Whitewater Kayaking – How to Get Started, Choosing a Boat

So you’ve always dreamed of paddling one of those small plastic boats down a steep creek choked with waterfalls or down some huge, remote river. Or maybe you want to get into a surf kayak and rip up the wave in a carving machine or bust some aerial moves at a river wave or hole. Whatever you want to ultimately do, starting off on the right foot is extremely important. Getting the right boat, paddle, advice, training etc. is all very important in making the learning curve as gentle as possible, both physically and mentally. Of course, the impact to your wallet will also be taken to the minimum through making sound choices from the onset.


[This article is written based on my experiences and most importantly, my opinion. I’m sure some people will be jumping up and down with what I have to say but like most things in life, there are many ways to approach the same situation and many different solutions too. Perhaps we do things differently in South Africa. Either way wherever you may be it’s all about having fun on the river and doing it safely. Bearing that in mind I hope this article will at least educate you a little on the many choices you will have to make and familiarise yourself with the different types of boats that can easily confuse someone new to the sport. I’ve tried to write this article so that a total beginner can even understand it and hopefully I’ve achieved that goal. If not, drop me a mail.


Warning: This article is not laid out or written for someone wanting to only inform themselves about one specific boating type. Because of its patchy layout, various pieces of vital information are to be found throughout the article. So read it from start to finish. I’m sure it will make sense.]


There are a variety of different types of boats to choose from with different designs doing totally different things. I will break them up into roughly five different categories, namely: creek boats, river running creek boats, river running play boats, play boats and surf kayaks. I’ve decided to use these terms to simplify the explanation. Many manufacturers class their boats in the same way. Before I start with the specific boats, let me go through some of the different parts of a kayak. I use the term kayak and boat loosely in this article but it means the same thing to a kayaker...


Every white water kayak has a few basic parts or elements to it. It is important to know the terminology and learn the language. Every kayak has a bow and a stern, that is the front and rear section of the boat respectively. Some kayaks have edges running along the side or bottom of the hull in a lengthways orientation. There is a large opening where one climbs in and out of the boat and this is known as the cockpit. Boats have grab handles (some have aluminium, which is stronger, some have webbing handles) that can be used to secure them to the roof of your car but more importantly to have an attachment point in case of a rescue. Most boats have a drain plug at the stern so that water can easily be removed from the boat. Kayaks can have totally rounded hulls (like a log) and these are known as displacement hulls, or they can have flat, planing hulls; for activities such as surfing.


NB: It is important to note that within a specific category of boat, whether it is a creek boat or a play boat, there are different sizes to suit different sized paddlers. Boat manufacturers usually have at least two different sizes per boat model and most of the time, three different sizes. Occasionally there may only be one size. Fluid’s sizes are simply denominated as small, medium or large. Other manufacturers will class their different sizes in volume (usually gallons) or length (usually feet). So whatever type of kayak you want to buy, you can be assured that there is a kayak out there that suits you. When choosing your kayak you will notice that each kayak has certain specifications and these usually include paddler weight, kayak weight, length, width and volume of the kayak itself and sometimes cockpit dimensions.


There is a seat inside the boat and this can be moved forwards and backwards, thus affecting how the boat sits in the water, how it will behave and also for different sized paddlers. Move your seat forward or backward and see how the boat sits in the water. Get a feel for how it behaves in the water with the seat in various positions too. You will have to make a few adjustments to get the boat to better mould to your body. Once seated inside the kayak one will find thigh braces mounted onto the cockpit on both sides that support either the knee or thigh area, depending on how they are adjusted. Thigh braces on most boats do not support the outside of the knee. This is usually not a problem as most people aren’t very flexible but I prefer to have support in that region. Glue (use contact adhesive) foam blocks to the hull of the boat so that your knees are well supported. Experiment and try a few things. Just remember to make sure that you can escape from your kayak VERY easily. It is highly recommended that you must be able to get your knees and legs out of the boat, without removing your backside out of the boat. You should really be able to pop your spray deck without the use of your hands. If not, adjust the boat. There is a back rest or back band supporting one's lower back and this can be adjusted forwards and backwards according to the individual's needs. Some people like to crank these tight against the body, others don’t. Find what works for you. There are also hips pads on both sides of your hips and these are always adjustable, in some way or another. Some boats have a large flat platform for the feet, known as a bulkhead. This bulkhead can be adjusted forwards and backwards to suit different sized people. Other boats come with a bag full of foam blocks where one is left to glue them together and shape them so that they fit you best.


