Loma Prieta Paddlers (LPP) is a whitewater kayaking club, based in the South Bay and beyond.  If you are new to kayaking, new to the area or are just  looking for a group of fellow paddlers; check us out.

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The Beginnning Paddler

Here at Loma Prieta Paddlers, the local Sierra Club whitewater activity section for Santa Clara and San Mateo Counties, we hope to be a great place for beginning paddlers to gain skills safely and learn to enjoy and play with the river.

To get a good start in kayaking, you might consider a combination of formal kayak instruction, pool sessions (with perhaps a rolling lesson or two), a flatwater paddling session and beginner river trips with Loma Prieta Paddlers. This material will fill you in a bit on each of these steps, along with guidance on equipment, trip etiquette, and local rivers, paddling skills and river safety.

One of the first questions is usually, "I want to learn how to kayak, so how do I sign up for a class?" That question is certainly in the right direction. Kayaking involves specific skills, and some risk, so it's best to start your kayaking life in some sheltered setting. Because of legal liability limitations, the club can't offer formal kayak instruction, so we generally recommend professional instruction to get started.

We hope that, after a bit of instruction, you'll join us for pool practice, flatwater paddling, and, of course, our river trips, discussed a bit later.

The What and Why of Kayak Schools

Most beginning paddlers do well to start their whitewater kayaking experience with formal instruction from a kayak school. Take at least one or two weekends of group instruction. If you can pull off a five-day class, you'll really get a great start! Most kayak schools teach beginners through advanced; some have classes just for women, or just for kids, or fast-track classes, and so forth.

Around here, you'll probably spend at least one day on relatively flat water, such as the Lower American River that runs through Sacramento. You may do that the second day also, or move on to the Coloma-to-Lotus segment of the South Fork of the American. Don't be too quick to demand that faster and more turbulent water. Flatwater is a great learning environment.

The folks who teach at these kayak schools do know more than your buddy about how to work with beginning boaters. They're certified instructors. They'll keep you safe, and teach you how to keep yourself safeand upright! Beginning kayak classes generally include use of kayak, paddle, helmet, sprayskirt, and life jacket. Sometimes you can arrange for wetsuit rental. Make inquiries when you ask about the classes.

Kayak Schools

Roll Practice

The Loma Prieta Paddlers sponsor a weekly kayak (and canoe) practice session at a large pool. We don't offer classes or a structured program. Rather, we get together, work on our strokes and rolls, and make contacts about boating trips.

Pool sessions are a great way to get in a kayak and paddle around the pool to try it out. It's also a safe place to concentrate on improving many aspects of boating without having to worry about current and rocks. The pool is a great, virtually essential, setting for learning to roll. It may also suit those who aren't interested in a structured program and want to acquire their expertise on a piecemeal basis. And paddling around the pool is great for folks who want to come to just work out.

The club can't offer formal roll instruction, but, as far as informal instruction is concerned, club members are usually available at the pool to provide help and guidance as best they can. If you want some input, just strike up a conversation with one of our outgoing or skilled members and see what develops.

What To Bring to Pool Practice

Yup, you need a boat in order to practice kayaking. Due to insurance liability restrictions the club no longer owns any kayaks. Some club members have been willing to bring a boat to the pool for a new boater to use during practice. Usually the way to pull this off is to show up at one of our meetings or the pool, introduce yourself and mention that you're looking to borrow a boat at pool practice. People will be able to see you, so they can judge whether they have a boat that will fit you, and they'll have more trust that you'll really show up at the pool if they go to the effort of lugging an extra boat along. Once you make such a connection, you may be able to borrow the same boat several times. (Personal experience does suggest, however, that learning to roll is much easier once you have your very own boat, so the boat really fits you. This is important.) For more details on boats, and other gear, see a later section. You'll also absolutely need a paddle, and some paddlers wear a life jacket (PFD) to give them the same flotation they'll have in the river. If you need these, please work out arrangements with the person from whom you borrow a boat. Again, size does matter somewhat.

The pool is outdoors and is somewhat heated, but no promises are made. For just paddling around, a few people find just a swimsuit is adequate in the warmest summer months. But for roll practice, warmer clothing such as wetsuits, a polypro shirt or sweater, and a nylon shell would be more comfortable. For best rolling results in the river, wear in the pool all the clothes and gear you'll use on the riverhelmet, PFD, etc.

After practice, rinse your neoprene gear and other stuff with non-chlorinated water (such as in the shower at the pool), so it lasts longer.

What to Work on At the Pool

There are many different techniques to teach people the fundamentals of kayaking.  First-time paddler should spend several pool sessions acquiring basic strokes before working on the roll, rather than pick up some bad habits on the first pool session.

Here are some strokes to practice

  • forward stroke moves the boat forward
  • back stroke moves the boat backward
  • draw moves the boat sideways
  • bow draw turns the boat
  • stern draw turns the boat
  • sweeps - forward turns the boat
  • reverse turns the boat
  • braces - high to brace using the power face, a pull
  • low to brace using the nonpower face, a push
  • sculls - horizontal for bracing
  • vertical pulls the boat sideways

Nobody expects you to work on all these strokes at your first session. Some of them you might not work with for a while. At least, reading this list, you may later recognize a term when someone shows you something, whether in a lesson, at the pool, or on the river. Here are some steps for getting ready to start the roll. Learn the bow rescue, so if you go upside down in your boat, you can use someone else's upright boat to help right yourself. This is taught in virtually every first-day kayak lesson. Pick up the basic paddling skills just listed. Work on bracing. Try to lift the edge of your boat as you brace. Work on sweeping on one side of your boat while lifting that edge of your boat. Start gently until you get the hang of it. Work on raising the edge of your boat by moving your lower body, known as a hip snap (though you don't do it with your hip and it isn't a snap! Work on the hip snap while holding on to the side of the pool, keeping your head along the lower edge of the tile. Don't lift it up.

