Strokes & Steering:
A study in choosing strokes wisely.
Oregon Hole Gorge on the Middle Fork of the Smith River, the first big rapid in the gorge is called the Nozzle. The line at moderate flows is to enter center left through a V into a crashing wave with big lateral shoulders and immediately break right to avoid a giant hole that dominates the left half of the river. The run out requires you to continue to move right to avoid a “sluice box” crack in the wall on the left. There are stacked small slack waters on river right just above the main hole that will grab the bow and turn it upstream, with the effect of leaving the raft now pointed upstream to the right but still in line to drop the giant hole.
Photo: The Nozzle at 1500 cfs (Medium Low Flow)
The mistake R2 teams make is to correct for the slack water grabbing the bow by using a left pry stroke, with the consequence of regaining an appropriate downstream angle but as the loss of one momentum stroke in exchange for a turning stroke. Now you only have two strokes left to make the move. The pry pivoted the raft in place, but did not gain any momentum or distance in the correct direction. You changed angle, you didn’t change lanes. Now you will hit the hole sideways.
You only get 3 strokes, choose wisely.
The more effective way to counter righthand rotation as the bow enters the slack water and turns upstream to the right, is that the right hand paddler needs to put in twice the amount or power in modified forward strokes to compensate. If the right hand paddler is performing at 100 percent, then the left hand paddler is forward paddling at 50 percent. This allows you to make left to right progress while compensating for the angle adjustment needed. The right hand paddler is using combo forward strokes that begin with bow sweeps. The modified portion of the stroke includes a small bow sweep at the beginning to compensate for the eddy pull. The right hand paddler being the one to compensate for the eddy pull allows the left hand paddler to continue forward paddling, not missing any strokes to turning, with the result of the raft propelling towards river right with an appropriate angle to cut across just above the giant hole.
Photo: Chad and Shawn set safety on the rock island that creates the Sluice Box hazard at Nozzle Rapid in Oregon Hole Gorge, Smith River CA. The flow this day was 1000, which is too low.
Negative Feedback loops
Worst case scenario…and how people end up chundered here, is that the initial problem of the bow catching the right side eddy water creates a negative feedback loop of pry strokes. The left hand paddler puts in a pry stroke to compensate for the bow catching eddy water on the right. Now the right hand paddler sees that the team needs an even steeper right angle to compensate for lost distance between you and the hole, and the right hand paddler also take a pry stroke to re set the angle. Now the R2 team is poised over the lip of a huge hole, two of the three strokes used up with pries, with the end result of plopping completely sideways with no momentum into the mess. Viewed from below where surface currents are not apparent, it looks as if the R2 team purposely backpaddled/ pried their way directly into the hole. This happens all the time here!
The negative feedback loop is created when you are losing distance at a fast rate while adjusting for angle, thereby needing to adjust for angle even more aggressively to compensate for the distance lost. I’ve been rafting this rapid for 10 years and just now figured this out. Sean and I have our own vocabulary for R2 moves, we call this move the Nozzle any time we need to cut across in a downstream angle with one person putting in twice as much power as the other, using only forward strokes. Ask us sometime about the cleavage line move. Confused?
Video: The author & Sean Bowen run the Nozzle in a Hyside paddle cat at just over 2000 cfs.
Back is not an R2 turning stoke! Some unsolicited Advice...
1) Avoid Common Mistakes
One of the most common mistakes I see R2 teams make is the use of a momentum stroke, the backstroke, to attempt to turn the raft. I’ve learned that starting out with some actual knowledge around strokes will help you (and me) avoid bad habits. Paddle raft captains typically call back on one side to pivot in place, but they are also using a pry, sweep, or stern draw to control the paddle raft. Stop using back in an R2, it is inefficient and ineffective to turn. It takes 3 backstrokes to affect what you could have accomplished with one bow draw or pry. Learn to identify the difference between a pry and a backstroke.