The four blue arrows show the grab handles on this creek boat. The two green arrows show where the thigh braces are located. The orange arrow at the bottom is pointing to the drain plug. Almost every kayak has one although some play boats don’t as emptying the boat overhead is much easier than trying the same thing with a heavy creek boat. The yellow arrow in the centre is pointing to the front central pillar. All boats (except for blow moulded kayaks) have centre pillars in the front and stern and are usually made of foam. This creek boat has plastic pillars.


Note the back band at the bottom to support one’s lower back. There are hip pads on either side of your back side that can be adjusted, in this case by means of foam shims. Thigh braces support your knee area and can also be adjusted forwards and backwards. On the floor of the seat are two ratchets and these are used to adjust the back band. Some kayak manufactures have this mounted on the thigh braces but on some designs can lead to them damaging your spray deck.


Right, let me move onto the specific boat types. I’ll begin with creek boats.


Creek boats, like this Fluid Solo in the large size, are designed to keep you safe in difficult and/or dangerous white water.


Creek boats are designed to be safe in difficult and/or dangerous whitewater that is typically quite steep. When I mean steep I mean a river that drops several metres in altitude for every kilometre paddled, perhaps twenty to fifty (or more) metres per kilometre. They are longer than other boats to give them enough speed to make a line, power through holes and launch off of drops. Creekers are designed to stay on the surface of the water, away from the hidden dangers that lurk beneath and also to keep down river momentum as this is more often than not, very necessary. They are also built very strongly so that they won’t break when they impact with rocks and have many safety features. Usually there are four grab handles on a creek boat to have more attachment points in times of a rescue. Most other boats have only two grab handles, one on the bow and one on the stern. The Fluid Solo has very strong plastic pillars that add a significant amount of stiffness and strength to the boat as well as a rib like stiffener that doubles as a step out platform in case of a vertical pin. One needs a boat that won’t easily fold and potentially trap you inside. A large cockpit also makes escape easy. Almost all creek boats have foam bulkheads mounted onto a rail to allow for forward and backward adjustment. This is where you can put your feet flat against. This reduces the chance of shattering your ankles should you piton into a rock.


Creek and river running creek boats allow one to take a lot of gear that is essential for overnight trips! To me, this is the real joy of kayaking. Exploring new places, places that only a kayaker can get to and doing so in the company of great friends.


Creek boats vary in length from a super short length of about 210cm to about 270cm at the most. Generally, they are around 225cm to 250cm in length. Creek boats have more volume than the other types of boats and are typically between 235 and 300 litres. There are, however, boats a fair size larger and obviously also smaller. Creek boats have high volume ends (the bow and stern) with very rounded edges that won’t catch on shallow rocks or when you’re in a wild rapid with water coming from many directions you don’t want sharp edges like those found on a play boat. Very rounded, high volume ends are probably the most unmistakable features found on a creek boat and probably the most important. They usually have a fair amount of rocker (imagine a banana viewed from the side) that enables them to be more manoeuvrable and also to cushion your back a little when you land flat. The progressive rocker found on most creek boats also allows them to slide up onto rocks. This is for advanced paddling when one would need to boof off or over rocks, into eddies.


The stern of this large Fluid Solo has a plastic pillar for maximum strength and rigidity. Most boats have foam pillars and the other boats pictured here all have them. Only the Solo has these plastic pillars.


The bow of this large Fluid Solo also has the plastic pillar and in addition, a rib like stiffener to which the bulkhead is attached on a rail system for easy adjustability. Your feet fit snugly against the foam bulkhead shown in the background of this photo.


Creek boats are not intended for surfing, although you can but the moves will really be limited to a front and back surf with a bit of a struggle to change direction. The high volume ends also resist going into the foam pile to allow a change in direction. This is also because creek boats have either fully or semi-displacement hulls that are quite rounded. A flat hull is needed for any boat to plane and thus truly surf. On a big enough wave train with a few standing waves, the longer length of a creek boat and higher volume will enable one to surf waves that play boaters might not be able to catch. But as stated already it won’t be good at it and only minimal satisfaction will be gained from the experience.


Fluid Solo, small size (creek boat)


Fluid Solo, large size (creek boat)


Note the peaked deck for controlled resurfacing. This is very important in a creek boat and will be found on the top of the front and rear deck.


For the remainder of this article I will try to avoid technical mention of specific volumes, lengths et cetera to make life a little easier.


