Scouting & Portaging
Scouting rapids is one of the most important consideration when paddling rivers. There are essentially two ways to scout a rapid: from the bank, or from an eddy. And then there is the odd occasion where you may have the aid of a helicopter ride or a drone to check out a rapid. Most of the time, it’s just you, your mates and the river. Scouting from the bank is sometimes needed, but not always. It all depends on a number of different factors, such as: Your skill level: The more experienced you get, the easier it becomes to identify the rapids that may need scouting from the bank. Your pre-existing knowledge of the river: You may have paddled the section before, or have very good information from someone who knows it well, or you are doing a race with well-described rapids. The type of boat you are in: A long, narrow, tippy racing kayak cannot handle the same grade of rapid as a short whitewater kayak that is designed to turn on a dime. Your faith in other people: You could be paddling with someone who has the experience to make the call to go for it, or, in the case of a race, there may be marshal on the bank indicating that the rapid is fine to run, and they may even point out the best route to you. The level of the river: If the water is at a much higher level than what is considered average, new features can develop that wouldn’t exist at normal levels. If the water is much lower than normal, nasty syphons and undercuts that are normally deeply covered by water could be exposed. Generally, when you approach a rapid and you can see a clear horison line, often with some spray visible too, there is a good chance that you will need to scout it from the bank. If you approach a rapid and get pretty close to the point of no return and you still can’t see the bottom of the rapid, best is to jump out and have a look. You may also notice some serious gradient ahead by the way that the whole gorge/valley drops out, or you could notice a tree lying across or inside the rapid. In any of these cases, if you are uncertain, get out and have a look. As you gain experience, your gut feel will get fine-tuned. A word of caution when scouting from the bank: Always try to get as close to the rapid as possible and stand at the same level as the rapid. When you scout a rapid from afar or from high up, your perception is distorted. The clear line you might be seeing from above often looks completely differently when you get on the water. Seemingly small features look much bigger from up close, and seemingly small drops tend to be much higher when you get to the lip. When scouting from the bank is not absolutely necessary, it is much more efficient to scout by eddy-hopping. In essence, this means that you paddle from eddy to eddy, making your way down as you survey the next section of the rapid to the following eddy. This technique is not possible with long racing kayaks, but with most other river-running craft, eddy-hopping is the preferred way to run rapids. When you’re in a group, eddy-hopping can be done in different ways: The same paddler can lead all the way, often leaving an eddy to make space for the next paddler to occupy their vacated space in the eddy. This is mostly done when only one paddler in the group is confident enough to take the lead. We like to call this person ‘the probe’, which is both an honour and a curse. When more than one paddler in a group has the confidence to lead, we resort to leapfrogging, which is more fun and also more time efficient. Let’s say that you catch an eddy and can see a clear line to the next eddy. You would signal to your mate upstream, who will paddle past you and catch the following eddy. He will scout the next section, identify the next eddy to catch, and then signal for you to pass him to catch the next eddy. This leapfrogging technique can be used by all members in a group to work their way down a rapid if the group is not too big. With a larger group, you will often have a core group that will eddy-hop their way down a rapid and then signal from the bottom to the rest of the group waiting at the top that all is clear and that they can just paddle down the rapid without catching eddies. With a large group and more difficult rapids that may require some boat-rescues along the way, the most capable paddlers with good rescue skills will work their way down by eddy-hopping as above. But, instead of everyone paddling to the bottom of the rapid, some paddlers will stay in eddies where some help may be needed. Once they’re all in position, they will signal to the group waiting above to paddle down the rapid. The paddlers waiting in eddies will give signals to show the lines, and they are on hand to help with a rescue if someone swims. When a rapid is difficult or dangerous enough that it requires proper safety being set up from the bank, the potential rescue spots should be discussed by the group while scouting from the bank. Often, with more dangerous rapids, only one or two of the group may be up for the challenge of paddling the rapid. In that case, everyone else will set up safety, and the few challengers will only start running the rapid once they receive a clear OK signal. When all the paddlers in the group want to run a rapid where safety is required, paddlers should take turns to do safety. In this scenario, it is important that everyone is very clear about whether they will run the rapid or not, because once the process is in motion, it causes a lot of frustration and sometimes consternation if a paddler suddenly changes their mind about running it or not. Scouting for racing If you do a race on a river that is unfamiliar to you, say the Fish, the Dusi or Umko, you will have a LOT of second-hand information on what to expect. Some rapids that really are not that difficult have huge reputations attached to them. This could be because the rapid has spectator access, or because someone once had a really bad swim there. Often, it is just because paddlers like to boast about the big rapids that they have conquered. The opposite is also often true. There exist no-name rapids that receive no mentions yet they have sneaky surprises that catch many paddlers unaware. These rapids are normally found far from spectators, and are also often in between more well-known rapids. One tends to focus on the big-name rapids and lose concentration when you hit the supposed-to-be-easy ones. The best thing you can do, if you have the time, is to trip the river beforehand to get familiar with the obstacles. Take your time, scout from the bank when necessary, and maybe try different lines through rapids to pick the fastest line. A good strategy is also to figure out Plan Bs for the rapids where paddlers are likely to get stuck or to be swimming. There is no point in having the perfect line figured out, if you get to the rapid to find that someone else is stuck right in the middle of where you intended to go and you have no other option prepared. This brings me to another important point: Do not follow directions given by other paddlers or marshals like sheep. You have no idea of the river-reading capabilities of the paddler in front of you, and you could just follow them straight into a disaster. Regarding marshals, some are paddlers and some are not. Chances are good that a marshal is just pointing you to the line taken by the first paddler that came through. So, if you enter an unfamiliar rapid, don’t just blindly follow. Scout your own line