Rebecca and I just spent three days taking a whitewater class in Vermont with Nate Hanson (Pinniped Kayak) and Todd Wright (St.Michaels College Adventure Sports Center) (both of them pictured above). I can still count the number of days I’ve spent whitewater boating on two hands, but I feel like I’m getting the hang of it and enjoying it more each time.
Much of my attraction to taking the class was that I didn’t want to sit through a beginning whitewater class that assumed I would need to learn a lot of skills that I already had. While there may be more emphasis in whitewater on certain skills and strokes, they’re basically the same maneuvers we would do in sea kayaks. With my last blog entry about whitewater for seakayakers, I posted it on some Facebook groups with the question: “do sea kayaking skills transfer to whitewater kayaking?” and a number of people weighed-in with opinions in the Facebook comments.
Some of those people had experience in both pursuits – which seems like a good basis for an educated opinion. In general, those with experience in both pursuits felt that skills definitely transferred, and those with a whitewater background tended to assume that sea kayakers might need to learn the basic sorts of skills that we teach sea kayakers during their first lesson. I suppose this says more about our notions about either pursuit than anything else, but after the last three days I can claim with more conviction that both forms of paddling are parts of the same thing: different boat, different environment, but most of what you learn in one boat or environment is going to help you in the other as well. I not only learned about whitewater paddling, but that experience will help refine my sea kayaking skills.
Everyone in the class had been previously coached in sea kayaks by both Nate and Todd, and in addition had all spent some time paddling in tidal currents like Sullivan Falls, so on the first day- Monday on the Lamoille River, we were able to get out and start having fun right away.
That day was a ‘park and play’ day, where we used the features in a short stretch to get a feel for the boats, play around on features and experiment with some of the maneuvers we would use in tidal currents, like reading the water, ferrying, surfing, attaining against current and getting efficiently into eddies.
In the afternoon we worked on safety and group management: rescues, swimming with and without boats and tossing a throw rope to a swimmer.
One big difference between the two boats is that sea kayaks maintain momentum pretty well. You can take a couple of good strong strokes that will propel you well across an eddy zone. But, while whitewater boats can turn on a dime (which will be super easy if you’re accustomed to turning a sea kayak) they have the momentum of a potato. And you’ll need to use strokes, edging and trim to minimize turning. This took some getting used to.
The next two days we did day-long runs on the White River and the Lamoille. It rained hard for much of Tuesday, so when we returned to the Lamoille for a longer run on Wednesday, the volume of flow had more than tripled. It was my first day paddling a whitewater boat in sunshine, and as far as I can tell it functioned pretty much the same as on a cloudy day.
By then, we were given a longer leash, striking off on our own to find our own lines and features, and I think we were all beginning to have more of a sense of autonomy, like we might be able to get out and do this on our own and have a sense of what we should or shouldn’t get into.
It’s also worth mentioning that the part about getting to go down a river amidst some gorgeous scenery is pretty awesome as well. Sometimes you get a stretch of flatwater where you float/paddle downstream and take a breather before the next set of rapids, and in those times I marveled at how sea kayaking had brought me to this beautiful place, via a whitewater kayak. And, as with paddling on the ocean, it brings us to some sublime spots to eat lunch.
I think a lot of sea kayakers who might otherwise enjoy and benefit from river paddling find the thought of it scary because it’s a little mysterious, and what we mostly see of it in media are the more sensational moments, which might involve drops from waterfalls or getting pinned inside a grabby hole. As with all paddling, there’s always risk, but you can still have challenges and minimize the risk, and a good way to do that is to start with a class like this one.