how to turn around in river?

Question: How do you turn around a 12’ rec kayak while moving upstream in a shallow moderate flowing but smooth bottomed river, to go back downstream, without flipping the boat? Here is more info:

I have a Wilderness Systems Pungo 120 rec kayak. I have had it for just over a year. I have had no instructions other than books or video. I go out with my dog on nearby lakes, and have gained skills and confidence. I have tried to do self-rescue but have not had any luck yet. I intend to keep trying. I know I should have pro instruction, but I have very little money, live paycheck to paycheck and getting out paddling and the occasional camp is just about my only source of rec outside the home.

A couple of weeks ago I took my dog and kayak and went up to a mountain lake to go camping and paddling. It was about the sixth time I had gone paddling this year. This lake is a reservoir and has a short river running to it from another reservoir. It is glacier fed, so coooooooold. It was about 96 degrees outside. I decided to go check out this river, see if I could get to the dam. I figured if I got tired I could just turn around and go back downstream. Except, as soon as I got the boat sideways, it wanted to flip on me. I got the nose to the shore where there were lots of small trees hanging out, and tried to figure out what to do. The river was moving pretty fast. I thought maybe if I grab a tree and use it to swind the stern around downstream I could pivot the bow 180 degrees and get it pointed downriver. That didn’t happen. As soon as I was perpendicular to the river the boat flipped upstream and I was in the water instantly. Thank God that a) dog and I had PFDs b) we were tethered together and c) it was shallow and right at shore so I just got up, grabbed the dog from under the kayak where he got trapped and flipped the boat over. OMG, that was coooooooold! After using my bilge pump to get the water out of the boat and get over shock, I was able to get the boat pointing downriver and we safely made it back to the launch, minus my hat.

The next day we went back out on the lake to get over the fear, and had a blast. But no rivers for me, at least until I know what I am doing. Yes, I can be a dumbass sometimes and get over my head, but somehow make it out ok, by the Grace of God. :wink: Please don’t be too hard on me…I know we are lucky to be okay and home.

Couple things

– Last Updated: Jul-26-12 12:03 AM EST –

The best way to turn is to TURN, using the water, not fixed objects. In the situation you were in, a sharp turn would have been fine (but note extra details below). What got you in trouble was enlisting the aid of an immovable object. Once lodged against that object (or hanging on with your hands from the downstream side - the effect is the same), the current moved past your boat instead of your boat drifting with the current as you completed the turn. Essentially, your boat was going sideways through the water (yeah, the boat wasn't moving and the water was, but from the boat's perspective, that's what was happening), and boats aren't made to do that. The current rushing sideways under the boat "grabbed ahold" and pulled the bottom of the boat downstream, which of course means that the top went the opposite direction - the boat rolled.

Next time you find yourself lodged against a tree or rock, whether accidentally or on-purpose, lean the boat so that the bottom of the hull FACES the oncoming current. The faster the current hits the boat from the side, the farther you have to lean.

When you get better at making various kinds of turns, you'll find that you can simply make the turn freely in the water, drifting sideways during the middle portion of the turn. However, if you are paddling VERY swiftly against the current when you do this, you'll have to lean to make the bottom of the boat face the current, just as you would if paddling that same speed in still water and suddenly turning sharply (at which point, your forward motion suddenly stops and you need to lean to keep from "falling over". The process, as "seen" by the boat is the same in either case). An even simpler way to avoid rolling in this situation is to slow down. Sure, you'll be going backward in relation to the river bottom, but your speed through the water will still be forward, and that speed will be slow and you won't roll as you work into the "sideways part" of the turn. There's no law that says you must make headway relative to the ground during the time you make your turn. Slow down and drift a bit as you turn (but pay attention and don't drift into a rock or tree as the current carries you).

Another useful trick is to ferry over to the bank by paddling upstream at an angle that is "off" from the oncoming current, which will bring you in to shore quite gently (you'll contact the bank with the side of your boat as a gentle bump, rather than crashing into the bank with the bow). Once "parked", nudge the bow out into the current and let it swing around, or even paddle upstream as you do this and let the current carry the bow around without your stern touching the bank (this is a better method, and you'll look "cool" while doing it). If the current is strong, you'll need to lean the boat (make the bottom of the hull face the oncoming current) for those first couple of seconds while the boat "catches up" to the speed of the current. After that initial acceleration, you are home free. Just continue the turn.

There's terminology associated with all the things I described, and more detail could be included and more methods could be included. Let's just keep it simple at this point.

