Wilko's Paddling Opinions

Skill Level, Wilko Style

As far as paddling is concerned, I consider myself to be a class IV creek boater. Many of my friends disagree with that gradation though... In my definition, a class IV creek boater is someone who has the skills, experience, confidence and will to read the water on continuous class IV creeks. He can paddle that kind of white water in a controlled and confident way and without getting in trouble.

More importantly to me though, is that this boater has enough "overkill" in his skills and experience to lead others down that kind of white water confidently, and to be able to help those others effectively when they get in trouble. I can do that with class IV creeks, also on class IV creeks that I have not paddled before.

Although I run class V stuff every once in a while, and I haven't gotten in trouble on any of the class V rapids that I ran, in my view that's still different than knowing that you will run a clean line in almost every class V rapid that you'll see. I have taken good paddling friends down some class V rapids that I knew rather well, or where we found ourselves on an unfamiliar river and couldn't carry around something.

Still, I won't be feeling comfortable to run a complete class V river as the trip leader, especially when I haven't run that river before. So, that's why I don't think that I'm a class V boater, but just a good class IV boater who enjoys running class V stuff every once in a while...

Gut Feeling, Fear

I believe in running stuff at or below my comfort level at that time, which means that I either run something because it feels good, or I don't run it when it doesn't feel good. It doesn't matter whether that rapid is class III or class V, or how many times I may have run it before: if it doesn't feel good to me at that time, I won't run it. I don't have to prove anything to anyone.

Having been in the great position to have had paddling buddies around me who didn't approve of peer pressure, I have not been pressured by anyone to run anything that I didn't want. On the other hand I have had friends tell me not to run things, and usually they support me when I do decide to run something, even if they disapprove.

I've been experiencing that gut feeling mostly during paddling trips. Usually I felt it when I looked at a rapid that gave me that vague uneasy feeling deep inside. That what I call fear is something I have learned to respect, but also have learned how to overcome.

I see it as a warning signal that I'm looking at something that can cause me harm. Like the feeling just before the nurse is sticking a needle in your arm to give blood, it is a feeling I can reason away. With paddling, it turns into something else though. I first use that feeling to measure *if* I should run something. After I have made the decision, it turns into something else. It makes me sharp, focuses my mind, clears it of unnecessary thoughts and helps me to make a kind of map or plan of the rapid in my head. The concentration builds up and the gut feeling disappears into the background.

In my mind I already run the planned route, I know what moves to make, where and when, where I see the biggest risk and what alternatives I have for when plan A goes wrong. By the time I get in my boat and shut the spraydeck, I tend to shut out everything and just focus on the line to take, the landmarks and the moves.

It took me some time to be able to change that fear into something productive, but it's what gives me one of the bigger rewards to paddling. Running a difficult line cleanly and in complete control gives a great kick indeed, but not so much because of the adrenaline but more because of being able to stay concentrated for the entire run.

When things go wrong and I'm in such a state, I tend to quickly make decisions and cross off the possibilities. I've yet to experience fear during those moments, as the concentration makes me think fast and clear, trying to find a way to get in control again. I keep looking for possibilities, trying all my tricks, which means that there is no room for panic. I think that panic only sets in when you don't know what to do any more, and for some people that means that it's the first step. That's why I train for what might happen so that I'll have an alternative to panic.

It's been interesting to discover that the only times that I felt true fear was when people I cared about (friends and paddling buddies) got in serious trouble in a situation where I was unable to do anything. It's never been paralysing, as I tend to assess a situation quickly and go for action almost immediately after coming to a conclusion.

Confidence

This is probably the one aspect of paddling that changes the most within my paddling career. At times, I feel like I can run everything, at other times, I deliberately don't even get in my boat. There are a lot of factors that influence my confidence levels, I'll try to name a few...

Trashings and getting hurt. If I mess up badly, getting trashed, or if I or others get hurt while paddling, my paddling confidence tends to go down a bit. I guess it also puts my feet back firmly on the ground, making sure I don't start to over-estimate my own skill level.

Not paddling for some time. I tend to lose some of my instinctive boat feeling when I haven't paddled for a longer time (like a month or more). That also happens when I haven't paddled some more difficult (class IV and more) rapids in some time. It's then a matter of running some of those rapids smoothly to get back to where I was before the dip in confidence.

A combat roll. I haven't missed many rolls, especially in the last year or so, which I attribute to playboating. Nothing is as helpful for my rolling confidence as flipping 30 or 40 times while playboating. Back when I was still paddling my Diablo, I flipped very rarely, so that at the end of a paddling summer, I had become wary of the dependency of my roll. During the winter we have weekly pool sessions, and my roll would be bombproof again in the spring.

A trick roll. Simply trying out many different kinds of rolls in the pool helped me build up confidence. Starting out with little tricks, like first moving the paddle from one hand to the other underneath the boat, or handrolling, makes me feel that I have some extra margin for error when flipping. In reality, I have only done two combat handrolls, and they were both on the same river. (the complete story can be read here ).

