Above pictures show how it should be done. Below are pictures of Emu Falls 2005 Avon Descent and show how it should not be done. I know what you're thinking, how on earth did they manage that?

Challenge yourself at least once a week!

River racing is for me the ultimate kayaking experience. Just imagine paddling a 4.5 metre long Down River Racer, which has no rudder, through a big grunty grade IV rapid. There are rocks the size of large vans sticking up out the river that you need to weave through, big stoppers/holes that will easily back loop your kayak if you drop into them and then there's the waves. Not little waves but big ones standing over 2 metres tall. You can't see what's on the other side until you fly over the top of it, then only for a fraction of a second through water filled eyes, you see the racing line before crashing into the next wave. Now thats fun!

A lot of people are afraid and intimidated by the river and so was I in the beginning. However, it's just time in action pushing your limits a little every time that instals it as an unconscious skill. Then you can really begin to relax and enjoy this new found pleasure.

Good technique brings many positives.

  • A stable platform, where you can with one stroke put 100% of your body weight into the power phase to move or steer your kayak in the right direction.
  • The ability to reach over the top of waves and paddle on the back of them, to maintain a level trim. You need to play about with the timing on this one as each kayak is different in terms of its volume distribution. ( Sharp 6.5's are impossible to maintain level trim in big waves but I got used to just crashing through them instead, where as a DRR kayak is very well balanced and naturally maintains level trim over them).
  • I also cut very close to rocks as again there is faster water flowing either side of them but be careful as there is the possibility of hitting the rock if you get your line wrong and also tripping over your paddle if you place it in the slow water behind the rock.
  • An early exit of the blade so that it does not drag water behind the hip causing instabilities etc.
  • Command the middle of the river so you can move left and right. Once you have cut a corner, carried out a manouvere then smoothly move back to the middle again.
  • High cadence is important because its easier to keep the kayak on line with short powerful strokes because in fast moving water, rudders become less effective. For a rudder to work well it must be cutting though the water. If the water is travelling faster than the kayak, the rudder is virtually useless.

Pictures above are from the Avon Descent (great race a must do). On the left, what happens when your paddle exits behind you just before you get pulled sideways out of your kayak. This is exactly how 90% of capsizes occur. It would have been a sore swim as it's a fast moving shallow rapid. On the right, how I did it. Nothing fancy just good basic technique.

Reading river patterns.

  • With kayaking, you need to look 100 to 200 metres even further ahead because the kayaks take longer to position correctly and often you just don't have the time to take a second bite at the cherry. This must be done smoothly to maintain boat speed and stability so the earlier the moves are planned and initiated the better.
  • The 'V' that people talk about is easy to see and points to the fastest water entering a faster stretch of moving water. However the 'V' may point to the fastest water but it's also the roughest so the waves generally will pitch the nose of the kayak all over the place dramatically slowing it down. Only run the middle of the 'V' in very small rapids. The rest of the time run the shoulders of the waves, that's the area right next to the slower moving water but still in the fast water. This is where the waves tend to pitch the nose of the kayak less.

Look where you are going.

  • It's the same for most sports. If you look at the rock, tree, bluff, another kayaks etc, you're going to hit it or mis-time a stroke, so plan your lines and look towards where you want to be 100 metres ahead. A perfect example can be seen in the picture below where I have positioned myself incorrectly sideways in the middle of Keith's Rapid (Grade IV) on the Fish River South Africa in a K1. I did survive.
  • It's also the fastest (boat speed) way to turn your kayak as it is not slowed down by rudder or paddle. Just turn your torso in the direction you want to go and the kayak will slowly turn to align itself in same direction as you were looking. It's that simple.


Running 90 degree corners or bluffs is actually very easy to do and again you just need to look ahead. The picture above is of one of these bluffs on the Waimakariri River in the South Island of NZ. As I said above command the middle of the river and I am following the green line and paddling straight at the bluff. Around the first red X I turn and look at the second Red X and my kayak slowly turns in the direction I am looking. The second red X the position varies depending on river flow and angle of the corner. The higher the flow the more it move down stream. Now a really common mistake is for beginner paddlers or ones lacking in confidence is to paddle down the right side of the river so that they can stay as far away from the bluff as possible. This is a really bad thing to do because on the inside of the bend is an area I have marked in purple ( a back eddy) where the water is moving more slowly down stream and in some cases upstream. As the nose of your kayak hits this slow water it causes it to turn right and at the same time their is still fast water pushing onto the right side of your tail, also turning you right. The end result is normally a spectacular capsize or a spin out and as you will be well aware on this river that some of those back eddies are extremely vicious and hard to paddle/swim out of. Now back to the correct line. Around the point where the third blue arrow is, showing current direction, is where I hit that slower water. Note how I said slower and not dead or slow water. So the same thing happens as if I were paddling down the inside and the kayak wants to spin but the effect is greatly minimized. I am ready for this and apply a lot of left rudder but only for a brief second to counter act this turning effect and that's basically it because now I am in the fast water, running next to the eddy line between the green line and the purple area and already automatically looking towards the third red X. If the river is high I would cut the corner more being aware that the turning moment of the slow water/ faster water is going to be greater, but I don't really have an option as the water coming of the bluff face is to turbulent to paddle through at speed and I just carry as must speed as I can through this slower water to the side.

Core stability

  • Swiss ball exercises will help a lot with your stability especially in unstable water however, you still need to get those stabilisers working whilst in the kayak. This is the same as with off road running, where you are required to fine tune your ankle stabilisers by practising on uneven ground. Also, after spraining an ankle it loses its memory so you need to start again. Another example is learning to ride a bike for the first time. Our parents put additional wheels either side to stabilise the bike and prevent injury to ourselves until we have built up that memory, whereby setting us free to master the next challenge and the next.
  • So we start out in entry level kayaks, but these won't develop abdominal stabilizers (proprioreceptors) because the kayaks are too stable on flat water. When they are used in rough conditions, it's either all or nothing due to the design of the kayaks. They have great primary but no secondary stability so it's common to experience or see those big power flips in rough water. You know the ones that you have experienced or have seen it happen to someone else. Using a faster and narrower kayak on flat water is a great way to activate abdominal stabilizers but you need to constantly keep doing this to keep those proprioreceptors activated. By doing this, the brain knows where the position of the kayak is and can react to any sudden movement before it's too late. So it's up to you if you want to learn this in a matter of days or weeks then start paddling K1's. If you want to take a couple of years then that's cool as well and continue to paddle your entry level kayak. Hey we all know how much fun it is to learn new stuff correctly and how much confidence that gives you come race day. So there you have it. Most of the my secrets to stability and growing confidence on rivers.

Click here to see a short video taken from the 2004 Coast to Coast two day event in New Zealand. Of 250 plus paddlers that passed my camera points, this was one of the very few paddlers who was doing everything well. Also click here to see more video from the event. Sorry the voice over is at the wrong speed something must have happened during the upload as its okay on my home PC.