In 1992, my paddling improved more dramatically than in any other year. The reason was simple. My buddy, Paul Harwood, and I had explored every line imaginable on the Ottawa River, and so in order to keep things interesting, we decided to learn it all in reverse. This meant running every rapid, surfing every wave, and catching every eddy backwards. I can tell you that it certainly succeeded in making things interesting, but little did we know how much of a positive impact it would have on our paddling.
It's because of that adventuresome summer that I can confidently tell you that one of the best ways to improve your paddling overall is to develop your comfort level being backwards on a river. When river running, you'll be able to confidently back ferry away from obstacles and will remain in control when spun backwards mid-rapid. Without having developed this backward awareness, you would probably find yourself panicking and struggling to regain control in these same situations. For the playboater, backward awareness is absolutely critical, since most moves involve spinning around-which means facing backward up to 50% of the time. If you are only controlled and comfortable when surfing facing upstream, then you will be at the mercy of the river the rest of the time.
Developing Backward Awareness
There's only one way to develop your backward awareness: be backwards! Begin with practicing your back paddling and your back sweeps. You can then move onto simple backward eddy turns and ferries. It will feel odd in the beginning and you're almost guaranteed to flip a few times, but keep practicing until you're comfortable crossing powerful eddy lines without having to think about which way to tilt your kayak and on which side to take your next stroke.
The next step is to practice back surfing. Back surfing is an incredibly powerful skill for the river runner as well as the playboater. Back surfing will let the river runner use waves to help their back ferries and even provides the opportunity to effectively boat scout while surfing. In a more general sense, the fine edge control that you'll learn from back surfing will help take your overall paddling to a whole new level.
Back Eddy Turn
Although backward awareness doesn't play as big a role for sea kayakers as it does for whitewater kayakers, there is still no question that it will improve your paddling and is worth the effort to develop. Furthermore, it sure is nice to know that you have the option to throw it in reverse to get out of a sticky situation, such as when you're caught backward in a surf zone, in a rock garden, or in a sea cave.
Ken Whiting was the 1997/98 World Whitewater Freestyle Champion. He has produced an award-winning series of instructional kayaking books and DVDs, and leads kayaking trips to Chile. Check out www.helipress.com