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R2, A Complete Technical Guide Part 1

Updated: Jan 23

Experiments in staying in the boat.

"If I hadn't fallen out, I would still be in the boat." I'm thinking about all the swims I've had from an R2, which are mostly from losing my leg lock position. I'm wondering if I had a better thwart system if I might have stayed in. I've tried a few things and want to share what works for me. Right now I'm loving maximum thwarts, lunge position. I have some friends who the cross brace is working really well for too. Rapids I need redemption on are: Bushy Undercut on the NF Feather. Pearly Gates on Burnt Ranch Gorge. Bishop's Balcony on Fordyce Creek. The Nozzle, MF Smith. Only a couple times have we actually flipped the R2. Usually I just fall out.

Photo: Bloomer Falls, Salmon River, CA


In a side by side R2, the aggressive athletic paddling position needs to be upright, with the ability to reach forward aggressively, with the glutes placed squarely on the center top of the tube. Avoid bulky gear or extra clothing layers in your waist and shoulder areas as they will bind up and hinder your ability to reach forward. Try to avoid putting 303 on your seat area. R2 paddlers should not sit on the thwarts or the crack between the thwart and the tube, as it compromises your ability to reach out and take effective strokes. Sitting in the crack is for customers. For large diameter tubes, many paddlers will find they need a longer paddle for effective strokes. Stay in your seat as much as possible.

Photo: Paddlers' butt is not on the side tube! SF Gorge Smith River, CA

Front Foot Options

The front toe in any of the leg positions can either be in a

foot cup, under a front thwart, or under a toe strap.

Photo: Paddle team uses a toe strap nicely placed and tight on number 3 SF Gorge, Smith River CA.

Toe Strap

It works but is uncommon to see: people running a tight floor strap to hook their toe under. The toe strap feels a little entrapment hazardy to me and I do not personally use it on my boats. If you don't have foot cups, or they are not glued in the right place, a toe strap can be a good temporary system. The strap is completely adjustable, so paddlers can decide how far forward they want their weight in the raft.

Photo: Paddle team on number 5 "Good Luck" in SF Smith Gorge, CA using a front thwart

Front Thwart

A thwart can be used to tuck the front toe under instead of a foot cup or toe strap. The third thwart configuration is way more locked in than a 2 thwart style. I dislike the front thwart personally, it feels like you could twist your ankle badly trying to get free. Lose thwarts can be dangerous too, no part of your body should be able to slide under any thwart! I have seen many thwarts installed in a manner which allows the paddler's leg to potentially slide underneath. In fact, they commonly come from the factory like this. There was an incident where a friend slipped his front leg underneath the thwart and as a consequence broke his knee upon landing a waterfall. Some boat systems have moose knuckle type attachments, so you really can't get the thwart tightly flush with the floor, no matter what you do. The lace in thwart attachment system is much safer and more customizable.

Photo: Rogue series thwart system with the mesh floor center attachment point

The next step in getting a thwart that stays tight against the floor would be to actually include an attachment point in the center of the thwart where one could strap it tightly to the middle of the raft floor. The only rafts I currently know of where paddlers can try this particular idea are the SOTAR Rogue series. The Rogue series comes standard with a mesh floor, which has a welded attachment system down the center of it. Not only does this system hold the thwart flush with the floor, it also holds the floor up off the river when you're kneeling on it.

Foot Cups

Not all foot cups are created equal, look for ones that allow you to change the angle of your ankle, like the Aire Sabertooth front foot flap, this will reduce fatigue and strains. Avoid foot cups that your entire foot could slide through.

Lunge, cross brace, toe/ heel tuck

The cockpit size, foot cup, and thwart availability will dictate how the R2 paddler locks in their lower body. The purpose of being 100 percent locked in is both to keep you in the boat and to transfer power from your paddle stroke, through your torso, and into the boat itself to affect maneuvering. 3 types of lower body lock in include the lunge, the cross brace, and the toe/ heel tuck. Any position you get yourself into, be sure you can get yourself out once the boat is compromised or upside down. The scarier the run you are doing, the tighter you want to be locked in. A combo of the tightness of your system and the tension you create using your leg muscles is what keeps you locked in.

Photo: Matt and Jaci toe /heel tuck at number 5, back foot sideways.

Toe/heel tuck

With the toe/ heel tuck, a common problem arises when only one foot, the front foot, is truly locked in. The paddler, when knocked off balance, ends up with that back foot in the air, doing a backbend into a face full of water! This position is difficult to recover from as it involves a heroic sized sit up with only one point of contact. I’ve done this move as the right hand paddler at Pearly Gates in Burnt Ranch Gorge. It didn't work, I fell out after yelling at Sean to grab my foot. I'm a firm believer that having both legs locked in is the first prerequisite for running class five. The toe /heel tuck is fine for easier stuff and is probably the most comfortable position to paddle in.

Photo: another two thwart toe heel tuck system, back foot vertical

Full Lunge

Ideally, a lunge is combined with a foot cup for the front toe and a tight thwart space between the back foot and back knee. A common problem with this set up arises when partners have different length legs, so that one paddler is locked in but the distance between thwarts is too far for the smaller person. Here is where adjustable lace in thwarts are key, as you can easily offset the leg length difference by scooting one side forward so the thwart is at an angle across the cockpit. For short paddlers, positioning the knee up, not resting on the floor, will help with the seat position and paddle reach.