Play boats are very short kayaks with flat hulls and low volume ends. Designed to submerge the ends in holes doing vertical moves and busting big, aerial moves on ocean and river waves they are not suited to running steep, difficult rivers at all. With edges very low in the water they are the most ‘edgy’ of boats to paddle and not really suited for beginner paddlers. With their short hulls they don’t have much speed in normal down river paddling and battle to punch holes and easily get back looped. Even a short creek boat is more likely to get back looped than a larger one. Very large volume rivers are usually ideal for play boats, which seems to go against what I’ve just said. Paddling rivers like the Nile, Ottawa, Zambezi etc. is a totally different style of paddling to other types and something like a full on creek boat is not the easiest of boats to paddle in big rivers like these. Play boats get pushed around less, because of their lower volume and smaller physical size. They can pass through very large holes because of their reduced volume and even once stuck in a hole, they can usually be controlled sufficiently to enable the paddler to work himself out of trouble. A big creek boat that is stuck in a hole in a side surf position is a real nightmare as the high volume ends resist going into the foam pile and this is where a play boat is much easier to handle. Of course the longer length of a creek boat makes getting stuck in holes a lesser likelihood that if one were to tackle the same hole with a play boat. On technical big water where making lines is necessary a play boat would not be ideal as they lack the speed. But many popular big volume rivers are perfect for play boats as they are not that technical.


Fluid Nemesis, medium size (play boat)


River running creek boats generally have a little less volume in total than a full on creek boat. Although their ends will still be reasonably high volume compared to a play boat, they tend to be a little less in volume than a creek boat. Their lengths are usually on a par to most creek boats. Most have flat hulls to make them more responsive in turning and to enable them to surf on river waves and also in the ocean. Again, they were never intended as play boats or surfing machines but the totally flat hull is a fair amount better than the full or semi displacement hulls found on creek boats. Very experienced and skilled people do run some serious creeks with these boats but in general most people don’t. Having said that, these boats are quite capable of running creeks and what it really comes down to when making your choice is having a totally flat hull with some edges coupled with most of the advantages of a creek boat, or having a full on, no compromise creek boat. A boat with an edge can be placed on edge and ‘carved’ when changing direction and if this is your preferred paddling style then a river running creek boat may be the way to go. Paddling rivers with loads of exposed rocks and running slides may be a deciding factor for people as a rounded hull is better for rivers like that. From the onset the choice may not be that obvious to you as to what type of boat to purchase but I’ll run through a few examples later in this article that will hopefully help you to decide that will best suit your needs.


Fluid's new river running creek boat. This is a proto type and this model doesn't have a name yet... adrian.playak.com, first with the latest news!!!!!    :-) 


River running play boats are a type of a hybrid between a play boat, and a river running creek boat. They are slightly longer than a play boat, but shorter than a river running creek boat and also have a volume somewhere between the two. With more length than a play boat they are naturally faster and one would tend to make lines easier. Another very important aspect about river running play boats is that their parting line is almost always higher than that of a play boat. This makes the boat far less likely to catch an edge.


The split line is shown by the orange arrows on this Fluid Spice, in the medium size.


Let me quickly explain the split line to make myself a little clearer. Roto-moulded kayaks (this is the process by which the majority of white water boats are produced) have a definite line around the circumference of the boat. This is where the top and bottom halves of the mould meet. This is also then the dividing line of the deck and the hull of the kayak. This dividing line is normally low on a play boat so that when the paddler lifts up on one knee the edge will engage quickly so that a carve can be induced or an edge sunk underwater whilst in a hole to get near vertical and begin cartwheeling. When paddling down a rapid, any edge transition can therefore expose the boat’s sides to water currents and jets and it is important to ‘watch one’s edges’ as they say. Imagine yourself drifting sideways down some fast flowing water where the water is moving faster than you are. (Before you would be accelerated to roughly the same speed.) Let's say the current is coming from your right hand side. Now you lower that right hand side. What happens? The water hits the deck or top edges of your kayak and flips you over straight away. Just hold your hand out of a moving vehicle like the wings of a bird, same thing. How much edge you need to apply depends on how high that line is and in a river running play boat, it is higher than a full on play boat, therefore making the boat easier to paddle and less ‘edgy’. It is probably quite obvious now why a creek boat doesn’t have such a defined edge, as paddling down violent rapids where water is coming from many different angles can affect a boat adversely and naturally one wants to remain upright for as much of the time as possible.


Fluid Spice, medium size (river running play boat)


Note how differently designed boats, sit differently in the water. In the first photo, the edges are less defined and even though this creek boat is loaded with overnight gear, it sits high in the water, exactly as it should! Note in the second photo showing the play boat, and the third photo showing the river running play boat (in purple) how these two boats sit. The purple boat has a higher split line and therefore won’t be as edgy. In the last photo showing the surf kayak, the edges are totally underwater.