Practice turning on flat water. Practice making the turns sharp. Maybe you can't afford lessons, but maybe you can meet some better paddlers or buy a book on paddling technique (lessons are best, but I'm trying to be practical here). Once you try these turns on moving water, you WILL be fooled by the current at first and your boat will take a path you did not expect. You'll learn to watch the current prior to any maneuver and plan accordingly. Just remember that your boat always moves predictably WITHIN the water that supports it. The unpredictable part is the boat's motion relative to fixed objects (often, things you don't want to crash into), but even that becomes predictable with practice. Just look at the place where your boat will soon be, and notice which way the water is moving at that location. Pretty simple, on the face of things, but be prepared to get tricked every time until you get the hang of it.

Paddling on moving water is different
You have so much to learn that you may get a lot of different responses.

I recommend some basic moving water practice. Without the dog. The weight and movement of the dog will distract you from learning.

The first objective would be to learn to be comfortable floating downstream sideways. To do this paddle up the river about 10 yards at first and do a sweep stroke so you are sideways.

When sideways in current, or even at a small angle to the current, you must always keep your weight downstream so your boat will be slighly heeled (leaned) downstream. This means you keep your torso vertical, but put more of your weight on your downstream butt cheek to heel the hull. The river is like a moving rug, which is trying to flip you over in the upstream direction.

Float sideways down the 10 yards into the still water of the lake. Do it many times, going further upstream as you gain confidence. Float sideways pointed both left and right. Experiment gently with how much weight pressure you put on each cheek to increase and decrease your hull heel. You may screw up and flip again, but soon you will get the feel of the always-downstream weight balance and heel.

After you feel comfortable with your sideways balance floating downstream, it’s time to turn the kayak so you are pointing downstream. You can do this two ways. First, you can use a sweep stroke on your upstream side (while you always maintain your downstream hull heel). Second, you can use a bow draw with your downstream blade. Either one can turn your boat. You can find videos of these moves online.

Soon, you should feel comfortable pivoting your boat 180 degrees and then 360 while in the middle of the current. Some boats are easier to spin than others.

The next step would be to learn about reading moving water, and learning how to turn using eddy lines and current differentials formed by midstream rocks or the shoreline. Instruction would be a big help here, even just finding an experienced river kayaker to help you out.

An article you may want to check out - talks about doing eddy turns:

Now, it isn’t clear from your description if you have varying current speeds that you are going through - which is what you have with an eddy. But the article does have a good drawing which shows what Guideboatguy was talking about - edging the boat to present the hull to the oncoming water.

Something to keep in mind - everything is relative. If you are going into a current and then turn, you have to deal with the current and how you boat is changing speeds and directions. If you stop the forward progression and just drift backward in the current - once you get up to the speed of the water, you can now ignore the current and just do some forward and backward sweep strokes to spin around (as if you were on non-moving water). Of course, this is assuming the current doesn’t push you into rocks and isn’t making waves.

You’re dicing with death
There are so many OMGs in your post I’m tempted to think it’s a wind-up but if you are genuine please, please, please take a step back from what you’re doing.

  1. Being tied to anything on the water is a bad idea unless you have both a quick release mechanism and a knife as back-up. So let the dog fend for itself, or don’t take it.

  2. Trees in a moving water environment are a potentially fatal hazard. You should be avoiding them like the plague, not using them to try and turn yourself around. Read for more info.

  3. You edge the boat to avoid being flipped. This is fundamental and one of the first things any coach would teach you for river kayaking. Generally, you raise the edge that will be facing up-river to avoid the water piling up and flipping you. There are exceptions, though, such as when you are moving into an eddy from the flow, where you would raise the edge leading you into the eddy. It’s all about relative speed (between you and the water) and where the water pressure is going to hit your kayak.

    Lack of skills and knowledge, paddling alone and cold, moving water add up to a very high level of risk. If you can’t/won’t get some instruction, and don’t have someone more experienced to show you the ropes, I’d suggest sticking to lakes whilst you read up more on river paddling. Even on flat water though, tying yourself to your dog is a really bad idea.

    Have fun kayaking but do it safely.

Keep in mind
that when we are learning something like Kayaking there are very serious dangers that at first as beginners we don’t even perceive. Cold water is one. Very, very serious danger - even when it is as warm as 60 degrees. This issue gets people in serious trouble all the time when they are crossing bodies of flat water and they don’t realize how quickly even 60 degree water can kill. Another thing is moving and shallow water which can cause very serious injuries and takes practice. I suggest you find warm water and that you paddle with another person and without dogs for a while until you have a bit more experience. I agree also - never tie yourself to anything. There are many people who disagree with me on this - but I honestly don’t think a kayak or canoe is a good place for a dog except in the most benign circumstance. I love dogs. I don’t paddle with my dogs anymore. My perception is that unless I am right next to shore in warm water I am putting my beloved dogs at risk paddling with them. That is just my opinion and I am sure others disagree.

