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Reading Water: Running Big Meaty Holes

Updated: Apr 3, 2023

The meat line

Why would a boater want to hit a hole? Besides the fundamental ego glory of taking the meat line, as we progress there are many class V rapids that have a “must hit hole.” The reason one must hit it is because the other options are worse, like undercuts, sieves, or even bigger holes. (Don’t forget, portaging or lining the boat is usually an option.) Another reason to hit holes is to build your skill set, running an avoidable hole to make a rapid more challenging. Whatever your reasons, it is an essential skill set to whitewater river running. I find that in the boating community there are people known as hole hunters and hole clippers. If you are going to follow a more experienced boater down a run, it is worth your while to check in about how conservative their lines will be that day. Conversely, when offering to lead, let your friends know if you will be hole hunting.

Photo: The author lining up for the main drop at Greenwall Rapid, Illinois River, Oregon.

Photo Credit Lee Baker

The best options for inflatables going through holes are those that put us:

1. furthest downstream in the hydraulic (downstream V)

2. in a weak/ calm part of the hydraulic

3. in an area that flushes (smiley face)

4. landing flat off short but steep drops (ski jump / boof)

1. Furthest downstream current (downstream V, Seam)

When we scout a hole we intend to run, we look for a route riding the furthest downstream current in order to clear the recirculating portions. If the rapid is easy, that will look like a big green tongue or downstream V. But in class IV and V rapids, often at ledge holes and vertical falls, no such large obvious V route presents itself. The line is very tight, and the desirable tongue is smaller than the waterline of our craft. Frequently the furthest downstream tongue plunges underneath the backwash, creating more of a seam where it once was than an actual bit of downstream current.

Video: R2 team hitting the downstream V of the holes

Placing a raft on this seam is tricky because in a tight line through a hole, the entire surface of our raft floor will not be in contact with the sought after furthest downstream current. Part of the floor will be hitting the retentive portion of the backwash, creating the potential to turn us sideways. When the bow stalls as it hits the pile and the stern is still in the V current headed downstream over the lip of the hole, this is the instant the stern can sweep around, causing us to turn sideways. Building momentum above the hole to match the speed of the current will help avoid the turning hazard caused by the speed differential of the bow and stern. Additionally, to avoid the stern swinging around, be as straight as possible. We want to avoid getting caught in a side surf, as it can be difficult to regain control or claw out of the hole.

Photo: Caldera Rapid, Upper Klamath, Oregon. Photo Credit Ben Dale

Stay Straight. To run the tight line on a downstream V or seam through a large hole, set the angle of the raft in a way that the recirculating backwash will hit the floor of the raft evenly on both the left and the right sides. Be centered to both sides of backwash for even hydraulics. Keep the bow and stern in line with the sliver of downstream V current, the seam. If the downstream current is not straight to the hole, it is generally more important to square up to the backwash of the hole than to stay straight on the V.

Photo: The stern is swept downstream, launching the raft sideways out of the second crashing wave...

2. The weakest portion of the hole

The weak spots in a hole are less violent areas of the backwash where you could potentially row or paddle your way out of. You might have to fight for it. Think of using weak spots as if they were eddies. And in fact, some river wide features will have portions of the hole that are truly eddies due to a shallow rock at the lip of the pour over instead of a deeply submerged rock. Other areas that are weak might be shallow spots in the backwash, where the full force of the recirculating current is broken up by an eddy within a hole.

In holes that are crashing waves, the low points and darker water of the foam pile indicate weak spots or downstream current just beneath the surface. The peak or highest point of the backwash usually has the most power and volume. Wave holes may also have cheat routes around the most retentive pocket, which can be found on the shoulders. Riding the shoulder around the peak of the backwash, turn your bow toward the high point as you pass it.

