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Moving Water Techniques

Moving Water Techniques

Rivers and streams offer equal opportunity for play and danger. How well you control your kayak determines whether you spend your day in the sunny, warm air or under water in a cool, oxygen-free environment.

The first skill you need to master is reading the river. River features are like instructions for disarming a bomb. They’re best read ahead of time. Always be looking a few hundred yards downstream. With technical rapids, scout from shore by starting with your destination and working back, noting hazards and eddys where you will rest and regroup. If a rapid appears beyond your skills, portage around it. Always be alert for hazards and never play upstream of them.


The first hazard you may want to be alert for is a perfectly flat horizon line on the water. This can mean a dam or waterfall. While either can greatly augment your speed, it’s usually best to portage around them.

When capsized paddlers tell you that they didn’t do anything, the boat “just went over,” the culprit is often an eddy line. An eddy is formed when current encounters a stationary object, like a rock or log. The river current flows downstream, but the water behind the object that is blocking the flow moves upstream to fill behind the obstacle.

Sometimes, it forms a whirlpool. The line between the two flows is the eddy line. (photo right)

Cross it without the proper moves and you’ll find yourself eye-to-eye with a carp. Enter the eddy the proper way, and you have a haven to rest and plot your next move.

A tongue is the smooth, V-shaped surface at the head of rapids that points the way for you. They point downstream and indicate the most flow and least obstacles. They’re your roadmap for plotting your course through rapids. Vs that point upstream indicate obstacles, but they usually have eddys behind them.

Standing waves form when the river bed drops and accelerates the flow. Since water doesn’t compress, it piles up, forming a series of waves (wave train). A single wave or pillow of water indicates an object impeding flow. If you need to change direction or sideslip in a train, time your stroke to coincide with riding the crest of a wave. In the trough, both ends of your kayak are in the grip of the wave and it’s tough to move the boat. Standing waves sometimes converge at angles (due to angled obstacles), and form a haystack. There’s a lot of power in a haystack and they are often unstable and shifty.

In moving water, you almost always want to keep your keel parallel with the current. If you get crossways, you can easily be flipped or pinned when you encounter an obstacle. If you do find yourself sideways on an obstacle, immediately lean downstream. This prevents the current from forcing down your upstream gunwale and wrapping the boat around the obstacle. Lifting that gunwale will force the current under the boat and help ride the pillow of water around the obstacle. This is even more critical in a decked kayak or canoe, because they can quickly fill with water and become unmanageable.

A single wave can be of a magnitude that it spills over on itself and creates a hydraulic or hole. Or, this appearance can also indicate a very dangerous undercut. Undercut rocks can be seen above the surface and need to be avoided at all costs. Small holes can be punched through with acceleration or used for surfing. Larger holes (keepers) will eat your boat. A tongue coming out downstream of the hole is usually a sign that it can be punched through with a spurt of acceleration. When in doubt, avoid it. A keeper hole can trap a swimmer and kayak.


Water dropping over a ledge or dam also creates a hole. The dropping water dives through the surface, drawing downstream water with it, which creates a dangerous recirculating backflow. Just look at the foot of a lowhead dam, and you’ll see all the debris trapped in this backflow. If the hole is relatively narrow and you get trapped, you can generally escape to the side, or by going deeper. Note that dams run bank to bank, so there is no side exit. This makes them fatal attractions. Do not run them under any circumstance.

There are nuances of all the above and also “funny water” that doesn’t neatly fit into any category. Always be alert for what appears ahead and how it might affect your course and angle.

One of the most frequent and dangerous river hazards is the strainer (or sweeper). It gets its name because water flows through it, but paddlers don’t. People are forced under it by the current. Strainers are most often fallen trees and like to lurk on the outside of bends. Be sure you can avoid them before entering a turn. If it looks even remotely doubtful, portage around the bend. But, if you miscalculate and find that you cannot avoid the tree, time the impact to throw yourself up and over the trunk or limb. Do not try to fend it off with your paddle or stiff arm. This will immediately capsize you and put you under the tree. If you can’t avoid it or leap out of the boat, lean into it and get your upstream edge up so the current goes under you instead of forcing your boat down and under..

If, in spite of all your vigilance, you find yourself going for an unplanned dip, immediately position yourself upstream of the boat. Otherwise, you risk being drowned or crushed by the boat (driven by the tremendous pressure of the current against its entire hull area) if you encounter an obstacle. If you can scramble aboard (thrusting yourself across the beam and then flipping onto your butt), fine. If not, point your feet downstream and float on your back, taking care to keep your butt up (and away from rocks). Do not attempt to stand up in current. If you do, your foot can easily get trapped between rocks upstream. In the resulting fall the current will force your head under water, downstream.


Assuming you already have an effective back stroke (maybe the most important skill), forward stroke and all your sweeps and braces, you’ll need a few more arrows in your quiver to tackle moving water. As previously noted, you must stay parallel with the current. So, to sidestep obstacles without turning your boat, you need a draw.

The draw is simply a forward stroke executed after rotating your shoulders ninety degrees toward the side you want to move toward. Lifting the leg on that side (assuming you’re employing thigh straps) adds to efficiency. End the stroke just before you contact the side of the boat. The recovery stroke can be above the water (after slicing the blade aft and out) or simply by rotating the blade ninety degrees and slicing back to the starting point.

