Words: Corran Addison. Photos: Christine Pinsonneault
To say the debate rages about the advantages and disadvantages of running rapids ‘powered up’ with a vertical and active paddle blade, verses the supportive ‘passive’ alternative of resting on a low brace, would be an incorrect statement. This is primarily because most SUP paddlers in white water have not even thought about it – the ‘go-to’ is simply a low brace, and that’s the end of it.
There is a good reason for this. Most people are on boards which lack the initial and secondary stability that is needed to have the confidence in your ability to stay on board while paddling, or are on boards which have a lot of spring in them (inflatables) which lends itself to a ‘nervous’ feeling and instability, and so the low brace steps in brilliantly as that crutch substitute to give the paddler the confidence needed to run rapids.
The problem, as any decent kayaker will tell you, is that when you’re bracing, you’re not paddling, and when you’re not paddling you’re entirely at the mercy of the current and where it wants to take you – you’ve handed over control and you become a passive passenger whose goal it is to survive the ride standing, rather than control the ride.
This is why whitewater SUP paddling has been restricted for the most part to running rapids where the ‘line’ is where the water was going anyway. So Whitewater SUP hits a cap. The drops might get a little bigger, or the waves larger, but for the most part the SUP paddler relies on running rapids where all the manoeuvring is accomplished at the top of the rapid prior to being in the mess itself and then hanging on for the ride to the bottom.
Great – that takes us to Class 3. But how to progress beyond?
For that to happen, you need to get off the brace, and your reliance on it, and move towards a vertical ‘powered up’ technique. This is not to say you will never brace. Quite to the contrary – quick moments of low bracing on both on-side and off-side are currently an important and necessary part of running harder rapids, but you want this to be as limited as possible – an instant quick power brace, and back to being powered up.
So what is powered up? The term itself is fairly self-explanatory, but how exactly do you get there?
The first step is to get your balance from your stance, not the paddle. Standing in a kung fu stance, where the toes of your back foot are just behind the heel line of your front foot, staggered open about shoulder width or less, gives you enough side to side stability mixed with front to back stability for you to take ‘hits’ from any direction. Standing too square (sideways) or too ‘surfer stance’ exposes you to being potentially off balance in the case of a hit that’s perpendicular to your stance (so if you’re standing sideways, a hit from the front knocks you off balance, and if you stand too surfer stance, then a hit from the side knocks you off balance).
Most people tend to go to a default wide long surfer stance. This gives you the impression of stability as waves and rocks collide with your board from the front. But any unexpected side hit throws you off balance – and thus the needed low brace. The paddle blade acts as the third foot in a tripod, giving significant stability advantages. Problem is – you can’t use the paddle as a paddle because it’s being used as a balance substitute.
This is not to say that I don’t ‘step back’ into a surfer stance. Indeed I do right as I go off the lip of a drop or when punching through a large hole. But I stay there as little as possible. I step into it at the last instant, and out of it as soon as possible, back to my de facto Kung Fu position.
Where this becomes important is when you’re running rapids with multiple drops, and the second or third drops are ‘out of the natural flow line of the initial current you’re in’. You step back boofing a drop, land, and then have to use the paddle as a motor to change direction and paddle yourself into the new line for the next drop.
The next part of this kung fu stance is a very active and lively rear leg. I refer to it as gumby knee – where the back knee is in a constant movement moving towards and away from your front leg, like a pumping piston. It allows you to absorb hits and the rock and roll of the board under you, without your upper body being thrown off.
In this position, I can allow the board to roll over almost 90 degrees, and be able to bring it back using mostly leg and ankle movement (some paddle support is usually required too if it’s that extreme).
Once you have this balance sorted out, you can work on your paddle strokes. A high top hand, well over your body centre line so it’s on the same side as the active paddle blade is optimal, so the paddle shaft is as vertical as possible. This gets the blade closest to the centre line of the board, and your energy goes into making you go forwards, not turning the board. Like this I can do 95% of my paddle strokes all on the same side of the board, using cross bow strokes only from time to time (I almost never switch hands).
Now here is the magic. If you’re powered up, the force being generated by the paddle acts just like a brace. I can in fact use the power stroke as a brace most of the time, in all but the most dire circumstances where I am compelled to use a low brace. So you get to have your cake and eat it – the power up stroke gets you moving in the right direction into whatever line you need, and it also gives you the ‘third leg’ effect of a tripod for stability.
From time to time, of course, I’ll drop that top hand from a power-up stroke to a low brace for an instant before reverting back to a power up. But here is my take on that; I’m doing that because even I have not yet developed the skills/confidence in all situations to rely entirely on a power up stroke as active a supportive stroke rather than the passive low brace. If you watch slalom C1 paddlers, no matter what they’re going through they’re using active strokes, not low braces. There is no reason we can’t do so as well in my opinion – we just need the time to develop the fine tune skills to make that a reality.
So, to recap. Step one is to get into a kung fu stance that is neither too wide side to side or front to back.
Step two is to get those knees bent, the ankles flexed, and to work on stability from rubbery, jelly-like legs that work as pistons.
And then step three is to use the paddle like a vertical pulling brace rather than a lower leaning brace. As you get step three wired so you’ll be able to adjust the blade angle and pull direction so that it’s an active stroke powering you, turning you, or pivoting you – as needed.
All too easy!