strokes go, think about using only two strokes to punch a hole. The first stroke is a boof stroke, designed to lift the bow, and generate a little speed. (If you don't feel comfortable doing a boof stroke, do a forward stroke). When you hit the hole, your next stroke should be a reaching, SLOW, forward stroke somewhere around, and preferably past, the foam pile. If that stroke didn't work you're probably in trouble - more strokes, bracing, and sweet sidesurfing will be necessary.

Anne smoothing her way past some holes, Rio Reventazon, Costa Rica

For consistent success think about where you're hitting the hole as well. If possible hit the corner of the hole and not the center, as many holes are weakest at the corners. (There's also eddies many times on the corners of holes). The type of hole will dictate where you hit it. Sometimes you've got no choice but to hit the meat. In any case, think about boat angle the next time you see yourself facing down a hole. Good boat angle is guaranteed to cut down on the times you look at the boater in the nearest eddy and politely ask, "Could you please get me a rope?"

Facing down a big one on the Rio Futaleufu, Chile
photo: Jon Clark


Saturday, September 8, 2007

A Better Boat to Boat Rescue?

Thanks for the help!

A traditional bow rescue calls for the paddler who is upside down to have their hands out of the water on either side of the kayak while also rubbing back and forth along the boat. This rubbing is advised for two reasons: first, so the rescuer who is paddling aggressively toward them will be less likely to hit his/her hand and second, as a means to search for the bow of the rescuers kayak that might have come in behind or in front of their hand.

While professional kayak instructors have the experience to approach upside down kayakers slowly and the precision boat control to ensure that their bow makes contact with the kayak at the right angle, many kayakers who have taken it upon themselves to teach their friends and loved ones do not.


I have seen it many times. . . someone in the group is upside down on the lake, hands rubbing patiently on the kayak while an intrepid rescuer accelerates toward him only to create an inadvertently painful kayak hand sandwich or to have the bow of their kayak veer off in the wrong direction at the last second, leaving the kayaker to pull his skirt and swim.

The traditional bow rescue does have the advantage of keeping the rescuer at boats length from the upside down paddler but it comes with some risk of possible injury to the hand of the person you are trying to rescue. There is also a slightly lower success rate if the person grabs the bow incorectly as illustrated in the photograph bellow.


There is another way to execute a boat to boat rescue that is friendlier, reliable and more controlled. It consists of paddling up along side the upside down kayaker and physically guiding their hand to your boat. This results in a much more controlled rescue and has two big advantages. The physical contact with the person generally has a calming affect and also allows for excellent communication when the kayaker's head is resting on your kayak.

While this type of boat to boat rescue has a high success rate, it does have one draw back in that it puts the rescuer at risk of being capsized by the person pushing with their arms, hence lifting their head and not hip snapping. This can be mitigated by leaning slightly away from the side of the kayak that is being used to help the person rolling up.

The technique for this rescue works as follows:
  1. Paddle up along side of the kayaker.
  2. Grab the wrist of the their closest hand (this is important)
  3. Guide their hand to the side of your kayak.
  4. Have the kayaker proceed with placing the other hand on the boat laying their head on the boat than a hip snap as usual with a bow rescue.
Grabbing the wrist and not the hand allows you to take control of their hand as you guide it to your boat. It is important to be aware that you are exposing part of your body to someone who is upside down in the water. Generally paddlers who are calm enough underwater to be asking for a rescue are much less likely to be in a panic when they feel your hand. As a general rule though, if you are approaching an arm and hand that appears like some sort of possessed periscope, it is best to just let that hand reach for their grab loop.

So next time you are on the lake and one of your friends is upside down asking for a rescue, this is just one more option to choose from. Which one will depend on your commfort level, ability, situation and understainding of the limitations of each type of rescue.

Stay tuned for some tips on how to use this on the river.


Sunday, September 2, 2007

Bad hydraulics are like bad relationships

Have you ever noticed that holes are never placed in a very fortuitous position in a rapid? Very rarely are they situated up against the bank on the opposite side of the river, safely isolated from where you’re trying to navigate and cordoned off with yellow police tape. No, most of the time they’re positioned somewhere in your direct line of travel, transforming a relatively easy line into some sort obstacle course, which by the time you’ve safely completed, leaves you with a feeling of vertigo as you’ve just utilized fourteen strokes to turn eight times in a rapid that’s only twenty yards long - all for the sake of avoiding holes.

It is my contention that of all the hazards one may find on a river, it is a hole which gives the common paddler the greatest concern. In scouting a rapid we might see an undercut, a pin rock, a strainer, a hole, and al-Qaeda on the bank (scary rapid indeed) – yet it is the hole that we will focus on the most. The reason for this is that most paddlers have experience with the unpleasantries of holes, and very little experience with the other aforementioned hazards. We know exactly what will happen if we get stuck in that hole, because it has happened before – we flip, we struggle to roll, we get windowshaded again, we pop the skirt, get recirculated a bit, and end up swimming through the rest of the shallow, crummy rapid while everything inside of our boat becomes flotsam in the froth. It is our brain’s evolutionary duty to remind us of these past experiences, in hopes of persuading us to not make the same life-threatening mistake again. We are therefore victims of past experience.

In this aspect, bad kayaking experiences are similar to bad relationship experiences. Kayak carnage stories share all the same themes of relationship carnage stories – you didn’t see it coming, you were taking it all for granted, not paying attention, couldn’t find the surface, were fighting for your life, and left the encounter with fewer positions than you started with. In both kayaking and relationships, sometimes you just need to pull the skirt and swim for it. The problem is that after a bad experience in a hole or in a relationship we become gun-shy and don’t want to have anything to do with either for a long time. And while we may be able to avoid dating for a while, we certainly can’t avoid holes for any extended length of time, unless we want to give up boating all together.

I could tell you to get back on the horse but that’s a dumb analogy. There’s a reason you just got your lunch handed to you in that hole – it was mean, it was tough, and it didn’t like you. Don’t go back in that same hole right away. Seek out smaller holes in safe areas of the river, preferably with some flat water behind them. Try sidesurfing. Try flipping. Try rolling very slowly and relaxed. Try only paddling on the downstream side. Try to fix your vision on a downstream point. Try leaning forward, engaging the abs and obliques to hold the boat on edge instead of your paddle (you need that to dig your way out).

This last point is something you can practice without a hole. Put the boat on edge and lean all the way forward until your head touches the deck. Without using your paddle slowly sit up. Where does it feel like you have the most control of the edge? Where can you hold the boat on edge without it wobbling? (It’s probably half-way between all the way forward and sitting up straight. This is the position you should be in when in a hole. It’s also a position conducive to shoulder safety.)

Why is it that we feel perfectly comfortable executing a forward stroke but not swimming out of holes? Is it because we practice one but not the other? Probably. Practice swimming out of mild holes. The Devil’s Dip is a popular play spot on the Tuck. On my last ride of the day I’ll always flip and swim intentionally in the hole to practice such things as tucking, “balling up”, holding on to my paddle, and swimming my gear to shore. We are quick to tell beginners the importance of learning to wet-exit and swim in whitewater, yet we often forget to apply that lesson to ourselves.

The bottom line is that if you want to be more comfortable in holes you’ve got to spend more time in them – both in and out of your boat. Yes, this is scary. But it is also extremely rewarding as you come to the realization that the majority of holes (unlike my first girlfriend) aren’t man-eaters and you don’t need to fixate on them or always avoid them.

Part 1 of 2. Next week: How to punch through holes.