Haystacks and Braces

I’ve been thinking a lot about different braces and their uses in higher water, especially those bigger haystacks. I’m better at the low brace than the righting pry or the high brace; I haven’t really committed the latter two strokes to muscle memory. However, the brace I’m most interested in adding to my quiver is what Mason calls “the back brace” at 3:17–3:19 in “Path of the Paddle: Solo Whitewater.” [Path of the Paddle: Solo Whitewater - YouTube]

Two weeks ago, paddling the middle Buffalo, there were some really nice standing waves at two shoals because of the higher water. I noticed that my new-to-me OT Cascade really wanted to
yaw in the bow (just to be clear, I’m paddling it “backward” from the bow seat), and I struggled to get it back on track and not take a big wave sideways. In an effort to slow the canoe and give me more reaction time, I’m searching for the right brace, and even though I’ve looked around, I haven’t seen much on Mason’s “back brace.” Even when I search here, I pull up nothing but threads about bad backs.

Any resource you could share or advice about braces would really be appreciated.

Kinda depends on the side you are paddling on… You might want a high brace if you combine it with a sweep if the back is slueing away from you… A Low brace with reverse sweep if your stern is sluing toward you.

Keep you paddle in the water is the manta… Were you at Grey Rocks… Nice wave trains! I was in a hard tracking pointy nose solo… Finally on wave 13 my boat was full of water as the bow had sliced through too many of them,

I hadn’t thought about it but I’ll do something like Bill Mason’s ‘Back Brace’ naturally in bouncy water when I’m trying to keep it slow & pick my way through the rocks and other entertainments.

Here is a grab from ‘The Path’:

And here is from the Batchawana in a Rendezvous:

In my case I’m getting some support while slowing the canoe down a bit. I don’t have the pry skills that I probably should have & tend to use cross strokes rather more, but I am in a fairly narrow hull.


Thanks, kayamedic. We were down at Patton Shoal and Cave Creek Shoal.

Great screen grab, rival51. That’s exactly the brace that I’m trying to incorporate for steadying and slowing the canoe in higher water. I’ve been experimenting with blade angle for directional control as well. Do you ever put any of your weight on the paddle?

I do although not much I think. The blade angle varies depending on whether I’m wanting a little support or more braking. Mostly I’m not thinking about it too much as I’m more trying to figure out the best (or perhaps the least bad) line through the current entertainment.

Once people learn to read water and where to point the boat, bracing is what separates the sheep from the goats.

Most of the time you need to have some way on and go faster than the current to be able to control the boat. Skilled paddles sometimes can go slower than the current, with the same effect. It takes practice because everything feels backwards.

I would not recommend executing either of the braces shown in the two photos. A key concept for avoiding shoulder injuries in whitewater canoeing and kayaking is “the paddler’s box”. Basically the box is the area between your hands in width, to somewhere around your eyes in height, and bounded behind by the plane of your torso. You want to keep your hands and your elbows within that box at all times.

Of course, there will be plenty of times your paddle blade needs to be at or near the back of your boat, but to keep your hands and elbows in the box you must rotate your torso with the paddle shaft. In the photo of Bill Mason he has rotated his torso pretty well but his shaft hand is basically even with his torso plane. In that location, if the paddle blade hits a rock his shaft hand could easily be forced behind his torso plane more quickly than he could react.

In your case, the issue with your bow yawing might have been due to your boat being trimmed bow light. Most tandem canoes paddled stern first from the bow seat are going to be a least a bit bow light unless you add weight to the opposite stem to trim the boat. Most of the time the best thing to do when paddling through a train of standing waves is to continue paddling with strong forward strokes. Putting the blade in the water and pulling on it actually provides a significant degree of bracing effect, something like the outrigger on an outrigger canoe.

A low brace is generally usually more valuable in whitewater canoeing than a high brace. A lot of open boaters will cheat a bit by heeling the canoe toward their paddle side, where a low brace is available. If you are having a lot of difficulty maintaining directional control in a wave train you can try using a stern rudder so long as you have good forward momentum and good torso rotation. It is very quick and easy to shift from a stern rudder position to a low brace or sweeping low brace. This type of thing is often given the pejorative moniker “paddle dragging” by experienced whitewater boaters who advocate a more proactive technique. But it can work so long as you do not lose so much forward momentum that the next standing wave turns your canoe sideways.

A situation is which a high brace is useful in whitewater canoeing is in side surfing. Side surfing is something you might sometimes wind up doing unintentionally if you get stuck in a hydraulic. In this situation you must keep you paddle on the downstream side of the boat or you really risk a quick capsize and a shoulder injury. If the downstream side of the boat is your natural paddle on-side you can alternate between a reverse quarter sweep/low brace, and a forward stroke/high brace to try to get the boat moving forward and back to get to the edge of the hole or hydraulic and escape.

