Stepping It Up: Learn to Make Hard Moves on Easy Water

“How do you become a class V kayaker?”

This is a question that people ask me fairly often. Most recently at a Pyranha demo day on the banks of the South Fork of the American River. First of all I want to point out that you don’t have to paddle class V. Sometimes I get the sense that people feel that if they aren’t paddling class V they aren’t “real” or are somehow less. I hope my sense is wrong and this article certainly isn’t intended to suggest that you should be pushing yourself to paddle harder water. I enjoy a nice day paddling on the lake as much as I enjoy falling off stout drops. If you are paddling anywhere and you’re having fun then you are right where you should be.

Now, for those of you who do want to challenge yourselves or who are maybe newer paddling and right now you can’t even imagine having the confidence and skills to run some of the things you hear about people doing, this article will hopefully give you some general guidelines and suggestions on how to improve your kayaking skills.

First you should understand that most people didn’t set out to be a class V kayaker, at least nobody that I know. I think most were just looking for new adventures or wanted to explore new places where progressively higher levels of skill were required. For me I fell in love with boofing. Once I experienced the feeling of launching my kayak off of a drop and landing in the water below I was hooked. I wanted to do this everywhere I could. This put me on a path to seeking out more boofs which lead to harder whitewater. I found it could be even more fun and dynamic if there was some kind of turning move before the drop and another below. I’ve found for me that linking moves together and finding that rhythmic flow of the river is a sensation so euphoric I’m not sure how to describe it.

But how do you build the kayaking skills you need?

You don’t learn class V skills on class V water. You develop your skills by finding harder lines to try on the runs you paddle all the time. Honestly the skills really aren’t anything different. You will use the same basic skills on class III. The difference is how well you have mastered those skills. The only other key difference is the mental game. Kayaking is 90% mental. Can you stay calm, focused, and aware of what’s actually happening and execute the right technique at the right moment? This is perhaps the hardest thing in paddling to teach or to learn. I know. I struggled for a long time with it and I see a lot of others on the water who do too. I used to get to the bottom of rapids that were intimidating to me and have no idea what happened between the start and the finish. As soon as I’d drop in I was in full on survival mode to the bottom. Rolling over the lip of a drop and looking down to spot my landing was out of the question for me. It took me a while but eventually I started to get better at this and that opened up a lot of new rivers to me. Have patience and put in the time and you will improve your focus, which will help a lot in improving your overall paddling.

While you’re out on the river working on focus here are a few other often over looked skills you can work on that will help you take your kayaking to the next level. Don’t just float down the middle of rapids. Really drive your boat and go places other than just where the water is taking you. Do this especially on the easy rapids and you will find that you can do it on any rapid. Catch eddies. I know you’ve heard this before. Why do people always say this? Catching eddies in an invaluable skill on the river. It allows you to break down long complex rapids into smaller pieces. Also, it enables you to stop and help a friend in trouble. This happens on river trips at all levels. People get stuck. Being able to catch a micro eddy right next to the person in trouble will enable you to get to that person much faster than paddling the whole rapid and then trying to come back up the bank, which depending on where you are might not even be possible. While you are practicing catching eddies also practice getting in and out of your boat in difficult places. Odds are when someone needs help there isn’t going to be a sandy beach right there. Being able to get out of your boat to lend a hand in a tricky spot is critical.

Play boating is another great way to prepare yourself for running harder whitewater. What does surfing have to do with running the gnar? Play boating will do two very important things for you. First, it will teach you to be comfortable surfing a hole. No matter how good you are sooner or later you are going to surf a hole you didn’t mean to surf, so it’s good to have some experience surfing. Secondly, it will give you a lot of roll practice in a variety of situations.

Ok, let’s recap.

  • Look for new and challenging lines to take on familiar rapids
  • master the basics
  • get a reliable roll (playboating helps with this a lot)
  • improve your  focus (maybe try a yoga class)
  • get in the habit of sitting up and driving your boat
  • catch eddies
  • get comfortable getting in and out of your boat in challenging places
  • surf holes and waves

You can practice all of these things right here on the south fork or on your back yard class II or III run wherever you are every time you go out kayaking with your friends.

I hope this article was helpful and gave you some ideas on how to improve your kayaking skills. Thanks for reading. Have fun out there.

Cheers

Pete

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