2) Build Muscle Memory
Hardshell kayak instruction is actually a helpful tool for learning strokes if an R2 class is unavailable to you. Strokes are not muscle memory until you practice, it is seriously a detriment to our progression to spend years practicing inefficient techniques and engraining them in your neural pathways. R2 really is its own skill set, as is each whitewater discipline. It can be an amazing way to share a team experience with someone as an equal. If you want to see the badass whitewater that a small R2 opens up to rafters, learn your strokes on easy water first!
3) Combine Strokes
The reality is that in a dynamic river environment, once you place your blade in the water, your maneuver may encompass many different strokes in combination! Think about using your combo momentum and turning strokes purposefully in anticipation of how the water will move your raft instead of paddling in a frantic reactionary manner (I call that panic stroking). The release portion of your stroke doesn’t even have to happen out of the water, you can feather the blade in line with the current and recover to the catch portion of the stroke completely underwater, which we would call a sculling draw, not a super common stroke in R2 whitewater but perhaps useful.
Jacob and Scott are perfectly matched in their seats, their lunge position, and their vertical paddle shafts reaching for a powerful forward strokes. NF American, CA during Rafting Rendezvous
R2 Paddle Strokes
How can paddlers maneuver a raft where they want it to go? Well you could just let the river take you, (I refer to that as the “jeebus take the wheel” move) or you can learn and apply different paddle strokes with your partner. Strokes used in a side by side R2 are often modified, meaning they are a combo of different strokes. We use forward and back for momentum strokes, as well as the occasional J stroke if our partner needs a break. We use sweep, pry, and stern/bow draw for turning strokes. We use a draw to move laterally. Some the vocabulary could vary regionally, but when you look closely at expert paddlers you will see them using these strokes and combos thereof. When looking at strokes and evaluating your technique, look for the orientation of the paddle shaft.
Momentum strokes us a vertical shaft.
Turning strokes use a horizontal shaft.
Who's paddle shaft is doing what? Can you guess what strokes they are using based on position?
Sweeps are strokes shaped like the letter C which are executed out and away from the paddlers’ seat and side tube of the raft. We can use full sweeps which end behind the paddler’s hip to turn the raft in a full 90 degree arc. Often more useful is a partial sweep, shaped like half of the letter C, which ends (or begins) at the paddlers hip and central pivot point of the boat. The paddle shaft is held in a generally horizonal position for gentle turning sweep strokes on easy water.
Photo: Matt starts with a sweep and lines up to be in position for a forward stroke next. Look at the bubbles left behind by his stroke, tracing a C shape.
The shaft will need to be held more vertically and the paddler will use their torso to create the horizontal extension in order to execute an effective sweep stroke in a difficult rapid with more powerful current. Sweeps must be away from the side of the raft to be effective. The more powerful of a stroke you need, the more you need to engage your torso instead of just arms. Performing a sweep in rapids requires the paddler’s lower body to be 100% locked into the raft so that they may extend their upper body out over the water for maximum leverage. Paddlers with longer arms have more advantage and shorter paddlers may need to extend their torsos out further to compensate for paddling next to a tall partner. Remember, the goal is to place the paddle blade out form the raft as far as possible for maximum leverage. Maintaining your paddlers’ seat as far out on the tube as you can will aid in your reach.
Draw strokes can generally be broken into two types; side draw, and bow/stern draw. A side draw is performed with a vertical paddle shaft, drawing the raft laterally toward your blade at your hip in order to move sideways. A draw is neither a momentum stroke nor a turning stroke in this application. Your torso does a side crunch, ear dipping toward shoulder and hips thrusting laterally toward the paddle blade. A stern or bow draw can be utilized in an R2 more like a reverse of the partial sweep stroke, planting a horizontally oriented blade out from the bow/stern, and then drawing the end of the boat toward that paddle blade in that half C shape. A stern or bow draw can be used as a turning stroke that also moves the stern or bow laterally. A side draw stroke only moves the raft toward the paddle blade directly without any turning motion. We will use the general tern draw to mean any time the desired effect is for the raft to move toward the paddle bade laterally.