Sounds like an excellent adventure!
Seems like you went to a pretty place, learned a lot, didn’t get hurt, and didn’t get scared off of paddling.

Take heart! At least you didn’t learn the need for helmets the way I did.

I do have two simple recommendations.

  1. Don’t use tethers in rivers. OK in the lake or sea, but never in rivers and usually not in surf.

  2. Find a local club. Here in North Carolina the paddling clubs vary from free meetup groups to $20 a year full service clubs with free trips and training. I bet there are kayakers getting together to paddle where you are.

    Good on you for having your dog in a PFD and thanks for sharing your story. It helps us all learn.

a few things
Regarding the tether; NEVER do this on a river. You endangered yourself and your dog.

If you can turn your boat on flat water you can do in on a river. Let your boat drift downstream without paddling until your speed in relation to the water is zero and then turn the boat. Keep in mind that this will only work in a stretch of moving water where you aren’t going to hit any obstacles.

Get some instruction. I don’t know where you live in Washington but there are some great clubs that can help you with this. Unfortunately, most of them have already completed there basic class cycles for the year, these usually happen in spring.

As Ian said, there are so many things going on here that it’s difficult to say, with certainty, what to do rather than what not to do. Kayaking in moving water is much different than flat water and really does require some form of instruction by professionals (best option), help from other good boaters and/or good videos and books. The absolutely best way is to combine all three.

You can email me if you like and I can give you some club specifics for your area if you’d like as I also live in Washington and am an instructor. We’ve already had enough deaths on rivers here this year and I’d hate to see another.

Simple, lean downstream
Without all the preaching…

Watch some of these videos

Then, watch some of the series here:

Very Common
Whitewater newbies do this in rec boats and whitewater boats on a regular basis. After a couple of swims they get a lot more interested in how to control your boat in a current.

A keeled boat that is sideways to a fast current is not an easy thing to control. There’s a lot of surface area for the current to grab even if you are leaning downstream a bit. And even in a whitewater boat it takes time to learn how much lean is needed in different situations.

If it just doesn’t seem to work, the safest thing may be to get moving with the speed of the current before you begin to turn. Practice it when you can do so safely and it’ll come second nature soon enough.


Moon the current …
as my Scottish friend would say … show your arse to the current or edge on the downstream side. (Just the opposite as in surf if you ever try it.)

A couple of suggestions - see if you can find a lowcost farmer john (farmer jane?) wetsuit. NRS sells them fairly cheaply.

Go practice without your dog, but with a friend on the bank - stay away from trees and limbs in the water.

Go online and look for and they are sites with a younger crowd of whitewater paddlers (average age on PNet is about Dead -7) . If you post that you want to learn the basics I bet you meet several people in Western Washington who would show you a bit for free and might invite you to try some real whitewater boats.

Thank you!
Wow, so much wonderful information! I know I have come to the right place! And yes, this is all genuinely and happened pretty much as described. hangs head in shame I have been out about 15-20 times on lakes, no speed, not enough to need to edge to turn, but I have been looking at that in books and video. But really having no idea what I was doing, I headed up this river. It was running moderate but smooth rock bottomed and pretty shallow. I had no idea what I was doing, as I said. I tried to just turn the kayak to the left, flat, against the running water. Which tried to flip it. So I let the current carry me over to the treed bank, at an angle with the stern downstream. At that point, having no experience or instruction, I tried to use some of my mechanical knowlege, which is limited. That whole let the boat float backwards with the current and get sideways and get used to it is AWESOME!!! Plus I obviously need to practice edge turning and many many more things. No, I won’t go back on a river with my dog. The tether is what saved his life. He was trapped underneath the boat in the cockpit and it was either grab him and pull him out or flip the kayak, so I did both. He was under a few seconds and without me I think he would have drowned. Not an issue in a lake with no current. I can understand what you are trying to tell me about that. Did I endanger my best friend? Oh, heck ya. I don’t want to write off rivers (non whitewater) but I know I have a lot to do and learn before I get back out there. But you have all given me some really good pointers and things to think about.

