• Paul Clark

How to fall whitewater paddle boarding


Dan Gavere is one of the most respected river paddle boarders. After a long career running whitewater as a champion kayaker, he's helped define the possibilities of standing up through rapids.

The reality of river SUP is that there is a lot of falling off your board in rapids. The important thing is to be able to do it as safely as possible, maintaining composure, and being aware of where you and your gear is at all times. In this series of photos, Dan illustrates perfectly how to set up for success running rapids, even when being successful means falling well.

A few key features:

1. Approach rapids with confidence and an athletic stance. Your body positioning dictates stability, agility, and power. Think of a football players at the line of scrimmage. Low center of gravity, feet spread ready to spring forward, capable to take hits and move sideways. Running a rapid can be as violent as facing linebackers.

2. Visualization. Scout the entrance and exit of the rapids. Imagine yourself successfully navigating the features from start to finish, and keep that vision in your head as you run the rapids, If you can't see yourself doing it, you aren't ready. If you lose the vision half way through, you'll probably wipe-out.

3. Projection. As you move through the rapids, always look forward towards the exit, anticipating the next strokes and moves. Like a mogul skier or downhill mountain biker, paddle towards the future. If you're staring at your feet you'll be caught up in the moment and crash.

4. Spacial awareness. What's going on around you? Where are the hazards? Where's your gear? The more experience you have the more this awareness grows. Be a ninja, move with instinct.

5. Momentum. Control your momentum and slow things down as much as possible for better navigation through rapids. Once you are in the line, keep paddling. Paddle, paddle, paddle. If the paddle is in the water you are powerful and stable.

6. Gear management. Setting up for the entrance requires board handling skills. You may have to ferry, angle the board up river to slow the pace, readjust to accommodate something not anticipated. When you swim, be aware where your board is. The faster you get back on the safer you'll be. Keep a good hold of your paddle. If you swim towards an eddy you know you can catch, it may be helpful to throw the paddle into it so you can swim stronger. A quick-release lease worn above the waist is a good way to keep the board near.

7. Success means you finish the rapids safe and sound with all your gear in tact. The more success you bring to the river allows for more style and more opportunities to clean the rapids in the future.

Dan sets up to run Rattle Snake Rapids on the White Salmon River.

Dan ferries across river maneuvering the board while focused on the entrance and exit of the rapids. His paddle is on the downriver side and he edges downriver working with the current rather than fighting it.

With an offset stance, Dan is able to maneuver the board and adjust for stability. At the top of the entrance he takes a momentary pause to visualize where he's at and his line. In this brief moment he sets himself up for success. However, also in this moment he stops paddling and looses a bit of momentum. That slowing down prevents him from getting to where he needs to be for a clean exit run.

Entering the rapid on a green tongue, Dan switches his focus from the entrance through the feature to the exit.

Dan is low over his board. He squats more than leans over. Many paddle boarders make the mistake of bending at the waist rather than squatting down.

There is a sticky hole at the bottom of the feature, and a lateral wave river left. Dan is shooting for the lateral and has aimed the board perfectly into it. However, he lacks critical momentum to punch the lateral and is drifting down into the hole,

The hole can be retentive. Dan keeps his composure and focuses beyond the feature, and looks to the green water further downriver.

Blocked by a wall of water, this is a critical time. Dan remains calm and focused, His bracing and powerful stance keeps him upright

The board is about to get recirculated. This is not where you want to be.

Safety lies beyond the wall of water. Dan maintains his low-brace and pushes his body outside the hole. He controls the board with his feet, inching the board through the tumultuous water.

Dan keeps both hands on the paddle as he holds his brace. Now his enter of gravity is off the board. He's going to fall, but he should be out of the hole.

One final leap off the board should guarantee getting out of the hole. Dan remains focused. He knows where he is and what he's doing.

Aware he is going to crash, Dan gets in a flat position over the water. Landing flat means landing shallow. You don;t want to fall deep in the river.

Dan has made the leap over the wall avoiding the retaliative hole. He kept his composure. I love this shot because it shows his spacial awareness. He takes his hand off the paddle at the last second to reach for the board. With that he shows he is aware of his surroundings, and is able to manage his gear. Though swimming, he has his gear close to him and will recover more quickly.

Paul Clark is “the duffle bag paddle boarder” and adventure SUP correspondent based in Bend, Oregon. Visit www.suppaul.com for media, photography, and adventure paddle boarding resources.

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