Eddy catching is not a skill that needs to be practiced above all others.
Recently I got into trouble over a FB post about catching micro eddies. On reflection I could have phrased things, umm, better. So I hope this blog entry doesn’t open cans of worms again. This is supposed to be a happy occasion. Let’s not bicker about who killed who!
However I still stand by the jist of what I said. A lot of British paddlers catch too many eddies, and are far to obsessed with micro ones. This post isn’t meant to bring all those arguments back up again, but I do want to put forward a few thoughts on the art of the eddy.
Step away from the eddy!
There are quite a few reasons for why obsessing about catching every tiny eddy is detrimental.
- It slows a trip down to a ludicrous level. It is a bit like driving down the motorway, but deciding to get off and stop at every junction and service station along the way.
- On a cold day you really want to be moving rather than stopping all the time.
- It makes you neglect the skill of continuous river reading, line finding, stroke timing and placement.
- It prevents you using eddies in useful ways, ie keeping the momentum going and being able to zig zag down river without stopping.
- There is no extra skill to catching a micro eddy over a normal sized one, but often the technique of getting into them carries over into normal eddy catching, which is usually the bad habit of ‘hook and hope’.
- If you ever progress to much bigger rivers and higher grades you will soon learn that some eddies and eddy lines can be river features that you want to avoid at all costs. Eddies and eddy lines are not always friendly things to cross into, and on some big volume rivers could even be features that give you a very bad day indeed.
Micro eddy catching is seemingly a very British (and I have now heard also an American) thing as kayakers try to keep their interest up on our not very continuous low grade rivers, or at places like Tryweryn. The trouble is that eddy catching has become something of a badge of skill, almost to the exclusion of all else. I have even heard people in conversation asking which eddies on the Tryweryn they can catch as a way of judging their abilities.
The other aspect to this is that while I see a lot of people catching micro eddies, when it comes to entering larger, more useful eddies, they tend to use a similar technique and perform a very tight turn, or spin out next to the eddy line blocking anyone else in the group who might need to enter it.
Get to the back of the eddy!
The truth is that if you know how to use your edges and stroke placement you can fly deep into the back of an eddy. It’s possible to do this with the hull flat so you head straight for the bank, or to perform a carving turn. If you can enter a powerful eddy flat, then you have the control to make the eddy turn and carve optional, and to make it as wide, or as tight as you need it. In other words, with good control an eddy turn is an option, not mandatory. And when you know this technique you can make some pretty glorious wide carving turns that both look and feel great to do.
Doing this method allows you to get right to the back of the eddy leaving room for your mates as well. But the beauty is that you can then make the turn as tight as you want. Yes, even for very small eddies. In such situations this means that you can keep the boat moving so that if you want to you can go straight back out again, slalom style, or perform graceful S-turns behind rocks without stopping, before going back into the flow on the other side.
But unless you know and practice the required hull application (which in this case is only taught by a small handful of decent coaches) you’ll still end up using either the hook and hope method, or the ‘give your neck whiplash’ technique as you crank the boat hard on edge. The prevalence of this is quite stark, with many boat reviews referring to “…the way the boat snaps sharply into eddies”, when this is rarely what you really need to be doing, highlights a lack of control, and shows that speed and momentum is being cut short.
I was told that coaching people to catch micro eddies above big features gives them confidence. Okay, I will grant some of that. But if the actual base-line technique for lining up and catching eddies, and being able to fire into them under complete control of the arc and momentum isn’t there to begin with, then learning this skill would be a much more productive use of time.
There’s a fair amount of detail to catching normal sized eddies, such as the technique I mentioned above, as well as other aspects such as where to hit the eddy line, where to recognise where it is at its weakest, not to mention how to recognise the part of the eddy line that can actually help carry you over by the way the flow recirculates.
None of these things can be learnt by focussing on micro eddies, and often the narrow focus on such things means that all of the above quite often never gets taught or learnt at all. Quite often the people doing the coaching don’t know those things either! Focussing on micro eddies as a measure of success is, as one coach put it to me, a sign of not being able to see the wood for the trees.
But I digress, there are so many other aspects of running rivers that get neglected in the pursuit of the Eddy Catching Olympics. Where to ride waves on wave trains, how to spot your lines in wave trains, Where to put the paddle in wave trains, how to use different features to help or create direction changes, how to use cushion waves, how to use curlers, how to use lateral waves, how to really use edges when going down stream, how to actually perform a genuinely useful forward stroke in a WW boat, how to time boof strokes, how to know what side to boof on, and much more besides that usually gets forgotten or only practiced vaguely because, you know, eddies. And that stuff really does get completely neglected in the pursuit of eddy catching.
Incidentally those last two points about boofing can also be learnt by learning the eddy entering methods I outlined above. Two birds with one stone, and you can’t do that with a micro eddy obsession. But by learning how to line yourself up for the best positioning on bigger eddies you will be passively be learning how to be accurate in catching smaller eddies as well. You’ll also be learning a method that copes with very strong eddy lines, too.
Addendum: If you like catching micro eddies all the time and that’s the way you enjoy the river, more power to you, I still love ya.