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Back-paddling in rapids or around a bend

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Has anyone else had experience staying away from the outside of a river bend by back-paddling? You point the bow into the bend, back-paddle and let the river current turn you away from the log jam on the outside of the curve.

I was taught this a long time ago and has resurrected the idea in pondering whether or not to take a river that might require a lot of this.

Next week I’m headed out onto the Peace River and will practice some.

I also vaguely remember being taught to paddle through a rapids back-paddling much of the time.

Yellowcanoe and PaddlingPitt made some comments on another thread. I thought I might see if others wanted to chime in.
 
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Canoes, like bullets and airplanes, don't necessarily go where their noses are pointed. A canoe traveling downstream at exactly the same velocity as the water it is in will follow a path dictated by its center of gravity regardless of where the bow or stern is pointed. So in order to maneuver in any direction apart from simply straight downstream with the current, the canoe must be going either faster or slower than the current, or it must have some degree of transverse momentum toward one bank or the other.

With long canoes with little rocker, especially with a load, it is often easier to maneuver to avoid obstacles by going slower than the current velocity by back paddling. The technique you describe was once commonly used by whitewater paddlers and is called "setting", in this case setting around a bend. You can also use a back ferry, which is more or less the same thing but not necessarily limited to paddling around a bend, and you can also "set" into an eddy by back paddling across the eddy line into slack water.

These techniques work great but require some practice, IME. One problem that arises is that many people paddle canoes that are trimmed way too bow light. When back paddling a canoe that is bow light, the heavy end, in this case the stern, tends to get swept downstream leaving the light end behind. That creates a real problem because now you are going downstream backward and usually out of control. Another obvious problem is that you often can't see exactly the direction the stern is heading toward and you sort of have to think in reverse when setting an edge to cross eddy lines. Because you are facing forward it can be difficult to maintain precisely the correct ferry angle on a back ferry.

With tandem canoes another issue is that it is the downstream paddler that needs to set and maintain the ferry angle. On a back ferry that is the bow paddler. That is because steering strokes placed in the down stream "eddy resistance" end of the canoe (when back paddling) are much more effective than steering strokes placed in the "frontal resistance" upstream end of the canoe. In some cases the bow paddler might be the less experienced member of a tandem team and might have difficulty maintaining the proper ferry angle especially when needing to look backwards over their shoulder.

Most whitewater canoeists these days are paddling short, highly rockered designs that spin very readily. Many obstacles can be avoided with a quick S turn maneuver where a pair of nearly 90 degree turns in opposite directions are made in very quick succession rather than a ferry. Where a ferry is called for, it is usually very quick to spin the boat upstream and execute a more intuitive forward or upstream ferry. So "setting" and back ferries have to some extent become obsolete in recreational whitewater play boating. But they still have relevance for long tripping canoes that turn and spin much more slowly.

My experience has been that properly executing back ferries is more difficult for many people in practice than it sounds in principle. I have seen a lot of people have their back ferries "stall out" as a result of insufficient ferry angle and I have seen many more have the stern of their boat blown downstream as a result of too much angle and not being able or knowing how to reset the angle. My suggestion would be to practice these maneuvers in safe areas before relying on them in a tight spot.
 
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We had a delightful experience practicing backferrying on the Snake River in the Yukon. We had 10 people and an audience up high in the grandstands of about two dozen Dall Sheep. The sheep stood still watching class and the inevitable errors.. We found that with loaded boats the best we could do was try to lighten the stern by having the bow and stern paddlers kneel and the bow assisting with the correct angle ( and adjusting) with reverse J strokes from the bow.

When class was over the sheep left first.
 
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pblanc, your explanation is waking up my memory on this. Especially this (bolding mine):

to maneuver in any direction apart from simply straight downstream with the current, the canoe must be going either faster or slower than the current,


This was such an eye-opener to me when I first started paddling as an adult. I did practice it with my tandem partner of the time. We got pretty good at back ferries and "setting." That latter word does not ring a bell, but it is good to know the correct language.

As I recall, the implementation of the back ferry became more difficult the faster the current.
 
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Here is how Dave Harrison, former editor-in-chief of Canoe magazine, described the technique in his 1981 book "Canoeing: Skills for the Serious Paddler":

"As you have learned from the little rivers, the current is fastest toward the outside of a bend. Often this is where the sweepers lodge, reaching far out into the water and representing an obstacle, - indeed a danger - to the canoer. By positioning yourself well before you get into the turn, and letting the current work for you, you can negotiate the big bends easily. The specific technique is known as the "back ferry," or setting around a bend.

