The strange world of WW SUP

Whitewater SUP participation, as a sport, is complex and contains more inherent risk than other types of SUP. Yet, it is flourishing because the fun factor is off the charts.

Words: Corran Addison
Pics: Addison archives

In this article, as a former pro kayaker and designer, and now also a SUP user and designer since 2008, I’m going to talk about my early adventures in whitewater SUP, and a few lessons learned the hard way. SUP on rivers can be laid-back, or challenging, and everywhere in between.

In a study taken on SupConnect, in 2011, SUP surfing (where SUP restarted in about 2004) was down to only 25% of the total SUP market, and whitewater SUP was already up to 8% of total SUP users. Since then, the surfing aspect of SUP has dropped to just 5%, not because it’s shrinking, but because recreational SUP has grown so much. 

While I have been unable to find any statistics on current whitewater SUP participation, as a sport, it is complex and contains more inherent risk than other types of SUP. Yet, it is flourishing because the fun factor is off the charts. It also allows people to access their local rivers differently than ever before. 

I used to run the most prominent surf school in Canada in Montreal. This might not seem strange until you stop and think that Montreal is 500km from the nearest ocean. The unique thing about my surf school is that we were teaching people to surf on the same river waves that had made Montreal famous in the kayaking world. Students would pay me to take them out for two days and show them how to swim out through the rapids, catch the wave, stand up and surf, and then swim back to shore through more rapids. 

A few hours into the first day of a summer 2005 surf class, one of the students suddenly said he wanted his money back. He’d clearly understood that we would be standing up on our surfboards and would be ‘surfing’ downriver through the rapids. This swimming around wasn’t what he’d signed up for. 

Needless to say, we laughed at him. Not only did we refuse to give him his money back, but we used him as the brunt of our lunchtime jokes with other students over the months and years. 
Standing up on a board and going down through the rapids! Honestly?

SUP was in its infancy in 2005, even in Hawaii, where modern SUP had just been born, so perhaps I can be forgiven for not connecting the dots. 

Ex-pro kayaker
However, evidence in favour of my embarrassing oversight is overwhelming. I was an ex-pro kayaker, living in a wonderland of river waves, teaching surfing every day on those waves, and I never made the link to try to add a paddle to the mix. To make matters even worse, crazy kayaker and inventor Jeff Snyder had started to run rivers standing upon an inflatable ‘Ducky’ (think one-person raft) with a two-bladed paddle in the mid-1990s. My inability to make the link is as significant as the ‘Strapped Crew’ in Hawaii not discovering tow-in-surfing until 20 years after world champion Mark Richards was pulled into Pipeline by a jet ski in front of 20 of the world’s most prominent and influential surfers. 

By any standard, a colossal blunder.

In the late winter of 2007, my good friend and mad inventor who now works for Slingshot, Julien Fillion, introduced me to SUP for the first time. We spent a weekend at the beach in New Hampshire surfing and paddleboarding, and it was that same weekend on our drive home that it occurred to me that it might be possible to take a paddleboard down a whitewater river. By the spring thaw of 2008, I had my first river shaped SUP ready to go. 

Any kayaker will tell you that as a kayak’s volume goes down, as length comes down, and as rails get more ‘pinched’, the kayak becomes more fun to play with in waves and harder to run rapids with. A beginner kayaker is generally put into a boat with a decent length, raised and rounded ‘rails’ (edges), and a generous amount of reserve volume. With massive volume and rocker, expert kayakers looking to push their limits in the most extreme rapids take this to the next level.

The Rapidfire
I surmised that as an expert river person (kayaker and surfer) but a beginner stand up river paddler (whitewater SUP skills didn’t exist), I would need something between a beginner kayak and an extreme kayak in design, adapted for standing. Aptly named the Rapidfire, my first board was quirky looking by comparison to a ‘normal’ SUP of the time, to say the least. 

My first tests were an encouraging success. I took my board to the rapids in Chambly, Quebec – a one-mile, high volume section of waves, swirling currents and eddies, a few small waterfall-like drops and a couple of healthy crunching hydraulics called ‘holes’. I spent as much time climbing back onto the board as I did paddling it, but as the day progressed and I did run after run, I started to improve, and by the end of the day, I could make the entire run standing (albeit not elegant). By the end of the week, I was making more challenging moves through the rapids, going from eddy to eddy, and had started to paddle the board like it was an Olympic slalom kayak running a course of suspended gates; feathering my paddle, guiding the board with precision and drive. Life was grand!

