Whitewater Paddle Boarding – Simple Tips For Beginners
Whilst paddle boarding in its most conventional sense (standing up on a board and paddling in flat water) continues to grow exponentially from coast-to-coast, some more extreme versions of the sport remain at the feet of only the brave.If you’ve not yet mastered flat or choppy water paddling with a bit of an ocean breeze or current, then running rapids may seem a little bit of a stretch. Having said that, with practice and a solid understanding of river behaviour, safety and technique, its probably not that far out of reach.
It might not well be for the masses and its far more seasonal than flat water paddling, but its the whitewater kayakers in the main that have been turning the tide so to speak as they look for alternate ways to get their fix. Paddle boarding in grade I, II or even III rapids has an entirely different buzz or lack of for a seasoned kayaker whereas on a paddle board it can still be a rush. Those in the kayaking community that do cross over or straddle both disciples can make the most of the water whether its running or not so its definitely yet another way that our sport continues to grow and adapt.
Let’s take a look at some of the more essential elements…
Your Whitewater Paddle Board
Having the right kit for all sports is always key for not only your overall experience, but in this case your safety as well. While safety equipment is essential and we will get to this shortly, having a solid fountain under you, aka your board is a pretty good place to start.
As you will likely be paddling in varied conditions – flat or fast flowing water, moderate currents, or rapids with unknown obstacles – your board and its setup will be dependent on the water that you plan to explore.
Whereas a typical flat water all round SUP is +/- 11 feet long and 32-33 inches wide, whitewater SUPs are typically shorter (less than 10 feet) and wider (33-36 inches). There can be a whole host of variations in length and width but the essential difference with whitewater boards is that they are better designed for manoeuvrability and turning given the challenging paddling conditions. There are trade-offs however as these shorter boards that are designed for rapid and river running are harder to paddle due to their width and do not go as fast or track as well in comparison to an all round board so they require a greater level of paddler skill if you’re to spend more time on your board than off. Like SUPs that are designed for surfing, whitewater boards also tapper up at the front (known as rocker) and the rear as this helps the nose and tail of the board remain above the water line as much as is possible.
There are further variations again is you are looking specifically at surfing river waves. These waves are static or stationary waves that are caused when large masses of water are constricted by a rock which then forms a continuous shorter tight wave. Boards designed for river waves are shorter again and shaped somewhat like a boogie board with squared off noses and tails. This allows the ‘surfer’ to manoeuvre the board in a confined space.
If you are new to river and white water paddling then you will likely not want to go for an overly customised board but one that is a little more all round focused. Aside from incurring yet another expense, you will still be doing quite a bit of flat to moderate current water paddling as well so having a board that performs well in varied conditions makes the most sense. You should therefore aim for a board that is ideally a little shorter than a standard paddle board that has an adjustable fin system and front rocker.
Hard Board or Inflatable – this is almost exclusively the domain of the iSUP. Beyond the fact that they are portable so can be carried in a backpack, they are far better suited to the whitewater conditions. Whereas hard boards will get seriously damaged through the inevitable impact with rocks and underwater debris, inflatables will bounce off these obstacles and come out largely unscathed.
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Paddle Board Fins
As with all paddle boards, the fins play a vital role in the overall performance and control of the board. A fin set up for recreational flat water paddling on a lake will likely not suit whitewater paddling conditions. Understanding the interaction of the fins and your board is therefore quite important.
Your fins will first be governed by your board so having a board with detachable fins is key. This will enable you to adjustyour setup to cater for the conditions that you plan on paddling in. Depending on your level of experience and understanding of all of the different variations, SUP fin configurations can vary from a single centre fin through to twin-fin, tri-fin, quad-fin or even 5-fins.
The centre fins main focus is on speed and tracking. As you will likely be paddling in shallower water, this fin will typically be a little shorter than what you would use for regular flat water paddling as it may hit rocks or obstacles.
The default fin configuration will likely be a tri-fin set-up with two smaller side fins (side-bites) in addition to the centre fin which provides a nice balance for both tracking and manoeuvering. A quad-fin configuration has two smaller fins either side with the centre fin removed which is a good combination in shallower waters. The 5-fin set-up is yet another extension of the quad-fin configuration (centre fin remains attached) which will again aid lateral or side-to-side movement.
It is also important to keep in mind that you will likely also break or bend fins given the terrain that you are paddling in so having spares will be a nice plus.
