Getting through reversals

I sometimes paddle my canoe at a spot on the Upper Guadalupe River with a road built through the river, with a slightly sloping ramp built on one side where boats can pass without portaging if there is enough water. At the bottom of the ramp, there is a reversal that has thrown me off sideways a few times and put me at mild risk of capsizing.

What’s a good technique to keep going straight through? Should I accelerate, trying to pierce through the wave? I also remember reading something about backpaddling to give the bow time to rise in some situations.

When I think of a reversal, I think of a “keeper” with at recirculating current that can trap a boat, or more importantly a boater. There is actually a pretty good article on keepers here on p-net:

For a reversal or keeper to form you need the right combination of drop and follow. You tend to see them more with steep drops (dams and ledges) rather than the “slightly sloping ramp” that you describe, but they certainly can form in those conditions as well. You definitely don’t want to be stuck sideways in a keeper.

If it really is a keeper, the best strategy is probably to portage. If you are going to run it, you will probably want to run it at one of the sides and accelerate through the aerated frothy water between the crease and the crest. If you stall out in that frothy water you can get sucked back in. I wouldn’t back paddle at all. It’s tough to get a good paddle stroke in that aerated water, so you want enough momentum going in to carry you across.

There is a big difference between a reversal or keeper and the reaction wave that tends to form at the bottom of a longer sloping drop. Are you sure it is a reversal? If it is, portage.

To get through a hole, breaking wave, reversal, or keeper wave in a canoe or a kayak, you need to approach it with some speed at a right angle to the face of the hole, drive yourself through it by digging your paddle down into green water and taking a couple of quick strokes as you hit and go through the hole, and keep paddling until you are through the hole and all of the way into water which is going downstream, not back up towards the top of the hole. You definitely do not want to back paddle or try to drift through with your paddle held helplessly over your head. You need to learn how to hit a hole at a weak spot which will let you through easily, not at the worse spot. In some cases this means clipping the edge of the hole, right next to one of the rocks which is forming the hole, and plopping into the eddy behind the rock. And you need to learn which holes not to try to punch through. If a hole has a pile which is so high that it will break over the bow of your canoe and possibly swamp it, or if water is flowing back upstream to the top of the hole from many feet away, you should find a different way to get past that point. Holes where the water is pouring vertically into the foam are more likely to keep you and windowshade your canoe than holes where the water enters the foam more horizontally.

If you do an internet or Youtube search for “canoeing through holes” or “kayaking through holes,” or similar searches, you will find some useful information. Much of it will be from a kayaker’s perspective, but the information also applies to getting through holes in a canoe.

@eckilson said:

There is a big difference between a reversal or keeper and the reaction wave that tends to form at the bottom of a longer sloping drop. Are you sure it is a reversal? If it is, portage.

“Reversal” must be the wrong term…I wasn’t sure about the right term, but it’s just the wave that flows back onto itself at the bottom of the ramp. Not a serious hole/keeper like I’ve seen on real dams. When I glide down the ramp and hit that wave with my bow, it pushes the bow and boat sideways and causes some serious wobbling.

So, paddle hard down the ramp so I can pierce through it straight ahead rather than be turned sideways?

I’d love to see a picture of the spot. As always, my approach to answering such a question is a little more vague, because I tend to imagine all sorts of subtleties that a person might want or need to react to which will vary by situation. I’m not much of one for cut-and-dried solutions, but have more of a blended-actions way of thinking.

For what you describe, I am picturing a simple curling wave, which is typical where a zone of fast water abruptly encounters slower water. The fact that you say this tends to throw you off your heading when you hit it makes me think it is diagonal, or that parts of it are diagonal, but that’s my guess. For what you described, and remembering a bit about your skill level and types of paddling, I didn’t envision a “keeper” at all, but any further description that you could provide helps.

For what I envision, slowing your approach will sometimes help a lot, as far as not plunging deeply into a wave, and also lessening the suddenness of how your boat might get knocked off its heading. Oftentimes, simply slowing to the speed of the current is enough to make a huge difference, but actually progressing backward against the current to slow your approach even more can be handy for a wave that’s especially big, but still presents no risk of “keeping” you. It doesn’t sound like this wave is big enough to warrant that, but it’s an option. Gung-Ho whitewater boaters virtually never think in this way, but if my goal is get through a tall, steep wave with a dry boat instead of with water sloshing around inside, reversing my power output enough so I hit the wave even slower than the speed of the current is often what I’ll do.

To me, a wave that suddenly shoves the bow of your boat to one side as you hit it can be very tricky, and Bill Mason used to say that this was one of the trickiest situations to encounter in a canoe. If the capsize risk is simply due to that sudden sideways movement, learn to anticipate what will happen, and learn to brace. Let’s say that the bow of the boat is going to get knocked sharply to the left when you hit the wave, resulting in a natural rolling/tipping action to the right (picture someone pulling a rug out from under you. Which way do you fall when your feet suddenly move with the rug to the left? You fall to the right, and the same thing happens to you if the hull of your boat gets suddenly pushed to the left). Be ready for that by leaning way off to the left, supporting yourself on a low brace, so that when the boat gets suddenly pushed in that direction, your own weight is more in-line with the shove provided by the wave and your body simply goes sideways along with the boat instead of lagging behind, so there’s no tipping/rolling motion. In actual fact, you can sometimes get away with leaning and bracing in the “wrong direction” if you are holding a good brace with your paddle, because the ultimate affect is to widen your zone of support so you are less prone to falling over, but “presenting the bottom of the boat to the force that pushes you” (leaning to the left in this particular example) is best.