Trust

I believe that paddling is one of the few "individual" sports where trust in your buddies is imperative, especially if you run more difficult stuff. They are the ones that trust in you, for all kinds of things, but first and foremost because you care about each other, and you try to keep each other safe. For me that means that I will do everything within my power to get a paddling buddy out of serious trouble. I trust my paddling buddies to do the same when I get in serious trouble. (And if it isn't dangerous, I trust them to take a picture of me... :-))

Risk

Paddling is something that I do for fun, but having lost a couple of friends to this wonderful sport, I have become more serious about the risks involved with this passion. Everyone makes their own decisions and takes their own responsibility when it comes to weighing the fun to risk factor, though. Still, it helps to think about who we leave behind if we would make one mistake too many. For me, that also means that I regularly look at what I'm doing, and see if I still like what I see.

I paddled a Diablo, a forgiving boat, roomy and easy to get out of. Although I tried to use a boat that can handle more difficult water than I, I also tried to find my challenge in different things than running ever harder and more difficult white water. I have started playboating, running stuff in a tandem kayak and handpaddling, all to find different challenges. Having realized that I'm again running ever more difficult stuff, I recently bought myself an extreme creeker.

I've been paddling with a full coverage helmet with face guard, a well padded PFD (swimming vest or buoyancy aid) and elbow guards for quite some time, if only to prevent injuries that would cost me paddling days... :-) In the end, your chosen type of kayak, your skill and common sense are still the limiting factor.

As far as safety is concerned, my paddling kit also contains paramedic's shears, which I carry in a velcro-closed sheath on the outside of my PFD, well within reach, but not very likely to lose (It's been carried there for several years).

For a number of reasons, I prefer the shears above a knife. An important reason is cost (they cost roughly four to five euro's/dollars), but a more important one is safety. The blunt tips can cause no harm to victim, and you can get close to their body without scratching or cutting them. When you drop it, it won't injure anyone, including yourself.

The control is better than with a knife, especially when you have cold fingers. With two fingers you can turn and move it very deliberately and precisely. It's very easy to pull out of a sheath with one hand, even though it will not come out of its own (a problem with many of the expensive "rescue-"knives, especially when they get older). The serrated edges of the shears will cut through thick rope just as well or better than knives. The ones I have are intended to cut military (thick) clothes (including boots and jackets) from war casualties. The throw line rope that I tried the shears on, especially when it's under tension, gave away with one "slash".

I also carry a folding knife in one of the PFD pockets (zippered and velcro-closure), but in the past four years that has only been used to attack fruit and bread. :-) Knives above a certain size (which is very small in the case of my country...) are illegal in several European countries, and the look of a knife on the outside of a PFD can be seen as threathening by some people. No-one seems to be worried about someone approaching them with blunt-tipped shears on their PFD though. :-)

I normally carry a short (15 meter/~50ft) Salamander throwline/tow line combo that I wear around my waist. The good thing about that is that you will have a throwbag around when you scout a rapid, when you're having lunch or when you're away from your boat (Where most kayakers that I know store their throwline...). The downside to the Salamander system is that it sucks for towing boats. Due to the strap only being attached around your waist, it will twist when you start towing things, moving the (bad design) quick release towards some position where you can't reach it quickly. I also keep a longer (25 meter/~80ft) and thicker line throwbag clipped behind my seat, to throw longer distances as well as to full free pinned boats.

On my PFD I have a "cowtail" towing line with quick-release. Over the last six years or so, it has seen plenty of use. I like it for clipping onto empty boats, so that you can start paddling towards an eddy. In my experience it takes several times the distance to get a boat to shore when you're bulldozing it, especially swamped boats. It takes a lot of experience and good judgement to decide when to use it and when not to! The risks involved are getting a lot greater when you attach yourself to a swamped boat. It's important that you know the river, that you can see far enough ahead to guess where to land and when to pull the quick-release. Warning: Quick release belts only work when there is tension from pulling on the cow-tail!
A lot of practise on class I and II is generally needed before you gain enough experience to start using the cowtail on more difficult white water.

We tend to paddle more or less continuous white water most of the time, which means that throwlines are rarely used, and rescues from the kayak are more normal practise. Over the past eight years I've only used throwlines a handful of times in Europe, but in the U.S. on pool and drop rivers I've used them a lot more.

Fun

Whatever you decide to paddle, enjoy it. It's not only the kind or difficulty of water that I paddle, but also the company and scenery that makes the difference between a good paddling day and a great paddling day for me.

Being in tune with the water, dancing from eddy to eddy, everyone taking care of each other, no-one worrying about who's leading, playing on waves and in holes. Al we need is seeing each other's body language and subtle signals to know what comes up. Picking alternative and more interesting lines through a rapid, pushing each other off a wave, smiles and happyness everywhere. That's what makes paddling a passion for me.

When paddling with people that I haven't paddled with before, I like to establish some basic river vocabulaire before we get on the water. Having found out the hard way that river signals can mean completely different things from one paddler to the next, I like to get clear what means what for everyone. A short list of some of the most often used signals by our group is listed here.

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Copyright 2002 by Wilko van den Bergh