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Posted In: Paddling

6½ Helpful Hints When You’re Learning To Whitewater Kayak

Karl Schmidt

September 13, 2017 9:21am

Editors note: Home page photo credit Rich Young

If you have the opportunity to ask a veteran whitewater kayaker, “How did you learn to paddle whitewater?” there is a good chance that you will be entertained with a series of cringe worthy and poorly thought out river exploits that obviously skewed the statistics of any risk-management calculation. Yet, against all odds the person standing before you is in one piece, and according to them is grateful they joined the sport.

Hmm, you must be missing a piece of the picture, right? Right.

Kayakers approach the Pipeline Rapids in downtown Richmond.

Jilly and Billy “Against All Odds” Paddler are often the exception, not the rule.  For every I-tried-whitewater-kayaking-and-loved-it story, there are more I-tried-whitewater-kayaking-and-will-never-do-it-again stories.  It’s with that in mind that I’ve provided the following list, which aims to create more success stories that don’t have a sustained white knuckled trial by fire component to the whitewater learning curve.  So whether you are thinking about trying out whitewater kayaking for the first time or you’re a seasoned expert looking to mentor others, the list below should provide some food for thought.

1) Smile — There is a direct correlation between the how much you smile and how well you’ll paddle.  My worst blunders while paddling have all started with an overly serious face.  Even if you’re faking it, you’ll be surprised how many seemingly scary whitewater situations can be resolved with a big ol’ hollar and an ear-to-ear smile.

2) Don’t let someone you love teach you to paddle — Suppose your significant other or family member is a world renowned whitewater kayaker, and they teach people to paddle for a living, and you have the best relationship even, and really want to learn to paddle.  Do not let them teach you to paddle.   I assure you that they have a friend who will happily take you under their wing without the added potential of collateral damage when well intentioned instruction goes awry.  Paddling together is fine, even enjoyable, but the moment your mate starts dropping unsolicited teaching tips, paddle away, quickly.

A paddler plays in the wave at Z-Dam near Pony Pasture.

3) You don’t have to paddle harder rapids to advance your skills — With a little creative thinking you can take a class I or II rapid that you’ve long since mastered and turn it into something much more difficult.  When you abandon your “traditional line,” your eyes can be opened to endless new challenges.  You can weave through boulders,  limiting the number of paddle strokes you take, paddle the rapid backwards, try to paddle back up the rapid, link a series of turns together, and the list goes on.  By forcing this challenge upon yourself, you’re increasing skill competency without significantly increasing risk.

4) Take an actual paddling course — The school of hard knocks can teach you a lot, but taking a course with a professional whitewater kayak instructor will often hastily erase the mystery behind seemingly endless paddling techniques and  their application.  Sure it’s a few extra bucks, but it’s better than beating your head against the deck of a kayak in confused frustration.

5) You will swim — Every kayaker, even the best, are between swims.  Out of boat experiences are just part of being a paddler.  It’s easy to equate a swim with failure, but I see it as just another step in the learning curve and so should you.  Further concerns should be directed back to No. 1.

6) Paddle with other people — Aside from the obvious safety factor, paddling with a group gives you living classroom where tips are readily exchanged and support is inherent.  There are simply not enough whitewater paddlers in the world to be a snob about who you like or don’t like paddling with.  Every paddler on the water is worth cheering on and learning something from.

6½) Have the right gear and know how to use it — You might think that this goes without saying, but it’s pretty darn terrifying to learn whitewater kayaking if you’re in a recreational kayak using a sea kayaking paddle and wearing a spray skirt that you don’t know how to take off.  The five essentials of whitewater kayaking (boat, paddle, lifejacket, helmet, spray skirt) have been very intentionally designed and contrary to popular belief, can be acquired without spending an arm and a leg.  If you are unsure where to start see No. 4 and No. 6, most members of the paddle community are happy to outfit novice paddlers until they acquire their own five essentials.


About Karl Schmidt

Karl Schmidt is Vasen Brewing's Whitewater Kayaking Ambassador and VCU's Outdoor Adventure Program Coordinator. Hailing from the Midwest, Karl has paddled whitewater throughout Appalachia, the Rocky Mountains, the Pacific Northwest, and Norway. Karl and his wife Katie call Richmond home, enjoying the unique world class urban whitewater found on the James River. Karl is a certified instructor through the American Canoe Association and Rescue 3 International. Instructing rafting, kayaking, and swiftwater rescue allows Karl to support the next generation of whitewater paddlers and give back to the river community.


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