Once you feel comfortable with such actions, the roll should be a snap. Now you'll need someone to work with you, holding on to your paddle as you practice, helping you get upright while you're working, and so forth.

The first few sessions of working on the roll should allow the newcomer the time to gradually acquire the coordination required to manipulate the paddle, the body, and the boat in doing the roll. Don't worry about getting it fast; get it right. Some folks have actually rolled up within a hour. Many, however, are just going through the motions, picking up some bad habits and a shaky roll. Don't rush it.

You'll start by learning to roll up on one side, called your "on side." Once that's really comfortable, some folks also learn to roll up on the other side, called the "off side." Most right-handed people find that their "on side" is their right side, because their right arm and/or hip action is stronger than their left. It doesn't matter; just pick one side and stick with it until it serves you well in the river.

If getting the roll right just involved reading a few secrets, we wouldn't need as much pool practice. After a few sessions at the pool, you'll intellectually know most of the secrets. The trick is getting your body to learn them. The favorite advice one exalted pool teacher once shared was hat there are only three things you really need to remember in order to roll upÖ unfortunately, when you're underwater, you can only remember one thing. The point is that muscle memory must take care of as much of rolling as possible, because you're rolling up with your body, not your mind. The keys to developing good muscle memory are working on good strokes in general, a good roll teacher or guide, and lots of practice.

Flatwater Paddling

One of the limitations of the pool is that you don't have much opportunity to do any straight-ahead paddling, especially when the pool is crowded. If at all possible, a new paddler should do at least one trip of flatwater paddling before getting on the river. It would be disconcerting to you and to a river-trip leader if you were going around in circles, expending energy, feeling frustrated trying to keep up with the rest of the group.

River kayaks are designed generally as slalom boats, meant to turn rather than track in a straight line. The boat wants to turnówhich is great if you want to avoid a rock or change your angle but not so great if you want the boat to track in a straight path across a stretch of water. Straight paddling is a matter of paddling technique. At first, you'll probably find yourself going around when you want to go straight, but after just one day on flatwater, you'll find that you've improved tremendously. Going straight
efficiently can take many, many paddling days to master. but just one day of flatwater should prepare you for your first river trip.

Places that Loma Prieta Paddlers has used for flatwater paddling include: Vasona Park, Lexington Reservoir, Foster City Lagoon, Shoreline Park, Del Valle, Stevens Creek, and Elkhorn Slough. Sometimes a paddle on the Class I Lower American River section that runs through Sacramento will also serve this purpose.


Getting the equipment and personal gear to do kayaking may seem like a somewhat daunting task, unless money is no object. Even if you have the money, you want to make sure you're getting what's right for you. The best way to do that (after reading this) is to ask lots of people.

Boat size matters a lot in kayaking. Beginners come in all shapes and sizes. Fortunately, so do kayaks. Having a boat that fits you really helps, especially when you're learning to brace and roll. Boat size doesn't refer to length. Each boat model is built to ride optimally in the water for people within a specific weight range. If the boat's too big for you, you won't be able to control it; if it's too small, you'll ride too low in the water, and be in danger of flipping over all the time or moving like a slug in the water. In this sport, when people ask, you're supposed to tell them your real weight. The right boat fits not only your body weight but your body shape. In order to roll and brace well, you should be in a boat in which your hips and your thighs (and maybe your knees) are in comfortably solid contact with the boat. When you move, the boat moves with you, without slack. In order to accomplish this, kayakers attach closed-cell foam (and other materials) to the kayak hip and thigh areas. In order to fit well, that padding is sized and shaped to the body of a specific paddler. Also, adjust the foot bracing system until your knees firmly contact the sides of the boat while the balls of your feet are firmly pressing on the foot bracing.

The best setup is having your own boat, sized for your dimensions and outfitted so you are nice and snug in the boat. The next best thing is to be in a boat that is sized as close to your size as possible. Each boat is outfitted differently. So, if you arrange to borrow or rent a boat, sit in the boat to see which fits best. If you're considering buying a boat, try to paddle it in the pool or some other water before buying it.  

The outfitting in new boats is becoming more and more adjustable.  With a quick tug on a strap, loosening a screw or two or moving a buckle these boats can be adjusted to fit a wide variety of paddlers.   If you need additional outfitting you can pay the store to outfit your boat. Alternately, the store, or club members, can give you advice on how to do it yourself. If you need to do your own outfitting you'll probably need:

  • some closed-cell foam (perhaps a package that includes blocks already set up for the hips and thighs)
  • duct tape(to tape the foam in temporarily while you ty it out; optional)
  • waterproof contact cement or hydroseal (a special 3M glue that permanently attaches the foam to your boat)
  • dragon skin (a special type of sandpaper) for shaping foam or roughing up the plastic before you apply the glue)
  • magic luck (in this case, the boat already fits you, so you can just start paddling)


If you're not sure whether kayaking's for you, or if you want to try out a few boats before buying one, you might try renting or demo'ing. When you rent a boat, you can also ask about renting other gear, from paddle to wetsuit. The closest place to rent whitewater boats to the south bay is California Canoe & Kayak in Oakland.  Demo'ing a boat from the river store on the south fork of the American is also another good option. 


Unlike cars or rafts, all new kayaks cost about the same. You can buy new or used boats from local retailers, online or many kayak schools sell off their demo fleet at the end of the season.

