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Project WW’SUP: Falling on Rocks

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:

  1. 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.

  2. Fall onto the board early and in control. Falling into the riverbed is the worst option.

  3. Aim to land in the water back first with feet on the board as long as possible. 

  4. Collapse into the water whether entering feet first, hands first or back first. The less you resist the lower your risk of serious injury.

  5. Learn as much as possible about the characteristics of the stream you are paddling.

  6. 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:

  1. 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.

  2. 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. 

  3. 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.

  4. 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:

  1. Increased stability reducing the risk of an uncontrolled fall.

  2. 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