Photo: Ellie Clapp uses a bow draw stroke to turn the boat left. Note her hand positions, knuckles up horizonal shaft, and torso extension. Nicole uses a forward stroke, knuckles all pointed forward, vertical paddle shaft. Rams Horn on the Wind River, WA.
A pry stroke from an R2 at the central pivot point will result in rotation, not lateral movement into a different current. Before and after a pry stroke, the raft will still be on the same line, but have a different angle. For pry strokes used to pivot the raft around the paddlers’ hip, you are responsible for turning when the stroke needed is a pry on your side. I find the small, tight and powerful pry stroke off the hip to be the most effective to pivot in place, mostly used for micro adjustments to straighten out at the lip for drops and holes. You are already on line, but you need the boat to have an angle adjustment. Do not confuse your pry with a backstroke, the goal of which is to move the raft toward to stern. A backstroke uses a vertical paddle shaft and is in line with the side tube, starting behind the paddler and ending out in front. The blade is oriented perpendicular to the raft in a backstroke. A pry stroke places the paddle shaft against the paddler’s hip and performs a pie wedge shaped stroke, starting at the side tube. The blade is placed parallel to the side tube and the power face is then moved in an arc to end the stroke with the blade perpendicular.
Video: Asa puts in a pry stroke, Hole in the Wall Rapid of Oregon Hole Gorge, Smith River CA
I need to turn the boat!
Sweep, Draw, or Pry?
Sweep and bow/stern draw strokes are used as turning strokes. So is a pry. So how do we determine which stroke to use when we need to turn the raft, and which partner is responsible for completing that stroke? While it is true that both partners need to work together to turn the boat, in small R2 rafts they pivot on a dime and can very quickly end up sideways or spinning 180 if both partners perform turning stokes simultaneously. I call that over rotation. Don’t forest to arrest your turning momentum once you reach the angle you desire.
Think about the sweep and bow/stern draw functioning in order to not only change the angle of the raft, but to move one end of the raft laterally across the current. Use the term “bring the end around” when conceptualizing bow/stern draws and sweeps. These strokes are used to place an end of the raft into a different current or line. Don’t forget about your stern trailing behind you, be actively managing it to bring it to a position of maximum usefulness instead of always letting the bow lead and the stern drag around back there like a kid on a leash at Disneyland. Failure to manage the stern results in a “hip check” of the obstacle, often throwing off your angle.
Photo: a hip check gets dicey when water starts spilling over the side tube. #5 south fork gorge.
Example: Catch an eddy
Consider using a bow draw as you catch an eddy with the front of the R2 raft, this will place your paddle in the desired current behind the rock and then draw the bow into that current towards your paddle. The result is twofold: your bow turns upstream into the eddy (rotation) and your bow moves from the current into the eddy, altering your overall placement in the river. Your partner places a stern draw to align the boat facing upstream and bring the raft completely into the eddy.
Example: Clearing a rock
Consider a stern sweep as you barely miss a rock or a hole headed downstream. As you paddle aggressively forward at the correct angle to avoid the obstacle, there comes a moment when you know you are going to clear it. At this moment, a stern sweep will sweep the back of the boat away and around the obstacle, setting the angle to once again be pointing downstream. This is more efficient than paddling the entire raft past the obstacle at your ferry angle, waiting for the stern to clear it, and then straitening out. Using your stern sweep to rotate the stern around the obstacle avoids over correction and is super useful when moves are stacked on top of each other in technical steep water. Why get so close to the rock? You want to just barely miss the rock if you plan to use the current coming off the shoulder of it. Using the current will save you energy. Practice getting as close to friendly rocks as you can (rocks with pillows) to build efficiency and precision.
Video: Sean and Jon use angle adjusts and forward strokes to catch an eddy at Featherfest on Lobin.