Used boats may be worth looking at, if you have limited funds. Look on the bulletin board at any of the stores just listed, especially the River Store. Also ask at our meeting, during our "buy and sell" segment. Avoid any boat that has been stored in the sun on a regular basis: ultraviolet weakens the plastic. If you're borrowing a boat, or especially if you're considering buying a used boat, check for any holes, cracks or suspicious tape. To find cracks, take the boat to a very sunny spot, stand it upright so the bottom of the boat is facing the sun. Stick your head inside the boat, and look way up and way down. If you see any little silver line, that's the sun, and the boat has a crack. Don't buy that boat! Most folks would say, don't even use it, but, with a lot of duct tape, it'd probably be OK for the pool.

Other Essential Boating Gear

Here's a description of the gear you absolutely have to show up with in order to paddle a river. PUT YOUR LAST NAME OR FULL NAME, WITH PHONE NUMBER, ON YOUR GEAR. (Funny, no one could figure out how to get that paddle back to "Bob.")

  • Float bags. Float bags are plastic bags placed in the bow and stern of the boat. You fill them with air in order to keep water from filling your boat if you swim. A boat full of water weighs over a quarter of a ton, which means neither you, nor anyone else in your group, will be able to get it to shore any time soon. So, as a beginner, be sure to have both rear and front float bags. Check for leaks. (Oh, and be sure to close the valve before you get in the boat.) Tie the rear bags to the loops in your boat.
  • Paddle. Paddles have gotten shorter in recent years; get one that's not too long if you have a choice. If you're buying a new paddle, get professional or expert advice on a good length for your height. Most kayak paddles are "feathered," meaning that the right-hand blade is offset 45 to 90 degrees from the left-hand blade. This reduces wind resistance, but some folks with wrist problems prefer "unfeathered" paddles. If this is you, look into it.
  • Spray skirt. This neoprene item keeps water out of the boat. Make sure it fits on you and on the boat. (Don't use a sea-kayak skirt for this. It isn't designed to keep out the amount of water that often splashes onto a kayak deck in a rapid.)
  • Helmet. Use a helmet specifically designed for kayaking. Your helmet should be snug but not tight. Helmets have liners in various sizes, so you can pick the liner that fits your head size. Because fit is so important, buy a helmet through a catalog only if you've tried on the exact model of the exact size you want. 
  • Life vest (PFD, or personal flotation device), Type III. It should fit snugly, not loose or chafing. Get fitting assistance from someone knowledgeable. A short waist usually works best for kayaking. PFDs with lots of rescue gear on it are great, once you have the boating skill and safety knowledge to go with them. They're a lot more expensive, so you might consider one if money is no object, or get one later, when your first PFD needs recycling. Meanwhile, you don't need a PFD with all those gizmos in order to be safely ready to paddle (you'll just drool for one of these later, too.) Try your new PFD in the pool, to make sure it doesn't come up over your mouth when you're floating with it on. (A wise river guy suggests not sitting on your PFD at lunch by the river, as this compresses the foam and reduces the vest's flotation.)

In order to transport your boat, or other boats during a shuttle, you will need a roof rack and some ropes or straps. Please use some ropes or straps, not some wimpy twine. It can get pretty windy on some highways. If you do not know how to tie knots that will stay snug under pressure, ask the place or person from whom you're buying your boat, or ask someone in the club. Sometimes it seems that each person in the club has his or her own way of securing boats to vehicles, so you may want to pay attention to several people's systems until you find what you like. Also, make sure you have enough ropes or straps to help shuttle other boats if needed. A pair of 12-foot straps will work for one boat. For two boats, you'll either need another pair, or some 15-foot straps if the boats will be up on edges. For a full rack-load of boats, you'll want a pair of 20-foot straps.

Don't forget some lengths of rope, such as climbing rope, to attach the bows and sterns of the boats to the vehicle as insurance. (Some folks don't do this much, except the ones who heard the story about the two sea-kayakers who were crossing the Golden Gate Bridge on a windy day and felt the entire rack-with both kayaks still attached-lift off their car and onto the highway.)

By the way, when you get a roof rack, you'll want to note that those cute kayak saddles are most useful for sea kayaks (which are much longer than river kayaks and need that support). So, skip them; they just get in your way when you want to stack boats for shuttles. Instead, if you want, you may eventually want to buy a pair of "stackers," upright bars that attach to the rack so you can carry lots of boats more easily. Don't worry about having these at first; other folks will have them.


The temperature of the rivers we run is typically 60 degrees or less; even in early summer, snowmelt may keep the water temperature below 45 degrees. So, proper clothing is a vital safety issue. A bathing suit is a good first layer. Then put on a long-sleeved wool or polypropelene sweater/shirt (or two). As your next layer, try to wear a wetsuit, such as a 1/8-inch farmer john. The farmer john is sleeveless; neoprene sleeves on other styles chafe paddlers. On top, wear a nylon paddling jacket or a coated shell or windbreaker.

Some folks skip the wetsuit and substitute a full top and bottom of expedition-weight polypropelene. In general, though, if you think you stand any chance of "swimming," wear that wetsuit, if at all possible. It will protect you better from the cold-and the rocks. The rule of thumb is, "Dress for the water temperature, not the air temperature." Hypothermia is a much bigger problem than heat stroke.

Don't forget your river shoes. Neoprene booties are the most popular footwear, but some folks swear by canvas tennies with wool socks. Few people can make river sandals fit comfortably into the boat (though they make great footwear for before and after the river trip.)
If you'll be paddling in winter or spring, when the water is colder, you'll want a few more items, but you can learn about them as you go.

River to run and places to paddle

So, where will these trips be? The bad news-you're probably going to have to drive. The good news-there are several beginner-level river runs accessible for a one-day trip from the Bay Area.

Beginner trips are generally on Class 2 water but may also be on Class 1, if we get sufficient interest from those interested in such outings. OK, but what does Class 2 mean? Here are some informal notes on what those river classifications mean specifically for kayakers:
  • Class 2 Beginner level skills usually adequate, moving water with waves, riffles, some small chutes and drops, some maneuvering involved. Roll not required. On these trips, beginners learn to catch eddies and do ferries.