as you make your way down. You may still end up following the paddler in front of you, but at least it will be a informed decision then. A last note on scouting while racing: If you get to a rapid and another paddler is pinned or swimming where you most likely would have gone if said paddler wasn’t messing with your plans, don’t panic! If you notice the obstruction before you enter the rapid and another clear line is not immediately visible, rather stop and back-paddle to give yourself more time to scout. If you can see another doable line, go for it. If there is really no other way, you should either wait for the way to be cleared, or, if you don’t want to wait that long, get out and run around. The last thing you should be doing if someone is in trouble is to plough straight into the rapid on top of them. It goes without saying that if the paddler that is obstructing the way is in real danger, the race is off and it is your obligation to get out to help. Don’t be an ass, you are not going to win anyway. Portaging To portage or not to portage is the question that every river paddler faces from time to time. Sometimes the choice is easy; if it is a nasty weir, or a big waterfall landing on rocks, or simply a rapid that is clearly above your skill level, you simply walk it. There is no shame in that. But, when the rapid seems like it could be runnable, you have to decide if you are going to push your limits a bit (and scare yourself at the same time), or take the low-risk option to walk. Group dynamics often play a big role in this decision. If you are unsure and a dominant paddler in the group tells you to walk, you’ll walk. More regularly, the opposite happens where a gung-ho group may push you to run everything all the time. While their intention may be to help you to improve, it could also be for the spectator value… River rats find a good beating quite hilarious. There are other potential factors too. For instance, an approaching storm would add pressure to run everything in order to get to the take-out faster. Or, you may be the only paddler in the group who wants to portage a specific rapid, and this portage could take two hours to walk, you will be pressured to run the rapid to get the group through in two minutes. These are the types of potential issues that are best dealt with even before you get on the water. Are you with a group you trust? Are you getting onto a river that you can handle with your skill set? Is the weather going to play along? OK, let’s say that you have dealt with all the potential issues beforehand, there is no peer pressure, and you are looking at a rapid that you just can’t decide whether you should run it or not. The first thing to do is to look carefully at the line you intend to run. Then, decide whether you have a good chance of sticking the line. Consider the sections where you may miss the line, and decide if you can handle the consequences. Will you end up on a different line that you can easily run? Or, is there a good chance that you could end up in a really nasty hole, in an undercut, a syphon, or a tree block. In other words, a situation that you really would want to avoid. The bigger the consequence of a missed line, the surer you need to be that you can stick the line. That is what it always boils down to. If you will certainly die if you miss your line, you have to be 100% sure you can stick your line. That is the logical part of the decision-making process. The emotional part needs to be dealt with too. If you have the technical ability to stick the line, but you are just not feeling it, best is to not talk yourself into running it. Leave it for another day, when you’re on top of the world and ready to give anything a go. When you feel that you are in the zone, you have the adrenaline under control and you generally feel a bit ballsy, then give it all you’ve got. Author: Celliers Kruger. This article was originally published in The Paddle Mag in the Feb/March 2020 issue. This is a superb, free-to-read digital magazine.
Pack It Up
With the summer holiday approaching, many paddlers are thinking about doing multiday paddling trips. (more…)
What is a ‘blem’ kayak?
‘Blem’ is the short version of ‘blemish’. We use this to categorise kayak that are structurally sound but that have some kind of aesthetic blemish. In some cases, you may be hard-pressed to find the mark or scuff that we found during our quality control checks. Type of blemishes include: a dirty mark that we can’t wash off a scuff mark that we can’t get off a logo or graphic that doesn’t come out properly (faded, corner missing) more-than-usual rough patches caused by porosity in the mould uneven areas in the inner foamed plastic layer a mark in the plastic during moulding (see photo) This kayak was classified as a ‘blem’ becaue of this blemish in the plastic. It is otherwise a strong and structurally perfect kayak. Blemishes have no impact on the performance or structural integrity of the kayak. We use blems for our demo fleet and dealers use them as demo kayaks. Our friends and family are always happy to snap up blems. Although our blem rate is low, after a few months of moulding we do end up with a stash that we pass on to dealers at a reduced rate – and they sell the kayak to you at a discount. If you’re looking for a good deal, please contact your nearest dealer and enquire about the available blems. Blems make for excellent, better-than-second-hand purchases.
Kayak care and maintenance
Your kayak can handle bumps and bashes, scratches and abrasions, and it can withstand sun exposure. But, over the years, these things take their toll and no kayak is indestructible. (more…)
How to get back on to the Usutu whitewater sit-on-top if you capsize (video)
Our Usutu sit-on-top whitewater kayak is perfect for kayak schools, operators, guides, beginner kayakers, and especially those paddlers who enjoy whitewater but for whom whitewater is not their primary discipline so they have not nailed whitewater skills like rolling. It is perfectly socially acceptable to be a sit-on-top whitewater paddler. The Usutu allows you to develop skills like ferry gliding and catching eddies and to build confidence. It is forgiving and, best of all, if you fall off, you can climb back on without having to empty the kayak. In this video, Lisa takes a swim and with a hand on each of the side handles, she quickly flips the Usutu upright and climbs back on.
How to get your kayak onto your roof racks on your own (video)
In this quick clip, Lisa demonstrates her technique of getting a Tarka on to her roof racks without assistance. This same technique can be applied to getting the bigger Kasai, longer Marimba or even the heavier double-seater Mazowe onto a roof. Of course, a higher SUV roof is more challenging but the same technique will work. Place a towel on the back of the car to slide the kayak and protect your vehicle from scratches.
How to get your kayak off your roof racks on your own (video)
When loading and moving kayaks, we do not always have the convenience of another person around to assist. If you do not have your technique sorted, getting a kayak off a roof on your own can result in near decapitation, twisted wrists and pulled shoulders. Avoid the hospital by using this tried-and-tested technique. The kayak in this video is a Tarka. For bigger, heavier kayaks like the Kasai, Marimba or Mazowe, place a towel over the back of the car to protect your paint as you slide the kayak down.
