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Whitewater Technique Basics: The Ferry

Reposted from the Dagger blog, written by Anna Levesque

Crossing the current without being taken downstream is a very important skill in white water kayaking. Ferries help to slow things down and they develop boat control, balance and edge control. Throughout your paddling career you’ll probably see many rapids in which making a ferry to an eddy on the other side of the river is a necessary move and you’ll be glad that you put a lot of time into practicing this basic river running skill.

There are four key words to remember about performing a precise and effortless ferry. And, yes, if you’re doing it right it will feel effortless. The idea is to allow the current to do most of the work. The key words are angle, edge, vision and speed.

Angle refers to the angle of your kayak relative to the current. For a successful ferry this angle needs to be about 45 degrees to the current. Another way to visualize the angle is to imagine a clock superimposed over the current with twelve o’clock being upstream and six o’clock being downstream. The bow of your kayak will want to be angled toward 10:30 or 11 o’clock if you’re moving from right to left and toward 1:30 or 2 o’clock if you’re moving from left to right.

Not only do you want to set your angle before you proceed into the current, but the idea with the ferry is that you maintain the angle all the way across the current. If you take the time to set your angle properly from the beginning, maintaining it will be easier. To help you do this it’s best to position yourself close to the eddy line. If you try to set your angle sitting way back in the eddy, by the time you paddle up to the current you’ll already have lost your angle. It’s much easier to maintain your angle if you don’t have to paddle as far.

The other tip for helping you set and maintain your angle is to pay attention to your paddle strokes. You only need a few good, powerful strokes to break across the eddy line so don’t feel like you need a ton of speed. Taking fewer strokes also allows you to focus on your last stroke as you enter the current. If you take a stroke on your upstream side as you’re entering the current you’ll start turning your kayak and will loose your angle immediately. If you take the stroke on your downstream side you’ll be more likely to maintain your angle.

Once you’re in the current the water will start pushing on your bow and will want to turn you downstream. To counteract this you’ll want to use stern draws on your downstream side. Make sure that you practice correct stern draw technique so that you feel comfortable performing the stroke with a very strong torso rotation. If you do the stroke correctly you’ll only need two or three compared to six or seven bad ones.

Edge refers to lifting and maintaining your upstream edge as you ferry across. This keeps the majority of the edge of your boat out of the water so that you stay upright. The surface of your kayak that is exposed to the current allows the water to push your kayak across.

If you lift your edge at the beginning of your ferry and then set it down half way through you’ll end up flipping over or turning downstream. It’s important that you maintain that edge all the way over.

Vision refers to looking where you want to go. Once you’ve set your angle and you’re making your move into the current it’s important to look at where you want to go. This will actually help you keep your boat angle because you’ll see the big picture of what the current is doing. If you stare at your bow or at the current right in front of your bow you loose track of your angle and positioning relative to the rest of the current and it’s more difficult to perform an effortless ferry. So, make sure that you look where you want to go from the beginning all the way to the end of your ferry.

Speed refers to how much momentum you have crossing into the current. As I’ve already mentioned when discussing angle, it’s not necessary to have a crazy amount of speed when you’re learning. It’ll serve you better to focus on your angle and edge more than speed. Now, that doesn’t mean that you can float across the eddy line. You still want to paddle, but no so much that you forget about everything else.

Make sure that you switch edges once you get to the eddy or flatwater on the other side of the current you’re ferrying across. This will keep you stable.

As you progress as a paddler you’ll learn that you can relax your ferry angle for easy going current. You’ll also learn to read the water and notice that the current is not uniform and the current right next to the eddy you’re starting your ferry from may be stronger or weaker than the current out in the middle. This means that you may have to adjust your angle halfway through your ferry. These subtleties will become more apparent with more experience and instruction. No matter what, if you’re struggling remember to come back to the basic principles of angle, edge, vision and speed.

More intermediate paddlers will want to practice taking the least amount of strokes possible while ferrying to improve their technique and their finesse. You can also practice keeping your blade in the water in the position of the stern draw with your wrists feathered up so that you maintain pressure on the current. This will help you maintain your angle in a more fluid way.

Practicing back ferries is also important for intermediate paddlers who need a challenge. This adds a whole new dimension to boat control, edge control and balance. Most paddlers avoid this practice, but if you really want to improve your intermediate skills this is a great way to do it.

If you’re getting turned downstream immediately and are having a hard time keeping your angle, focus on taking the time to set your angle properly. Make sure that you understand the angle. If you enter perpendicular to the current or at a three o’clock angle you’ll get turned downstream. If you end up facing straight upstream and getting turned back toward your starting point then you’re starting out with too much angle or correcting too much. Remember that when you do a proper ferry it looks and feels like your gliding across the current. This may take some time, but the more you practice the easier it will become.

This article is excerpted from Anna’s latest whitewater kayaking instructional DVD for women. Look for the new DVD in stores and online in spring of 2010.