A variation of this is the sculling draw, which can be used when you are at speed. Position the blade beside and parallel to the side of the boat (on the side in the direction you want to move). Slice the blade fore and aft, always turning the leading edge outward.

The ferry is also a way to move laterally, with the added feature of arresting forward progress. With the back ferry, angle your stern toward the bank you want to move toward and back stroke. You can maintain your angle with back sweeps.

The front ferry is similar. Rotate your kayak so it points upstream, angled toward the bank you want to approach. Forward stroke, using sweeps to adjust angle.

Ferries can be more effective if you lean slightly, fore or aft, toward downstream and lean your boat (laterally) downstream. Ferries are especially effective for keeping to the inside of bends when you’re avoiding strainers at the outer edge. Never try to “turn away” from the strainer on the outside of the bend because doing so inadvertently creates kind of a ferry. You are presenting the side of the boat on the inside of the bend to the current, which will push you to the outside. Ferries work on the principle of presenting the side of the boat to the current that is opposite the direction you want to move. The term is derived from ferry boats people used many years ago. These craft were secured to a cable across a stream with a ring. A rudder-like device was presented to the current, which moved the boat across the stream. By stroking your boat upstream, you are creating the same effect as the ring on the cable.

Since we’ve mentioned leans, it would be good to discuss the proper technique. In kayaking, we keep our center of gravity over the center of the boat. So, when we talk about leaning, we’re talking about leaning the boat, not the body. By lifting one leg and depressing the other, we lean the boat, but keep our body upright. This is called a J-lean, because of the shape our body assumes when viewed from front or back.

Eddys provide a shelter from the rapids and are fun to play in. The proper way to enter an eddy is to spot it ahead of time and plan to hit it high (at its upstream point of origin where the line is best defined). Pay attention to the speed of current and allow for that. You want to hit the line perpendicularly, keeping in mind that the line at the head of the eddy is slanted by deflection off the obstacle. So, your angle is about 45 degrees with the bank.

You also want to hit it fast to punch through, so accelerate hard on your final approach. As your bow punches through and your feet cross the line, J-lean upstream. If there’s a danger of momentum taking you through or past the eddy, you can also execute a brace (high or low) or Duffek on your upstream side.

This brace or stroke becomes a pivot point around which your kayak will rapidly spin and face upstream in the eddy.

It’s fun! It’s like the game you played as a child when you ran toward a pole, jumped and grabbed the pole, and spun around it. To plant a Duffek, your outside (of the turn) forearm goes across your forehead as you plant the upstream blade abeam, after rotating the paddle so the power face is facing toward the bow.

The blade is perpendicular to your keel when you plant it, but you rotate it as you pivot, transitioning into a forward stroke that will snug you up into the eddy. The key to a good eddy turn is the lean. Be aggressive with it, but get a feel for when to let up. It should come almost natural, like when you lean a bike into a turn. Since the eddy flows upstream, you want to present the bottom of the boat to it, not letting it get over that outside edge. Failing to lean provides you an opportunity to perfect your crawl stroke.

The peel out (to exit the eddy) is almost the reverse.

Back up into the eddy next to the eddy line, so you have room to accelerate to the top of the eddy. Punch through the line about 45 degrees from the main current.

As soon as you hit the line, sweep on the downstream side and J-lean downstream. Planting the brace or Duffek on the downstream side will accelerate the turn.

The current will grab your bow and pivot you around your paddle.

Sometimes, when you exit an eddy, you don’t want to head downstream. You may want to ferry out into the current to avoid a downstream hazard or play, doing S-turns with an eddy on the opposite bank.

An S-turn is punching out of an eddy, front ferrying across almost to the eddy on the opposite bank, turning downstream with the brace of Duffek, and turning into the eddy on the opposite shore. Eddys often appear on both banks at the foot of rapids, and many paddlers love to play them with S-turns. If you choose to ferry, hit the downstream sweep hard as you cross the line (so the current doesn’t spin you downstream), lean back (and downstream, of course) and maintain the angle. The faster the current, the less angle you need.

You can also enter and exit eddys with ferries. But, it’s good to know both methods.

Surfing is fun. There are variations on it, but we’ll keep the discussion simple. First, you identify a surfing wave (up to a few feet high), which creates a hydraulic behind a rock. Ideally, it’s near an eddy so you can ferry out, slip over the shoulder of the wave and be positioned right on it. If you miss the mark, you have another chance by paddling up the backflow. You want to be parallel to the current, which you can do by using delicate stern ruddering (dipping) your blades, or sweep. Lean back slightly to keep your bow up on the wave. The wave is trying to push you downstream, while the backflow is pushing you up, resulting in a standoff. You’re surfin’, dude! Exit the same way you do an eddy, taking care to lean downstream.

Whenever you’re eddy turning, peeling out or surfing, first check downstream for hazards. There’s always a chance of wiping out, but it’s not worth taking if there’s a strainer, undercut, etc. right below you.

Practice doesn’t make perfect, but perfect practice does. Practice putting your boat exactly where you want it at, precisely the angle you intend.

Paddling with those better than you is a good way to learn the tricks. But, experience is the best teacher. Note what you observe with each outing, and you get better for every trip.

Last modified: December 25, 2021