Securing your kayak on your roof racks using tie-downs and rope (video)
When you travel anywhere with your kayak, make sure it is tied securely on to your roof racks. In this quick video, Lisa shows you how she ties a kayak on to her roof racks using tie downs and cord/rope.
How to compare kayaks before you buy
To buy a kayak is to make an investment in a long-lasting piece of equipment. A kayak costs more than a pair of running shoes, but less than a decent bicycle. They are strong and robust and will see you enjoying many, many years of paddling for sport, fitness and recreation. (more…)
5 Reasons why you need to see a paddle coach (yes, you!)
New golfers don’t hesitate to seek guidance from an instructor to develop an effective swing, especially if their handicap is high and they are known for leaving a divot trail. In tennis, gymnastics, cricket, karate, archery and a multitude of other sports, coaches are commonplace. Why then do we hop into any kayak, pick up a paddle and just like that take up the sport? Paddling, like golf, is a technical discipline where equipment choice, boat setup and stroke technique are best guided by a coach. Bad habits are easily entrenched because out on the water we don’t have a mirrored wall to check our posture and form, and anything that works to move a kayak forwards sticks. In no particular order, because these are all important, here are five reasons why all paddlers should book a session with a paddle coach. #1 – Kayak Choice If you can ride a bicycle, you can ride Lance Armstrong’s bike without falling off. This is not true for paddling Henk McGregor or Bridgitte Hartley’s kayaks. “Choosing the wrong boat, one that is too advanced, is a mistake that both beginner and long-time paddlers make,” says Johannesburg-based paddle coach Russell Willis. He describes the common scenario of paddler with 20 years of experience giving a friend their boat-locker key and encouraging, with good intention, the friend to use their boat. This is a sure-fire way to entrench the belief that paddling is the sport of Olympic gods and not the average Joe. With the right kayak, the friend will be back again and again. One swim too many and they’ll never return. Indeed, a K1 really is not the best kayak for a first-time paddler. A coach will start beginners in a kayak that they can stabilise, guiding them step-by-step. The coach will also ensure that the paddler doesn’t run before they can walk by guiding kayak choice over time. Boat choice is also connected to the paddler’s aspirations. Boats for kayak fishing, multiday touring, paddling for fitness, river racing and competitive sprints differ. Paddlers with experience need to realistically consider that the kayak they are paddling may too advanced. Tell-tale signs include bad posture, poor stroke technique and swimming down rapids too frequently. A coach is able to recommend suitable boats and will know how to correct weaknesses in form and technique that have developed as a result of compromising for instability. #2 – Paddle Choice What water type? What paddle? What length? What blade? are the four questions that Willis asks. Incorrect paddle selection is as common as choosing the wrong boat. “For flatwater, the blade is bigger and the shaft length is longer than that of a river paddle. You don’t pull as long or as aggressively on a river and strokes are faster on flatwater,” Willis explains. He adds that paddlers typically underspend on paddles and he has observed that many paddlers use the same paddle for flatwater and river where they should buy dedicated paddles for each type of water. Coaches can advise on the correct paddle length and blade type for the boats that you paddle across the paddling disciplines. #3 – Stroke technique Just putting a paddle into the water and pulling it backwards will move you forwards; but this is not necessarily efficient. Good technique can be developed but it is not a skill that is easy to learn and perfect on your own. It takes a coach to be able to identify faults and apply corrections. “There is nothing harder to unteach than how a person grips the paddle,” Willis says. This includes correctly placing and distancing the hands on the shaft, and the grip of the control hand on a feathered paddle. Willis uses techniques like marking the shaft for hand position and using an insert/bump to position the fixed hand. “Holding a paddle correctly has nothing to do with handedness. It is about what you learn with,” Willis says. Like right-handers, most left-handed South African paddlers keep their right hand fixed to rotate the shaft in their left hand. This has advantages because if a lefty breaks a paddle, a right-handed replacement is more common. “If you don’t feather correctly, there is usually less bite on the left causing the paddle to ‘wheel spin’. This leads to compensation in other areas of the stroke.” In terms of technique, Willis identifies placement of the blade in the water as key and this is related to the cycle of height, reach, catch and pause. Whether a paddler is using a flat blade or wing, the blade placement is the same and paddling principles overlap. A coach will assess and correct how the paddle is held and feathered, and they will provide drills to improve technique. Using video, a coach can point out where your strengths and weakness lie. This helps you to realise how to adjust your movements to achieve better technique. Willis says that coaching a beginner from Day 1 gets the principles correct and that hardcore techniques only follow later. “Even if you have been paddling for a while, don’t wait – go see a coach,” Willis advises. “Book nothing less than two sessions and then continue to develop your stroke in the right direction on your own.” Willis’ experience has proven that even good paddlers benefit from technique practice. #4 – Kayak setup Partnered with boat selection is kayak setup. This includes getting the distance between the footrest and seat correct to ensure sufficient bend in the knees, and the right seat position (where the seat position can be adjusted), which distributes your weight along the length of the kayak. When a paddler feels stable, their confidence grows and instead of focusing on not falling into the water, they can concentrate on stroke, rotation and pushing through their legs. From his experience, Willis has seen men struggle more than women when learning to paddle. “Guys generally have worse balance than women. They carry their weight in the upper body; women carry it in their hips,” he explains. Willis encourages new paddlers to give it a few chances. He reminds us of the basics that improve stability like initially removing the seat of a K1 to lower the paddler’s centre of gravity, sitting the correct distance from the pedals and initially paddling using only your hands in the water. #5 – Steering K1, K2 and surfski paddlers have pedals and a rudder to steer their kayaks; most recreational kayaks are rudderless and steering is by means of paddle strokes. While, learning paddle strokes would benefit those with rudders (rudder cables can snap!), this is an essential skill for recreational paddlers. Zigzagging across the water primarily because of imbalances in paddle placement, pull and hand position is frustrating. With instruction from a coach and some drills to cement skills, paddling becomes a whole lot more fun when you can steer a kayak where you want it to go. With coaching, your learning phase is over faster. Proper kayak and paddle selection, boat setup and correct technique improve your enjoyment of paddling and limit both injury and fatigue. Consulting a coach does not tie you in for weekly classes. Instead, the sessions give you skills to develop in the right direction on your own. A check-up will see you well on your way and a top-up, maybe even years later, will only further your paddling. Even Olympians have coaches. HOW TO FIND A COACH As paddling coaching don’t quite pop up in Google searches, ask your nearest paddling club. They will be able to refer you an appropriate coach. Russell Willis coached the author of this article when she first started paddling regularly. “I was taking a team of novices to the Abu Dhabi Adventure Challenge in 2008 and we were in for 120km of sea kayaking. I turned to Russell to correct and improve my technique and to teach my teammates how to paddle. He built us an efficient style for long-distance paddling. For three years, Russell coached me and my teammates (new ones each year). While I benefitted from his instruction, I also observed the transformation in my teammates from complete novices to decent and competent paddlers in a short space of time. Consistent paddling, two to three times a week, entrenched what Russell taught us.” Lisa continues to benefit from occasional coaching as she learns new paddle strokes for whitewater kayaking and canoe polo from those with more insight and experience at her paddling club, Likkewaan Canoe Club in Parys. Author: Lisa de Speville. This article was originally published in The Paddle Mag in the June/July 2019 issue.