If the capsize risk is simply the steepness of a diagonal wave and how the boat tips when it is somewhat parallel to the wave face, applying a “big wide brace” on the side you will tip toward is good, and what’s nice about this is that it’s so similar to the precaution described above (being tipped by your own momentum) that you can be ready for either of those two problems. This is related to what someone above said about how you should not coast through with your paddle in the air. A paddle in the water does far more good. I’ll often brace to widen my zone of support even if I’m not sure whether or not there’s a tipping risk hiding in the turbulence somewhere. With my paddle in the water, at least I’m ready, and if already bracing, more stable.

Finally, sometimes when your bow gets knocked to one side as you enter a diagonal wave, simply reaching well behind you to apply a strong pry or draw to get the stern side-slipping in the same direction does wonders for keeping you in control. If the whole boat suddenly moves sideways instead of that action beginning at the bow, and when it’s partly due to your own paddling input instead of the river having its way with you, it’s hard to envision all the ways this helps, but you WILL be more in control, and naturally it will have the benefit of keeping your boat from presenting a partly-broadside aspect to whatever rocks might be waiting for you immediately below the wave.

Otherwise, try to pick a point on the wave that is less risky, like one end of the wave, or where two diagonal portions of the wave intersect (if there’s not a rock there). Again, I might be describing stuff that doesn’t apply, but these situations are pretty common, even on drops that are mostly innocuous.

It would almost be necessary to see a photo or video to know exactly what the best approach is, but as a general rule I think the advice offered by pmmpete is very good. A big breaking wave can turn the bow of your boat very quickly, even if you hit it square on, if you don’t have much momentum and especially if you have your weight back. It is a natural tendency to shy away from big breaking waves, but more often than not that is exactly the wrong thing to do.

If the ramp or chute is such that you are able to square up to the face of the wave, get some momentum up and as your bow starts to climb the wave face, throw your weight forward and get ready to put in a strong forward stroke placing the blade of your paddle just past the peak of the wave as soon as you are able. With a really big breaking wave, you may need to angle your paddle blade to slice it through the water to do this. If the wave is really steep or if there is significant reversal current, you may need to “hang” on this forward stroke like a brace to pull your boat through.

Unfortunately, some times it simply isn’t possible to hit a breaking wave squarely. Water pouring through a chute and hitting an obstacle on one side will often produce a large, diagonal reactionary wave. If the chute is narrow, you may be unable to realign your boat to hit this square on. Such a diagonal wave will rotate your hull upstream and capsize it very quickly unless you immediately react. In such an instance, you need to shift your body weight downstream and into the wave, and in extreme cases, you may even need to throw your upper body onto the face of the wave to stay upright and ride over it.

A lot of water pouring down a ramp or through a chute will quite often produce violent eddy lines at each side of the downstream V as the fast water hits the slack water. A very common error that paddlers make is to let up too early after running the chute, and allow the bow of their boat to unintentionally cross the eddy line. This will also very often result in a quick capsize unless the paddler(s) react immediately. The best way to avoid this is to keep your boat aligned with the current until you are out of the quickly moving current. If you realize that you are going to accidentally get eddied out, heel the boat appropriately and paddle across the eddy line with authority. Lingering on the eddy line is bad because such eddy lines often consist of small whirlpools which move up and down along the eddy line.

@melenas said:

“Reversal” must be the wrong term…
Glad of that - reversals are nothing to fool around with. I ran this one by mistake a few years ago.

The Mamba Eater - Mike's boat went in, but didn't come out - be careful of this.

The route I was suppose to take is on the right (river left) where you can see a break in the ledge. I got out in front of the leader, and by the time I saw the ledge it was too late to do anything by run it right down the middle. I powered through fine in my canoe, but the guy behind me was in a kayak. He got turned sideways and got stuck in the reversal. He bailed and used his paddle to push off on the face of the ledge, which was just enough to get him back out into the downstream current below. His boat got sucked back up into the hole and never can out. We assume that it got stuck in some debris at the bottom of the ledge. Never seen anything like it. Lucky for him - and definitely scary.

@melenas said:

I wasn’t sure about the right term, but it’s just the wave that flows back onto itself at the bottom of the ramp. When I glide down the ramp and hit that wave with my bow, it pushes the bow and boat sideways and causes some serious wobbling.

So, paddle hard down the ramp so I can pierce through it straight ahead rather than be turned sideways?

I was looking for an example of a wave at the bottom of a shoot, and this was the best I could find.

Gorge Drop - Andy

You can definitely see the difference between this and the keeper above. The shoot terminates in a big wave that curls back on itself as you describe. It also has some the characteristics that plank mentioned - obstructions on the sides and a slightly diagonal face. Most people run this to the the right side of the picture (river left) and eddy out behind the big rock.

You can also see in this video some “haystack waves” below the drop. A lot of people who simply blast down the shoot and through the first wave get hung up and flip in the haystacks that follow, so catching the eddy is the preferred route. Then again, some people like blasting through haystacks, which can also be fun.

So I would say that the answer to your question is yes - it’s fine to power down the shoot and blast through the wave (as pblanc describes above) - just be aware of what is below it.

the keep it simple approach: look where you want to go and don’t stop paddling,.

Good advice - when in doubt… PADDLE!