Tip of the Week: Maintaining Directional Awareness

Jackson Kayak's Clay Wright explains how to stay aware of your surroundings, even when you're underwater

Wishing for directional awareness in Colorado. Photo by David Spiegel

Wishing for directional awareness in Colorado. Photo by David Spiegel

Jackson Kayak Tip of the Week: Directional Awareness

By Clay Wright

Wham! You’re following your friend down a new river when water catches your stern and you're caught off guard, tumbling backwards into a surprising hole at the lead-in to a big drop with a 'last chance' eddy. The paddle catches bottom current and pulls you out flat onto the back deck just before the bow hits the falling water and pushes into your face again. You feel the current pushing you sideways and hope it's downstream. There's a solid eddy just below on the right from which to scout or portage, but you've heard there’s a 'mean stout' downstream. This is where our story will take one of two turns:

Boater #1. You set up and roll up, then as the water clears, you see the bank moving left and turn to look over your shoulder where your buddies are yelling “paddle!!” from that last chance eddy behind you. You sweep fast – now fully aware of the spray shooting up downstream – but as you're coming around they change their call to “Boof hard left” and realize you are a) too low to make the eddy and b) too far right.

Boater #2. You feel the current pushing from your right so roll up with a sweep roll to push your bow upstream, sweep again as you surface, then ferry casually into the eddy saying “I didn’t expect that thing to back loop me!” You get out to scout the waterfall.

What's the difference? Directional awareness. Boater #2 has been playboating and, without even thinking about it, he's learned to pay close attention the direction he's facing as he flips and any rotation when he's upside down. He comes up ready to race to the eddy every time. Boater #1 is “more of a river runner.” He's rarely upside down as he's a good paddler and his creeking skills have been developing fast. He didn't want to waste time playboating because it “just wasn't his thing” but right now he's wishing he knew where that eddy was just a few seconds quicker but has no idea this is a skill that he's lacking.

What exactly is this directional awareness? It's the ability to visualize the world around you and your place in it even when you are upside down in moving water. Freestyle boaters get a heavy dose of it just from doing tricks in the hole as they are always spotting upstream and get very used to remembering which way the closest eddy is right before they fall on their face. With experience, they can retain this mental map of the area and their place in it even when spun by an eddy line or dropping down the next wave.

How do you get it? You can develop your own directional awareness by learning to use subtle clues of current such as the fast-water below the foam pile, the 'wind' of slower water dragging along the bottom, the spin of encountering an eddy current or hole shoulder, or the drop and rise of the waves downstream. Get upside down in swirly current, count to 7, try to roll up pointing where you thought and paddling towards a certain rock, eddy or destination. With practice you can train your internal gyroscope to translate all the sensations you feel underwater into fairly accurate map of your travel route down the river. Then you can quickly convert this into the direction you want to go as you roll yourself back up. Since flipping in easier whitewater rarely happens to good boaters and flipping in hard whitewater isn't a safe way to practice, intentional practice while playboating is your path to enlightenment.

–Clay Wright paddles for Jackson Kayak

This post is part of the Whitewater Pro Panel series, edited by David Spiegel.

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