Paddle rafting encompasses a fluidity of motion, with the guide twisting, contorting, stretching, and planting the paddle then unfurling his or her body to bring the raft into position. Done well, it’s a feat of athleticism and grace. Done wrong, it can stress bones, strain ligaments, and wreak havoc on the body.
Proper paddling technique uses your body to get the maximum force with the least effort. But since people come in all shapes and sizes, some methods will vary. A tall, limber guide is going to rely on leverage to power his or her strokes, while a short stocky guide will place more emphasis on core strength. A small woman can maneuver a big raft just as well as a large guy, but the way she uses her crew, the currents, and her paddle will be different. Although there’s an assortment of styles, all paddle guiding is built upon the same foundation of body positioning and strokes.
Positioning and Using your Body
As a paddle guide, you have the greatest control by sitting in the back compartment, to the right or the left of the stern. You should be able to navigate wherever you need to go by implementing strokes from one side of the raft. How much of your body you commit to the outside tube will change depending on the size of the raft, the length of your legs, and the type of water. On technical rivers, you may lean out to get the most leverage from your strokes. For big water with violent waves and holes, you may be positioned deeper in the raft to keep from getting tossed.
When sitting on the right side of the raft, lock yourself in by tucking your right foot in the nook between the thwart and outside tube. If you’re sitting on the left side, then brace with the left foot. The weight of your body will pivot around this leg; so do not sit on a side where you could inflame old knee or hip injuries.
The standard position for the other leg is to have the knee bent and the foot tucked underneath or behind you, allowing you to squat into the raft when needed rather than falling into the floor. However, this position can move according to comfort and conditions. If you’re leaning out of the raft to implement a dynamic turning stroke, you may want to brace both feet underneath the thwart. If you’re about to go over a drop, you may choose to plant the inside leg near the top of the thwart in order to push against it and prevent your body from being flung forward.
The power of most paddle strokes comes from your torso. With your lower body firmly anchored, you should be able to rotate the upper body back and forth and side to side. Rather than pulling the paddle toward your body, keep your arms stiff, locked in position, and move your hips (and the raft) toward your paddle.
Holding the Paddle
While one hand holds the shaft near the blade, the other should wrap around the T-grip. By twisting your wrists back and forth you change the angle of the blade in the water. If you place the paddle in front of you, the side of the blade nearest you is the power face; the side opposite from you is the back. Different strokes influence the raft by building resistance on either the power face or the back of the blade.
After completing each stroke, you want to turn the blade so that it slices out of the water without hesitation. Any pressure against the blade can affect the angle of the raft, often counteracting the stroke you just completed. Once you understand how the paddle moves through the water, you may also feather the paddle between strokes. Feathering involves turning the blade so it can go from the end of one stroke to the beginning of another without leaving the water or building resistance.
The forward stroke propels the raft toward the direction of the bow. Lean forward and plant the paddle in the water, keeping the shaft vertical. Pull your hips toward your paddle until you’re sitting up straight. The path of the paddle should stay parallel with the centerline of the raft and resistance should be against the power face of the blade. Finish the stroke by slicing the blade away from the raft and out of the water.
Be sure you’re leaning over and twisting at the waist while keeping your arms locked straight. This makes the torso and lower back do the work. If you’re bending your elbows as you take the stroke, then you’re relying too much on your arm muscles.
The Pry, as the name implies, uses leverage to pull the bow toward the paddle. Place the blade in the water behind you and the shaft on your hip. If you sit farther in the compartment, you may have to position the shaft on the side of the raft rather than your body.
Get leverage off the fulcrum (or turning) point by prying off the raft or your hip. Resistance against the back of the blade makes the bow angle toward your side of the raft. To complete the stroke, slice the blade out of the water before the shaft leaves the fulcrum point. Several pries done in succession can be a powerful tool for turning the boat. Or holding a sustained pry as you enter a big foam pile can help you maintain the raft’s angle.
The Sweep Strokes
Forward and Back Sweep strokes are similar to the front and back strokes, except the path of the blade arcs away from the centerline of the raft, turning the raft more than propelling it forward or backward. Because of this arcing motion, some people refer to sweeps as “C-Strokes.”
The forward sweep angles the raft by pushing the bow away from the paddle. The pivot point is just behind the center, thus the stern maintains its relative position in the river, while the bow turns to the side. This is a good stroke for catching an eddy line on the opposite side of the raft from your sitting position.
Lean forward and twist your outside shoulder toward the bow, just as you would with the forward stroke. But instead of having your paddle blade perpendicular to the side of the raft, it should be angled away from the tube. Also, bend your T-grip arm into your body to bring the shaft across the tube at an angle
Untwist your body while arcing the paddle out to the side of the raft. Draw a giant “C” through the water with the blade. The farther the blade is away from the boat, the more it turns the bow. Resistance against the power face of the blade supports your weight as you lean out of the raft.
As the stroke moves past your hip, slice the blade away from the raft to pull it from the water or feather it into a different stroke.
The back sweep is powerful, but it’s not for everyone. Taller guides who can get the blade out farther from the stern will get the most benefit from this stroke. Guides who are shorter or using large, heavy rafts may not find this stroke as helpful. And guides who have lower back or knee problems, may determine the risk of injury outweighs the reward.
Lean back, angling your body and the paddle away from the stern. Roll forward and away from the raft, keeping the upper body stiff. Resistance against the back of the blade supports your body. Slice the blade out of the water as you rise up to complete the stroke.