An instructional piece that I read recently advised paddlers to remove their Personal Flotation Device (PFD) when caught in a weir. This reminded me of the period when I started doing river races in the early 90s. Back then, PFDs were not compulsory at most river races, and certainly not on flatwater. When CSA got more serious about safety and insisted on the wearing of PFDs, there was a lot of resistance to this decree. After all, it was cool to be so good that you didn’t need to wear a PFD to paddle rapids… (more…)
Four Days on the Orange River
The Orange River is South Africa’s biggest and longest river. Despite having paddled many sections of the Orange, there are still some sections that neither Vagabond’s Celliers Kruger nor Graeme ‘Riverman’ Addison had ever been on. A number of weeks ago, Graeme gave us a shout to see whether we’d be keen for a winter kayaking trip to scout a lesser-known section of the Orange: the stretch between Prieska and Koegas. In writing his book ‘Run the Rivers of Southern Africa’, Celliers was mostly after whitewater, so he had never ventured to this area. We were in! (more…)
Runners, paddle for active recovery
For many months, you have been committed and dedicated to training for a long-distance running event. You’ve logged hundreds of kilometres on your feet in preparation to run the race. Now, with the race over and your medal in hand, it is time for a break – physically and mentally. Instead of seeking solace in your sofa, use paddling as an active recovery exercise to maintain fitness and be even stronger. (more…)
To rudder or not to rudder
I recently launched a 4.6-metre long recreational/touring sit-on-top (the Marimba) with my new kayak company, Vagabond Kayaks. The response from the market has been overwhelmingly positive, as expected, but I also received requests that reminded me of a peculiar aspect of South African paddling: most paddlers think that a rudder is needed to steer a kayak. Before I delve into the details, let me make a few things clear: no kayak under 3m long needs a rudder. Never. Ever. Period. Between 3m and 4m, maybe, but most unlikely. Between 4m and 5m, maybe, maybe not. Between 5m and 6m, possibly, but maybe not. Over 6m, yes, you need a rudder. If and when you need a rudder is determined first by the actual design of the kayak, second by the conditions that you will use it in, and lastly by your skill level. When do you need a rudder? In principle, the purpose of a rudder is to steer a kayak that is otherwise difficult to steer; in other words, to turn a kayak that is designed to go straight. The reality is that most kayaks can be steered without a rudder with relative ease. I will get to steering techniques further down, but let me first explain when you really need a rudder: Sprinting: when you sprint, you cannot afford to waste energy to steer your kayak, apart from wiggling your toes to steer the rudder. Riding slip on flat water for long distances with a long kayak: it is difficult to stay in the perfect spot toride slip without a rudder. Riding swells or surfing ocean waves with a surfski or any other long kayak: you need that rudder to steer the kayak and keep it in the sweet spot. Rough conditions on open water: when you cross a big dam or lake, or cover distance on the ocean, and the weather turns foul, a rudder helps to keep direction while you battle the elements. You may notice that I did not include rapids in this list. The reason is simply that you don’t need a rudder most of the time in most rapids with most kayaks. If you absolutely cannot turn your river-racing K1 in rapids, there is a good chance that you’re paddling a K1 with a hull designed for flatwater racing, not for river racing. By this time, you may wonder if you shouldn’t just put a rudder on a kayak in case you need it? There are a few reasons why it is better not to add a rudder: A rudder adds weight. A rudder adds cost. A rudder is something that can (and often will) give trouble when you least expect it. A rudder prevents you from expanding your repertoire of paddling skills. The normal aluminium over-stern rudders commonly used on racing K1s in South Africa are relatively cheap and light, but they are also very prone to damage. It is far more difficult to steer a kayak with a broken rudder through a rapid than to steer a kayak without a rudder. Should I use a skeg? For the sake of completeness, a few words on the rudder’s cousin that is not common in SA but that is widely used over-the-seas: the skeg. The purpose of a skeg is to keep a kayak that has been designed to turn easily,to stay in a straight line. Skegs can generally lift up to slide over rocks or sandbanks, just like rudders; but they can’t pivot and they are not controlled by pedals to help you change direction. Most kayaks with skegs installed have a mechanism for raising or lowering the skeg, so that you can choose whether or not you want to engage the skeg. Skegs are typically deployed when hitting long sections of flat water; where you just want to keep paddling in a straight line without having to constantly steer the kayak. When manoeuvring is required, the skeg is lifted to allow the paddler to steer the boat easier by paddle strokes. Skegs tend be used most often on kayaks in the 3m to 5m range. Learn to steer your kayak without a rudder All right, let’s move on to steering techniques. There are different ways to control the direction you want to go by using a combination of paddle strokes and body control. The