Lessons From The River: Leaning

April 18, 2014
Eric Howey

Photo Credit: Gerald Hendrix

I am a pretty average boater; I am comfortable on class III whitewater and have run some class IV here and there but certainly am not a class IV kayaker. The few times I have run class V it was my mostly ego that made the decision. I am not an instructor or expert; these are just my musing on my own paddling fails and what I have learned from them.


The golden rule of whitewater paddling is to always lean downstream. Little did I know that I suck at this until a kind instructor pointed it out to me one day after I nearly barrel rolled off Titan. Here is a video of it being done right; the nice line on Titan is at 2:15:

You need to know that I spent 10+ years canoeing on flatwater and whitewater before I ever kayaked. When you are in a canoe you still always lean downstream but when entering an eddy you switch edges, just as you do in a kayak, however in a tandem canoe this switch results in the stern person leaning upstream for a brief period of time as the bow of the longer boat catches the eddy current and whips the stern around. Over time I started setting my leans earlier and earlier due to the way a tandem canoe performs in whitewater and the strokes you take in the stern.

When I transitioned to kayaking I continued doing this and set my leans up BEFORE I entered eddies. This meant that at times I was leaning upstream while moving cross current. In class I-III whitewater this had little bearing or noticeable effect on my paddling. My brace strokes and general stability in a boat was more than enough to offset any effects of improper lean.

In class IV and V whitewater leaning the wrong way has much more severe consequences and can quickly put you in situations you don’t want to be in. Cross current momentum and moves become an essential skill in this more challenging whitewater and the lean of your boat is a key component of completing these cross current moves gracefully. Let me illustrate this with an example of leaning the wrong way.

During an Aquabatics creeking course we were working on dropping Titan on Cataract Creek using a cross current move to assist the boof. I was pretty excited to try a new approach to this drop as I had already run Titan a number of times by just paddling straight off it and plugging the drop. If you are familiar with Titan there is a small curling wave on the lip at most water levels. By using a lean and some cross current momentum this small wave can help straighten your boat out and accentuate any boof stroke. This is not what I did. What I did was an almost barrel roll off the lip, narrowly missing the rock wall. Not my finest moment in a kayak and a pretty crappy landing for my body. This happened primarily because I leaned the wrong way; as I came off the lip I was leaning upstream and my upstream lean was then amplified by the curling wave which resulted in me twisting off the waterfall sideways in my boat. Doh! On these more technical lines the lean of your boat in conjunction with your stroke is crucial to landing in control and where you want to be.

I am still working on leaning the right way in the river but happy to say that I am improving. Remember, always lean downstream!


Patchpatchb, May 01, 2014

Awesome that you are taking the time to identify and work on areas of your paddling that need improvement..

I like to drop the word “lean” from everyday paddling vocabulary, as lean implies that you are leaning your body. If you switch the word lean for “boat tilt”, it should help you remember that the two of the most important things to remember in paddling are

#1 - upper and lower body separation #2 - body rotation

In the majority of situations your body should remain upright when you add boat tilt. In most situations adding body rotation is critical and aids the boat tilt…

Try siting with your hull flat on flat water, with your knees properly locked into your kayak, rotate your whole torso to the right, what happens to your left edge? Then rotate your torso to the left, what happens to your right edge. This principle of separating the upper and lower body movements, maintaining an upright body position, in every direction and adding torso rotation is critical. Practice this until it becomes unconscious and you will solve many of your paddling woes….

A great video to watch is Ken Whitings, “Play Daze” or for that matter any of his other whitewater productions…

Eric Howeyehowey, May 01, 2014

Great thoughts patch, you are right boat tilt would have been a much better choice of words and more accurately describe what is happening to both the body and the boat. Cheers!


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