Middle thwart for a lunge

I personally use the AIRE Sabretooth a lot, on it the front foot cups are actually more of a flap than a cup, and they are placed all the way forward in the raft. There is no chance that a paddler could put their foot all the way through. The Sabertooth comes from the factory with a second “middle” thwart, which can be placed behind the paddlers’ front leg and gripped between the inside of the paddlers’ front knee and the front of the paddler's back thigh. This is great if you are 6'2. My friend Chrissisippi fits this boat perfectly. When I use this boat with what AIRE provided from the factory, my back leg cannot reach the floor with my knee, and my back foot cannot reach the back thwart. Basically the boat is too big for me to lock in my back leg. I see a lot of people go ahead and call it good and stop here and use the boat as is.

However, there is a trick I would like to share with you which is going to be a game changer for smaller paddlers. The idea is that you purchase another thwart, it doesn't even have to be from AIRE, any lace in type will do. Then install this custom thwart behind the paddler's rear leg so that it cinches you in between your back leg heel and your back leg knee. The important part is that you do not rest your knee on the floor in this configuration as a smaller paddler. You jam your knee halfway down the middle thwart and put your rear toe against the floor, heel against your custom added thwart, your leg oriented in a position similar to as if you were about to start a sprint.

Why is it important that a smaller paddler does not place their knee on the floor? Lifting the rear knee puts your seat further out on the side tube, increasing the potential you have to create a powerful stroke. A powerful stroke starts with you being able to reach forward and outward from the side tube of the boat. A shorter paddler who places their knee on the floor is essentially scooching their butt inward on the tube. Although this may feel like a more stable position, that is just your instincts telling you to shy away from scary things (rapids). Placing your rear knee on the floor is actually less safe because you have less control of the watercraft and you can bang that knee on rocks through the floor.


Cross Brace

Cross Brace: What are their legs doing?

I first saw the cross brace technique in a framed paddle cat. We were on the North fork of the Feather River, at Feather Fest. The paddle cat looked Russian style with a small diameter homemade welded frame, fatty SOTAR tubes, and some gnarly dudes delicately intertwining their legs. The concept of the cross brace is that an R2 team can position their back legs across the boat against the opposite tube, creating extra stability during a surf, high side or brace. The technique has its limitations as well as its benefits. It can be done on any R2 where the interior width of the boat is small enough for matching the length of the paddlers leg.

Photo: a framed paddle cat cross brace at Rafting Rendezvous 2023

I've seen foot cups installed as cross braces, but an easy way to try it out if you can't get custom foot cups is to use a cam strap and a small piece of garden hose or tubing. The loop created should be only large enough for the paddlers toe to fit through, not an entire leg. The interesting thing about using a foot cup instead of a toe loop is that a movable foot cup can be angled to better create a naturally angled foot placement and avoid torque on the ankle. SOTAR Whitewater Manufacturing is the only outfit of which I currently am aware that is making custom strap in foot cups. Just drop it in wherever you want it and use a ridiculous amount of straps to secure it. A lace in floor is going to work better for these devices than a floor that only has bailer holes available for attachment. 

Photo: custom removable foot cups and center attached thwart from SOTAR

Some benefits of the cross brace

Each R2 partner can start aggressively draw stroking in opposite directions, in case they were hoping to go nowhere. Just kidding. A cross brace aids the paddler’s torso to extend further out over the water, which makes for an exceptionally effective draw stroke. Another benefit is that during a side surf, the paddler on the high side will be able to essentially stand on the cross braced leg to maintain a vertical body position in the boat. This will help with high siding and also with being able to reach out during a high side and take that brace or draw needed to keep the R2 from flipping. Strokes can be hard to get when you are several feet up in the air. 

Photo: cross brace is very stable when the boat unexpectedly tips. Rams Horn, Wind River, WA

Cross Brace Drawbacks (no that's not a stroke)

Personally, having tried the cross brace, I find it works well for me only in micro rafts, as I am 5'5. The other thing that I struggle with is the orientation that it puts the paddler’s torso in. Essentially, you are sitting with your legs configured in a way that if you were in a natural position of comfort, you would be facing directly inside the boat, otherwise thought of as facing your partner. Once you put that back foot across from you, instead of sitting in line with your torso, you are now needing to rotate up to 90° in order to create effective power strokes in line with the side tube. Perhaps for those gymnasts and yogis amongst us, this is no big deal, but I find that my ability to get a truly powerful stroke is lessened when I am over-rotated like that. I think it's an interesting tool to play with and an innovative idea. The R2 teams paddling in the Sierra really seem to prefer the cross brace.

Photo: There is a LOT of torso rotation needed to get in a big bow draw with the cross brace

Cross bracing is an innovative technique for boats with small or narrow cockpits. This position may be easier on the hamstrings and hip flexors during a long day of paddling than the lunge position for some folks. It is just as secure as the thwart lunge when done correctly. Use a moveable custom foot cup or a strap with a piece of garden hose to rig your own cross brace. Be cautious about falling on your partners knee in this position, as it could be exposed to injury.

These two get down on Woo Man Chu, Breitenbush River, OR

Get Down Position

You cannot perform an efficient stroke from the “get down” position and actually I can’t recommend that position for anything other than customers or waterfalls. The problem is twofold: in the bottom of the boat, you are not controlling the raft and you have compromised your locked in leg position to be sitting where your legs once presumably were. Staying in control of the raft will keep you in the boat. Having a paddle firmly planted in the river will be your third point of contact. Keep those points of contact tight and intentional; foot brace, paddlers’ seat, and paddle stroke. Going over small drops, paddle though the features as much as possible. Keep your paddle in the water while high siding.

Photo: The author gets lucky with a stroke on the high side during Rafting Rendezvous

Stay tuned for Part 2) Paddle Strokes

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