    Class 3 Intermediate level skills, roll desired, bigger waves, drops,
    chutes, and reversals, faster water. Should be able to get in and out of eddies, able to ferry. Maneuvering required. Good self rescue skills.
  • Class 4 Advanced boater, 100% roll (even with a broken paddle), full repertoire of paddling skills. Risks involved in river swim and in negotiating difficult rapids.
  • Class 5 & 6 Beyond the context of this handout.

Rivers for Beginning Boaters

Here are the most common destinations for beginning boater trips in this area. (Please, though, don't just go off completely on your own. Run these with a club trip or with other skilled kayakers.) The runs are listed in order of generally increasing difficulty, with recommended flows for beginners.

  • South Fork of the American from Coloma to Henningsen-Lotus Country Park or for all the way to the Greenwood take out for a slightly more advanced run.  Beginning levels are below 2000 cfs.
  • Mokelumne River, Electra run, Hwy 49. Not as wide as the South Fork American, about half the flow, but more rocks to maneuver around and more eddies to play with. 3 miles, class 2. Site of the club's slalom clinics and races. Also good for first timers, with more maneuvering required. Flow level should not go much beyond 2000 cfs.
  • Cache Creek, Bear Creek to Boy Scout Camp - More difficult than the above two, more drops, shallow and rocky in spots, water quality not as good. 6 miles, class 2 with one 2+ rapid. A good run in late spring or early summer during irrigation release from Clear Lake. Not recommended for first timers. Flows should be 500-1000 cfs.
  • Merced River, Former site of Suspension Bridge to Briceberg, Class 2, 1000 cfs.

Other Class II runs

We don't do these runs quite as often, but be on the alert for them in our trip schedule.

  • Rancheria Creek. A long trip away from the road (so you have to be able to do the entire run); great scenery for experienced paddlers; not difficult rapids, but possible tree hazards from time to time, and a long day of paddling. Runnable only for the few days after a winter or early-spring storm.
  • Russian River below Squaw Rock. Brushy; OK below 1000 cfs; Class 3 at about 1800 cfs. Runnable only in winter and spring.
  • Shirttail Canyon, North Fork American. Class 2, spring runoff; just a bit tougher than Coloma to Lotus; beautiful water.
  • Merced River, Yosemite Valley. Class 1, often done as a May trip.

Graduating to Class 3 Rivers

Once you've mastered the Class 2 runs, you might want to consider Class 3 rivers on which the club often schedules trips. When you think you're ready to "graduate" to Class 3, you could just jump in and do it, but there's something special about arranging with a leader of a Class 3 trip to make that specific trip your first Class 3 trip. The leader will then be ready to give you some extra tips about that run as you go, probably alerting other strong boaters in the group to your status. Everyone's very
supportive, and, at the end of the day, you feel like a million dollars.

Also, leaders and participants in Class 3 trips often expect to surf and eddy-hop down the river, so they'd like to minimize taking along folks who are more likely to swim down the river. They'd like to save their rescue skills primarily for helping beginners on their Class 2 trips. One way to maximize success is to do these runs within the listed flow ranges, at least until you are comfortable with them.

  • South Fork American, The Gorge (Lotus to Folsom Lake). 9 miles. A good run for the paddler wanting to step up to Class 3. It starts with 7 miles of Class 2; the last 4 miles are Class 3 at 1000-3000 cfs.
  • South Fork American, Chili Bar to Coloma. 6 miles. Also a good
    intermediate run, slightly more difficult than the Gorge section. Starts early on with a Class 3 section that would be a bumpy swim
    ("Meatgrinder'"), especially at low water. Flows 800-3000 cfs.
  • Merced River, Red Bud to the old suspension bridge site. Spring runoff, a solid Class 3 or more. Flows 1000-3000.
  • Kings River, Garnet Dike to Kirch Flat. Spring and summer runoff. 1000-5000 cfs.

Ocean Surfing

Once you have a reliable river roll, you're ready to get your boat salty. Kayak surfing during the winter months is a convenient way to improve or maintain your paddling skills and to also maintain your stamina. Learning to brace on a breaking wave while side surfing is a tremendous way to develop your bracing reflexes. It's a longer learning curve on the river, since you can't constantly find convenient waves. Pick a nice mellow day to go surfing; otherwise, you might get trashed when the waves are really breaking. There's a science to understanding how the tides and the weather are likely to affect the waves, so you can plan what time of day to show up at the beach. Some club members know about this; ask for hints. The club runs an occasional organized kayak surfing trip during the winter. Sometimes such outings can be more spur-of-the-moment, because the trips rarely last all day (and you don't have to get up so early.) Dave Kim, for instance, tries to be out there early in the day during some of the winter weekends. Call him if you want to give it a try.

Two essential bits of surf etiquette:

Stay out of the way of board surfers. They believe, and it's probably true for most of us, that those heavy kayaks pose a real danger to them when a boater is coming in on a wave, because the boats is big and less maneuverable than their boards. Most surfers are friendly, if you give them space (Of course, this means they get the best waves, but you can worry about that later.)

The rider already on the wave has the right of way. If someone's further out than you are and catches the wave, stay out of that person's way .

Slalom Clinics and Racing

Another recommended way to improving your paddling skills is to participate in the slalom clinic that the club tries to have during the year. It is usually held on the Mokelumne River in a section that is not even Class 2. It is a cooperative effort; we usually try to hang about ten to twenty slalom gates across the river. This provides a great learning experience for beginners. You learn how much boat control you have, you can watch more proficient boaters negotiate the gates, you'll improve the efficiency of your eddy turns and ferries, and you'll receive solicited and unsolicited advice on your paddling techniques. At first, going through gates without hitting them may seem hopeless, but you'll see and feel a big improvement in just one day as you keep at it. Slalom practice helps paddlers to learn to negotiate obstacles in the river without the risks involved in running actual rapids.

