Downriver SUP Online Training Course
Downriver SUP is navigating a stand-up paddleboard down a moving body of channeled water. The difficulty of this activity can range from a mellow stroll down a gentle moving stream to Class V whitewater rapids. There is a distinction between Downriver SUP and Whitewater SUP that arguably starts when one ascends from Class II to Class III Whitewater.
The skills required to negotiate varying levels of moving water all share the same foundation which includes the need to be able to read upcoming water conditions, how to move your vessel intentionally within such conditions, and the awareness of various hazards as you move through time and space down the river.
The sport of downriver SUP offers an incredible capacity for joy for a variety of reasons. The first is that it gives the participant an added boost to their speed as they journey towards their destination. The second is that it accelerates the amount of scenery viewed in each outing. At our standard local downriver run, the 40’s section of Cattaraugus Creek in Gowanda, NY, we navigate Class III rapids through a relatively inaccessible gorge through Western New York’s most authentic wilderness. The standard run covers approximately 7 miles of the region’s best scenery and in average water levels (3-4 ft.) will take roughly 2.5 hours depending on stops and play wave time.
An offshoot of downriver SUP is SUP river surfing which is the surfing of standing waves generated by river current. The sport is well established in the whitewater kayaking community with specialized boats and events geared toward “playboating.” In both SUP river surfing and whitewater kayak surfing the wave can be accessed by either paddling into the wave from an eddy adjacent to the shoulder of the wave or if such a luxury is not present, by turning and catching the wave at a specific moment while traveling downriver. The latter being quite a bit more difficult.
At the time of this writing internationally there have been a handful of Class V Whitewater SUP descents most notably from Boulder, CO native Spencer Lacey who has successfully run on SUP the Grand Canyon, Upper and Lower Gauley, Lower Big Sandy Falls, and Upper Yaugh, just to name a few. Most people, however, find Class I – III conditions to be worthy of an experience of a lifetime.
There are several whitewater-specific SUP boards on the market, but any board with a fair amount of stability and durability canwill do. To that end, inflatable SUP’s are the more popular choice for this sport as they tend to handle the bumps and bruises from a river better than hard boards do. In recent years, advancements in inflatable SUP technology has created a variety of very high-quality boards.
Anyone with basic Stand-Up Paddleboarding skills can enjoy Class I and II downriver paddling. Class III+ requires solid prerequisites of SUP skills. One of the best aspects of downriver SUP is the two-way street for SUP cross-training. Paddling in windy choppy conditions on open water is great cross-training for downriver SUP and downriver SUP is great cross-training for every other style of SUP including SUP surfing, SUP touring, SUP racing, and leisurely paddles.
As mentioned, anyone with basic SUP competence including confidence staying standing, paddling stroke, and board control can enjoy Class I and II downriver. Class I downriver has essentially no water features but a steady moving current. Class II will add on visual water currents that feature “rapids with regular waves; clear and open passages between rocks and ledges.” Paddling.com also goes on to state that maneuvering is required in Class II, while from our personal experience this maneuvering tends to be obvious and straightforward but nonetheless requires the participant to be proficient in vessel control.
Class III, IV, and V Downriver SUP require the participant to have mastered many facets of paddling with the foundation revolving around a dropped foot stance that mimics a surf stance, although it is often offset to accommodate the port and starboard shift of weight of the SUP. In addition to mastering this “surf stance,” several types of paddling strokes are also required to successfully navigate rapids. These include a brace, draw stroke, J-stroke, and feathering techniques. Class III+ is not to be entered into lightly, and should be eased into gradually. Also, in keeping with the traditions in whitewater kayaking and canoeing, this sport is best done with a group, as generally there is greater safety in numbers as long as the group shares a common baseline skill level.
Location, Conditions, and Hazards
Downriver SUP is conducted on rivers, streams, and creeks that have enough waterflow and depth for the vessel not to hit bottom (too often). These types of moving bodies of water can be found all over the world. In the US, the American Whitewater Association (AWA) offers an index of navigable rivers along with a wide variety of resources. Membership is encouraged and supports an excellent cause of river conservation.
The amount of flow running through rivers is often a product of the amount of seasonal rainfall and/or snowmelt although others are mostly dependent on dam releases such as the Gauley in WV which has scheduled releases every fall. There are several hazards that participants must be aware of when conducting downriver SUP. One hazard is a sudden rise in water levels or flash flooding. One should always be aware of weather/rain conditions before any run and become proficient in reading doppler radar images, and weather forecasts to ensure that no unexpected water surges will occur while on the river.
Another major hazard in downriver SUP are obstacles in the water that can catch and hold down the participant, and these include downed trees, snags, and sieves. All of these obstacles have proved fatal on various occasions. Some of these features are immovable such as sieves which are two rocks pinned together that create a highly dangerous funnel that can trap people and equipment. Other hazards such as debris and down trees, commonly known as snags can catch personal or equipment and prove highly dangerous. The remedy for these types of hazards is awareness and ability to stay away. Paddling through a river is not like a standing body of water. The paddler must move in relation to the moving water current. One of the most powerful and subconscious ways a paddler influences where they go is through the direction their eyes are looking. We go where we look. And when a human senses a hazard it is instinctual to be aware and look at that hazard. However, in downriver paddling your vessel goes where your eyes look, so you must look away from the hazard, and towards the open channel, to successfully avoid the hazard.
