Boat designs and the different aspects of river paddling

The local white water scene is divided into three main groups of interest: the kayakers using plastic kayaks to run white water rivers and play in rapids, the racing fraternity who paddle flat water and smaller rapids with K1’s and K2’s, and the commercial rafting and canoeing business. Tripping with touring kayaks and canoes on easy rivers is also becoming popular, while slalom and wild water racing is slowly regaining popularity.

Several boats designed for use on the sea such as seakayaks, surfskis and paddleskis, as well as flat water racing boats, for example sculling boats and dragon boats, are available. They will, however, not be discussed here as they fall beyond the scope of this article.

Plastic kayaking

Plastic kayaking used to be a small, unknown entity on the local paddling map, but since 1997 it has exploded in size. Exact figures are difficult to obtain, but the number of kayakers in Southern Africa has grown from a 2-figure to a 4-figure number. The essence of plastic kayaking is to have as much fun as possible in the rapids, while the serious paddlers push the limits of possibility, whether that be running more difficult rapids, or performing more advanced moves while surfing a wave.

At a length of a mere 1.6 to 3 metres, kayaks are short in comparison to other boats. Since the actual meaning of the word “short” is ever changing with regard to kayaking, it is now generally accepted that plastic kayaks longer than 3 metres are too long for most purposes…!

The short, low-volume kayaks are designed for playing in holes, although – in an expert’s hands – they are agile in most types of whitewater. The biggest revolution in playboating, since the advent of plastic, came in 1996 with the development of a flat planing hull for playboats. Several approaches are in use, yet most of them work to some degree. The effect of this planing hull is to lift the boat out of the water even when surfing sideways, facilitating all kinds of moves that were unheard of before. This hull is known for the sharp edges on its sides, and although these edges make the kayaks even more unstable in white water, they do at the same time make them more responsive. Today, no beginner-kayaker has reason to start with anything other than a flat hull boat, with many second-hand boats on the market to choose from. The rule of thumb for choosing a playboat is to pick the smallest one you can fit into.

The short, larger volume boats are designed for creeking, but also excel in any kind of white water. The advantages of the flat hull for river running have been realised and today creek-boats feature less radical flat hulls. The creek-boats are forgiving boats and while they are normally kept as a second boat next to a playboat for the more serious rivers, beginner-kayakers who are more conservative can consider them.

The longer models are faster and normally more stable in white water, but also less manoeuvrable and less fun. The large volume versions are also well suited for multi-day tripping on rivers, as they have plenty of space for gear, food and other necessities. Beware: the older designs longer than 3m are a serious threat to your health! They were designed when kayakers still thought that speed could make up for anything, and are more prone to pinning. When confronted with such a boat, try convincing the owner rather to use it as a flowerpot…

The art of playing in rapids and doing all kinds of manoeuvres like flat spins, cartwheels, blunts, splitwheels, etc. on waves is known as rodeo. It is the most dynamic paddling-related sport in the world and is expanding faster than any other paddling discipline; playboating is experiencing an equally phenomenal growth rate in South Africa.


Racing with K1’s and K2’s on rivers was and still is a favourite pastime for more than 4000 registered paddlers countrywide. While racing kayaks are internationally considered to be suitable solely for flat water, local paddlers think differently. In the absence of enough flat water, K1’s and K2’s are used to race down rivers that contain rapids.

Canoeing South Africa (CSA), formerly known as SACF, manages the racing activities. CSA is divided into provincial units, consisting of Gauteng, Northern Gauteng, KwaZulu-Natal, Eastern Province, Western Province and Free State. More than 50 clubs spread throughout the country are affiliated under these provinces. A grading system is used for the races, with denotations A for difficult, B for moderate and C for flat water. To qualify for competing in an A race, a participant has to complete a certain amount of B races. Any paddler wishing to compete in a race has to be a member of a club.

Racing kayaks are long, sleek boats designed for speed. They are actually called “canoes” in our country, which, though incorrect, is accepted locally. They are available in 1-, 2- and 4-person models, and are aptly named K1, K2 and K4’s, where the “K” stands for “Kayak”. Racing kayaks are steered by a rudder that is controlled by pedals at the feet. They are built out of fibreglass, carbon fibre or kevlar. Although very unstable and sluggish to turn, K1’s and K2’s are used in our country for racing on rivers with rapids up to class 3 (at the risk of breaking the boat, of course!).