The next step is to try the races we have the following day. In the race, you'll test the skills that you have acquired. The race is suitable for all levels of boating skills. There are usually categories for beginners, intermediates, experts, men and women.

River Trips

OK, now you've put in a few days of kayak school, you've got the essential gear, and you may even have tried out a pool practice or two. You ask, "Can I go in the river now???" Yes!!! Come along on our beginner trips!

The Loma Prieta Paddlers offer river trips for members year around, though most of our trips are between late spring and mid-fall. Most are on Class 2 or 3 rivers within a couple of hundred miles of the Bay Area. Most club outings are one-day trips, but, in summer, we'll often offer coordinated trips two days in a row. Occasionally we'll do a two- or three-day trip. We publicize our trips in the club through a schedule distributed at our monthly meetings and sent out via the club email list server. To join a trip, call the trip leader early and discuss your experience and space availability.  A club trip comes to life when a member volunteers to lead a trip. 

The trip leader handles signups, trying to make sure the trip has sufficient skilled paddlers to support the newer and less experienced boaters. He or she generally limits trip size. (The typical maximum is 8 to 10, but this may vary depending on many variables.)

Call the trip leader as much in advance as you can, so he or she can work out the details with as little wasted effort as possible. If you call later, the trip may be full! Some rivers are definitely easier than others.  So, try to sign up for a trip that you think is within your skill level rather than too challenging, particularly as you are just starting out. The trip leader may be able to help on this, but it is difficult to judge how people will react to moving water and real-time decisions. When in doubt, remember, you can always do the easier run this time, and sign up for the other run the next time it's offered. If you have any special physical or time constraints, explain these when you first call.

The trip leader will decide on the trip location, meeting time and place, and pace of the trip. If you want to arrange a carpool, the trip leader can give you the names of other people who are signed up to go on the trip (but the trip leader will not arrange carpools). When arranging carpools, try to fill up no more than half the seats in the vehicle. Otherwise, working out shuttles becomes difficult.

Trip leaders are mere mortals just like you and I. They just have more river experience, with an interest in passing on some of their river sense and enjoyment to the next group of paddlers. Even experienced trip leaders are fallible; don't expect them to be perfect. Let's all appreciate the efforts they make to try to give us fun, valuable days on the river. Everybody makes mistakes; on the river, we hope they are minor ones. The trip leader's function is to basically provide the guidance and organization needed to provide a safe and hopefully enjoyable trip on the river. The point here is that whitewater boating does have some risks associated with it, as with any other outdoor activities. Each person is responsible to a large degree for his or hr own safety. Do not try to delegate this to the trip leader. Remember, our trips are basically a cooperative effort.

By the way, the trip leader cannot loan you a boat. Loma Prieta Paddlers is part of the Sierra Club, and the liability  insurance forbids Sierra Club trip leaders from providing others with equipment.

Getting the Trip Started

Check your gear packing carefully before leaving home. Make sure you show up with everything you need. (This handout includes a suggested checklist; adapt it to make it your own.)

Bring your own lunch and water bottles, ready to stash in your boat.

Make sure you know how long to allow for the drive. Show up a bit early, so you have time to get yourself and your boat ready by the appointed rendezvous time.

Make sure you arrive with plenty of gas in your car for doing a shuttle.

Make sure your put-in gear (EVERYTHING you'll need on the river, including your lunch) and take-out gear (what you'll need right after the trip) are separate and as ready as possible when you arrive. Your put-in gear will go in a vehicle headed for the top of the run; your take-out gear heads towards the bottom. You may sometimes not see the put-in car after the trip; if you're unsure, ASK about this before planning to leave some bag or basket in that car.

Carry about 10 dollars in small bills to pay your share of parking and use fees.

If you've driven, expect to participate in the shuttle. Generally, the trip leader will do the advanced math required to figure out the shuttle. The usual plan is to get all the boats and people to the put-in using as few vehicles as possible, while driving all the other vehicles to the take-out, with a spare car to carry all those drivers back up to the top, so they can go boating, too. After the trip, unfortunately, somebody has to drive back up to the top, to bring drivers of put-in vehicles to reunions with their vehicles. There are many variations, depending on the location of the put-in and take-out relative to the road back home at the end of the day, the length of the trip, the length of the shuttle, the quality of roads involved, the numbers of people and boats, and the schedule constraints of individuals.

On The Trip

The typical trip has no more than 8 to 10 paddlers, but fewer are usually better. The group may include 1 to 3 first-time-on-the-river paddlers, 3 to 4 paddlers who have been on previous beginner trips, and a few intermediate paddlers as safety boaters or to warm up after a break from paddling.

On beginner trips, the trip leader will probably begin with a safety talk. Pay attention; ask questions about anything on which you're not absolutely clear. If you have any special medical needs (such as bee-sting allergies), make sure the leader knows the situation and knows where your medications are, with any special instructions for administration. (Pack them in a dry bag and bring them with you.)

The group will usually have a competent paddler assigned as the lead boat and another as the sweep boat at the end of the group. The rest of the group should stay between these two boats. Try not to get ahead of the lead boat; if you find yourself ahead, eddy out as soon as possible. If you are having a difficult day, don't dawdle at the rear with the sweep boat, as it would be difficult for paddlers who are downstream to help if you get in trouble. So, stay somewhere in the middle of the pack, don't bunch up, and keep an eye on the lead boat.

As the day progresses, some beginners will be more adept at picking things up, some in better shape fitnesswise, and some not so. Don't compare your progress with how well others are doing; proceed at the pace you are comfortable with. Remember, you're doing this for the FUN of it.