If you are stuck in a hole or hydraulic and your natural on-side paddling side is on the upstream side of the boat, you are going to have to use a cross-high brace usually with a component of a sculling draw. When you do this you will need to use a lot of torso rotation to make sure you keep you hands in the paddler’s box.

As for the righting pry, if you can do it it’s great and congratulations to you. I have tried to learn and master it and have failed. Obviously, this is a way to arrest a capsize to your off-side but for it to work it needs to be practiced to the point it is completely reflexive and it requires driving your paddle forcefully down toward the water as your boat starts to tip in the other direction. I have paddled with a lot of outstanding whitewater open boaters and have seen only a few who could pull it off.

A few more comments regarding the low brace. You can find a lot of instructional videos on how to execute it. A very important element of the low brace is dropping your head and torso toward the water along with the paddle. The act of dropping you upper body will allow you to torque your hips and lower body in the opposite direction and that is more effective in reversing the roll of the boat than the modest and temporary support that your paddle provides in the water. Think about forcefully weighting your opposite knee (assuming you are kneeling) as you drop your head and torso. But the low brace is also more effective if you have some type of outfitting like a pedestal and knee straps or a bulkhead to keep your knees anchored to the hull so that the movement of your lower body is coupled to the boat.


Thanks so much for the long reply, pblanc. That was an excellent breakdown and will really help. I don’t think I’ll ever be proficient at the righting pry either.

The stern rudder was my approach to running haystacks with my previous boat, an OT Discovery 147 (also paddled backwards from the bow), but that didn’t seem to work as well with the Cascade, which has more rocker and more arch in the bottom than I’m accustomed to. I’m still learning how to paddle it, but it’s a joy so far with such quick reactions to any technique I use.

As always, agree with everything Peter said.

Don’t get me wrong, I love Bill Mason’s video’s, but I think the two tandem video have stood the test of time better than the two solo videos. Nothing against Bill Mason, he is an amazing (almost superhuman) paddler, but the development of dedicated solo boats for flatwater and whitewater make some of the more difficult strokes that he does with such grace in a tandem boat unnecessary. In the middle of a wide tandem boat you need to use prys for offside turns and sideslips. In a dedicated solo it is much quicker and easier to use an offside stoke.

Definitely agree with Peter that I would not try to run haystacks using that particular back brace. If it was me, I’d look to sideslip around them, or actively paddle through them quartering the boat as best I could to keep the bow from digging-in or waves from dumping into the boat. The only time I think I would use that back brace (probably combined with a sculling draw) is front-surfing in a hole to keep the boat from getting sucked in too far and burying the bow.

Personally, I’m not a big believer in the one-boat-does-it-all approach to paddling. There is a reason that I have a flatwater solo, a whitewater solo, a flatwater tandem and a whitewater tandem. Just about every spring I hear of someone who trashes a prospector (or similar boat) trying to solo paddle whitewater like Bill Mason in that video - it ain’t easy.

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Thought I would add something from my weekend reading that I found relevant (and that supports a lot of the good advice I’ve already gotten here) from Davidson and Rugge’s The Complete Wilderness Paddler: “With the bow angled into the upslope of one wave and the stern on the downslope of another, the canoe naturally tries to broadside in the trough. The tendency for broaching is further increased in ‘standing waves,’ which form at the bottom of rapids where the current is decelerating. Here the bow is in effect entering a slow current while the stern remains in quicker water, so that the boat pivots. The remedy is a persistent and vigorous draw or pry to keep the canoe roughly parallel with the current.”

So much for braces and haystacks. On retrospect, my bow yawed the most when I was reaching the last of the haystacks, so the description above fits really well. I was probably exacerbating the effect above by slowing the canoe too much. Back to the stern pry and, with the good advice above, I’ll be ready to throw in some sweeps/reverse sweeps for adjustments.

As the current saying goes, I feel seen. Not that I’ve trashed my do-it-all boat yet. Yet.

Yes, Davidson and Rugge’s description is apt. In most situations strong forward strokes will keep the canoe aligned with the current. But as the bow rides up the standing wave, you need to really lean forward and dig down in with your paddle as soon as you can get it past the peak of the wave. That will help pull the boat straight down into the trough of the wave keeping the boat aligned with the current as it approaches the next wave.

