Updated: Mar 9, 2022
The most brilliant thing about whitewater SUP is the freedom of movement. With all other whitewater craft – canoes, kayaks, rafts – paddlers generally brace or strap themselves into a stationary position. The paddler “wears” the boat for maximum control. But leaning the boat’s hull forward, backward, left and right can only happen with great effort. Unattached and standing on a paddleboard we can focus our weight anywhere on the board at any moment to carve on a rail, pivot into an eddy, accelerate down a wave, and perform other maneuvers. This “unattached” freedom completely changes your paddle’s effective range of motion as well as your control of the board.
First: Loosen Up
Standing on an unstable board the first few times can prompt a “fear of falling” response causing many beginners to stiffen from feet to shoulders in an instinctive effort to maintain a balance. When they try to paddle only their arms move. This perfectly natural but bad habit – stiffening through the core – blocks the flow of energy from paddle blade through the body and into the board. Instead, the stiff paddler tends to pull the body forward dragging the board along rather than driving the board forward.
Overcoming the fear that drives this habit requires 3 things:
Confident bracing techniques with the paddle
Confident footwork on the board (which I’m finally addressing with this post)
Get to Know and Trust the Board & Paddle
On your way to confidently walking up and down the board a good starting point is simply learning how your board responds to shifting weight from side to side and end to end. Begin with side-to-side rail-bobbing: with your feet in the neutral position simply shift weight from side to side until you are driving water across the surface of the board. I recommend a high brace with the blade fully in the water for greater stability and more aggressive rail-bobbing.
To dial in your understanding of your board a little more, experiment with slowly tipping the board from side to side to find the board’s tipping point and holding it there for a moment. Brace with your paddle to see how far you can tilt onto one rail and then the other.
And finally, find the board’s two “sweet spots” – yes, 2. One near the tail and one near the nose. The sweet spot is the point along the board’s centerline or “stringer” where the near end of the board sinks when you shift your weight over it. The easy way to find the point is to drop to your knees in the neutral position and begin working your way back to the tail. When kneeling on the sweet spot you should be able to lean back to cause the tail to sink and lean forward to bring the nose back down. Discover the sweet spot near the nose the same way. Once you’ve played around with that in sitting and kneeling positions try playing with it standing and bracing lightly with your paddle.
When these become comfortable try the “Round the World” exercise. When experimenting with these simple exercises always include your paddle with the blade buried in the water and the shaft held in a high-brace position. This provides significant stabilizing control almost like adding a third-leg – that and integrating paddle-work with foot-work is essential to paddling harder whitewater.
Now for the Footwork
I’m glossing over the most rudimentary stance-shifting techniques like hopping and shuffling and head straight for the Cross-Step, a technique that began in Hawaiian long-board surfing. Cross-Stepping is a level 2 SUP skill in the American Canoe Association’s curriculum and has formed the basis for all of my footwork. I guarantee that learning to do a Cross-Step to a Pivot Turn – a primarily flat-water SUP maneuver – will change the way you paddle SUP in whitewater simply because of the confidence it builds in your stance and relationship with the board.
What is the Purpose of Cross-Stepping?
The Cross-Step is used to walk forward and backward along the board’s center-line – or stringer – from nose to tail. By moving to the rear of the board you can sink the tail and really shorten the board’s turning radius significantly. When surfing it is often useful to move forward to help the board accelerate down the face of the wave – and then quickly back to engage the fin to slow down to wave speed or to make a turn. The benefit of owning skills like cross-stepping are returned in overall confidence on the board in whatever environment you choose to take it; ocean, river, or lake. Being able to step back and spin the board with a casual air is the first very achievable skill that hooks many into the addiction of SUP.
The Basic Heel-Toe-Heel Cross-Step
The cross-step did not come naturally to me. The paddle, the dynamics of the board on whitewater currents – yup, totally got that. Structuring a reliable cross-step to the tail of the board demanded more than a little practice. Had it not been for my need to successfully complete ACA Level 2 SUP instructor certification I’m not sure I would have put the time into refining this skill – but now I’m totally sold.
This series of diagrams illustrates the steps if not the complete body movements. Note that the dark portions of the feet indicate where your weight is concentrated.
“HTH” stands for “Heel-Toe-Heel” – the stepping pattern typically used for cross-stepping to the tail to perform a pivot turn. In the first step the onside heel moves to the stringer, then the offside toes cross behind to the stringer (in the move’s weakest moment), and finally the onside heel comes around to the board’s tail and establishes and solid base for whatever comes next.
Beware of the middle step in this sequence – the one with the red exclamation point. Your legs are crossed and in a momentarily weak position. For maximum stability make sure you have the blade fully submerged for this transitional step.
Posture is also critical when practicing and building muscle memory with the following exercise. Keep you back straight with minimal bend at the waist – bend your knees deeper instead of bending at the waist. Keeping your head up and eyes level will also help. The goal is to practice this sequence to the point that it no longer requires thought to perform.
Mark a straight 4 foot line on the ground. It could be a crack in the sidewalk, a seam in the floor, or a line drawn with a stick in the dirt. A length of rope, hose, or a flat stick of lumber work best since you don’t have to look at the line to know whether you are on it.
Using slow deliberate movements, perform the three-step cross-step backwards to the tail of the line on the ground. Done properly you will “glide” forward and back like a dancer. Precision of movement is the goal rather than speed. When I was first learning the sequence I would find opportunities throughout my day to practice for 1 to 5 minute sessions in all sorts of places.
In future blog posts I’ll discuss the board’s “zones” and using the structure of cross-stepping to move away from unpredictable “hopping” for stance changes to a smooth choreography that keeps at least one foot on the board at all times as you dance across the board in response to the rocks, currents, and hydraulic features of the river.