The other component of avoiding these hazards is awareness. In the case of obstacles that are more fixed, such as sieves, the paddler must either verse themselves in the route through the use of guidebooks or by getting descriptions from fellow paddlers. In the case of more transient hazards, such as downed trees, the paddler must be able to read the river ahead and as soon as they become aware of a hazard be able to maneuver around it. In some instances, such as around sharp corners, there may not be time to avoid obstacles. In these cases it is best to become aware of such “blind corners” via maps and satellite imagery and memorize the river so that one can pull off well ahead of an unknown section and “scout” or walk the river to ensure that the path is clear. In highly technical creek boating within the whitewater kayaking realm this is common practice on regular runs regardless of how many laps a paddler has run because obstacles can emerge due to the variation in water flows.
The best rivers are those that are appropriate to your skill level and offer relatively easy access. In downriver paddling a “shuttle” is required because you are traveling from Point A to Point B and not returning to your place of origin on your board. Because rivers wander and meander the amount of time spent on the river does not necessarily correlate to the amount of time spent on shuttle. A 2.5-hour paddle may only require a 10-minute shuttle ride depending on the geography and road access.
Durability is the driving factor in choosing your SUP Board. For that reason inflatables tend to be the vessel of choice for the downriver paddler. On Class I and II rivers with relatively deep water a hardboard will also do just fine but any chance of shallow water or in legitimate rapids either an inflatable or ultra-durable hard board will suffice. There are advantages to hardboards in whitewater particularly where it comes to surfing. Hard boards allow for a more complex shape with more rocker that translates into a better surfing experience as well as less flex through rapids. A few companies have created whitewater specific hardboards including Pau Hana Surf Supply and Badfish SUP. In some instances participants use whitewater specific inflatable SUP boards such as those created by Hala, Pau Hana Surf Supply, Naish and others, but more often than not, a standard all-around inflatable SUP will do great in Class I – III Downriver. The largest driving factor in your success is the stability and volume of the board.
In deep water downriver SUP any paddle that suits the participant will work fine but in any case of shallow or heavy water durability is essential in downriver paddling. Often runs with rapids such as those found in Class III to V have many shallow sections or rocks that can damage paddles. We have more than once broken a blade in the middle of a downriver run and it is not nearly as fun navigating technical whitewater without a blade to steer your vessel. In one instance we duct taped an empty 2-liter bottle we found on the river in an attempt to replace a broken blade. That quick fix was met with mixed success.
In the work world it is known as PPE, Personal Protective Equipment, on the river the essentials are helmet, PFD (personal flotation device), and whistle. Helmets should be worn in Class II and above and PFD’s are always better when worn as opposed to on the board but are also essential when in class II+. Optional items include a paddling knife, first aid kit, water, and leash; a highly debated topic in the whitewater SUP community.
In our opinion the use of a leash is a day to day decision depending on the river and the daily conditions. The major benefit of the leash is that when you fall off your board you can easily and quickly pull the board back to you and get back on your board faster, which is safer than swimming through a river. The major disadvantage of using the leash is that it can get caught and tangled on a snag, sieve, or rock. Trapping the rider and may even cause serious injury or death. Factors when choosing whether or not to wear a leash include size of group on outing, water velocity, types of features, types and amount of hazards, and the existence of pools and eddies to recover gear.
There are several interacting factors at play so it is really a day to day personal judgement call. For instance, on our local class III whitewater run on Cattaraugus Creek in Gowanda, NY we generally do not wear leashes when the water level is under 4.0 ft.-4.5 ft. Above those levels the water current is too swift, pools turn into moving current and eddies wash out so that the risks of the leash are outweighed by the benefits of being able to quickly get back on your board. That river does not have any major hazardous sieves with a shale and gravel bottom and few boulders so it is in a way a low-risk river for using leashes. However, fallen trees are very common, and often not visible under water. So we generally prefer to not wear leashes until board recovery becomes very difficult. For example, Gore Creek in Veil, CO even at low water flows, features almost no pools so once you lose your board it is extremely difficult to recover so we always wear a leash on rivers like that.
When wearing a leash in moving water it is essential to wear quick release devices. It is best to have two for redundancy. A whitewater belt with ball and string eject works well worn around the waist with the release on the dominant hand side. A standard surf leash can be attached to the belt with Velcro in a place easily accessible and slightly loosely attached for ease of release, ideally on the opposite side of the belt release in case one side is pinned and becomes difficult to access in an emergency. The Velcro also has the capacity to release under heavy pressure, another benefit to the two-release system with Velcro being one of the release points.
