In just a few short days of whitewater kayaking lessons at Madawaska Kanu Centre in Ontario, we have conquered whitewater kayaking rolls, ran class 2 & 3 rapids, and have performed countless bow rescues.
Whitewater Kayaking Rolls Wet Exits
Dave is happy to announce, he never had to do one wet exit during the entire course and I only had one panic moment on my final day where I pulled my “oh shit strap” after flipping instead of waiting calmly for someone to help me out with a bow rescue. The rest of the time, we were cool as cucumbers baby. (well at least on the outside)
If you asked us if we thought we’d be doing this a week ago, the answer would be a solid no.
We never thought we could feel comfortable upside down in water let alone rushing water. And yet, as we make mistakes while ferrying across rapids or practicing C and S turns into and out of an eddy, we flip over unexpectedly we are having fun.
No big deal, we'll just attempt a roll, or wait for a fellow kayaker to give us a hand. How do we do this? While underwater, we calmly hang below the kayak, banging our hull while running our hands up and down the boat to feel for a fellow kayakers bump.
When that bump comes, we can grab onto their boat, pull ourselves up for a gasp of fresh air and invert our kayak back to the upright position.
If no helps comes and you feel yourself running out of air, it's time for a wet exit. I totally expected my first instinct to be to pull the skirt of my kayak and get out of the boat as quickly as possible. I thought there was no way I'd stay underwater and wait for someone to rescue me. It turns out, I am braver than I thought!
Bow Rescues, Rolls and Wet Exit's Explained
The beauty of taking an intensive five-day course is that everything is a progression. You practice so many maneuvers before attempting the real thing, that by the time you enter moving water, you’re prepared for any scenario. Remarkably, your first instinct is to remain calm.
The last thing Dave and I wanted to do was to swim. It's much easier to hold your breath for as long as you can comfortably and wait for help. Getting out of the kayak in whitewater is annoying.
You have to swim in rapids, get yourself and your boat to shore and then empty out all the water. If you can perfect the roll or bow rescue, you'll have a much better time.
A wet exit is the first thing you'll learn in whitewater kayaking. As a matter a fact, whenever you go out in a kayak that requires a skirt, (that means sea kayaking as well) you need to know how to do a wet exit.
The Wet Exit
When you are secured inside by a skirt, you need to be able to get out of it if the boat flips over. When going on any type of guided kayaking trip the guide should make sure that you can comfortably perform a wet exit.
You'll need to stretch your skirt over your kayak with you inside. (You will now be one with the kayak) Then you have to flip yourself over and go upside down in the water. Now that you are hanging from your kayak, you need to tuck your head into the boat so you don't hit any rocks or other objects. This is especially important in whitewater as you'll be moving quickly. The next step is to calmly slide your hands along the rim of the skirt to the front where you will find the strap to pull on and let yourself out.
Note: It is very important to check that your skirt's strap is on the outside before you start paddling. Without having access to that strap, you could become trapped upside down in the boat.
Once you pull on the strap, you will be free to swim out of the kayak and swim to the shore. This is a safe way to react when your kayak capsizes, but it involves a lot of work afterward.
One, it is difficult to swim in whitewater and two, you have to get you and your kayak to shore. Hopefully, you can swim with your kayak to the shore. Then you have to tip your kayak upside down to drain all the water out and get back in. It's exhausting and once you've done it once in whitewater, you won't want to do it again.
Until you perfect the roll, this is an excellent way to enjoy kayaking. A bow rescue happens when you flip your kayak, but instead of coming out of the kayak, you have a fellow kayaker help you out. If you flip over in your kayak and you are comfortable enough to wait for help, a bow rescue is an excellent option.
When you flip over, tuck your head up to your knees and bang on the bottom of your boat three times. This will get the attention of your fellow kayakers. Once you have banged on your boat with your hands, run them up and down the hull of the boat.
If another kayaker is close enough to you, they will paddle towards you ramming their kayak against your hull. They will try to come in perpendicular to your boat creating a T-formation.
You won't be able to feel their tap or hear the collision, but if you keep running your hands along the boat, your hand will run into their kayak and you can grab onto the front of their kayak. (the bow) It's awkward and strange at first.
You are still underwater and upside down this entire time, but once you have a hold of their boat, you can come up for air and then push yourself upright. Both hands will be on the same side holding on to the front of the kayak, you then pull yourself up.
Your kayak will still be upside down, but your head and torso will be out of the water. Take a breath and relax.
Our instructor Fidel told us to say Thank You. It helps calm you down and allows you to catch your breath.
Once you are composed and in position, keep your head down on the bow of the rescue boat and flick your hips to bring your own kayak into an upright position. After it's upright, you can then bring your head up. It doesn't take a lot of effort to push yourself up.
If you push too much and create too much effort, you will most likely flip back over.
When we ended up having to perform bow rescues we found that it was only about 5 seconds underwater. If you are paying attention to one another, you can get a kayak quickly and help out.
For the person doing the rescuing, it's very important to keep paddling. You most likely won't be able to keep a perfect T position and you'll move around a lot, but make sure to keep with the overturned kayak so that the person underwater will eventually be able to find you.
This is the ultimate skill in kayaking and it's difficult to achieve at first. But once you get it, it feels heavenly. The roll is a way to self-rescue without coming out of your kayak at all.
You can right yourself by using your paddle.
When you flip over, tuck your head into your boat to make yourself safe. It's important to always think about rocks and obstacles underwater. When you are composed, thrust your paddle towards the surface of the water.
The paddle needs to be level and above the water. You then reach back with your backhand using it as leverage to balance as you flick your hip to right your boat. The head is the last thing to come up and in no time, you'll find that you are back on top in fresh air and ready to face more white water.
You can't learn how to do the roll from the internet. I could go into depth and give you all the details, but you need to have an expert show you.
Fidel taught us the roll in steps.
We progressed from wet exits to bow rescues and at one point he stood in the water flipping us upright so we could feel what it was like to roll in one smooth motion.
We did rolls using his hands for help, other kayaks for help, and paddles with foam on the ends to help us keep the paddle above the water.
But what we mostly worked on was form. Placement of the paddle and body positioning is key. When you get that paddle in the right position and can sweep it out and away from the boat in one fluid motion, it nearly does all the work for you.
Once your paddle is out and beginning to lift your torso out of the water, all that's left for you to do is flick your hips bringing your boat into an upright position and finally lifting your head.
I cannot express the ultimate high one feels when they accomplish something in whitewater kayaking. Dave and I have been lucky to attempt many adventures in our lives, but there is something truly amazing about completing a roll or running your first rapid. We attempted a roll in moving water, but didn't quite get the hang of it during our five-day course.
However, now that we have the kayaking bug, I think we'll be able to perfect it in the near future. We have another kayaking adventure ahead of us this summer, we'll definitely be giving it a try.
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