preferred technique will depend on the type of boat you’re paddling and where you’re paddling. Back stroke I put back stroke here just so that I can tell you not to use it. For most beginner paddlers, a back stroke is the default stroke that they adopt to change direction. But, a back stroke breaks all of your momentum, and it messes with the fluidity of your paddling motion. Unless the purpose of the back stroke is literally to stop forward motion in addition to turning the kayak, don’t do it. Sweep stroke The sweep stroke is the easiest stroke to learn and it works on just about any kayak. It can be done when your kayak is standing still or when you’re paddling forward. To initiate the stroke, put the paddle blade into the water in front of your toes. Pull it in a wide arc around your body. Your boat will turn to the opposite side as you pull the arc. Keep pulling until the kayak has turned enough, then take your paddle out of the water before you turn too far. To maximise the radius of the arc that you’re pulling, your paddle should be a lot flatter (more horizontal) than when you do a normal forward stroke. The key with the sweep stroke is to incorporate it into your normal forward-paddling rhythm. In other words, if you paddle forward and need to turn right, you stay in rhythm and just change your left forward stroke into a left sweep stroke. This way you efficiently turn the boat without breaking your momentum. If you haven’t turned the boat enough with the first left sweep stroke, do a normal forward stroke on the right side to keep your rhythm going, then do a second sweep stroke on the left. Practice this stroke to anticipate the degree of turn of your kayak when you do a sweep, so that you turn it just enough and not too much, otherwise you will need to follow up with a sweep on the other side again. Bow rudder The bow rudder is more tricky to learn, but it is a very efficient stroke that is especially useful in rapids. The bow rudder puts you in an unstable position if you do it wrong, making it a difficult skill to acquire in a narrow racing kayak. This stroke is best practiced in a more stable boat. A great way to learn this stroke is to start playing canoe polo as it will be one of the first strokes you learn. Once you have mastered the bow rudder, it can be used very effectively in a racing kayak too. The bow rudder only works when you are moving forward (to do the same thing when standing still, use a bow draw). The advantage of a bow rudder over a sweep stroke is that it is very precise, putting the bow of your kayak exactly where you want it, and it lends itself to combo strokes. In essence, the bow rudder is a vertical paddle stroke where your paddle blade is planted as far forward as possible, some distance away from the side of the kayak but not too far, and with the blade twisted enough for the power face to face the incoming water. To keep your balance when doing a bow rudder, you need to lean into the stroke. Don’t just sit flat, or worse, lean away from the stroke; there is a good chance that you’ll end up in the water. If you paddle forward and want to turn right, plant your right blade in the water. The incoming water will act on the blade and pull the bow of the kayak to the right. Keep your arms fairly straight and use your core muscles to hold the position while your kayak turns. When the kayak has turned as far you as you want it to go, simply twist the paddle blade in the water and continue with a forward stroke. This combo stroke is extremely useful for dynamic moves in rapids. Edging your kayak This is a very useful technique to steer most long, fast kayaks. By edging your kayak, the hull profile in relation to the movement of water is changed, causing the kayak to turn. This method is not as effective in wide kayaks (over 70cm wide) as they are too buoyant to keep on edge, and it is also not very effective in narrow kayaks with a completely round hull. But on most longer, narrower kayaks it is the most useful technique for steering your kayak without having to change your forward paddling motion. To edge your kayak, use your hips. Don’t lean to the side, simply tilt the kayak. If you paddle forward and want your kayak to turn to the right, tilt the kayak to the left. In other words, drop the left edge and raise the right edge. Or put differently, lift your right bum. Keep this position while you keep paddling forward. Your kayak will take a slow turn to the right. Once it has turned enough, simply use your hips to level the kayak again. It is important that your kayak moves at a descent speed, otherwise edging won’t have much of an effect on the direction of the boat. Also, if you move at a descent speed, very little edging is actually needed to turn the boat. Don’t be conned into thinking that you always need a rudder. Learn and practice these techniques, and only add a rudder when really needed.By gaining command of different paddle strokes you will evolve from someone who just propels a kayak forward to a well-rounded paddler.You can thank me when you pass someone flailing around in a rapid with a broken rudder. Important pointer for any turning stroke: Look where you want to go, not where you are currently going. This article written by Celliers Kruger was originally published in the April/May 2019 issue of The Paddle Mag. This digital publication is free to view and download. Try the ISSUU app on your mobile phone too. View the original images of paddle strokes in the magazine.
