Jeremy isn’t afraid to try new things, as demonstrated by his ingenious pack scooter invention. He’s applied his outside-the-box thinking to come up with a way to train for whitewater packrafting adventures when you don’t live near a consistent river — by using the surf — and basically invented a new sport. Genius!
We Heart Packrafts
Packrafts are of course wonderful little things. Crossing a lake with a swathe of gear and travel companions, no problem! On the opposite side, pack them into your bag and off you go. Navigate around some icebergs or into a tropical lagoon, smiles abound. Flat water packrafting is a great sport and has an incredibly fast learning curve with relatively few risks.
Adding whitewater to the equation brings a massive boost in fun but also risk. Thankfully a bunch of excellent resources now exist to guide budding whitewater packrafters (see the end for some ideas) however they often make statements like, “Go to your local grade 2 river with some friends and practice ferry gliding”.
For most Australians there is no local grade 2 (or 3,4 or 5 for that matter) anywhere nearby (Tasmanians and Nth Queenslanders are spoilt). Whitewater packrafting in most of Australia is opportunistic, driven by sporadic rainfall and can be a pretty dire experience when attempted at low water levels. So becoming a proficient paddler without a regular river requires some creativity.
Packrafting At The Beach
That’s where the surf comes in. Training for whitewater in oceans has some clear advantages over rivers. These include:
- Sandy bottoms, which equal safe wipeouts
- Warmer water than most rivers
- Reliable waves, which equal whitewater — woohoo!
- A range of breaks and bays that offer different waves and experiences
- Simple logistics (no car shuttles required)
They do however have a couple of dangers not found in rivers including:
- Unpredictable longshore currents and rips
- Sudden changes in swell height and wind direction/intensity (packrafts are easily blown away)
- Territorial/aggressive surfers
- Sharks — though realistically your chance of getting attacked are very low
Before starting to train in the ocean, make sure you are familiar with all of these hazards, you are a strong swimmer in the surf, know the rules of surfing (don’t drop in!!) and constantly reassess the conditions. A good place to start is Googling “How to surf”.
Level 1 Training — Flat Water
Find yourself an inlet, bay or lake (harbour beaches are great for this), inflate your raft and let the fun begin.
Basic strokes will get you through your first whitewater runs and form the backbone of your future paddling career. Always start by warming up and cooling down with a good number of back and forward paddle strokes. Extra points for getting a buddy to video your efforts and then comparing your style to that of the pros.
Sculling is the art of continuously moving your paddle through the water for some aim. I find it serves as a really great drill to build paddle dexterity and balance.
- After mastering draw strokes, try sculling to move your boat around obstacles, which goes a great way to increasing paddle dexterity. Once you have mastered this, pick a boulder and scull your way around its perimeter as closely as possible (without touching it) with only one paddle blade allowed in the water until you make it all the way around.
- With thigh straps installed, tip your boat to either side while balancing on the upward force of your feathering strokes — much like treading water, but using your paddle rather than your legs. Continue to overbalance as far as possible to increase strength, balance and dexterity.
Self Rescue And Re-entry
Self rescue and re-entry are what will save you from river nasties and are a crucial and often under-practiced packrafting skill. It’s basically about getting back into your boat as fast and safely as possible.
- Jump (or flop) out of your boat into the water, collect your paddle and go about trying to re enter the boat. I suggest, first grabbing onto the thigh straps or bow line and then putting in a big breast stroke like kick while pulling yourself up madly.
- After you have mastered this, have a try in some (very) small surf and if you plan to use a dry suit or carry heavy loads be sure to practice with these too. You should also note that PFD’s vary widely and some pose a challenge for re-entry so make sure you practice in the vest you plan to use on your upcoming trips.
- Fresh water is less buoyant than sea water, so it will be harder to self rescue in the river. Be sure to plan this into your training.
- The first times you practice this technique, have a reliable friend with you, or practice in a place that you can easily swim back to shallow water from.
- Finally and most importantly, be sure only to self rescue in a river when you are certain there are no foot entrapment hazards below you.
Once the domain of hard shell kayaks, rolling is becoming increasingly common (and easy) in packrafts with the use of thigh straps. Even if you never intend to roll in whitewater, rolling also increases your bracing skills and core strength. I can roll both an old school Alpacka raft and a kayak reliably, but funnily enough, have more trouble rolling in the newer packrafts. The instructions below therefore relate to rolling an older model Alpacka — not a new self bailer that requires something more akin to a kayaking roll.
