Learning To Scout A River

One of the first memories I have of the concept of “picking a line” is from my first trip to Kerry. It was at the bridge above the put-in for the Flesk river. Looking down at that rapid, “the gates”, someone mentioned that it would be a good exercise for us to have a look at the water, and try to figure out the best path to take down the rapid. But how could I decide where to go? All the water went downstream one way or another, after all…


  1. Image taken from “Dream” by NRS

    Broadly speaking, the procedure of scouting a line on a rapid might be summarised as follows:

    • Break the rapid down into individual moves
    • Evaluate your chances of completing each move successfully
    • Memorise the sequence of required moves

    So what’s the problem? Well, while I do think a set of simple instructions such as these help, the first time you’re truly scouting something on your own, it can be a bit daunting! Let’s expand on these a bit.

    What is “one” move?

    I feel this often gets glossed over a little bit–what exactly is one move? A good start might be to consider each stroke of the paddle as distinct “moves” (for example, a bow rudder to get out of an eddy, or a boof to get over a drop). However, oftentimes, your momentum is in fact more important than that “make-or-break” stroke at the crux of the rapid. So–let us define a “move” as a combination of these two elements: a single stroke and your momentum going into/off the feature .

    Now, I’m not saying you need to calculate where you’re going to place every single stroke on 100 m long rapid. A more realistic approach might be to consider what momentum and type of stroke you want going into each of the main features of the rapid. And by features, I mean:

    • Holes & waves
    • Eddies, eddylines & boils
    • Drops & slides
    • Bends
    • Rocks
    • Trollies
    • Dead sheep etc.

    And now for some points to think about regarding your stroke at a particular feature:

    • What direction do you want to be pointing before/afterwards?
    • Which way should you edge (or lean)?
    • Is there a point where you should crunch/sit forward?


  1. Image taken from “Sindhu” by the Serrasolses Brothers

    Pick your own lines

    I’m framing most of these tips as questions because kayaking is complicated–you just can’t learn a single rule that covers every situation. Instead, it’s better to look at a rapid and think about it yourself. Ask yourself these questions while scouting a rapid and then put them to the test. If your line worked as planned–great–if not, you’ve learnt something new. It can literally never go wrong! ...Just kidding, obviously. If you try this technique on Murchison Falls, you probably won’t learn anything. You should only try this on a river you are comfortable with, where the potential consequences are acceptable. If you’re not sure what the consequences might be, try this under the supervision of an experienced kayak instructor.

    This trial and error method slowly builds a kind of database of experiences in your head that you can draw from in future scouting exercises. After a while, you no longer need to break down most rapids into as many moves. What might have been a stroke-by-stroke exercise in the past, can now be summarised into bigger chunks. One move might consist of three key strokes, for example. It also becomes more of a subconscious process–you might not explicitly think about those three strokes, you just know that you’ll be able to handle that feature when you get there. However, when you’re pushing your comfort zone, it can always help to fall back on the slower stroke-by-stroke approach.

    Keeping things moving here, let’s look at the next step in the process: momentum. Stay tuned to learn how you can start making the most of those sweet kilogram meters per second.

  1. One of the drops on the Egua, Italy. Aran, Sam and I ran this river together for the first time and it pretty much just consisted of horizon line after horizon line! We had to do so much scouting we were all exhausted (mostly mentally) afterwards. It was a challenging exercise reading so much whitewater but very rewarding. That being said, some locals flew past us at one stage and were probably lapping the river in 25 minutes, which is a blast too I’d say.


    Your momentum on the river can be split into two directions: downstream and lateral. Having good downstream momentum can help you to get through some rapids. Consider the following pointers to increase/preserve your downstream momentum:

    • If you’re starting the rapid from an eddy, can you break out high to join the middle of the river (i.e. the faster-flowing water)? Can you use a wave or a small hole to surf across?
    • Are there features such as holes, eddylines or rocks that you might want to avoid?
    • Do you have time to take a few smooth, powerful strokes at the start of the rapid?
    • If the water is moving very fast (such as on a slide), could a stern rudder help to keep you straight, to avoid spinning out?
    • Is it windy AF on the lip of the waterfall (this may only apply in Ireland)?

    1. Aasleagh Falls in high water and high winds. Photo by Barry Loughnane.

    So at first glance, downstream momentum seems pretty important. The faster you go down the river, the more likely you are to punch through that hole, right? Well, maybe. Most of the time though, you’ll have a better chance of success if you incorporate some lateral momentum into your movement. Take a look at the diagram below–which has a better chance of success (left or right)? Assuming that the paddler in both scenarios is driving the boat forward, the situation on the left is often preferable. With a slight angle of approach, there is a good chance that most of the boil can be avoided. The paddler can boof straight into the eddy, or aim for the eddy and quickly rejoin the main flow once the hole has been cleared. The options for the paddler on the right are more limited - they can only hope to either plug (go through) or boof (go over) the hole. The caveat here is that you can’t have too much angle either, or you might end up in a side-surf!

    1. Approaching a hole: moving with lateral momentum (left) vs. moving with only downstream momentum (right).

    The Zig-Zag

    So it seems that moving through features diagonally is a good rule of thumb. What happens then, if you have two features in a row? Well, if you move from left to right at the start, as in the diagram above, you’ll be on the right side of the river at the end of the first feature. This sets you up to move from right to left through the second feature. As you can imagine, this results in a kind of zig-zag movement downstream. You can probably see how your line on the first feature has locked you in to a certain move further downstream. For this reason, it can often be beneficial to scout a rapid from the bottom up. It’s usually easier to decide where you want to end up and work backwards, one feature at a time, from there.

    1. A possible line on the first gorge of the Flesk at juicy flows.

    And in my mind...

    So what else is going on in my head at this point? Once I’m confident I can make the line I’ve picked out, I start to memorise the moves. This sounds easy but can catch you out if you’re not careful. Take a close look at each feature. Ask yourself:

    • Will I recognise that from my kayak? What makes it distinguishable from the rest of the water?
    • Will the view be obscured by a horizon line at any point? If so, is there a small rock, breaking wave or tree that I can use as a marker to line me up?
    • If I look away from the rapid, can I visualise the whole run without glancing back?
    • Can I imagine running the whole rapid successfully?
    • Is that feature bigger than it seems because it’s actually 30 m away?

  1. Small, or far away?


    Well that was a lot longer than I thought it would be...I hope this wasn’t too much of a ramble. When I started writing this, my intention was to write something bite-sized, that most people could take away and try out the next time they’re on the river. When I got down to it though, I realised that explaining the process of reading whitewater is surprisingly hard to put into words, and even harder to condense succinctly. My hope is that you’ll take something away from this, but I welcome different perspectives on the subject. Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below! How has your process of scouting whitewater developed?

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