Learning to navigate a standup paddleboard on a river will eventually involve losing your balance and falling from time to time. Unfortunately your landing zone in the river bed will most likely be full of rocks.
Falling on rocks hurts.
As with skiing, mountain biking and other adventure sports the more you challenge yourself the more you are exposed to potential injury. If you’re not prepared to accept this risk, stick to the “Bunny Slopes” on lakes and flat, barely moving rivers. This article part of the series, Project Ww’SUP.
Just a reminder here: the information in this article is based entirely on my own, personal experience and educated observations. I do not represent any authoritative organization or school of practice. I am totally making this stuff up. So take that into consideration.
Fall Down Paddling Principles
The whitewater paddling community has taken to calling the new and poorly understood discipline of whitewater paddleboarding “Fall Down Paddling” because that’s what happens – A LOT. As your skills improve you will fall less and primarily when you choose to try new things. But in the beginning you will fall.
Here are a couple general “rules of thumb” for limiting your risk of injury as you step up your game SUPing on whitewater:
At a minimum wear a full-coverage PFD and helmet for basic impact protection. Consider additional protective equipment for legs, arms, hips, etc as appropriate for the section of whitewater and type of paddling you’re planning to do.
Fall onto the board early and in control. Falling into the riverbed is the worst option.
Aim to land in the water back first with feet on the board as long as possible.
Collapse into the water whether entering feet first, hands first or back first. The less you resist the lower your risk of serious injury.
Learn as much as possible about the characteristics of the stream you are paddling.
Respect the limits of your skills and experience.
Learning how to stand up, move around, and control a paddleboard can be difficult on its own. Learning how to read, understand and take advantage of river currents is its own challenging study. Don’t try to learn both at the same time.
Prepare for Impact
For all of the instability inherent in standing on a paddleboard – rather than sitting or kneeling in a kayak or canoe – there is one very big advantage: visibility. From a standing position you can see just about everything before your board hits it. In fact, when WWSUPing with friends in canoes and kayaks I often become the defacto scout for what’s coming up downstream.
Until you develop a better sense of when the board is going to catch on a rock or otherwise be disrupted begin with a Defensive Stance:
Stand far enough back on the board that you have room to fall forward onto your hands and knees. On flat ground or a calm eddy stand on your board and practice falling into that position to make sure you’re far enough back.
Stagger your stance so that your feet are at least shoulder-width apart with one foot 6 to 12 inches in front of the other. Knees bent slight and weight evenly distributed between your feet. On flat ground practice finding your center by shifting your weight over your front foot so that no weight is on the rear foot. Repeat for the rear foot.
Stand erect with as straight a spine as you can manage. Engage your abdominal muscles to maintain this position. Shoulders over hips over feet over board. Paddling in a crouched position with hips back and shoulders forward is more likely to toss you backward than forward. Recovering from a backward fall is much more difficult than a forward fall.
Keep your paddle blade low or in the water with your elbows out from your body and only slightly bent. Holding the paddle too close to your body restricts your ability to quickly change positions, brace, and prevent a fall in the first place.
Hit The Deck
If it looks like you’re going to hit a shallow ledge, wave or anything that may upset your board, drop to one knee as far in advance as possible. Waiting until impact to transition from standing to kneeling combines two destabilizing events and multiplies your chances of falling off the board.
Lowering your center of gravity reduces your control but provides two important benefits:
Increased stability reducing the risk of an uncontrolled fall.
Lower the distance of the fall and intensity of impact should you come off the board.
With practice on flat or mild moving water you can learn to use your paddle to control the transition from standing to a high kneeling position and back up again. See Project WWSUP: How to Stand Up on Swift Water for one technique.
Spot Your Landing
Thanks to the great visibility you get from a standing position you can learn to quickly assess the nature of your potential landing zone. Is it deep or shallow? A few big rocks or loose gravel? Of course, sometimes things are moving too quickly to properly assess the landing zone, but in time you will get better. Scan and read the water ahead even more vigilantly than you would in a whitewater kayak or canoe. A small rock 2 inches below the surface is a bigger deal for you on a SUP than your friends kneeling and sitting.