Paddling Race (video)
The second edition of Paddling Race took place in overcast and rainy conditions on Sunday, 7 April 2019. (more…)
Monthly Paddling Race for everyone
There are club-hosted time trials (the domain of K1s and K2s), kayak races (also for K1s, K2s and, only recently, surfskis) and surfski events… But, there are no organised events for regular people with a sit-on-top in their garage that they only use for family holidays at the coast once a year. Enter Paddling Race, a new monthly event series held from the Likkewaan Canoe Club on the Vaal River in Parys. Only 125km from Johannesburg, Parys is a popular weekend-getaway destination with its cafes, antique and gift shops, B&Bs and an abundance of outdoor activities. While the town is known for whitewater rafting, the river here also offers magnificent stretches of flatwater paddling with beautiful riverine scenery. Birdlife is abundant and local paddlers never tire of hearing fish eagles and seeing grey herons, goliath herons and various kingfishers. Paddling Race has been created by Lisa de Speville and Celliers Kruger. Where Celliers comes from a paddling background that includes every conceivable kayaking discipline, Lisa’s focus has been on adventure racing, trailrunning and orienteering for over 20 years – both as a participant and event organiser. She is also the Event Director of the Parys parkrun and has been part of the impact that this running/walking event has had on the lives of people in her community. Together, Lisa and Celliers are the force behind Vagabond Kayaks. “Paddling needs to be more open, friendly and accessible,” Lisa says. “We’ll only get more people to paddle for pleasure when they have access to kayaks that are stable and enjoyable to paddle; when they have access to safe waterways that are located not too far from their homes and where there are fun, family-friendly events that they can participate in.” Lisa adds that events show people where they can go to paddle, exposes them to the area in a safe and controlled environment and builds their confidence and competence. Paddling Race offers 2km and 5km courses that take paddlers on a beautiful section of flatwater on a route that goes through channels and between islands. The event encourages participants to bring along any type of kayak: plastic sit-on-tops, touring kayaks, surfskis, K1s, K2s and even inflatables and stand-up paddleboards. Vagabond has a fleet of kayaks that can be hired for the event and PFDs and paddles are provided. The event takes place monthly, on the first Sunday of the month and the direction of the route alternates each time. “Our first event, held at the beginning of March, had 40 entrants,” Lisa says, “and only seven of the participants were people who paddle with some degree of regularity. The rest were infrequent, a-long-time-ago, or first-time paddlers. Yes! Yes! Yes! This is exactly why we created Paddling Race.” On the 5km course, the fastest time of 34:44 was logged by a 12-year old boy paddling a guppy K1. The slowest time of 1:13:00 was recorded by two double sit-on-tops paddled by a mom and dad (sporty, but first-time paddlers), each with a young child in the front seat. Five-kilometres is just the right distance. Lisa would love to see more Paddling Race-type events organised by other people around the country. “Think of Paddling Race as parkrun-for-paddling,” she says. Lisa advises event organisers to keep it simple by having two routes (max. 5km) and presenting the event at the same place, on the same route and at the same time each month. “We’re in the early days with Paddling Race. I hope to see good growth in the number and age spread of participants and the variety of kayaks over the next year.” Paddling Race is on Facebook at and full event information can be found on vagabondkayaks.com/paddling-race. Paddling: Barriers to participationPaddling has a number of barriers to participation that can position this superb sport in people’s minds as a pastime to only be enjoyed through kayak hire or using their sit-on-top at the coast on holiday. Instead, even in our cities, paddling is an activity that is accessible and low expense. Participation barriers Owning a kayak, PFD and paddle Instability of K1s offered by clubs to newcomers – a significant deterrent. Transporting the kayak (vehicle and roof racks) Access to water Perceived safety risks Solutions The first of these barriers can be removed when events and kayak clubs have equipment for rent or to borrow (as a club member). It goes without saying that sit-on-tops should be the first kayak presented to a newcomer. Events expose people to places where they can paddle. There are many waterways – dams and rivers – in and near our cities. Rivers are not all about rocks, rapids, tree blocks, strainers and other hazards; instead, there are more sections of flatwater available on our rivers than you would have the time to paddle in your lifetime. There are also estuaries and lagoons as well as the sea for coastal dwellers. Paddlers should always be aware of water levels, tides, wind and the changeability of the weather. Conditions on water can change in a flash from flat-and-calm to whipped-up white caps in a matter of minutes. It is always a good idea to paddle with a friend, to wear a PFD at all times and to know how to get back on to your kayak if you fall off. Published in the April/May 2019 issue of The Paddle Mag. This free digital publication bursts with superb content. It can be viewed online or downloaded from Issuu.
The glory of multiday trips
In my last article, I touched on multiday trips. Since then, I received a bunch of requests to write more about this subject. This is easy to fulfil as multiday trips have always been my favourite way to enjoy paddling. (more…)
Adventure racing paddle leg
Paddling is as much a recreational activity and fitness sport as a competitive discipline, but in the sport of adventure racing it has not achieved the priority of the land-based activities of trail running and mountain biking. Yet paddling is one of the four key disciplines (map-and-compass navigation being the fourth) and it is integral to this multi-discipline sport. (more…)
The quest for plastic supremacy
Materials used to manufacture kayaks have come a long way since the days of seal skin on driftwood frames. While there are still new kayak designs based on the concept of a skin on a frame, albeit with modern materials, the vast majority of kayaks today are made from composite materials or plastic. (more…)
Marimba vs Kasai vs Tarka vs Tsomo
We had fun racing our four Vagabond Kayaks sit-on-tops against each other. This video demonstrates the speed difference between them. (more…)