Photo: The rower ended up on the highest part of the crashing wave at Boat Eater Rapid, Illinois River

3. An area that flushes (smiley face)

The edges of the hole that flush downstream of the pocket are a good route option on holes shaped like a smiley face. These are common behind single mid-stream pour overs. The steeziest line at pour overs involves riding the shoulder of the pour over up the pillow, then turning off the pillow to slide down the shoulder in line with the eddy fence. Then finally turn the bow to square up to the hole behind the pour over as you land. Upon landing, the front of the raft is in the backwash and the stern is on the eddy fence. Think of it as a half -boof. This will set you up nicely to catch or use the slack water behind the feature to make your next move without committing to dropping the meat of the pour over. Hitting the corner of the hole here is less hazardous than hitting the center because as you land you are already on the part which flushes downstream. If one side of the hole has a shoulder and the other side is against a cliff, choose to hit the side away from the wall.

4. Landing flat off short but steep drops (ski jump / boof)

The goal of landing flat is to both keep the boat from filling with water (bathtubbing out) and to skip over the farthest upstream pocket of the hole, thereby avoiding the more retentive area. The raft filling with water will make it less maneuverable for setting up the next move in your line. A water filled heavy boat is not always a bad thing, extra weight can occasionally help catch current and drag the boat out of the hole. However, a water filled boat is more advantageous in a crashing wave than in a true hole. A heavy boat can get us into trouble on technical runs and continuous water; we want our bailer holes to do their job fast! It’s better to avoid filling up in the first place. Keeping the bow up is a strategy to avoid plugging the hole.

Photo: An SOTAR Rogue Series, with a mesh floor, totally bathtubbed out, but only for a second!

Stern squirts. Landing flat by boofing can also be advantageous to avoid stern squirts, which happen when the bow plunges deep and the boat resurfaces with the pressure of the pour over or veil pounding down on the stern. The boat submerges at the bottom of the drop and then the stern is caught underwater resulting in the bow rocketing skyward. Stern squirts are common in cat boats and can result in a dump truck, in which the humans all eject out the back as the boat shoots forward and upward. Stern squirts are less likely if the boat lands flat and clear of the veil. In order to land flat, rafters need to use a flake rock or a boof stroke to clear the hole.

Video: Kailee and Daisey R2 Boof on SF Yuba, 49 to Bridgeport Run.

From Reading Water: Using Rocks: Flakes

“A flake is different than a pour over. A flake sets you up to land flat on the hydraulic downstream of it. A pour over has a vertical backside and taken square on will result in a plunging bow and a raft that is set up vertically before landing in the hydraulic.”

Gear boats will be constrained to using flakes (and not pour overs) to land flat because the weight of a gear boat limits the control the rower has over the angle of the bow. R2, R3, lightweight paddle rafts, and stern mounts will be able to use small pour overs as long as they can control the bow. These craft may also discover a phenomenon known as “guide launch” when dropping large pour overs, and most will avoid this move if possible.

Photo: The low water Flake at Rainey Falls, Rogue River Oregon.

Rowing through a hole: After landing the hole, keep oars out of the backwash until the boat is nearing the boil line because the violent recirculating current can grab the blade and cause the oar to be pinned to the side of the raft, the handles leveraged forward by the strength of the upstream current. Instead of thinking about taking a stroke, consider your first contact with the oar blades to the boil line to be a brace or a skim, feeling for the movement of the current, and pushing your boat towards any portion that is exiting downstream. If the oar is ripped from your grasp and pinned to the side of the boat, spin the blade to be able to release it from the water. Paddlers have an advantage over rowers in holes, as they can reach forward with the paddle blade and grab the outwash, pulling the raft or kayak through. A rower doesn’t have any leverage on the situation until the power portion of the stroke is in useable water.

Photo: A rower has his left handle yanked forward by the backwash at # 4 on South Fork Smith Gorge.

You will find there is a joy and an art to hitting holes and crashing waves. There is also a very bad feeling that we get when the boat starts to head back upstream into the hole. Remember that surfing and playfully hitting big holes on easier runs are great ways to familiarize yourself with running holes. Have some safety boaters nearby as you progress, choose people who are mindful of the difference between surfing and being surfed, and make sure nobody is throwing unwanted ropes into the situation. Lastly, know how to get out of a hole, both as a paddler/ rower and as a swimmer.

Video: Textbook side surf and recovery on the South Fork Yuba, California.

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