Skills to work on during beginner trips

Every trip leader is different. Some will give you lots of advice on many different aspects of paddling. Others will focus primarily on one or two sets of skills. Though you can't rely on a leader to bring up every point that needs attention, most trip leaders will try to address the basics, such as getting into and out of your boat, basic strokes, ferries, eddy turns, and what to do if you swim. This isn't intended as an all-inclusive primer on whitewater, just a few hints that will make your trip leader's life a little easier if you're already familiar with them.

How To Get In And Out Of The Boat

People do seem to have trouble getting in and out of the boat while it is bobbing up and down in the river next to the river bank. Ideally, you should have had some guidance on this in your introductory kayak class or at the pool. Sometimes, though, such moves feel a little different in the river.

Sometimes you can just get into the boat while it's mostly on shore, then pull yourself along with your hands to launch your boat. If your launch must be more complicated than that, have the boat parallel to the river bank. Place the paddle across the boat, behind you. With one end of the paddle on the bank and the other on the rear of the cockpit rim, use the paddle shaft as a bridge between the boat and the shore. Anchor the paddleto the boat by grasping with one hand both the rear cockpit rim and the paddle shaft, while with the other, grasp the shaft near the bank. Now sit down on the paddle shaft. With your weight on this bridge, the boat shouldn't be moving around. Then slide into the boat as usual.

This was a mouthful. But after seeing many elaborate variations of people trying to get back into a boat and rolling over into the cold water, it is no longer amusing. (To exit from the boat, use the same technique, in reverse.)


You should probably have covered these strokes in an introductory kayakingclass, and worked on them in the pool, but the leader may go over some ofthese briefly as you work your way down the river, even at the put-in if needed.

  • braces-high and low
  • forward stroke
  • back paddle
  • draw
  • bow draw
  • sculls

Bracing refers to using your paddle and your lower body to either roll the boat back to a stable position or to maintain that position. In other words, as the boat tips, you want to place the blade of the paddle flat to the water and push off against that with your lower body to roll the boat back to a more upright position.

You can try bracing in flatwater, then in areas of small current differential, such as going in and out of gentle eddies. This is a good skill to practice on beginner trips. As you gain confidence in how supportive correct bracing can be, try it with more assertiveness.

  • When broadside by a wave, brace into the wave.
  • When on moving water, always brace on the downstream side.
  • When entering an eddy, brace with the eddy current.
  • When exiting the eddy, brace on the downstream side once you have crossed the eddyline.

Remember, we're talking about the attitude of the boat not the paddler.

Forward Paddling

When trying to paddle straight, pick a point in the distance. Try to
maintain a line to that point. Don't let the bow wander from that line.

When correcting, apply just enough to stop the bow from swinging. Don't try to bring it back to center; this will cause it to overswing the other way.

Once the boat starts to skid in a turn, it's difficult to stop it with sweep strokes, so use a rudder or pry to stop the skid. With more paddling time, you should get the hang of it and it shouldn't be a problem.

If you're like most first-time paddlers, you may have some difficulty paddling in a straight line, especially with any efficiency. If this happens to you, look for the following possible causes:

  • Wrist control. You may not be rotating the wrist on your control enough..when paddling on the off side with a feathered paddle. In other words, for right-hand control, the right wrist is not rotated enough when paddling on the left side.
  • One side stronger than the other. Most new paddlers are stronger on one side than the other. If this is the case, over time, you can learn to compensate for this. Meanwhile, sweep a bit more on the off side.
  • Oversteering/control. You may be oversteering as the boat starts to turn, or letting the boat wander too much from a straight line. Then the boat starts to skid in a turn that's difficult to overcome.

Eddy Turns and Peelouts

An eddy is a relatively calm spot in the river downstream of a rock, island, sand or gravel bar, or alongside the shore. The basic dance in moving a kayak down most rivers is to move from eddy to downstream current to the next eddy. On a beginner trip, you'll practice getting in and out of eddies, beginning with quiet ones and moving to more dynamic settings. You may practice going into and out of the same eddy numerous times.

Now, the area in which water moving downstream meets the water moving upstream (or relatively slowly) in the eddy is called the eddyline. An eddyline may have swirls; in every case, it has conflicting water forces acting on your boat. So, to avoid getting knocked over by these weird forces at work, you want to get across that eddyline and back to the main current as smoothly as possible. That movement, from the eddy to the downstream current, is called a peelout. You'll give your boat speed, angle, and lean (it's a visual thing), and cut across the eddyline, then turn downstream. Make sure you paddle out of the eddy with some momentum and brace on the downstream side once you have crossed the eddyline. Otherwise, you may do an upstream flip or spin around in the eddy.

When you're out in the current and want to get into the next eddy, you'll basically reverse the procedure. Give the boat the correct speed, angle, and lean, with a couple of forward strokes, followed by a turning stroke. That eddy turn will take you into the eddy. Just remember to paddle into an eddy and then be ready to brace on the eddy current. (Once you're in the ddy, pay attention to whether you should try to make space for someone
someone else to come in, by moving deeper into the eddy.)

Most of this process is a visual, physical process that you can't learn by reading. For now, just keep in mind that there are several ways to turn the boat. You'll probably practice them all, trying to learn the right circumstances for applying each:

Ruddering. Ruddering refers to using a low brace, pry, or reverse sweep to push the boat around. This is a popular method with novices, but it slows the boat down considerably, so it has limited application. Another problem beginners have with ruddering, which can be significant, is that whentrying to avoid something you may end up going broadside into it. If you must rudder in such circumstances, turn the boat and quickly paddle away from the obstacle.

Forward Sweep. This stroke, a sweeping motion from the front or center of the boat all the way to the tail, is usually preferable to the rudder. When you use it, you turn the boat and move it away from an obstacle and also maintain forward momentum. A good sweep should translate into torque going through your torso and to the boat. It's not just paddling on one side of the boat.