I wanted to join a local paddling club, but they have their events on the weekends and I work weekends. Really bites! I know everyone told me not to do these things alone, but that’s kinda how I am. With a motorcycle, too, which I sold to get the boat because a) safer b) less moving parts to maintain and b) I could go out with my dogs who are getting older. They love it! But no, not rivers, and not the sound, either.

When I get more time I will look at the links you put up and read through these answers a few more times. I just got back from my local shallow lake and took some underwater vid that turned out kinda cool.

Thanks for taking it easy on me…I’m sure I could hear you gasping at your computer…she did WHAT!!! Yeah, when I think of all the things that could have gone wrong…shudders

pics and vid

– Last Updated: Jul-27-12 3:36 PM EST –

The vid I took just after the flip, after I had gotten the yak turned around and pumped out, so you can see the river a bit and the treed shoreline (and my shock):

Some pics of the river Kachess as I was heading into it (first several pics):

Believe me, I'm not going near a river until I have much more experience and instruction! I did get my water bottle back, lol.

We all do stupid things because… we didn’t know it’s stupid!

You live to tell it. So now you know what NOT to do. Get pass that and start doing the right thing.

If you want to take the dogs out for flat water paddling, maybe get them a floating collar? (and no teeter). I thought all dogs can swim?

Pretty river
I can see why you want to go up it.

Looks pretty benign - but it doesn’t take much to get in trouble without experience and/or training. You’ll get it down soon, I bet.

You got enough good advice already. I’ll just add that it’s not a bad idea to start your river learning from the downstream end up, since your schedule requires you to go alone (welcome to my life!). This way, you get no surprises that you have to go through. So - that looks like a good place to get started as you learn.

Pretty sure that someone already covered it, but your early learning assignments should start with ferries, then peel-outs (that’s how you will turn around), and then eddy-turns. I think someone already linked you to a good source or two for video instruction. Find the first suitable place to practice each, so if you spill, you won’t have far to slack water. Look for practice spots with a clear pool below, free of snags and sweepers.

Since you’re already headed upriver, you know what a ferry looks like. It’s what your boat is doing when you loose control of your bow - you just have to learn to control it so you can go from one side of the river to the other at will. Get that down, and then learn to identify eddies - then you will be ready to learn peel-outs.

yep, he can swim

– Last Updated: Jul-28-12 1:38 AM EST –

Yes, he can swim fine. He has the PFD for additional safety. He's tethered so even if we lose the boat we won't get apart. Not so likely in a lake, but if the wind gets up that could pull us all apart. So I have a belt leash to his harness. The two of us should be able to swim to shore if we can't get to the boat. And since the tether saved his life, I will just say I won't take him on the river, maybe not even out in the bay, since this experience makes me happy we were tethered. We were lucky, sure. But I don't want him drowning because I couldn't get the boat off of him, as he and the boat head downriver. Between the tether and the trees I saved him. I'll keep him on the lakes. And I will gather up and ruminate on all this info, check out your links. I'm so appreciative of all the info and for not beating me up. I did a pretty good job of that myself! ;-) I try to put safety at a high priority, just very stubborn when it comes to trying things out on my own. This one keep me from doing it, but I will be more cautious and less likely to take the "First Mate" on anything new. Knowing I could have killed him is hard on me, especially a main reason I got this boat was for us both to participate (and he does love it). And I will need to get another paddle and a foam paddle float (heard better than the blow up one I have) and keep practicing self rescue with someone about to help. I'm not a svelt athlete, so some of the styles don't seem to pertain to my fat ass. Exercise, practice, experience and skill gaining....that is definately in my future! I'm just a newbie at this and I didn't get they yak to kill myself with. That's one reason I got rid of the motorcycle. ;-)

Ferries, bow control, and your dog.
Should have mentioned this in my post above…

You will find it easier to control your bow going upstream if you keep your boat trimmed slightly bow-high. I’m thinking that having your dog in front of you was working against that. It will be easier to learn controlled ferry moves keeping that in mind.

bring tether, bring knife
If you’re tethering ANYTHING, have a knife on your pfd. So if the tether gets caught in anything, you can quickly free yourself from whatever the tether happen to wrap around.

I was curious about tethering myself to the boat since I hear stories about the yak getting away from people in waves. I guess that’s a bad idea? Anyway, I can release the dog if needed, it’s a clip on, both me and him. But that would have to be a different situation than I was in (besides not having the dog along in rivers or currents). I know the tether in this situation saved his life. I don’t think he could have gotten out from under the boat otherwise if it hadn’t gotten caught on a tree and had headed downstream instead. Freaking terrifying situation, that!