In the back ferry, the canoe doesn't make its turn until well into the bend, since you hold the canoe in a position relative to the direction of the current rather than to the shore. By putting your canoe into reverse, back paddling, you can keep to the inside of the bend until you are much of the way through; the naturally faster current coming from the outside of the bend gives the bow of the canoe a shove in the right direction. This is a maneuver that can only be learned on the water, and the speed of the current and configuration of the river will dictate your angle of attack and the force of your back paddle."

I'm not certain where the term "setting" came from but I have read that it is because you "set" the stern of your canoe into the slower water or slack water or into an eddy.

But back ferries do not apply solely to maneuvering around a bend or into an eddy. Back ferries can be done in uniformly fast downstream current in order to move the canoe laterally toward one side of the river or the other while slowing downstream momentum and keeping the bow pointed in a downstream direction.
 
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I was unfamiliar with the term setting, but I do love back ferries. If the current isn’t overwhelming, a backferry allows paddlers to work side to side in the current while looking over the situation ahead. Recently, the ferrying has been above timber jams, looking for an opening to pass through or a spot to drag over. In whitewater, the ferrying usually took place above ledges, while deciding on which slot to go through.

Pete, loved your well-written response. No transverse momentum in that explanation.
 
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I used to practice back ferries so much that my wife wanted to kill me, but I never did them solo. I'm throwing this idea out there and if it's a bad one someone please jump in. I thought you could do an eddy turn in the slow water at the head of the eddy on the inside of the bend. Once you are facing upstream you can forward ferry keeping your bow close to the shore on the inside of the bend then peel out at the bottom.
 
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I used to practice back ferries so much that my wife wanted to kill me, but I never did them solo. I'm throwing this idea out there and if it's a bad one someone please jump in. I thought you could do an eddy turn in the slow water at the head of the eddy on the inside of the bend. Once you are facing upstream you can forward ferry keeping your bow close to the shore on the inside of the bend then peel out at the bottom.
I am not understanding that. The eddy line is strongest at the head for sure and weaker at the bottom but in the eddy the momentum ( current) is going upstream.. You would need IMO to backpaddle to exit at the bottom. Maybe I am misunderstanding.
 
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I used to practice back ferries so much that my wife wanted to kill me, but I never did them solo. I'm throwing this idea out there and if it's a bad one someone please jump in. I thought you could do an eddy turn in the slow water at the head of the eddy on the inside of the bend. Once you are facing upstream you can forward ferry keeping your bow close to the shore on the inside of the bend then peel out at the bottom.
A lot of times there is an eddy at the inside of a river bend or an eddy just past the apex of the bend. If that is what you are describing, sure it is fine to eddy out at that spot and later exit the eddy and turn downstream. By eddying out you have killed all downstream momentum and can look over the obstacle at the outside of the bend very carefully, as well as what is immediately downstream of it. I do that often and usually prefer it to a back ferry around the bend if such an eddy exists. If you are leading a group, it is good to catch an eddy like that as it leaves you in a position to help anyone who doesn't negotiate the bend cleanly.
 
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Although some people comment on the rapidity of my travel through rapids I actually do a lot of back paddling when I'm running a large rapid with no previous experience and little or no information about what might be around the bend.

That said I often aim for the outside of the bend because the rate of decent on the outside is lower that on the inside which is often where the ledges are. Being on the outside also offer greater downstream visibility which can be critical when paddling into the unknown.

There are several places on the Lower George River (QC) that are rated as Class 4/5 but can easily be run on the outside bend where the rating would be more like Class 2.

On the other hand, when lining, the inside of the bend is likely to be shorter and the water moving slower so less risk of your boat getting swept away or floating out into the main current.

Logjams add a new complexity that could reverse standard practice.....no two rapids are the same and even the best route on a single rapid could change due to water levels.
 

Glenn MacGrady

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Here is a technical article on back ferrying (setting) both solo and tandem canoes by Paul Mason, son of Bill and a whitewater expert, and Beth Kennedy. The article includes the video on tandem back ferrying with Paul and Mark Scriver, another whitewater expert, demonstrating the maneuver and describing the different types of back strokes used, which I posted in the Your canoe trip plans, hopes, dreams for 2022 thread.


