Eddy turns (getting into eddies) and peel outs (exiting eddies) are the foundation of good river running technique and it’s important to practice being as precise as possible. In my experience, learning and performing good eddy turns is one of the most challenging skills in kayaking, especially for beginners. This is partially because a good eddy turn requires the paddler to a) recognize the eddy line, and b) paddle across the eddy line. When you’re new to reading water this can be challenging because eddy lines are difficult to recognize at first. They vary in size and shape and some are more well-defined than others. The eddy line is the swirly line where the current flowing upstream inside the eddy meets the main current which is flowing downstream. Eddy lines get easier to recognize the more you study them and the more you practice crossing them while practicing ferries, eddy turns and peel outs. (For more information on river features please see visit the Glossary of Whitewater Terms post)
There are five key words to remember when you want to perform precise and effortless eddy turns: Vision, angle, edge, position and momentum.
Vision: It’s important to set your angle and vision early (meaning upstream of the eddy you want to catch) so that you have time to paddle with commitment toward the eddy. If you wait until you’re beside the eddy it’ll be too late because the current is already moving you downstream. To enter an eddy with precision you need to start your move early. The sooner you can identify the eddy you want to catch the better. The idea is that you don’t have to change your angle once you start moving toward the eddy. Keep your eyes on the eddy to help you set your angle and paddle into the eddy with commitment.
Angle: The angle at which you’re approaching the eddy is about 45 degrees relative to the current inside the eddy. The angle does vary depending on the speed of the current and the shape and size of the eddy, but, a 45 degree angle is a great place to start. You’ll want to focus not only on the angle itself, but the positioning of your boat relative to the eddy. If you’re catching an eddy on river right and you come down the current right beside it then it’ll difficult to get the momentum you need to paddle into the eddy while maintaining your angle. On the other hand, if you start in the middle of the current upstream of the eddy, get your angle and then paddle toward it you’re setting yourself up for success. You’ll have the room you need to make that left to right move into the eddy.
Position: You want to enter the eddy as high as possible because that’s where the eddy line is the most defined and where you’ll get the smoothest carving turn. If you enter low in the eddy you may actually miss it and get swept downstream. This isn’t such a big deal for big, easy eddies, but once you start pushing your skills and running harder rapids with smaller eddies it becomes more important. Missing an eddy could mean you end up going down a part of the rapid you don’t want to.
Edge: As your boat enters the eddy (as your feet touch the water inside the eddy) lift your downstream edge. This is the opposite of the peel out and ferry because the water inside the eddy is flowing upstream. When you edge your kayak as you enter the eddy, the water flowing upstream in the eddy will hit your kayak and turn it upstream into the eddy. It may actually feel like the water ‘caught’ your boat and turned it for you. This is the whole idea behind smooth paddling: Let the water do the work!
Momentum: Momentum is important, but not so important that you should forget about everything else and paddle like zombies are chasing you. Take good, strong paddle strokes and, in the beginning, always take two more strokes than you think you need. Paddle in a strong, controlled manner that allows you to maintain your angle, vision, position and edge.
In the beginning practice holding your paddle out of the water as you turn so that you feel how your edges and angle are what help turn your boat, not your paddle. Until you feel comfortable with the bow draw you shouldn’t be planting your paddle in the eddy turn at all. When you rely too much on your paddle the important skills like edge control can suffer.
Once you bring the concepts of vision, angle, position, edge and momentum together into your eddy turn you’ll feel a sweet, clean, effortless carving turn. And when you do it right it will feel so effortless that you won’t forget that feeling. Remember to keep it simple and let the water to the work! Have fun and happy paddling!