- Rolling your boat over in the first place can be difficult — I usually lean off the tube I am tipping over to compress it and allow it to pitch into the water more easily.
- Most of the power needed to roll comes from twisting your core rather than the power of your arms. There is however a difference between the rolls of a kayak and my packraft; in a kayak you will start the roll first and then use your paddle to finish it off, while you need to start the packraft roll with your paddle to break the surface tension against the water before finishing it off with a hip flick.
- When setting up the roll, I place the paddle slightly askew from a parallel position against the boat.
- Another technique I have recently been having good success with is to push down hard against the floor with the foot closest to the paddle as you start the roll. Not sure why it works, but it definitely helps.
Level 2 Training – Surf
Here’s a video demonstrating all of the techniques explained below:
If you are unfamiliar with surfing or how beach waves form and break, start even smaller and watch lots of YouTube about it. You are looking for nice “fat” waves, usually found in deeper water, that break slowly and don’t throw out the nice barrels that surfers are looking for (hollow waves). Hitting the face of a breaking hollow wave will almost certainly result in a wipeout
Punching waves is particularly fun and helps build pretty much all of your paddling skills. The incredibly buoyant rafts excel at this job and with a bit of power, tend to jump right over the whitewash.
- When approaching waves, try to make sure they have either already broken or are some way off breaking — breaking waves will usually bandersnatch you (tip you backwards) in spectacular fashion. After selecting an appropriate wave, just paddle at it hard and then upon/after hitting it, reach beyond the whitewash with your paddle to provide another stroke/brace — also use this technique in whitewater.
- Try paddling in different parts of the aerated whitewater and non aerated greenwater to get a feel for how your paddle strokes are affected.
- For some more practice try loitering in the interface of broken and unbroken waves without getting wiped out. This sometimes stressful and sometimes fun activity will give you a good deal of paddle practice as you rush back and forth and side to side to avoid the breakers.
While packrafts excel at getting you through the waves out to the back, they aren’t so great at getting you back in. The relatively soft tubes tend to buckle, nose dive and/or push you sideways against the wave, so start small. Newer self bailers are much better but still a far cry from a fibreglass board or plastic kayak.
- Start by picking a wave that has already broken (whitewash), or a small breaking face and paddle hard in the same direction that it is going. When you are on the cusp of the wave, lean backwards and push your feet hard against the front tubes if you can.
- When the wave takes you, it will generally try and turn you sideways. Using low brace strokes, you can try and keep the boat straight, which is great practice for actual river waves.
- Bigger waves act much like holes, sending water rushing under the side of your boat at speed, while also pushing at the top of the tube on the other side of the boat. You will need to do the same thing in both scenarios — strong draw/paddle strokes beyond the whitewater.
Bracing through waves is one of the best ways to build strength and confidence in your bracing as it creates the real world scenario where forces come in unexpected and non-uniform directions.
- Just before being hit by whitewash or a steep wave face, keel the boat over such that you have to brace while being struck. Initially start doing this while facing the wave (easiest) and then progress to bracing at varying angles — I find hitting it backwards and at an angle to be the most precarious position.
Rolling In Waves
Same as above, but roll before being struck and also after wiping out when surfing.
Navigating Rips And Boulder Fields
This one can be dangerous, so unless you are a proficient boater and surfer I wouldn’t recommend it. If you are both and game for a try:
- As water from waves or rips drains across shallow rocks, they create obstacles akin to boulder fields and hence make great training for white water. The drawbacks however are numerous, including fast water height fluctuations, crashing waves and sharp barnacles. I have had some luck trying this at Bronte in big surf and there must be a bunch of potential on the Australian coastline, but again it is a pretty gnarly pursuit without enough reward to usually justify it.
A New Niche
As someone that used to surf in a past (and hopefully future) life, my favourite part of using a packraft in the waves is creating a new niche that avoids competition and conflict. Surfers, who throng on city beaches, are after big, breaking wave faces, of which there are always too few, meaning you have to know karate or be a local celebrity to secure a good session.
These same waves, however, quickly lead to destruction in a packraft. We are after the whitewash or unbroken swell. Having the ability to head out the back and practice also adds some distance between peak summer swimming crowds and some open water serenity.
More Whitewater Packrafting Resources
- Media Feliz 101 packrafting series covering an intro, strokes and river navigation
- Mark Oates’ must read Packrafting 101
- Luc Mehl’s classic Class IV Packrafting Guide
- And of course Roman Dial’s book that started it all!
Pack ‘n’ paddle…