Draw. A combination of a high brace and a bow draw is often a good way to turn the boat. With this technique, you can control the degree of the turn and finish off with a forward stroke. Work on using this for eddy turns.


To ferry is to cross the river from one side to the other, ideally moving a relatively small distance downriver in the process. Typical ferries are upstream ferries, in which you face upstream and forward paddle to cross the river. Often, you will start your ferry from an eddy, using the same initial techniques as for a peelout, but using a corrective sweep stroke on the downstream side just as you cross the eddyline in order to maintain your ferry angle. When doing an upstream ferry, a high ferry angle has the
boat pointed almost straight upstream, whereas a low ferry angle has the boat pointed almost crosswise to the current. On beginner trips, this is one of the basic things you will be doing, going back and forth until you can pick out a spot on the other side of the river and land exactly there.

Reading The Water And Avoiding Hazards

The way to learn to read water is to spend time on the water. At first, it will all be a mystery, but you'll probably learn a new bit of river reading every time. You'll learn to recognize water movement caused by rocks under the surface. You'll learn which holes (recirculating water) are friendly for surfing in-and which are not. You'll learn where to expect eddies. Once you can read the flow of the water, try to position the boat so you aren't always fighting the current, a simplification of a process that a lot of us are still working on. You can learn to use currents to help make your
ferries and turns easier instead of more difficult. Trip leaders love to point out such tidbits when you're ready for them.

When discussing the location of a hazard or some other river feature, boaters use the terms, "river right" and "river left." This means the direction if viewed from upstream looking downstream, which is the general direction boats go on the river.

About Hazards

Learn to keep an eye out for hazards in the water and at the water's edge.

Avoid snags, trees, steep banks, and overhanging walls. It's amazing how some people will swim toward trees in flowing water with the idea of grabbing onto to them, not realizing that they can be pulled under by the current into underwater branches or crevices.

When you hit a rock broadside with the middle of the boat and you are crosswise with the current, you have just broached. Your reaction should be to lean into the rock ("hug the rock") in order to present the bottom of your hull to the river current. Then try to work your boat around the rock and float away. If you lean away from the rock when you broach (an upstream broach), then you might end up with the boat stuck, water pouring into the cockpit, and the boat beginning to wrap around the rock. In such an event,
eject immediately from the boat. Not to scare anyone, but you should be aware of this possibility.

When you get stuck crosswise to the current between two rocks you have just bridged. In this case, brace/lean immediately to the downstream side, then try to extricate yourself from this position. This has the same possible consequence as broaching.

Negotiating Turns Of The River

As the river turns, the current basically runs faster and deeper on the outside of the turn and slower and shallower on the inside of the turn. The outside may have fewer rocks obstructing the channel, but the current there extends to carry your boat up against the bank on the outside of the turn.

Basically, unless the presence of some hazard or other feature dictates another plan, try to position the boat somewhere in the middle of the channel and point it toward the inside of the turn. This way, if you are pushed toward the outside bank, you can more easily paddle away from it. So, when approaching a bend where the river narrows down, approach it from the side you want to avoid. In other words, if the river has a sweeping left turn and the river narrows down with the current up against the right bank, approach it from the right and start angling towards the left, so you build up some momentum to avoid the right wall.

Stay Cool and In Control If You Capsize

A few beginners manage to get through their first, even second river day, practicing all that stuff without tipping all the way over. Even fewer already have a roll that works in the river. Great! Most beginners swim more than a few times before getting the hang of this, though, and even intermediate boaters have been known to swim.

It's important to remain cool-headed in such circumstances. When you're out of your boat in the water, you're at greater risk of injury from river hazards. On top of that, you've got a boat and a paddle to keep track of as you kick along. So, read this segment and visualize capsizing and active self-rescue in your mind . Some club
trip leaders have encountered too many boaters, novices and up, who just flounder in the water after a capsize. This is hard on both the rescuers and the swimmers. It also really complicates getting all your gear together after a swim. Here are the steps to remember, and follow, if you do tip over and are unable to roll back up.

Do a Clean Wet Exit

When beginners capsize on the river, some go through a frantic struggle to escape from the boat, making a simple task a traumatic experience. They end up letting go of their boat and paddle and maybe getting banged up a bit in the process.

So, before you come to the river, be sure to have PRACTICED THE WET EXIT IN A POOL or in flatwater until you have found what works best for a clean exit. Practice tucking in close to the forward deck when upside down and making a deliberate clean exit, all the while holding onto to the paddle. Usually a forward somersault with both hands on the cockpit rim seems to work best. Otherwise, some seem to catch their foot or rear end in the boat.

Exiting along the side of the boat is an awkward move. Beginners are hard on the boat's pillars and float bags in their frantic attempt to exit. Learn how to tuck close to the boat deck, forearm protecting the forehead, helmet protecting the head, and the life vest protecting the back. If you should capsize in a very shallow or rocky area, tuck quickly and closely to the boat until you can roll or bail out under more favorable conditions.

Swim Safely and Hold On to Your Gear

Once you are out of the boat, work your way to the upstream end of the boat, maintaining contact with the boat and your paddle. Grasp the grab loop with the same hand in which you have your paddle. It is very important that you keep the boat downstream from you (otherwise, you could become trapped between the boat and some object, such as a rock). Really hang on to your paddle. Paddles are hard to see and chase, especially white paddles.

As you float down the river, face downstream with your feet in front of you and up near the surface of the water. This way, you can fend off approaching rocks with your feet instead of your hands and face. This also avoid problems of foot entrapment on the river bottom. With your free hand, swim to shore. Swim hard. Don't just drift down the river. Look downstream to see what you're approaching. Assess the situation, looking for a good spot on shore to aim for, such as an eddy or a beach. You'll be amazed how fast you're going when you're in the water; the shore just zips by. So, keep in mind not only what shore is closer but also any intervening or downstream hazards such as holes, rocks, and brush.