Most experienced whitewater paddlers today, whether solo or tandem, would probably stay close to the inside of the turn (if that's what they want to do) by accelerating the canoe toward the inside of the bend at the proper angle to the current and at the proper time, which can only be learned by experience, and then perhaps eddying out in the bank eddy just beyond the bend, an option that has been discussed.

 
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I am not understanding that. The eddy line is strongest at the head for sure and weaker at the bottom but in the eddy the momentum ( current) is going upstream.. You would need IMO to backpaddle to exit at the bottom. Maybe I am misunderstanding.
Ok, maybe I'm a little confused here. Let's say there is no eddy, just slower water on the inside of the bend. Stick your bow in the slow water and the faster water will take the stern downstream. Now just do a front ferry until the end of the bend. Probably only a good idea if the current isn't more powerful than you can handle. You can also wait until you set yourself into the slower water to do it. But then there probably is no point in doing it then.
 
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"setting" must be a regional term, because around here it means picking the optimal angle at which to back ( or forward) ferry and holding that angle (or rate of turn) until the ferry is complete.
 
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I think "setting" is an old term used to pick an angle and let the current do the work.. From the old lumber drive days where men stood on logs or in a bateau on the river. No ferrying. Canoe poles are sometimes termed setting poles.

As far as planting bow into slower water on the inside I have done that and wound up going downstream sideways.. Not to my liking..
 
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If your bow crosses the eddy line on the inside of the bend you will turn sideways. The trick is to keep the canoe in the slower water that still flows downstream. It’s a useful technique for avoiding sweepers that usually sit on the outside of the bend. It also allows you to make a safe landing should whatever is around the bend prove to be unsafe to run.
we learned to paddle with the BCU and I think most of their old canoe syllabus was based upon the Bill Mason “Path of the Paddle” videos. If you can get past the wonderfully hokey Canadiana (that I personally love) these videos are still a great resource for “traditional” canoe paddling Including the use of the back ferry.
 
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Here is a technical article on back ferrying (setting) both solo and tandem canoes by Paul Mason, son of Bill and a whitewater expert, and Beth Kennedy. The article includes the video on tandem back ferrying with Paul and Mark Scriver, another whitewater expert, demonstrating the maneuver and describing the different types of back strokes used, which I posted in the Your canoe trip plans, hopes, dreams for 2022 thread.


Most experienced whitewater paddlers today, whether solo or tandem, would probably stay close to the inside of the turn (if that's what they want to do) by accelerating the canoe toward the inside of the bend at the proper angle to the current and at the proper time, which can only be learned by experience, and then perhaps eddying out in the bank eddy just beyond the bend, an option that has been discussed.

The Mason, Westwood, Scriver article was quite good covering most of the important points. One such point briefly mentioned is that if your canoe has downstream momentum (relative to the water) you first need to scrub off all that downstream momentum and start to generate some upstream momentum (relative to the water) before your back ferry will have any effect in terms of moving the canoe laterally. In stronger current your boat will still be going downstream (relative to the river bottom and banks) even after you have some upstream momentum (again, relative to the water) so it can be a bit hard to determine when you have achieved this.

I was surprised to see Paul Mason list "static back draw" and "static cross draw" as major correction strokes especially since the video showed him using active draw strokes. I would consider static draw strokes to be poor choices for correcting a back ferry angle at least in anything more than moderate current. In stronger current it is very easy to lose the ferry angle very quickly with the stern of the boat swinging downstream. When this happens the stern paddler can do little to correct the problem and an unhappy spiral begins. First the boat has already developed some rotational momentum and before the correct angle can be regained this rotational momentum needs to be stopped and then reversed. Second, as the stern swings downstream and the ferry angle opens, more and more of the broadside of the canoe is presented to the current which tends to accelerate the problem. In this case the bow paddler needs to react very quickly and positively and an active lateral draw or cross draw, or perhaps a sculling draw or cross draw should be done to regain the ferry angle as quickly as possible.
 
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I use this technique all the time. It is just another useful tool in your quiver of strokes. I regulary encounter strainers on the outside bend. Sometimes I will set via backstroking and make my way around the bend as so adeptly described in this post. Sometimes I will float with the current, with the bow downstream but angled away from the outside of the bend, and just power away when needed. Sometimes I paddle like a madman to stay well away from it all! It all depends on the precise nature of the river/bend/obstacle/current/boat/paddlers, etc ...

Get good at it an use when it is called for.

Monel
 
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