My previous two pieces focused on seconds (Our Unsung Heroes) and paddling with kids. This time I want to explore a logical extension of these themes: family time on the water. Most paddlers I know would love to share their passion for paddling with their families. It is a noble idea that often have disastrous results. I believe the biggest mistake most paddlers make is to try put their family in the same kayaks that they paddle themselves, often in similar conditions that they enjoy putting themselves in. It is unlikely that the exact things that drew you into the sport and lifestyle of paddling will have the same pull on them. There is also slim chance that the skills and experiences you acquired over a period will magically transfer to them and make them competent enough to enjoy what you want to share with them. The first and most important step before you take your family on the water in kayaks is to adjust your expectations. They will most likely struggle more to get it right than you wanted. They might have an amazing time on the water, but they might also be cold, tired, frustrated, anxious. The best you can do is to set the bar as low as possible, to prevent you or them having a miserable day. The second most important step is to plan to make it fun. If your intention is for them to want to do it again, they need to enjoy it. It doesn’t matter what type of outing you’re planning; whether it is a one hour paddle or a full day paddle or a multiday trip, the focus need to be on the experience and not about gaining skills. Once your own mindset is calibrated, you can start focusing on the details. Here are a few pointers to keep in mind: The duration of your first outing with your family will very much depend on their current attitude towards paddling as well as their general experience in outdoor activities. If they are really hesitant about the thought of paddling, don’t take them on a full day trip down a river. Plan an easy outing with a picnic, with maybe 30 minutes to an hour of easy paddling on flat water thrown in. If they are fit and strong and keen to give it a go, you can definitely do something more challenging, but always make sure to keep the focus on fun. The easiest place to start is always on flatwater. Your local club may be a perfect location, but keep an open mind about it. For some beginners the club will be the obvious place to start, while others may feel intimated by the “experts” paddling around. Look around for dams or river sections that have easy access and facilities for picnics too. Make sure to take enough fluid to keep hydrated and if the outing is longer than an hour, take some snacks along too. Invest in or rent stable kayaks that area easy to handle. I’m a big proponent of using sit-on-tops for safety reasons, as these kayaks tend to be more stable, and if a paddler ends up in the water, they can just get straight back onto the kayak instead of having to swim to the bank with it. For a treat, you can book your family for a half or full day commercial paddling trip. There are many options available in the country, especially in KwaZulu-Natal, different sections of the Vaal and Orange rivers, and also some rivers in Mpumalanga as well as rivers around Cape Town. Trips range from flatwater to proper whitewater rafting. For a much more immersive experience, book a multiday trip on a river. These can range from 2 to 6 days, with nights typically spent on the riverbank in tents. The most popular river in the country for multiday trips is the Orange River, with commercial operations on 6 different sections of the river. Multiday trips are also offered on rivers like the Vaal, Breede, Doring, Tugela, Umkomaas, Umzimkulu and Umzimvubu. As always, keep safety in mind. Don’t go out on the water without a PFD and apply enough sunscreen. If you approach paddling with your family by keeping these basic points in mind, there is a good chance that they will have a positive experience. Maybe your partner want to take it more serious and do some racing in a K2 with you. Maybe your son got a kick out of some whitewater action and decides to get into some whitewater kayaking. Maybe your daughter wants to try her hand at canoe polo or sprints. Maybe some or all of them just want to do some easy recreational paddling or use a kayak to do some bird watching. Maybe none of this will happen, but they might at least get a taste of what paddling does for you. Written by Celliers Kruger for the December 2018 issue of The Paddle Mag. This free digital publication can be read online or downloaded to be enjoyed later on your device.
Start ’em young
Most paddlers would like their children to paddle. Most paddlers are unsure of how to go about it, but they give it their best shot. Sadly, most paddlers fail. (more…)
Getting in and out of your Vagabond kayak using the Stand-up Platform
This video has been on our to-do list for months. We recently took the featured pre-production Vagabond Tarka to our paddle club to take it for a spin. While there, we saw a chap struggling to get on an off a sit-on-top (of another brand). He almost fell into the water! There-and-then we shot this quick video of Lisa demonstrating how to get in and out using the Stand-up Platform. The Stand-up Platform is a key feature of our recreational sit-on-tops. It gives a flat surface for secure foot placement so that you can get in and out more easily. The superb stability of our boats adds to making it easier to get in and out without assistance.
School group trips the Orange on Mazowes
Back in August, a school group of 13 teenagers – guided by three teachers – headed for South Africa’s Orange River for their first river trip. They launched about five-kilometres above the Hopetown Bridge and paddled 62 kilometres towards Douglas over three days. As their Mazowe kayaks arrived only a day before they departed, they were a little sceptical to be paddling untested boats. “But, we were committed to these boats and took them along,” writes teacher and trip leader Ant Campbell. (more…)
Challenging the pre-production Pungwe and Vubu
Living near Asheville, North Carolina, Christine and John Vogler regularly paddle the Green Narrows, a challenging section of whitewater on the Green River where the river funnels through a gorge. There are extremely narrow channels, many class IV+ and V+ rapids and waterfalls that leave little doubt as to why this stretch is regarded as one of the most extreme kayaking runs in the eastern United States. (more…)
Paddling the Vaal River on a Kasai
Lee-ann Simpson, a novice paddler, recently tripped an eight-kilometre section of the Vaal River near the town of Parys. While her four friends were paddling slow-but-very-forgiving two-person inflatable rafts provided by the operator, she decided to paddle our Kasai sit-on-top. With virtually no experience, Lee-ann was the perfect candidate to demonstrate the Kasai’s key features: stability, ease-of-use and responsiveness. This is her story. It is August. Four friends and I have decided to whitewater raft a section of the Vaal River. There are a number of issues to consider: We are a group of girl-friends, away for the long weekend, looking to relax (rafting is not considered relaxing for some). It is August – it is still cold. The water on the section of Vaal River where we will be paddling has recently been badly polluted. We put all of these concerns aside and decided to go out and have fun. Lee-ann (left) with her friends. Before embarking on the trip, I mentioned to a family member that we were planning a river trip and she immediately hooked me up with a new Vagabond Kasai sit-on-top kayak. I must mention that I have limited experience of whitewater paddling, having only been on two paddling trips before. I expected that by using the Kasai for my ‘relaxing’ rafting trip, I would most likely end up wet, cold and frustrated. Still, I accepted the challenge and arrived at the launch with my Kasai in tow. To provide some perspective, I had been pretty vocal about my doubts of being able to successfully complete the trip paddling on