Whenever possible, self rescue by swimming all the way to shore, hopefully into a convenient eddy. Do not stand up until the water is almost still and is no more than knee deep. Otherwise, you risk foot entrapment, which can have the most serious consequence.

As you're swimming, if your boat is upside down, keep it that way. Don't try to roll it back upright. Otherwise, it'll fill up with water and be harder to tow or rescue.

Being Rescued

If a strong boater is nearby, he or she may come to assist with your rescue. Be ready to hook up and assist. The boater will likely want you to grab their boat's stern grab loop. When it's presented to you, grab it with the hand that does not have the boat and paddle. Yell out that you have the loop. Hang on to that grab loop; when a swimmer loses his or her grip on the loop, the rescue process often starts all over again. Help with the towing by kicking with your legs to swim, and keep your legs up near the surface. The paddler can't do all the work. Don't let go until you know for sure that you are in safe waters; on occasion, swimmers have let go in deep water and floated back out into the mainstream; the rescue starts all over again, except, this time, the swimmer is already tired.

Finally, if the paddler tells you to let go, do so. He or she may see some hazard that would be problematic to one or both of you if you're hanging on. If you have to let go, look quickly to see if you are now close enough to shore to make it on your own.

When you get to shore, tap your helmet to show others that you're OK if you're not OK, don't signal anything.) Now you have to empty the water out of your boat, even though you're tired from swimming. That's too bad, but soon you'll be out paddling again, a better paddler for the experience, really determined to master the roll.

Gaining a River-Worthy Roll

Once you get on the river with your new pool-tested roll, you'll notice that the river is considerably colder than the pool, and the water is murky, and it may be moving, even in the eddies. The river is where your roll matters though. Here are a few ideas about how to make that important transition from pool roll to bombproof river roll. Other people may have additional suggestions about how to accomplish this; listen to them, and find what sounds right for you.

  1. When your pool roll is working reliably, come to the pool the next week and aim to do 50 successful rolls. Keep attending the pools sessions and keep on practing your roll.
  2. When you get in your boat at the river, find a deep portion of the eddy (test it with your paddle), have someone "spot" you, and do a few rolls in the real river. Many people like to use their nose plugs for this.
  3. When your eddy roll works well, ask a more experienced boater on your trip to help you find a portion of moving current that's fairly deep, long, and safe at the end. Then, while this person is "spotting" you, and your boat is pointing downstream, flip your boat over, set up very carefully, and roll up. That's your first moving-water roll!
  4. If you like, the next step is to try to go surfing in some nice, safe wave or hole that has a nice long, deep, straight, safe stretch below it. (Beginner's Hole, also called Gremlin, on the South Fork of the American has been like this, though less so since the flood of January 1997). Again, ask a more experienced boater to "spot" you and give you any necessary uidance on how to get into the surf spot. Once you're surfing, you're likely to get flipped when you're not quite expecting it. Again, set up very carefully, wait for the water to get calm, and roll up. That's a combat roll!

In any of these circumstances, try twice if you need to, but remember to really set up well, taking your time before you roll. As some would say, watch your paddle to keep your head down.

Books and Magazines

For those who like to read about or watch kayaking to find out all they can, numerous items are available. Here are a few suggestions:

  • California Whitewater by Jim Cassidy and Fryar Calhoun
  • A Guide to the Best Whitewater in the State of California by Lars Holbek and Chuck Stanley
  • Wildwater, Sierra Club book by Lito Tejada-Flores
  • Whitewater Handbook by John Urban
  • Paddlers News Bulletin, Bay Chapter RTS, local & monthly newsletter
  • AWA, monthly, sort of. Excellent for safety issues
  • Paddler, monthly, the big national magazine
  • Canoe and Kayak, a polished national magazine

Videos & Websites for Beginners

Lots of kayaking videos are available. Most are amazing displays of Class V boating in places you'd only dream about. They're fun to watch, and we show them frequently as entertainment at our monthly meetings. For information useful to beginners, however, those listed below will probably serve best.

Several other intermediate-level videos have also been released. You'll learn about those as you go along also.


If just reading could make us better paddlers, we'd all speed read, then boat Clavey Falls. What we've tried to pass along are just the tips that reading can convey. The rest, you'll learn on the water. Trip leaders would rather show you on the river what you can only learn that way, and they can do that if you come prepared.

Try out these suggestions, and see what works for you. Solicit help from other boaters, see what works for you and adapt it accordingly. There are no hard and fast rules in learning to kayak whitewater. The techniques keep improving and there's new equipment each year. If you have any ideas, let us know.

We hope that after you've really mastered that roll, can ferry across the hardest current, and do great nosestands (on purpose), you'll keep paddling with us and, in turn, offer a few words of wisdom to the next paddlers just starting out.

Checklist Of Kayak Gear For Day Trip

Adapt this list and make it your own.

Definitely Bring:

  • kayak
  • paddle
  • bag or basket for put-in gear
  • float bags
  • life vest
  • spray skirt
  • helmet
  • bathing suit
  • water bottle
  • ropes/straps for rack
  • dry clothes in take-out bag
  • cash for parking/fees
  • lunch
  • waterproof bag for lunch, etc.
  • spare car key to carry downriver (some folks also hide a key at the car)
  • common sense
  • good attitude


  • paddling sweater (or two)
  • wetsuit or drysuit
  • paddling jacket
  • river shoes, booties
  • throw rope
  • carabiniers
  • whistle
  • first aid kit
  • maps and directions


  • sunscreen
  • spare paddle, breakdown paddle
  • river knife
  • noseplug