Cross current question

Was paddling with a buddy on my local river last weekend at the highest level I’ve ever seen it. Going around a bend in the river, I experienced a strong cross current which spun me around instantly. No tributaries, or inlets anywhere near. My buddy got flipped. We’ve paddled this section over 20 times & never experienced anything like it. Q: Anyone know what causes this ? Anyway to see it coming to avoid it? The river is 50’ wide on average. We don’t do any sea kayaking, so we’re not that familiar with currents other than down river current. We were paddling rec boats.

Sounds like a big eddy

– Last Updated: Jun-27-13 11:53 AM EST –

When paddling around any bend on a river of that width when the current is strong, there is usually an eddy that will spin your boat completely around if you allow it. When the current is slow, the eddy is still there but manageable with very minor correction. I don't think it was a cross current at all. What you describe, as well as the nature of the river where this occurred, is classic for strong eddies.

The term "eddy" does not only refer to still water behind an obstruction or along the inside of a curve. It also refers to any "trend" toward slower water at one location compared to another that's nearby. Thus, "eddy" is used to describe the differential current speeds on a river bend.

You can easily see these things, but you have to "learn" to see it. In my "pre-serious" paddling days, I ran into this situation over and over and over again but never understood it. Once I got serious about paddling and began looking more critically at the water, it became clear. It will be clear to you once you start looking as well.

Basically, when on the curve, the water just toward the outside of the curve from your boat's location is going quite a bit faster than the water toward the inside. That alone will act to spin the boat, but once your boat gets a little misaligned, it reaches across an even greater zone of differential current velocity and the spinning effect is multiplied. You need to counteract the current's attempt to pivot the boat early, before it pivots so much that the problem gets much worse.

P-netter Vic knows what to say when a beginner or inattentive boater gets spun on such a river bend. "Shake hands with Eddy!"

Yes, eddies will flip you too, if they are strong enough. When your boat first encounters water that's moving at a markedly different speed than the boat itself, that current effectively "hits the boat", and if it hits from the side, it will try to roll you, and it will succeed if it is strong enough and you are not ready. Think about it this way, if you are on a fast conveyor belt and step off onto solid ground, you'll fall down unless you lean the right way as you make contact. Same goes for stepping from solid ground onto the conveyor belt - you'll fall over if you don't compensate for the different velocity of this new surface. Your boat does the same thing when suddenly exiting a strong current into slower current or slack water, or when suddenly entering a strong current from slow or slack water. From your boat's perspective, it's "getting hit" by a blast of water in each case, and you need to lean the boat so that the bottom of the boat faces that blast, and you need to shift your weight so that you are aligned over the boat's center according to the force applied so you stay balanced (being straight up and down isn't good here - you are counteracting acceleration, not just gravity like most other times).

You said you were going around a bend, but didn’t say if you were going on the outside or the inside of the bend. Current is typically faster on the outside of the bend. I’m going to assume you approached the curve from the inside. You most likely crossed an eddy line where the fast water and the slow water around the bend meet. The area behind the inside bend is slack and the faster current creates this little wall of current that can spin you around, flip a paddler or blow them past the slack water area they were shooting for. Whitewater paddlers are very knowledgeable about Eddies, Eddy turns, entering and exiting eddies, etc. The angle you need to take entering and exiting eddies depends on the speed of the current. If you’re sitting in an Eddy I’ve seen strong eddy lines keep boaters in the eddy if they don’t have the right angle and speed to exit. I’ve also seen squirrely water flip boaters 20 yds past the rock or bend that is creating the eddy. Handling eddy’s comes with experience and being ready to brace or cut across the eddy line. One way to avoid is to stick to the faster channel, V, or moving water to the outside of a bend, but be aware of sweepers and strainers. As far as avoiding eddy lines, just know that moving current past an object (rock, submerged tree) or a bend usually has some form of an eddy line to cross.

I agree - eddy
I agree - does sound like you hit an eddy, or more specifically, the eddy line.

There was an article in the fall 2010 issue (#3) of California Kayaker Magazine on dealing with eddies. can be read for free online at Starts on page 6.

Since you mentioned some techniques…

– Last Updated: Jun-27-13 1:10 PM EST –

... here's another, and I mention this one specifically because the boater in question is apparently still gaining needed experience, so running the fast water on the outside of the bend, which tends to be a lot more dangerous (that's where the sweepers will be, and also where the spiral current patterns will tend to push the boat toward the outside edge), may not be the best method right now.

Back Ferry. The back ferry lets you keep control much easier than other methods. It's like cheating, so it's surprising that more people don't do it when things get tough. Back-ferrying is also about 100-times easier in a kayak than in a canoe, so more kayakers should be taking advantage of the method IF the alternative is not being in control.

