A boat alone is not enough to tackle whitewater – one needs proper gear before venturing out. Only the most important pieces of equipment are discussed here, although many other accessories are available to make paddlers’ lives easier.
Apart from the boat, your paddle is the most personal piece of equipment you can have. It should become an extension of your arms. You are supposed to have perfect control over your paddle, so that you can feel even the slightest of movements it makes, as well as initiating any stroke that is necessary at any time.
Two main types of blades can be distinguished: wing paddles and flat paddles.
Wing paddles are designed solely for racing. The airfoil-like shape of their blades renders them extremely efficient for executing the forward stroke, which is obviously the most important stroke when racing. These paddles are, however, not effective for most other strokes which are used in white water. Their lengths vary between 205cm and 225cm, depending on the tallness and strength of the paddler and the proposed use of the paddle, e.g. sprinting or long-distance racing. The feather (the angle between the blades) is normally around 70°, which is good for near vertical strokes and reduces wind resistance. In South Africa, great wing paddles are made by Stan Wallace – H2O Sport.
Flat paddles are used for white water, because of the far greater control that can be exercised over them. They are used for many different kinds of strokes and combinations of strokes. Their lengths vary between 185cm and 200cm, depending on the application. Playboating calls for a short paddle, while a long paddle may be better for longer distance tripping. The feathers used range from 0° to 45°. A low feather is suitable when doing advanced rodeo moves, as it gives more stability when going vertical with your kayak. It also enhances the speed of strokes. Angles closer to 45° can be considered when doing lots of tripping. In South Africa, great whitewater paddles are made by Leon Pieters – Black Composites.
The blades can be symmetrical or asymmetrical. They behave slightly differently, but the one you are used to will be as good as the other. Asymmetrical blades are used invariably for racing, though.
The other component of a paddle, the shaft, has also undergone some development in the past few years. Aspects to keep in mind are that glass shafts are heavier, more flexible, but cheap and still strong. Carbon and kevlar shafts are normally lighter and stiffer, but much more expensive. A stiff shaft also puts more strain on tendons, and should only be used when high performance is of the essence. Aluminium or alloy shafts only have one advantage, and that is strength. They are mostly heavy and very stiff. Shafts are traditionally straight, but bent or crankshafts are used extensively by whitewater paddlers, especially for playboating, as they give more precise control and are very forgiving on tendons.
The most important piece of equipment from a safety point of view, especially in a kayak, is the one that protects the grey stuff inside your skull. The helmet should protect your temples and forehead, so do not try to use a bicycle helmet. Full-face helmets should also be considered when running serious creeks. Never, ever run a rapid without a helmet on your head!!
Personal Flotation Devices
Commonly known as life jackets, the aids used on rivers are actually Personal Flotation Devices (PFD’s). The more buoyant ones are excellent for rafting, while most kayakers prefer smaller PFD’s because of the greater freedom they offer. The jacket should fit tightly, so that it does not float over your head when you need it most. Remember: river guides have a tendency to save PFD’s. If your body happens to be inside it, your chance of getting saved is so much better. Apart from helping you to stay afloat, it protects your upper body from rocks as well. It is also very good insulation against cold, and gives rescuers something to grab on. Always wear a lifejacket when going on moving water.
While on the subject of flotation: it will be a good idea to invest in proper flotation bags that goes into a boat to keep it afloat. These often-neglected items make it a lot easier for rescuers to spot and recover a boat, and can save a few grand.
Spray decks (also called splash covers) are made out of either nylon or neoprene. They fit around your waist and around the cockpit of your kayak, keeping the water out. The nylon ones are used on touring kayaks, K1’s and K2’s and the neoprene ones are used on plastic and slalom kayaks and wildwater racers.
The nature of the sport is such that paddlers are constantly exposed to the elements.
When paddling in warm weather, as is often the case in Africa, protection from the sun is essential to prevent dehidration, sunburn and sunstroke. It is therefore advisable to wear protective clothing (especially a hat), apply a high factor sunscreen and drink lots of fluid.
In colder weather one should be weary of hypothermia. It is a possibility even in the warmer climatic regions of Africa when paddling, as one is constantly wet. Specific garments used extensively are neoprene booties, thermal tops, dry-jackets, and in the really cold places, even neoprene wetsuits.