Momentum Strokes: Forward
Forward strokes are momentum strokes, they should not turn the raft nor alter your angle if performed correctly. The more vertical your paddle blade and the more torso rotation you use, the better. Your torso is rotating instead of the boat rotating as you perform the forward stroke. Reaching as far forward as you can to plant your blade will extend the power portion of the stroke. The T grip hand should pass in front of your eyes. Put as much blade in the water as possible. Releasing near your hip will ensure you’re not wasting energy behind you where the stroke has diminished power. Feathering on release improves efficiency. Rotate the blade to be in line with the side of the raft upon release to feather. A powerful and efficient forward stroke will get you out of a lot of trouble and is the most important tool in your kit as you begin to R2. Master this first.
Photo: Aggressive forward paddle, hinging at the waist to reach forward.
A back stroke is not commonly used in R2 unless you need to slow something down. One example of a useful place for a backstroke is if you are hitting a rock with the bow, in the “T up” orientation. Backstroking off the rock while maintaining that perpendicular orientation will aid the boat to come off the rock without turning sideways. The backstroke is less powerful than the forward stroke in an R2, enough so that it is worth your while to turn the raft bow upstream for an upstream ferry angle during must make moves.
To perform an efficient backstroke, try watching the blade with your eyes/head to ensure your torso rotates as you complete the stroke. Backstrokes feel to have a shorter distance window of power phase than forward strokes, so try keeping them short and powerful for maximum effect. Avoid laying back during the catch phase, and instead maintain upright torso positioning with reaching of the blade behind your hip for the catch phase. Hinge at the waist. I see a lot of beginners backstroke from an almost entirely lying down position. Stop that. When back paddling to slow down, remember that the current is directly opposed to your stroke, which will make it difficult to find purchase. Short, fast, powerful backstrokes will help compensate for paddling directly into the current. Keep that paddle shaft vertical.
Video: Asa and Jim use backstrokes to slow down and back off features. 500cfs (low water) Greenwall Rapid on the Illinois River, OR.
Bracing is surely more common in kayaking, but try to imagine that you as an R2 team are each one side of a kayak, so when the boat tips, the person on the low side throws in a brace instead of climbing to the high side. The advantage of bracing instead of high siding is that the paddler can remain in the locked in leg position. The person on the high side leans out, making a point of not falling onto their partner on the low side. Use your brace as a reaction to unexpected tipping when the raft hits river features like hole and waves not quite straight. Save those true high sides for rock features you find yourself unexpectedly climbing. The parts of a stroke are catch, power, recovery. Sometimes I image a brace as starting with stabbing the backwash during the catch phase and then slapping it down during the power phase.
To throw in an effective brace from a low side R2 position, tuck your elbows in and lean way out with the paddle shaft held horizontally across the front of your chest. (This is the set up for a kayak style high brace.) As the raft tips, your seat may go underwater and you could be up to your armpits in the hydraulic! Orient the paddle blade flat with the surface of the water and change your arm position to be able to push down. Once the paddle has resistance, rotate that elbow up and out and do a one armed push up against the blade end, which is now flat against the surface and under your shoulder because your torso is leaned so far out. (This is a kayaking low brace.) Tuck your head down as you push down on the blade. Lean into the whitewater. Transfer the power through to your boat by finishing the brace with a hip snap and draw stroke on release. Try to pull the low side of the boat toward your paddle. You’ll only get resistance to do the push up momentarily, so it’s a fast maneuver. Engaging in a low side brace will help you avoid floating out of the boat.
Photo: Nate and Nathan throw in a brace while playing in a surf wave on the Chamberlain Run, NF American River, CA.
In small R2 boats, staying in your seat and bracing is preferred to an actual high side during most whitewater maneuvers. Some exceptions would be if your boat is actively climbing a rock or wall sideways, or if you are being side surfed. For side surfs, high side downstream and draw stroke toward the flushing edge of the hole. Rock climbing and side surfing would be instances where both partners want to move to the same side of the raft (the high side).
