Racing the Rapids

Some advanced tips and techniques can help any white water paddler get a good start.


White water racing kayaks are extremely manoeuverable and specially designed to you get downriver faster. These kayaks are shorter and more manoeuvrable than regular sprint kayaks, since you need to manoeuvre through white water rapids and make it safely downstream.

Perfect physical conditioning, skill and harmony with the water are the essential elements of white water racing. As a white water paddler, you probably spend a lot of time observing the qualities and energies of water currents in an effort to get the maximum out of each ride. No matter how good you are in any sport there is always room for improvement.

Skills to Practise

Practice makes perfect – A couple of runs before race day is just what you need to judge the current. Marker buoys are usually set up in advance, so you won’t have difficulty with your trials. During these sessions, figure out the lines to take during the race. Most importantly, practice your technique, which includes your posture and how to paddle correctly. Perfecting your technique will keep you going at maximum speed without getting tired too quickly. Pay close attention to things that slow you down and those that help you speed up.

Practice drafting – Drafting is a technique that needs plenty of practice. It would be prudent to practice this art and science with friends. A competitor drafting your kayak can be handled by manoeuvring your boat. This will land them in the shallows or undisturbed water. Drafting is a valid race tactic so you would want to practice this a lot, in preparation for race day.

Choose the right racing kayak and equipment: There are several types of kayaks. However, racing kayaks are smaller than regular kayaks, as they are designed for speed and to withstand the extreme, although they are just as comfortable. White water kayaks are made from tough material like polyethylene and are usually around 6 – 10 feet. It is equally important to do a few test runs, if you have a new kayak. No matter how experienced you are, you need to get the feel of a new one in order to race effectively. Make sure you have specifically designed kayak racing equipment.

Get comfortable with your paddle: Your paddle acts as a steering mechanism to propel you through the water. The paddle helps you avoid rocks, crags, manoeuvre around other racing kayaks and it keeps you centred when you are at the top of a waterfall. The paddle is an extension of your arms so choose one that suits your white water paddling style.

Maintain your gear: For optimal performance, make sure your kayak, paddle and all the other equipment are in good shape. Clean and fix any broken equipment and keep your life jacket, wet suit, footwear, dry bags and spray skirts race ready.

White Water Paddling Tips

Here are a few tips that will help you negotiate that white water effortlessly.

Avoid shallows – Remember, deep water is your ally when you move with the current. In shallow waters, hull resistance increases and will slow your kayak considerably. Take the shallow route if you are white water paddling against a current and you find areas where the bottom isn’t shallow enough to slow you down.

Check the weather – The weather plays an important role in white water kayak racing. Gusty winds make paddling against the current even more challenging. Against the current, you ought to minimize the time your paddle blade is in the air. The trick is to hunch and make your body as small as possible, to counter the wind. Take advantage and draft behind boats as much as you can. With good kayaking skills, you will be able to paddle defensively if you end up in traffic.

Prevent losing momentum – The buoys are points where you should always be paddling so that you don’t lose momentum. For this you need to set up your turns and make them as close to the buoy as possible without hitting it. When there is less traffic, you can take a sharp line. However, if there is plenty of race traffic, stay on the outside. Collisions make you lose momentum, especially if your paddle happens to run into another racer. Therefore, make sure you are wide of the traffic on buoy turns.

Drafting during the race – Try to draft at every opportunity during the race. Drafting 2 meters off another boat can result in energy savings of up to 30%. As drafting is very much a part of white water kayak racing, you can use it as a key strategy during the race.

Keep an eye on opponents: During a race it is most important to keep a watchful eye on your opponents. This will help you plan your race strategy and avoid accidents with other kayaks.

White Water Paddling Techniques

Like with most sports, technique is almost everything! Get it right and you could secure your position in the lead.

Use your forearms and torso: Proper paddling techniques can make you run a race more efficiently. Your forearms and torso provide the power for each stroke. Use your forearms to hold the downward pressure and your torso to pull the paddle through the water. White water paddling requires a more vertical stroke since the paddles are shorter with wider blades. Only the blade should be submerged in the water or else you won’t be able to gain the required momentum. Proper ergonomics will help you use your muscles efficiently and minimize excess strain that can lead to bursitis or tendonitis.