As important as deck padding on your flat water board is, its more important again on whitewater boards. In this case, size does matter so you should be aiming for a deck pad that has the majority of the boards surface covered. The padding should preferable be diamond shaped with deep grooves which better aids grip and rider traction. Both surf and whitewater SUPs normally also have a raised lip at the rear end of the deck pad so you know where your rear foot is in relation to the end of the board. This also better enables the paddler to lean back and dig in for deeper or sharper turns.
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As with all paddles, the 3 considerations are length, blade and material.
For normal recreational paddling you typically aim for a paddle that is 10-12 inches taller than you are. For river or white water paddling the paddle is shorter as you are typically in a bent stance when paddling so you would be looking at a paddle that is 6-8 inches above your height. Quality adjustable paddles are an obvious choice of course.
Not unlike other paddling conditions, lightweight = good so carbon fibre paddles are always a nice option. Whilst they are light, they are also expensive. They will also be prone to damage given that you will be paddling in rough conditions where in all likelihood your paddle will be hitting rocks and other underwater obstacles. It’s for this reason that a fibreglass blend with a reinforced blade would be the most appropriate choice. Plastic is also an option and while durable and cheap, its also the heaviest out of the three.
Staying with the size matters thinking, larger blades will move more water but they will also require greater energy. Larger and stronger paddlers would therefore typically go for a larger blade and correspondingly, smaller paddlers a smaller blade.
As should be the case with all water sports, safety should always be front of mind and one of your very first considerations. Beyond your safety equipment, do you know the waterway where you will be paddling? Have you been there before or are you with someone that is familiar with the area, the obstacles, the rapids, the distances that you will be traveling? What are the weather conditions or water levels like? Are there calm areas where you can rest or easy access to the shore? You can not put a price on your safety so please make sure its a priority. You should also not paddle on your own so buddy up or paddle in groups in case you are injured or lost.
Life Jacket / Buoyancy Vest – no discussion here really. It’s a critical item irrespective of your experience or skill level. Accidents do happen and you will in all likelihood end up in the water so always always wear one.
Leash – this one gets a bit of debate when it comes to whitewater SUPing. While its important that you and your board do not become separated if and when you fall in the water, some argue that they can be dangerous as you could become trapped or tangled in your leash. The argument isn’t an unreasonable one but leashes are important so you are best advised to look for a leash that has a quick release mechanism meaning that you will be able to detach yourself if the circumstances merit it.
Protective Wear – first and foremost here is the helmet. Like your buoyancy vest, this one is also a must. Something that is light, secure and comfortable will suit. While the paddle boarding industry is yet to develop its own dedicated protective kit, knee, elbow and shin pads that you would use for mountain biking are also quite good if you’re paddling in rough conditions. Again, appropriately sized and secure enough so they do not obstruct your movement or comfort or while you are swimming.
Attire – climate considered, wetsuits are a great option for their obvious warmth but also for added protection and buoyancy if you are in the water. Neoprene booties and gloves are also useful for both grip and protection against rocks and debris.
Dry Bag – a waterproof or dry bag with your mobile phone, first aid kit, ID and any other small personal effects is also useful. Also ensure that you have water and food if you plan on being out for a period of time.
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So now that we’re all geared up and ready to go, is whitewater paddle boarding the same as our regular flat water paddling or are there any differences? Yes we have surveyed the water conditions and gone over all of our safety and need to knowitems but is whitewater SUPing technically different to flat water SUPing?
The short answer is YES, there are some subtle differences in style and technique given the water conditions that you are in. They are somewhat akin to surfing given some of the similarities.
Once you have entered the water in a calm area, adopt a surfing stance with one foot in front of the other with your weight evenly distributed. Placing greater weight on your rear foot helps with manoeuvring and turning whereas your front foot assists speed. When you are in anything other than flat waters you will want to brace yourself by bending or extending your knees which will act a little like shock absorbers. You then dab your paddle in the water to maintain or regain your balance. You will fall off the board but over time with practicing this technique you will find your feet and start to feel more stable on the water.
As falls from your board are inevitable, make sure you remain calm and being aware of your surroundings – waves, rocks, other paddlers or obstacles. If the water is rough or you are in or near a rapid, float on your back facing the rapid – so your feet will be pointing towards the rapid and your buoyancy vest will hold you up with your head out of the water. Once you have rolled through the rapid pull your board back by its leash so you can get back on. Important – don’t let go of your paddle as this will just add another element and challenge as you will have to recover it and getting back on your board.
White water paddling is obviously more challenging than traditional flat water paddling but its certainly another way to spice up your paddling experience. Not for the faint-hearted but definitely worth a go if you’re up for it.
As always we would love to hear your thoughts or get your feedback so please feel free to leave your comments below and we will get back to you.
Until then, stay safe and get wet.