Two weeks later, I took my board to the Rouge River on the Ontario/Quebec border. The river is a class 3-4 of whitewater with some tight channels, a boulder-strewn riverbed, holes and waves chaotically placed with all sorts of converging currents coming at you, and a large waterfall that I decided to hurl myself over. 

I was significantly less successful on this outing. It wasn’t until years later that I discovered that at about the same time, in other parts of the world, there were other whitewater kayakers, like Dan Gavere and Charlie McArthur, to name but a few going through the same process I was. 

Perhaps we could have compared notes and eliminated some of the trial and error from the process. Certainly, we would have alleviated many bruised muscles and aching bodies. On that run and other subsequent ones, I came to some important realisations with regards to safety. Granted, these insights came on sections of river that were, and still are, quite tricky for SUP, and most folks will also choose a mellower (and wiser!) learning progression than I did; yet these lessons hold true for any piece of whitewater, from class 1 to class 5. 

Flying circus acts
I was wearing a standard ‘bucket’ style helmet that the kayakers wear. This is fine when sitting in a kayak, and you spend most of your time upright, and when you flip over, you are generally in a forward tuck protecting your face. However, my forays into the water from the paddleboard consisted mainly of unexpected and dramatic flying circus acts, catapulting uncontrollably through the air. Face first, head first, or teeth first were the order of the day as I ploughed into the water again and again. 

There are several full-face helmets on the market for extreme kayaking that are light and offer the necessary protection, but no matter what you get, I highly recommend one. Sadly, most whitewater SUP paddlers today still use minimal protection helmets.

I was tethered to the board with a standard surfing leash. My theory was that you’re always safer on the board than in the water. More people die in whitewater from foot entrapment at the bottom of the river than from anything else. Not swimming down a rapid is the best way to avoid getting your foot wedged between two rocks mid current. So, being tethered to the board means that after a fall, I can recover the board quickly, get back on, and both be out of the water where it’s safe and have the opportunity to finish the rapid. 

However, on one occasion after a fall, the board went one side of a rock, and I the other, and there I was dangling midstream by my ankle. Luckily I’d had the presence of mind to attach the leash to a ‘weak string’ on the board, and it broke, setting me free. But it was physically impossible for me to bend my torso against the current and release the ankle strap on the leash. It was clear that a safer leash was required. By my next outing, I had the prototype of a waist-mounted safety leash, with a quick release, coiled so it doesn’t drag, and had multiple ‘fail-safe’ release points on it that can be set according to conditions. 

As I fell more, I learned how to fall, and I began to make a twisting movement, so I’d land in a back flop. This reduced the amount of ‘penetration’ into the water, keeping me on the watery surface instead of the rocky bottom, and also cut down on the number of ‘face-first’ encounters with rocks. However, my top end kayaking lifejacket was designed to be comfortably worn while seated inside a kayak; as such, almost a third of my lower spine and kidneys were exposed to rocks, and by the end of the day, both were tender. 

Impact vest
I solved the problem by buying an impact vest designed by Dainese for jet ski use. The jacket is long, covering kidneys and spine and the spine itself has a plastic articulated guard. At $400, this was quite a hit to the wallet, and Dainese has discontinued the jacket, so the point is moot. 

But since then, I have migrated to wearing motocross-style upper body armour on rocky rivers with a spine guard, shoulder pads, and elbow armour under a wakeboarding type PFD (longer and thinner, so it’s easy to slide back up onto the board). 

Lastly, my shins were bruised and extremely tender by the end of the day. Some of this was from rock impact, but as much was from the constant climbing back onto the board mid rapid after each fall. Clearly, protection was needed. It wasn’t so much your knees, as shins, so the logical place to look was mountain biking armour, where the range of fit and price is abundant. I’ve also experimented with creating full lower body armour like the motocross tops for really steep rocky creeks, but production minimums have so far excluded this from coming to market.