Option 1: Back First & Feet on the Board
In most cases this is your best option; fall backward into the water taking advantage of the protection provided by your PFD and helmet. As you hit the water try to flatten out your body to keep yourself as shallow as possible. As little as 6 inches of water will provide plenty of cushion as long as you can spread your body out. Try to keep your feet on the board with a “heel hook”. Your head will almost always go under in this position unless the water is very shallow.
Rolling back-first into the water also allows you to keep your feet in contact with the board as long as possible. Keeping your feet on the board as you hit the water provides 3 important benefits:
Lessen the impact of your full body weight on the water and any rocks you may hit.
Protect the feet, ankles and lower legs from injury and entrapment in the riverbed.
Keep the board close at hand for a faster remount.
It is still important to use your own judgement when falling. In some cases you do NOT want to keep your feet on the board such as in the middle of a hydraulic. If things don’t feel right for whatever reason – get your feet off the top of the board quickly.
From a kneeling position you can simply roll into the water on your back. From a standing position think about collapsing and going limp even as you try to direct your body toward a back-first landing in the safest spot you can manage.
I have found this technique generally safe and have never been injured this way … tho I’ve had some really close calls. It is definitely appropriate only where you have a lot of confidence about the water depth and riverbed rocks.
Option 2: Feet First Hop
Sometimes … especially when popping into a shallow eddy … falling out flat onto the water is a bad idea. If you’re already upright and the board makes a sudden stop that you’re not ready for you have to decide quickly. If it must be feet first I have been lucky so far with the following. Good River SUP shoes are critical here.
Focus on landing with your body aligned vertically over your feet so that you enter the water straight down. Avoid landing at an angle. You may feel inclined to lean your upper body toward the board to grab it with your hands … DON’T do this. It is more important initially to stick that vertical landing.
Knees slightly bent – feet ready for anything.
Pay attention to how your feet engage the riverbed. One or both feet may slide down into a pocket between rocks. Don’t try to resist on descent – but turn your body as needed to prevent a twist. This is where you can really get hurt.
Use your legs only enough to slow your body. If possible you want to fully collapse into the riverbed in whichever direction is appropriate.
It’s the vertical entry and complete collapse into the riverbed that has saved my poor old legs from injury so far. That said – this is a very dangerous way to come off the board and should be avoided. I recommend Lacrosse or soccer shin guards with additional ankle protection for shallow, rocky creeks and small rivers where you will be doing a lot of eddy catching.
Option 3: Face First – YIKES!
I’ve only been forced into this position a couple times … and have been scared and lucky both. Hands and forearms are even less sturdy than feet and ankles. Wearing some shoulder pads and elbow protection will give you the freedom to rotate toward your back and simply collapse. If you don’t have that protection you will most likely try to break your fall with your hands to protect your face.
In this case … if you must … don’t lock your elbows. As you hands engage the rocks of the riverbed absorb the shock through your bent elbows. As quickly as possible, roll on your back.
Face first sucks. Avoid it at all costs.
It’s entirely possible to paddle whitewater on a stand up paddleboard without falling in. As your skills and understanding improve you will be able to choose when to risk a fall and when not to. I fall in the water a LOT! But only when I’m challenging myself on harder water or working out a new trick or maneuver on easy water. One of my favorite things when I’ve only got an hour or two to give to SUPing is playing on lakes and ponds working out choreography and paddle work for the different ways I move on whitewater. Falling a whole lot on a pond is a lot safer and more fun than falling in the river and through practice I’m able to reduce many of those whitewater falls.
Y’all have fun and be as safe as you can! Learn! Practice!
Oh – and if you have anything to add or corrections to offer, PLEASE hit the comments below.
[ This post is part of my Project Ww’SUP series.