Getting Started & Learning Stages
Downriver SUP is best started on Class I and II rivers with at least some basic paddling experience to ensure the participant’s safety. Getting used to paddling in a moving current is exceptionally fun and very exciting – especially if you have ever fought wind and current to return to where you started. Being able to “go with flow” and end up somewhere else adds to the allure.
It is best to not be in a hurry on your progression from downriver SUP into whitewater SUP. Enjoy the journey and the process. Practice whitewater SUP maneuvers on flat water, in choppy conditions and waves. The most essential skills to learn are the brace and drop step which will be covered in techniques. Cross-training in rivers on rafts and kayaks can also help tremendously as understanding and reading rivers can be just as important as stand-up paddling practical skills.
The transition from class I to class II rivers is very fun and can be met by a wide variety of physical abilities with basic stand-up paddle competence. Jumping up into class III requires the paddler to be proficient in drop step paddling, bracing, and basic river reading skills. Class IV and V rivers are for experts only and can be consequential.
In class I and II rivers basic paddling skills are generally enough to succeed in navigation. For a breakdown of basic paddling techniques check out (insert link to basic paddling technique course). The most common include forward stroke, arch turning stroke, backstroke, and draw stroke. Another useful stroke for downriver paddling is the J-stroke which essentially begins as a forward draw stroke and sweeps into a forward stroke leaving the trail of an upside-down J to your front and then side. These paddling strokes are all used to do the same thing; control the direction and trajectory of your board. To that end a drop step stance is the next essential skill to learn in your progression.
A drop step or surfer stance has two primary functions. The first is the vast increase in speed of maneuverability. The ability to add weight to the rear of the board allows the board to essentially pivot at a much quicker rate. The second advantage of the drop step stance is the ability to adjust your weight on the vessel forwards and backwards. The paddler will find the first boon most beneficial as their ability to avoid obstacles and make essential maneuvers will increase drastically. When encountering larger water in your progression the ability to “punch” through features will increase by adding more weight to your front foot at the right moment. Also, when making drops and going through “holes” shifting your weight back allows for more successful landings. Both of these techniques are similar to a surfer adding weight to their front foot for speed or rear foot to slow down.
To practice the drop step first try on calmer water. Take a few paddle strokes in a normal stance to gain a little momentum. Take a breath and drop your rear foot back just a few feet. The stance does not need to be aggressively wide, especially to get started to reap the benefits. You can also “cheat” a little by keeping your feet apart on the left and right side of the board respectively to maintain side to side stability. Begin paddling on one side utilizing a J stroke if can. Take your time to see how your weight shifts through your stroke on each side. From here practice, practice, practice, and practice on both sides. The ability to ride either regular or goofy is a huge benefit to the advanced downriver SUP paddler that crosses over to every other aspect of SUP as well.
A brace is another technique somewhat unique to downriver paddling because the movement created by the flowing water allows the brace to be effective for extended periods of time. In some instances, a paddler can navigate an entire run with 90%+ of bracing and minimal actual paddle strokes utilizing a feathering technique of the brace. This technique mostly keeps the blade at 90 degrees to your forward gaze at the side, bringing the blade forward and back a few feet and changing the angle of the blade 20 to 40 degrees on each side.
The most important river reading skill to remember is to NOT LOOK AT HAZARDS. In any sport, but especially when navigating downriver, your body follows your eyes. If you stare at something you want to avoid you will run right into it. Look where the route is clear and that’s where you will steer.
When approaching a feature such as a wave train, stay in the main “flow” of the water with a slight dropped stance, knees bent, and eyes up looking ahead. Keep your paddle in the water for stability and enjoy the ride. Lean forward at the time of impact with the feature and then be ready to balance your weight back. When going into a feature such as a hole at the point of impact shift your weight back and then quickly forward to maintain momentum.
In class III+ rivers swimming is not uncommon. When you fall off your board try to get to it as fast as possible. If you can swim to it, swim to it. If you are in bigger water and away from your board, lay on your back with your feet up in front of you utilizing your hands to try and steer until you can swim to your board. Whitewater paddling is a team effort and everyone in your group with the ability, will usually come to your aid and help you recover your gear.
While you’re out on the river in class II and up keep an eye out for standing waves. These can be accessed by paddling in, facing up river on the side from an eddy. Like surfing a real wave, a dropped stance is essential and sudden weight shifts forwards and back to adjust accordingly are required. Stay safe, go in a group, and enjoy!
SUP Whitewater Questions
- Downriver SUP is?
- Paddling through a city
- Standup Paddling down a moving channeled body of water
- Very fun
- Paddling on a lake when its windy
- Choices b & c
- The distinction between downriver SUP and whitewater SUP starts between?
- Class I and II
- Class II and III
- Class III and IV
- Class IV and V
- None of the above
- The skills required for downriver SUP are?
- The ability to read upcoming water conditions
- How to move your vessel intentionally within moving water
- The awareness of various hazards as you move through time and space down the river
- How to properly swim in whitewater and recover your board
- All of the above
- Which are benefits of downriver SUP?
- Added boost of speed from the current
- Increased amount of scenery from distance cover