Board construction
Board construction is another hot topic, and while we all have preferences, the fact is that each method has its advantages and disadvantages. There is no perfect way to make a SUP board. The three main methods are hard shell plastic, hard shell epoxy and finally, inflatable. I happen to manufacture all three, so my opinion on this is based on experience and profound testing and use them all – not an agenda to push any one kind over another.

Plastic is hard to beat, simply put. Kayaking has clearly shown us that the balance weighs heavily in plastic’s favour once you consider all the positives and negatives. The plastic itself is all but unbreakable so that you can beat the snot out of your board, and it’ll just take more of it with a smile. Traditionally, plastic boards are heavier (around 50 lbs).

A considerable advantage is that the plastic itself is paraffin-based, so it’s slick and tends to slide over rocks rather than catching and throwing you off. As you start to run rivers with more rocks and contact with those rocks becomes part of the desired line, this sliding versus sticking becomes an essential factor. I can run with relative ease rivers with a plastic SUP that I have yet to see anyone run successfully with an inflatable or epoxy/Kevlar board.

Epoxy and epoxy/Kevlar boards have their place and always will, but they are not for everyone. Firstly, you can make the board stiffer than either plastic or inflatable. The stiffer the board, the more your energy goes into manoeuvring the board and less into flexing the board. You can also make them 25 lbs, though they are not as strong as either plastic or inflatable. With the use of Kevlar (a necessity for rivers to add strength and durability), an epoxy board used carefully in whitewater can last for years, and paddling a 25lb board is an absolute pleasure when it’s stiff and the shape is correct. 

The downside of epoxy is that they are expensive, and you have to look after them. But if you paddle in whitewater rivers that consist primarily of water rather than rocks, they are hard to beat. The board will need some repairs from time to time, but if you maintain your board, you have a high-performance tool that is very satisfying to use.

Inflatable boards are presently the most common in whitewater. Many companies are making inflatable boards, so availability is widespread, which is contributing to their popularity. There are no mould costs associated with making an inflatable, again contributing to availability. Finally, this is where they shine; they roll up conveniently into a backpack, making them easy to transport and store, particularly for international travel. 

The design, however, is limited. The construction process of drop stitch requires that the deck and hull be parallel. The raw material comes in 4”, 6” and 8” thickness. As you go up in thickness, so the ‘edges’ of the board become more forgiving. Still, your centre of gravity goes up as you stand higher off the water on a thicker board, almost negating the advantage gained by having raised rails. 

Inflatable SUPs for whitewater are here to stay despite the designs themselves being very limited and the material tending to ‘grab’ rocks as you slide over them, throwing you off. Standing on them in whitewater is like trying to do yoga on a waterbed, and you get bucked around in the rapids far more than you would on a hard shell. It takes more skill to paddle an inflatable than a hard shell because of the combination of shape and the ‘bucking factor.’ Still, mass availability and the ease of storage/transport are both strong arguments in their favour.

There is no perfect solution to the board quandary. As a manufacturer, I’ve tried to address inflatable boards’ rail thickness/standing area problem with an 8” thick board design and 4” standing area, getting the best of both worlds. Yet I personally never use the inflatable unless I’m flying somewhere and don’t want to get gouged by the airlines. In my opinion, even my inflatable design makes running rapids a whole level harder than the equivalent hard shell. But the ability to roll it up and carry it on public transport or an airline can be a huge advantage. It’s hard to say what the future holds, and with my new co-construction method of using a plastic outer shell that has a complex design shape, blended with an inflatable drop stitch inside, making the whole thing both stiffer and lighter than in the past, this appears to be one of the more promising futures.

Inspirational SUP movies
Since the earliest days of whitewater SUP, the sport has grown in size and the skill set of those doing it. Guys like Paul Clark in the USA, Masayuki Takahata in Japan, and many others, are taking SUP to all new heights, while the old guard like Gavere and I hang on for the ride. There are some inspirational SUP movies to be found on YouTube like iAfrica and River Walkers that are worth watching.

Whitewater SUP is here to stay. Compared to recreational SUP use, whitewater is still a small sector of the sport, but it is going strong considering how hard it is to do. And today, if I ran into my surf student who thought we’d be going down the rapids standing on our boards, I’m guessing he would say to me – “Who’s the idiot now?” 

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