Although the end result of the draw is that it angles the bow away from you, it does it in a different way than the forward sweep. The forward sweep pushes the bow away from the paddle. The draw achieves the same effect by placing the pivot point toward the front of the raft and pulling the stern to the side. Understanding the difference can prevent you from hitting rocks in shallow technical rapids.
The draw stroke achieves maximum power when you lean your body outside the boat, getting the blade away from the pivot point of the raft. Place the paddle in the water with the shaft near vertical and the power face of the blade positioned toward the raft. Raise your body up, scooting your hips to your paddle blade. Use the resistance of the water moving against the power face of the blade to support your weight.
Finish the stroke by slicing the blade out of the water behind you, or turn the blade so you can feather it back to the starting position. If you draw the paddle all the way into the raft, the blade can get pulled under the boat, throwing you into the water.
Guides sitting in a normal side paddling position draw by reaching out, making the path of the blade, perpendicular to the centerline of the raft. Guides sitting in the stern draw by leaning back and arcing the path of the paddle behind the raft, but the basic body movements are the same.
Sometimes guides will use draw strokes while hanging off the front or back of the raft. On certain rapids, commercial companies may place a second guide in the boat, whose job is to use draw strokes from the bow to keep the raft on line. Also, the draw strokes can be helpful if you need to turn around, lean over the stern, and pull yourself into an eddy or along the shore. Just remember when you have your back to your guests they can no longer hear your commands.
The rudder stroke is a static stroke in which you position the paddle then hold it in place with only slight motion until you have achieved the desired effect. Ruddering works well for keeping the raft straight in flat water, but it’s not meant for quick maneuvers or dynamic corrections. Once the raft is off course, you will need to initiate traditional turning strokes.
The easiest way to experience the rudder is with forward momentum. Have your guests paddle forward, or do a few forward strokes, then try to steer by trailing the blade behind the raft.
Begin with the shaft against your hip or the side of the raft and the blade in the water behind you. Twist your torso toward the paddle to reduce strain on your shoulders. The thumb side of the T-grip should be pointed up. Pull the T-grip hand toward you while pushing out with the shaft hand. Drag against the back of blade will pull the bow toward your side of the raft.
To turn the other way, extend both arms out straight, away from the raft. Twist your torso so the line between your shoulders is parallel with the raft’s centerline. The T-grip hand should be no higher than your chest and the blade should be in the water behind you. Now bend the shaft arm until the elbow is against your side. Resistance against the power face of the blade should turn the bow away from you. If this stroke doesn’t seem effective, turn your torso more, getting the T-grip hand farther out and the shaft hand closer to your side.
Twisting Rudder Wrist Flick
This is another version of the rudder which is accomplished by twisting the wrist and forearm to put resistance against different sides of the blade.
Rotate your torso to the paddle side, and extend your arms out. Keep both hands low as you place the blade into the water. Turn the thumb side of the T-grip away from you and angle the knuckles of the shaft hand down. Resistance should be felt against the back of the blade, pulling the bow toward the paddle. Now turn your wrists so the thumb side of the T-grip points toward you and the knuckles of the shaft hand angle to the sky. You will probably have to bend the shaft arm slightly to achieve this position. Resistance should now be felt on the power face of the blade, turning the bow away from the paddle.
In order to maintain momentum through flat water, you will need to keep paddling forward while your crew rests. Because your side of the raft will move faster, the bow turns away from you. In order to keep the raft straight when you are the only one paddling, it’s necessary for you to make minor corrections at the end of your forward stroke.
The traditional J-Stroke is a forward stroke that ends with the power face of the blade curving out and away from the boat, drawing the shape of a “J” with the path of the blade. This is a very elegant stroke, favored by flat-water canoeists; however, when maneuvering a heavy raft in strong current, it puts a lot strain on your wrist and forearm
For this reason, many raft guides prefer the modified J-stroke, which is a forward stroke with a slight pry or rudder at the end. Start with a regular forward stroke, but keep the blade in the water until it’s behind you. Then give a small pry, putting resistance against the back of the blade. Rather than making the shape of a “J” with the paddle, the modified J-stroke traces a checkmark through the water.
The correction maneuver placed at the end of your forward stroke should be light. If you pry too hard, it will kill the speed created through the propulsion portion of the stroke, thus being counterproductive. Sometimes the modified J-stroke will only need to be administered every two or three strokes, especially if the rest of the crew is paddling forward. At other times, the modified-stroke can end with a sustained rudder until the bow is brought back to the desired direction.
Forward Sweep into a Stern Draw
If the crew has unbalanced power, particularly in a smaller raft, the bow may drift toward your side when everyone is paddling forward. This is especially evident as the raft is being paddled through flat pools. To correct the overpowering of the side opposite of you, you may need to widen your own forward stroke so it will have more turning influence. You can think of this as a forward stroke that trails away from the boat, or a sweep that stays closer in. If the balance is really off, then you may need to do a full forward sweep and finish it off with a stern draw. The two strokes mesh together well and form a very powerful maneuver for turning the bow away from you.
If you watch a skilled guide running a rapid, the way he or she uses the paddle may not fit into the neat descriptions outlined above. Rather it will be a mish mash of different strokes that combine like the notes in a melody. The actions will be instant and subconscious; the guide may not even be able to tell you exactly what he or she did. As you practice these strokes, observe how resistance against the blade is influencing the raft and feel what muscles you’re engaging to maneuver the paddle. Through experience and repetition, knowing how to use the paddle and your body to move the raft will become instinctive and efficient.
Editor’s Note: Action shots courtesy of Southeastern Expeditions.
Up next in the Guide School Series: Using Your Oars.