Lesson 1: How to Punch Big Waves and Holes
Let’s say that you are trying to back ferry your raft over to the side to miss a threatening mountain of water. At what point do you call it and straighten out to punch the monster? Early, that's when. The sooner you decide that you’re going for the gusto, the better your chances are of making it through. Eastern boaters are all about maneuvering. Western rivers are all about going for the MEAT.
If you’re doing a backferry as it is known in the East, you’re pulling against the current. When you backferry, you’re moving downstream slower than the water. If you hit a huge wave while backferrying a raft, you’ve got a good start at “catching the wave” meaning surfing it. Which is NOT what you want to do in a 3,000 pound gear barge. Getting surfed by a big wave is a recipe for inversion. Even if you get the boat straight, you still have backward (upstream) momentum. A wave can slide you upstream, turn the boat sideways, and over you go. You can’t change the momentum of 3,000 pounds in one stroke, so it pays to look ahead and execute a plan that doesn’t require momentum changes.
Instead of trying to backferry around waves, consider the possibility of busting through them going forward. It’s fun! In a very large heavy raft, you might be able to float right through—if you’re going as fast as the current. As you approach a wave train, keep a regular push stroke going on the oars, to keep the boat moving downstream at least as fast as the water. When you’re about to hit a big one, the very most important thing is angle. If it’s breaking at you from the right, torque your boat head on into it. Waves change their shapes and angles a lot in Big Water, so be ready to adjust your angle before you hit each wave.
Let’s say your boat is straight, and you’re moving downstream into a really big breaking wave. You have a little time while you’re going down the back side of the last wave. While you’re on that downslope, plant both of you oar blades and lean forward, pushing the handles forward with all your might. This will accelerate your boat into the big one. Keep those blades in the water and pushing as you begin to come up the face of the big one. Then when you get to where all the choppy white water crashes around, push your oar handles DOWN so that the blades come out of the water. Push the handles all the way to the frame or boxes that are in front of your knees, and put your weight downward onto them. You are stabilizing yourself for that turbulent moment at the top of the wave, and you are getting your oars out of the water so that the river can’t take them away. Hopefully your passengers are on the HIGHSIDE at this exact moment (more on this later). As soon as your boat slides off the top of the wave, you can sit back up and start setting your angle and pushing into the next wave.
Corollary 1 to Lesson 1: Spinning Using Oars
The problem with switching from paddling a canoe/kayak to rowing with oars is that oar strokes are backwards from normal, due to the fact that you are using a fulcrum (the oarlock or pin). You pull to push and push to pull. Usually novice rowers can figure out how to turn the raft with a back stroke on one side, but the most efficient turn is done using both oars, one in a pulling direction and the other in a pushing direction. If you use just one oar when trying to turn, the boat might start tracking in that direction instead of turning. And that could be Bad News. So to turn a gear barge, use both oars. It's OK to alternate your oars, pulling on one and then pushing on the other in turn, but the most efficient pivot will occur when you apply both at the same time.
To get used to using both oars, I recommend doing a simple exercise every morning when you first get into the boat. First, practice spinning in one direction, rowing backward on one side and forward on the other. Then stop that turning momentum and spin the other way. Do at least one spin in each direction each morning, and practice changing from one spin to the other. These are exactly the same strokes you use when floating down a huge wave train and trying to keep the boat straight, while waves keep tossing it this way and that.
Corollary 2 to Lesson 1: Spinning can Keep You From Pinning
If you are unable to avoid a collision with a rock or the bank, you can reduce your odds of getting stuck by hitting the object head on, instead of sideways, and by getting your boat spinning before you make contact. When you hit an object head on, your raft will bounce away from it better than if you hit it sideways. And if your raft already has spinning momentum, it will continue to pivot and be less likely to pin. Your ability to control your boat's angle and spin comes in handy for running rapids right, and for bailing yourself out when things don't go as planned.
Lesson 2: What (the heck) is a “Downstream Ferry”?
You’ll hear about these from the Western boatmen. This is the recommended method for running House Rock (the first flipper) and Crystal, and a few others with monster holes so mean that you really don’t want to go there.
A downstream ferry is not a ferry at all. It is an stern-first drive with a downstream angle. You go backwards because in rowing your pull stroke is stronger than your push stroke. You go at the same angle that you would take if you were trying to catch an eddy, perpendicular to the laterals that bounce off the shore. Look back over your downstream shoulder during the recovery part of each stroke so that you can adjust your angle and timing appropriately.
The glory of the downstream ferry is that the boat is perpendicular to the laterals. In a traditional “upstream” ferry you are not only rowing against a really fast & powerful current, but you are also broadside to the laterals. The laterals can and will surf you right back out to the middle of the flow, which is why regular "upstream" ferries don’t work for getting out of the main flow in Big Water.