Paddle stroke: Every white water paddler must play close attention to the paddle stroke. Your paddle stroke must begin in the water close to where your feet are, in the kayak. Pull the paddle towards you in one long stroke and stop in line with your hips. Make sure you submerge the paddle into the water, so you feel the resistance of the water. To get better control over your kayak during a race, pull against the resistance in a full stroke. To keep the kayak moving straight, pull the paddle close to you. Stroke the paddle further away from you, when you make turns.

Maintaining balance: Balance can make a big difference when it comes to racing. Keep your back straight and let your hips rotate as the kayak moves over the water or rapids. Maintaining an upright position enables you to control the kayak better, without the risk of toppling over. Don’t lean back against your seat. This makes paddling difficult and you won’t have much control over the kayak either.

Paddling sequence: Getting the paddling sequence right will help you tackle the water more efficiently. The sequence begins with reaching forward, followed by blade drop, same leg drive, and hip and torso rotation. This is followed by a slight bend of the elbow as the blade comes to the hip position.

Push and Pull: The push and pull paddling technique gives you greater paddling speed and efficiency. As you begin to paddle, stroke towards your body on one side, while the paddle on the other side moves away from you. With this motion, you will be able to push with your arm and torso to generate more power for your stroke.

Leg push: Your legs should drive every stroke while each leg push initiates a stroke. You need a good leg push to give you that added power.

Bottom elbow: Your elbow must be straight most of the time. Bending your elbow will make each pull more difficult with less power.

Capsizing: When your kayak capsizes you need to be able to get your kayak up again and yourself out of the water. The key is to learn how to cope with a capsize. One option is to pull free from the cockpit by releasing the spray skirt, placing your hands on the sides of the kayak as you push yourself out of the cockpit. Alternatively, you can learn to roll and get your kayak back in an upright position. While you are underwater, lean forward with the paddle parallel to the kayak. Move the leading blade away from the kayak and ensure that the blade is flat on the surface of the water. In a backward sweeping motion, move the paddle across the body, sitting up in the process to allow paddle movement. Twisting the upper body makes the kayak roll. A hip flick will bring the boat and your body back into the correct position above water. The hip flick action involves the keen where you need to pull one side of the boat towards your body while you hip pushes the kayak away on the other side. The flicking action will get you out of the water and into an upright position.

Boofing: Learn to keep your kayak’s bow from diving underwater. Once you learn this technique you can boof eddy lines, boof holes, steep drops and waterfalls. However, if you don’t get it right, it could negatively impact your back as it creates a shock to your spine. When you want to boof, look for the steep part of the drop. Your success lies in your power stroke, so plant it over the lip of the drop. Keep the paddle vertical so your kayak doesn’t turn too much. Push your hips to the front so the bow stays up and when landing, press your weight forward.

Managing rocks: If you can’t avoid the rock, then it’s better to keep your kayak titled downstream. At least this way, your upstream edge won’t catch the main current. Polish your river reading skills, so you won’t be caught off-guard by a rock that lies just below the surface. However, if this happens hit it with enough speed you over the top. Remember, to protect your paddle as submerged rocks can do a lot of damage.

Eddy turns: Eddying in and out of the main current can let you navigate the white water more safely. A successful eddy turn will depend on the strength of the current, angle, speed and spin momentum. A good approach would be to build enough momentum, so you cross over the eddy line at a 45 degree angle. Your kayak should end up looking downstream. This would require a power stroke to take the kayak all the way over the eddy line.

Rolling in moving water: Remember to roll on your kayak’s downstream side as that will be a lot easier for you. Further, the water that rushes below the foam pile will hit the face of the paddle and push you to an upright position.

Practising your rolls: A roll requires great technique and even greater confidence. Whether it’s a back deck roll, hand roll or any other kind, practise this art so your body is in the perfect position to complete the roll and keep all your body parts safe! When you decide to roll, commit yourself to it and don’t back out in the middle.

Safety: The importance of safety for a white water paddler can never be undermined. Your safety equipment must be on you at all times in the water. This includes your life jacket and safety helmet. Check the weather conditions and the current before you get into the water. Keep a paddle leash so that you can retrieve your paddle, if you happen to drop it in the water.

During your white water paddling training sessions set goals for yourself, stick to them and you will achieve success. These tips can help any white water paddler get a head start in a race. All it takes is discipline, commitment, the right mindset and plenty of practice to conquer the white water and beat the competition. Using these techniques will make a lot of your moves in the water effortless.


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Created: June 2011
Revised: August 2011
Latest Feedback: August 2011