With South Africa having been isolated from the international arena for many years, many of the top paddlers in the country focused on river racing. Paddlers such as Robbie Herreveld, Mark Perrow and Graeme Pope-Ellis became household names by winning the major river races time and time again. After South Africa’s re-admittance to the Olympic Games, more top paddlers began to focus on the Olympic disciplines like Sprinting and Slalom, but river racing is still by far the most popular discipline.


Although rafting is a major sport in the USA and some European countries, inflatable rafts are mostly used by commercial operators to take novice clients down whitewater rivers in our country. The 2-man rafts are the most popular in South Africa, and are called crocs (which is short for “crocodile”). 1-man rafts, as well as the bigger brothers like the 4-, 6- and 8-man rafts, are also used.

The crocs are extremely suitable for rocky, shallow rivers such as a low Vaal, as well as for low volume creeking. The bigger rafts are well suited for running the larger volume rapids like the ones on the Zambezi and a high Vaal or Tugela River. Rafts are not really suitable for running big volume creeking stuff, which is better off left to the kayaks. Rafts also tend to be a bit slow on the long flat-water stretches, especially with the inevitable wind blowing in your face.

Rafts are very forgiving when running rapids, making them ideal to introduce novices to rivers. More and more paddlers nowadays own a 2-man raft as well, to take their families and friends down easier rapids.


Canoes are not of major significance in our country, but are widely used overseas. They are normally open crafts, where the paddler kneels down to paddle the boat. Racing, slalom and playboating versions are also available, denoted C1 and C2 for 1- and 2-person models. Canoes are built out of plastic, fibreglass, carbon fibre, kevlar, or a combination thereof. Open canoes are not really suitable for rocky rapids, but can be used successfully on stretches with mostly flat water and not-too-shallow rapids.

Squirt boating

Although they are not very popular in Southern Africa, squirt boats are very low volume boats, with the main object being to go below the surface of the water by using the whirling currents between eddies and fast-flowing water. Many of the moves performed in modern playboats, such as squirts and flat-water cartwheels, were invented in squirt boats. They have been used to run fairly big rapids in overseas countries (especially the USA), but there have been a few fatal accidents. They are normally made out of fibreglass, but a few are also available in plastic.

Slalom kayaking

Slalom is practised by a small, but dedicated group of paddlers in South Africa. The aim in a slalom competition is to sprint down a technical rapid, while manoeuvring through poles hanging from above, called gates. When a gate is touched or missed, the paddler is penalised by adding from 5 to 50 seconds to his time, depending on the mistake made.

The slalom kayaks are 4 meters long, but have lots of rocker and slicy ends to make them manoeuvrable. The decks are very low and flat so as to be able to skim under slalom poles. These are not the perfect river-running boats, especially because they are normally made out of fibreglass or carbon fibre, but obviously do the trick for their purpose!

The slalom activities are also controlled by the CSA.

Wildwater racing

Wildwater racers are used for sprinting down rapids up to class 4. Each course is between 3km and 5 km long, which results in racing times from 15 to 30 minutes. A new addition to the sport is rapid sprinting, which involves sprinting down a single rapid. This new addition enhances the spectator value of the sport, which is important for its development and expansion.

The races are held in a time-trial format, with competitors being set off at one-minute intervals. The ideal courses are not necessarily big, but they must be of a technical nature and as continuous as possible. Rivers considered to be suitable for both K1’s and kayaks are normally ideal for wildwater racers.

Wildwater racing kayaks are almost as long as K1’s, but have more volume and are a bit more stable. They are designed with maximum straight-line speed through rough water in mind. When used for racing, no rudders are allowed, but rudders make the boat much easier to turn for normal tripping. Their volume and speed make them suitable for overnight trips. They are available in plastic and the different fibres.

Wildwater racing is under control of the CSA. The sport is really large overseas, especially in Europe, and the discipline is slowly gaining popularity again in local paddling circles.

Touring and sea kayaks

Being as long as K1’s but as wide as the plastic kayaks, the touring and sea kayaks are fast and stable with enormous storing space. These boats are used for multi-day expeditions on lakes, on the sea and on rivers with small rapids. They are built of plastic and the different fibres; the plastic models are heavier, but much more durable.