Once your boat loses too much forward momentum relative to the current speed you have largely given up directional control of the boat. The center of gravity of the paddler/boat combo is simply moving downstream with the current regardless of which way the bow happens to be pointing. Your boat is then much like a beach ball that is being carried along at the speed of the current. At that point, a wave trough will turn it sideways very easily. That is why experienced whitewater open boaters tend to eschew what I have described as “paddle dragging”, i.e, riding a brace downstream.

Believe it or not, some very accomplished whitewater open boaters will go through trains of very large waves sideways deliberately. But this requires a really excellent sense of balance, edge control, and timing. By heeling the canoe upstream as it rides up the face of a big wave and then throwing your body into the crest of a breaking wave, it is possible to “wave block” allowing less water in the boat than if you knifed through the breaking waves aligned with the current.

This type of technique is also a way to deal with diagonal standing waves where the face of the wave it not aligned with the current and the direction you want to go.

Best stroke for turning your bow toward your on-side while negotiating a wave train is a properly executed stern pry, or a series of linked stern pries, in which the paddle blade moves outward no more than 6" from the hull. This will kill your momentum to a much lesser degree than a reverse sweep. To turn toward your off-side, avoid a cross bow draw which will likewise tend to kill your downstream momentum. Use a forward half sweep with as strong a stern draw as you can manage. The stern draw is basically the last 6" of what is a forward half sweep but it requires more core strength to do well than a stern pry.

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I know a lot of people on this board and have several good friends who love running whitewater solo in smaller tandems - so you are in good company. :wink:

If you ever think about a whitewater solo, here are some old-school video’s you might find interesting

Kent Ford’s Solo Playboating (the original - early 80’s?)


Kent Ford’s Drill Time (Karen Knight does a great freestyle routine at 07:25)


Solo Open Whitewater Canoeing with Tom Foster




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I came across this video in which various strategies for running wave trains in an open boat are discussed. Unfortunately, no on-water demonstrations are included. Toward the end, the concept of wave blocking by heeling the canoe is briefly discussed.

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Here is another video of some kayakers running the Ocoee River in east Tennessee. One of them capsizes at Tablesaw Rapid which is a Class III+ by today’s standards.

The river necks down at the 'Saw with large boulders constricting the flow on both side of the channel. This accelerates the flow and kicks up some pretty big waves. In addition, the water impacting these constricting boulders rides up on them and folds back over on itself creating some sizable diagonal reactionary waves. The entire rapid also slopes slightly toward river right tending to push boats in that direction unless they are aggressively paddled.

The video shows how not to deal with these diagonal waves… The portion of the video showing Tablesaw starts at 1:45. A fellow in a blue kayak (with the camera) is following one in an orange kayak when he encounters a diagonal reactionary wave which rolls him over to his right.

If you watch the fellow in the orange kayak he makes a slight last second angle correction toward river left which allows him to more easily deal with this wave. The paddler in the blue kayak should have had more river left angle to begin with, but he could have stayed upright nonetheless. But when he hits the curling wave, which because of its angle is nearly broadside to his kayak, he has his paddle on the wrong (right) side of the boat. If instead he had heeled the kayak forcefully to his left and reached out over the crest of the wave with his left paddle blade and thrown his upper body into it, he could have pulled himself up and over the crest without capsizing.

Thanks so much for those videos, eckilson. I watched those Tom Foster videos a couple of months ago with great interest, but I need to revisit them as they’re as dense as a jam cake. Kent Ford is new to me.

Although I take a few day trips a year, I’m mainly a weekend to week-long tripper, so my boat purchases reflect that. I don’t do anything close to true solo whitewater or playboating, but, boy, are those videos instructive and fun to watch. Those folks possess an amazing set of skills and knowledge that I’m not sure I’ll ever attain a fraction of.

Good explanation in that video, pblanc. Thanks for sharing that. I agree that demonstrations would have been a great addition.

All of the videos that Erik cited are good. Of all of the well-known open boat instructors that I have had hands-on training with, Tom Foster was the most relentlessly oriented to technique and he would make you execute a stroke or a maneuver over and over again until he was satisfied with the results.

Tom was an early proponent of the “cab forward” technique of whitewater canoeing, in which primarily only forward and cross forward strokes are primarily used, and the use of hull carving and paddling the inside circle both on-side and off-side, to facilitate getting the boat to go where you wanted it to with maximum efficiency. In a way, he was ahead of his time since that is how today’s very short, polyethylene whitewater canoes are paddled by most whitewater boaters.

You must have been up between Pruitt and Wollum. We hit those too and they were something. I did not have as much trouble as others in my group as I had my Esquif Prospecteur 16, but I did have to do a bit of back bracing to keep pointed in the right direction. I took on about 3 inches of water. though.