Photo: A more preemptive and aggressive high side was needed for this rock encounter!
If the boat is hitting an undercut, which can be extremely hazardous, the high side is away from the rock or wall. Imagine that if you high side into an undercut wall, you will tip the raft toward the rock, and now you are the meat in a rock/raft sandwich. Not sure if a rock is undercut? Read the amount of current refracting off the rock, does it match the amount going in, or is some current being lost somewhere? Is there a pillow on the front (good rock) or a boil on the backside (bad rock)? Paddlers can high side preemptively when hitting powerful features. Don’t leave your paddler’s seat, but throw your shoulder or hips into whatever you are hitting. Always lean into the whitewater feature. In a small R2, the paddler must drive the boat and match the power of the water. Moving your weight will help punch features.
Turning the boat using unequal forward paddling instead of pry strokes:
Consider the effect of one R2 partner taking powerful and effective forward strokes while the other partner just sits there. The raft will turn! Unbalancing between partners is another way to affect a turn. Also, you are overpowering your partner if the boat always turns towards them unintentionally. Unequal weigh distribution can also cause this, the boat turns toward the heavier person.
I like to designate responsibility of last minute turning to the paddler who is on the pry stroke side of the raft, but that is only true once the boat is on line to clear the obstacle or if you are straitening out to hit a hole or drop. What if you need to turn AND make lateral progress?
Photo: Rosey puts in a pry, Zach waits for it to work.
Bow Sweep with a Forward Combo
There are multiple strokes that can be used to turn the boat. To choose the correct stroke, choose the turning stroke that sets the raft’s angle/ momentum to best clear the obstacle. Consider using a stroke that gains you lateral movement in the desired direction in addition to angle adjustment. A forward combo stroke, like a bow sweep with a forward stroke, will be the strongest. Pay attention to which side of the raft should execute the turn maneuver in order to avoid losing ground while rotating. This might seem obvious, but earlier we looked at a local example in the Nozzle where we see people fail on what appears to be a straightforward move that requires 3 strokes.
Dividing up the responsibilities into quadrants:
Having a default mode of paddler responsibility allows for faster reaction time as a team and avoids the overcorrection conundrum. The goal is that for standard maneuvers and adjustments, each paddler will already know who’s job it is to take the corrective stroke. You can react quicker when no conversation is needed. I actually prefer to use the boat as language instead of talking during big whitewater.
Video; Doug and Brian run #3 on South Fork Gorge, Smith River, CA. Doug uses a bow draw with a small sculling motion to keep the right front quadrant from hitting the wall. Brian waits, trusting Doug will turn the boat when they reach the wall. They both take a big forward stroke to hit the bottom drop.
For a well matched R2 team, it pays off to designate responsibilities. The goal is to ensure each partner is doing half the work and to prioritize using the most efficient strokes on each side for needed maneuvers. The most efficient stroke may be dictated by which one sets you up better for the feature, like in the example of the Nozzle above. One classic example is the bow draw. When the raft needs a bow draw on one side in a steep creek environment, it is typically to avoid the bow catching a canyon wall or boulder on the opposing side. For all practical purposes, your partner will not be able to get in the needed stoke on their side, a bow sweep, because the canyon wall is in the way. So it makes sense that when there is a choice between a bow draw and a bow sweep, the person on the side set up to draw should be the one to take the turning stroke.
I like to designate quadrants of control, so that each paddler is in control of the stroke needed to move that section of raft away from a hazard. Each paddler is the primary controller of the quadrant of bow across from themselves as well as the quadrant of stern directly behind their seat. This will play out to mean each paddler is doing a lot of bow draws and stern sweeps (but not too many bow sweeps or stern draws). Like mentioned before, stern sweeps are especially useful for avoiding “hip check” of rocks. This is how I run an R2 when both paddlers are of equal experience and skillset.
Jim and Asa run "boat eater" on the Illinois River. Both partners dig forward with equal strength and hit the hole strait.