Doing downstream ferries, your boat will want to spin out. As you row out of the main current, your stern is in slower water, and your bow will try to swing around downstream. If you still need to get farther to the side, you must counteract this tendency of the boat to turn. Do it by pulling extra hard on the upstream oar---to keep the stern going downstream. Sometimes I’ll even just tuck the downstream oar handle under my knee* and put both hands on the handle of the upstream oar, giving it all I’ve got.
If you give it all you've got and your bow still spins downstream, cut your losses and go for plan B. You have no choice but to let the boat rotate, and it's better to spin around quickly than hold it at a bad angle too long. Call a lost angle early, rotate the boat less than 180 degrees and begin pushing in the same direction that you started pulling. Knowing that the boat wants to spin in this direction, your big work will be in stopping the spin at the right angle. This is definitely plan B, but sometimes you’ll end up on plan X, so B isn’t so bad. Plan C would be a full rotation to continue pulling, instead of switching to pushing. This is a strong option and can be plan B in some situations.
How do you know when your angle has slipped too far? You'll start feeling that the main current is sucking you back in. The reason it does this is if you are doing a down stream ferry and loose your angle, the laterals slapping the side of your boat starts surfing you back into the wave train. Those laterals are a highway to the middle. If you can't punch them going backward, punch them going forward, but don't stay sideways to them for long.
Lesson 3: The Downstream Oar Can Hurt You*
This one is best to understand intellectually rather than learning from experience. If you happen to be rowing across a shallow section with your boat angled to the current, be very mindful of your downstream oar. Take short shallow strokes on the downstream side, only if you really need to. Use your upstream oar as much as possible when you’re floating sideways. If your downstream oar contacts a rock, the oar can come at you like a very big, very heavy SPEAR. This happens because you and your raft are moving downstream, and when the downstream oar hits a rock it stops suddenly. The relative motion of oar to raft is that of attack. Beware!!
Lesson 4: Good Highsiders Can Save The Day
The highside is something that passengers MUST do to prevent flips. The boatmen stay on the oars, and all the other people on the boat are the highsiders. Highsiding can keep the whole thing right side up! Passengers should understand the concept and the action, and execute it whether or not someone is yelling at them to do it. Being warmly dressed helps passengers be willing to highside, so keep them warm.
The basic idea is for everyone who is not rowing to “EAT WATER”. If you see the boat heading for a large wave or hole, get READY. Find a place on the part of the boat that will hit the wave first. If the boat will hit it straight, go for the bow. If the boat is angled, find your handhold on the corner that will hit it first. Shove your body onto the edge of the boat and HANG ON. The highsider’s job is to weight down the part of the raft that the river wants to throw up and over. It doesn’t count to stand on the floor of the raft and pull up on the rope on the tube, you have to push DOWN on the tube. At the moment when the boat hits the big wave, all your body weight should already be on that edge of the raft. Stuff your head into the oncoming whitewater. Blow bubbles. You have to hang on because you are engulfed. You are eating water. This is what it is all about.
In that moment, you may only be able to think about counteracting this ONE wave. But the truth is that there may be another even bigger wave behind that one. And if the raft is spinning out of control, the next high side might need to be on the OTHER side of the raft. So a good highsider is always looking ahead for the NEXT wave and getting ready to prevent the NEXT possible flip.
The same principle applies in a ducky: if you’re not perfectly straight when hitting a wave, or something folds on you unexpectedly from the side, rest your weight on the side tube that is toward the wave until you pass the peak. You will flip less if you do this.
“Upright is Alright!”
Corollary to Lesson 4: Rig Bow Heavy for Big Rapids
If you don't have enough bodies on board to high side you to success, then put the heaviest stuff you've got the farthest forward in your rig, and as low as possible relative to the floor. You don't really want heavy stuff resting ON a self bailing floor because it messes up the boat's tracking, but you do want the boat to have even or slightly bow-heavy trim. I personally have been saved from flipping in Lava by 300+ lbs of rocks in my front hatch.
Lesson 5: Miles are Made in the Current
The thing about big rivers like the Colorado is that only a little bit of the river is going downstream in between rapids. The rest of it is circling endlessly upstream in eddies. At the bottom of the rapid, the current narrows to a single band with boils and funny water on either side. Your goal is to keep the boat in the water that is going downstream, and keep the boat's momentum moving downstream. When you mess up and get caught in an eddy, it can be a lot of work to get back into the current with downstream momentum. And as a rookie, you will do this more than once. After you learn how much labor is involved in accidentally catching eddies, you will get very serious about staying in the current. There are plenty more lessons on exactly how to do this, but as veteran river runners, you will figure it out.