my own. Nonetheless, my friends were very supportive of me choosing to paddle the Kasai instead of joining them in the inflatable two-person rafts (aka ‘crocs’) provided by the tour operator. The Kasai is marketed as a kayak for beginners but also for more experienced people wanting to have a bit of fun in the rapids. I figured I was at least one of these things, and therefore my chances were 50/50. My launch into the river was hair-raising. I slid down the bank with a chilly splash into the water. Luckily there were a few strong hands around to help steady me. Once I got my balance and started moving, nerves were replaced by excitement in anticipation of what would happen next. My beginner skills were immediately apparent. I had a few moments of wayward steering but never a worry with stability. The further we paddled, the better my steering and control became. We quickly came to our first rapid of the day, a fairly tame-looking beast with only a short stretch of bubbly water. The Kasai and I breezed through it and I earned a few ‘whoop whoop’ shouts from my friends. After this was a small drop of a about a meter high; this was also handled pretty well. Luckily I had experienced something similar on a previous outing on the Klip River and I remembered a few of the tips on how to paddle through it. My confidence was high, my friends were proud, the sun was out, my feet were dry (unlike the ladies in the ‘croc’ whose feet were submerged in water) and we were making good progress. Lee-ann successfully runs a small rapid in the Kasai. Things got real very quickly though. The guide came up next to me and said that ‘Big Daddy’ was next and that I should hang back to hit the rapid last so that both guides would be in position to help “extract me”. The other guide gave me thumbs up and mentioned something about me having a 20% chance of making it through unscathed. Of course this made me more determined and I reckoned that my odds must be better than their prediction. The guides instructed me to keep to the right of the rapid, but not too far right – and then to aim for the right-hand side of the island below the rapid. From the top I could see none of this but I aimed the nose of my Kasai in that direction, built up some speed, steered right, kept paddling, went over, paddled part way through the rapid and then capsized. I estimate that I made it at least 20% of the way through Big Daddy, swimming the rest. Ironically, my guide was in just the right spot to haul me out of the freezing water (something about this says he has done this more than once!), and we floated downriver to retrieve the Kasai. Strangely, I wanted to do it again. It was fun, it was challenging, it didn’t hurt, it wasn’t scary and I wanted to master this rapid. Sadly, that’s not how rafting trips work. Following the river’s flow, we pushed on. We soon came to ‘Suicide Mile’, a long, wide stretch of flatwater, with no rapids and lots of submerged rocks. While the girls were fighting to steer and paddle the ‘crocs’, I moved like a bullet. The Kasai came into its own, carving a neat path through the water, easily outpacing my friends and sitting rock steady. Bear in mind that I have no experience of flatwater paddling, boat control or any other skill that could have been helpful. I was having a ball. We ran another two small, bubbly rapids with ease and a few laughs, and then it was time for a long section with three decent-sized rapids one-after-the-other with no place to stop in between. This time the guides passed on no tips of which line to take and it was up to me to read the water. The guide paddled ahead and I stuck close behind him to try follow his line down. I made it through two of the three rapids without swims. The final part of the rapid was a bit tricky and that’s where I took my second swim of the day. The smile on the guide’s face told me that I had done well. Through the first two rapids he had even looked surprised to see me on his tail. Again, I was disappointed to swim but also driven to do it again (maybe in the summer). And with that, our trip was over. Two hours, eight kilometres, five girls, two guides, three inflatable rafts and one Vagabond Kasai. Lee-ann and a khaki Kasai. My overwhelming impression was one of having had a great time, despite the cold water and chilly weather. Would I do it again? Yes. Would I use the Kasai again? Yes! Do I need more experience? Probably, but I’ll only get this with more practice. Written by Lee-ann Simpson.
Are you tripping?
Imagine a boxer who never spars with a training partner. He skips rope and punches a punch bag to prepare for fights. The only time he ever gets to learn and experience fighting, is in an actual fight. (more…)
Called ‘seconds’ or ‘shuttle bunnies’, these are the people that provide support for paddlers. Their role typically involves taking a vehicle to the take-out point of a trip, or in the case of river races, meeting their paddler/s at multiple points along the river to offer refreshments and spare parts. More often than not, though, their unofficial duties extend to that of being a cheerleader, cook, navigator, paramedic, psychologist, physiotherapist and emotional punch bag. The list of task is endless. (more…)
First Vagabond kayak in production, the Kwando
Our first Vagabond kayak model in production is the Kwando, a high-performance children’s sit-on top. Celliers Kruger describes it as “not just a floating toy for kids, it is a real little kayak with good ergonomics and speed, as well as some handy fittings and features”. These photographs show the Kwando in all six colours together with some action images showing Celliers’ children: Ruben (9-years old, 38kg) and Kyla (12-years old, 44kg). “I designed the Kwando mainly for flatwater use, but it is very capable of running small rapids too,” Celliers adds. Parents, are you outdoorsy and active? Introduce your child to paddling with the Kwando. It is an ideal children’s kayak that will see them from bobbing on the pool to running small rapids on river trips.
Sneak peek at our footrest system
We have just received the first production footrests that Celliers Kruger designed for our new sit-on-tops. His aim with this footrest system was to create an easily adjustable, very robust system that is also lightweight and cool looking. (more…)
The folly of boat selection
In the 25-odd years that I’ve been involved in competitive paddling, many things have changed. One thing certainly hasn’t: the ego-driven idea that anyone who is paddling a stable boat is somehow inferior. The reality is that most K1 paddlers in South Africa are paddling boats that are actually too unstable for them. In this first instalment of my new ‘Opinion’ series, I would like to focus on the most basic decision when it comes to paddling: which boat to choose. (more…)
The value of vagabonding
Phones, bags, vehicles, possessions, connectivity and non-stop activities. This is what every day amounts to. A hubbub. Will our salvation come not from more technology but the annihilation of it by a solar flare to take us back to a time when we enjoyed a less frenetic pace of life? Without going to extremes, we can have the best of life 30 years ago and today’s always-connected state if we just learn to let go. Sometimes. Frequently enough to ground our feet, enjoy the simplicity of life and to truly value people, places and experiences. (more…)