With a back ferry, you ease your boat around the bend while applying a bit of reverse paddling effort so you go backward relative to the water, and therefore your forward motion relative to the river bottom is slower than the current. Set the angle of the boat so that the stern is a little closer to the inside bank than the bow, and maintain that angle as you do your controlled drift around the bend. With the bow farther out into the main flow while back-paddling, the worst that can happen is that you will get straightened out a bit as the bow get shoved harder by the stronger current at its location, which is easily corrected. If you were angled the other way as you rounded the bend while back-paddling, any pivoting of the boat due to differential current speeds would be self-amplifying, and much more difficult to control and more likely to lead to a complete spin. With a proper "set" (stern positioned the proper distance closer to the inside bank than the bow), you also can quickly escape the main flow by back-paddling a little faster, so your net motion is such that you drift right up alongside the inside bank. That's handy if something comes into view that you must avoid, like a fallen tree etc.

You have class IV whitewater

– Last Updated: Jun-27-13 2:20 PM EST –

In your profile you list up to Class IV white water! Can you really not recognize currents??? And in rec boats? Something does not match-up there... From your post it seems like you are just getting started - to get to Class IV (unless guided down as "luggage" on a raft) requires lots of training, including the skills to read the river current..

What is your background?
Educationally in terms of water I meant. Have you just floated down until now and been lucky (eg not flipped) or have you had some education in river currents and this stuff was just bigger than you knew how to handle?

Would help get better answers, though like those above I suspect that you found something outside of the main current. That could lots of stuff - you hit an eddy line and didn’t alter your edge (if you had one to start with), or you got to the outside of the turn and let the water pile up on the side of your boat or you found a whirlpool that might only be around at high current levels. Without knowing what you already know, it is hard to make a good guess.

for the helpful replies. The river in question has never had much for eddy’s at all. that’s why I was surprised, and still am. It’s never over class II, (thus rec boats)so such a strong eddy I thought would be impossible on this river. That’s why I was looking for other answers. Lesson learned! I guess if you’re not learning, you’re not paddling enough.

Actually in this case it’s very easy
… to make a good guess. Based on everything he said, all indications are that he simply got his bow into the eddy while rounding the bend. The solution is to understand what an eddy is, where and why they form, and what they look like. Then all you need to do is stay out of them unless you want to use them.

That’s a very good article
Some people won’t catch this, but the author of this article attempts to make it clear that if your boat does not suddenly encounter a current having a NEW velocity than what it’s been in thus far (velocity is speed AND direction, remember), handling characteristics relative to that parcel of water are the same as if the water were not moving at all (people get confused by this because of what stationary objects “do”, relative to the boat, in this situation). To me, the whole method used for explaining this in the article was very good simply BECAUSE the author understands this premise. For the people who don’t, they get by just fine because their manner of “understanding” works for them because of how it’s applied, even if the reasoning behind it is flawed. Anyway, it’s just good to see that someone giving such advice “gets it”. Thanks for the link.

answer your question, I’ve been paddling for a long time mostly in a canoe, sometimes kayak in flatwater / class I only. This is my 2nd year in a kayak in swift water (35 runs so far). Yes I’ve been lucky a few times,(who hasn’t) I’ve hit eddy’s on other rivers where I expected to, but this river has never had any strong eddy’s whatsoever. That’s why I thought something else was going on. Have hit some bigger water with a WW boat & experienced WW paddlers, but still learning about rivers & features. (strainers, keepers, play holes etc.) Now I learned something about eddy’s on a (usually) casual river. Just posted here to try & learn more. Thanks all.

Never there before.
I’ll bet it has been. Just not while you were there. Different levels of flow will give a stretch of river (especially one that meanders) a whole different character. There will be eddies where none existed (or were noticeable) at other levels. Other “normal” eddies may be washed out - or too weak to matter. Only way to really learn how to spot all the differences is experience on the river.

You do class IV - really? Must be in a raft…

Besides an eddy, it might be the river
rolling and twisting as it runs up against the outer part of that bend. At lower levels, the effect would be weak. You can usually spot that twist on the water surface, if you remember to look for it.

But being “spun instantly”?
Doesn’t seem to add up. Or at least it’s outside my of my experience.

Where paddler was in the turn
Unless I missed it, no info above on whether the paddler hit the inside or the outside of the turn. At unusually high water in rocky tidal races I’ve been surprised (and spun surprisingly quickly) by features that were not really a clean eddy line. It was something messier, and not always the easiest to spot from any distance when bouncing thru head high haystacks in a short but still nearly 16 ft sea kayak. Granted my attention was a bit taken.

If your not getin wet your not learning

You just got caught off guard with the
eddy current.

You need to stay in the center of the swift moving current, or it can swing you right around.

The only other place I have ever been caught off guard is in some of the rivers in Florida that have strong springs here and there under the river bed, and you get a whirpool effect.

It happens in the Suawanne River.

Jack L

eddy shear, eddy fences, and boil lines

– Last Updated: Jun-30-13 8:36 PM EST –

are all high volume features that can occur in whitewater. I think that you were correct in your assertion that "whatever you encountered wasn't there "significantly" at lower flows. High flows make for much more dynamic situations. One strategy "big water" enthusiasts use, is to stay centered on the river bed to avoid the turbulence created by the shore topography. Eddies are no longer your friend but have become strong recirculating currents. They become places where "you get worked". I'm not saying you encountered that, but you definitely found out that high water is much more dynamic. The most extreme situation is when the river actually changes in elevation between the main flow and the eddy. Boil lines occur when you add large submerged boulders to the riverbed.