Surf kayaks are a specialist type of boat although they are now becoming more common place and the number of people paddling these boats is increasing. Traditional surf kayaks are longer and narrower than a play boat. In fact, many are longer than some creek boats. They usually have a fast rocker in the bow area, then almost flatten out and then virtually no tail rocker. This makes them very unstable to sit in and people who are used to ‘normal’ kayaks will find it a little difficult at first but soon adjust. The parting line of the boat is really low down and it is this edge which allows the boat to behave in a surf board like fashion. When sitting on flat water the edges will be totally underwater, further adding to the instability of the kayak. Once on a wave and planing, the boat comes alive and naturally stabilises, like a skier being towed behind a boat. Fins are often attached to the underside of the hull and these help with carving the kayak. The fins can usually be adjusted for the fine tuning of individuals’ needs. Surf kayaks are all about riding waves and carving up and down on their faces. Traditional surf kayaks promote a seating position whereby one’s legs are very straight. This doesn’t give as good control over the boat and the adjustment between them and a normal white water kayak is uncomfortably large for most people.


Fluid has brought out a ‘new school’ surf kayak, the Element. I say new school because traditionally, surf kayaks are very long and narrow, whereas the Element is a lot shorter and a touch wider than normal. Although far narrower than a normal play boat, the seating position is not really compromised and one can still sit with fairly splayed out legs. The difference in seating position between the Nemesis and the Element is therefore not too great making the transition less noticeable. The shorter length of the Element does make it a bit slower than a traditional surf kayak but the boat is still a serious contender and bottom turns and cutbacks are easily achieved. The real advantage this boat has over traditional designs is that all manner of aerial moves can be pulled on the face of a wave whereas the longer designs prefer to be firmly glued to the surface. This is a relatively new area in kayaking and one which is sure to grow into something quite large.


Many surf kayaks are made of composite materials, making them very stiff and light in weight, but also very expensive. Your choice between plastic and some sort of composite will probably be based on cost, bearing in mind that expensive composite boats can break when they come into contact with rocks. If you surf point breaks or are a beginner then think carefully before making your purchase.


Fluid Element, medium size (surf kayak)


The split line is very low down on this Fluid Element, a surf kayak. These edges will in fact be under water when not planing down the face of a wave. This, combined with almost no tail rocker, makes the boat very unstable but enables it to carve like a demon.


So now you know that there are various different kayak designs out there in the white water world, doing fairly different things. What this means is you now have to decide which boat will be best suited for you. This can be a fairly difficult choice in the beginning and I advise you to seek local advice from some kayakers in your area, a local shop, a kayaking club or even from a forum on the internet. You may learn a few things from this article but choosing a kayak, especially when you’re a beginner, is also influenced by the types of rivers you have nearest to you. Are they massive volume rivers like the Ottawa, Nile or Zambezi? Or are they steeper rivers with far less volume, dropping down without any pools in a continuous stream with lots of exposed rocks? Generally speaking, rivers in a certain area follow a trend as to what characteristics they share. This of course governs what type of kayak you should purchase when starting out. So bearing that in mind let me run through a few examples of how I see it. This will also recap what I’ve said in the beginning about the types of boats and at the end of this you should have, hopefully, a reasonably clear picture of what goes for what. I’ve given similar advice to stacks of people via e-mail and so far, so good! No unhappy ‘customers’, yet. Assuming you’re a total beginner, let’s go:


Example 1


The rivers nearby are very steep and have lots of one to two metre drops and also a few higher ones. There are pools on these rivers but some longer stretches without. Heaps of exposed rocks mean that you will have to navigate around them and some of them may be undercut or there may be siphons. These are very dangerous rivers. You may also want to do overnight or multiday trips on these rivers and need to pack in a lot of gear. Big volume would be best suited for a long creek boat while low volume runs like this would be better with a short creek boat. The Fluid Solo would be an example of a creek boat. If you’re older, say 40 to 65 years old or far more cautious by nature then a creek boat would probably suit you for most of your river running, except very big volume boating. Beginners should never be paddling creeks, ever. If the river is not as steep then a river running creek boat can be used. This would suit people who are used to paddling play boats and the style of paddling that goes with it. One could also play along the way should there be the odd wave.


A small Fluid Solo getting back looped. This is more likely with a shorter boat and I usually paddle my large Solo. Of course it was probably just pilot error...


Shorter boats, like this Spice, are less likely to punch sticky holes. Watch out! Pilot error again? Probably, as exactly one month prior I had run this same rapid without getting beaten in the hole. Shorter boats however, are easier to turn, but slower. There is always a compromise.


Example 2


The rivers in your area are anything from low volume to big volume rivers. They are not too steep and mostly are pool drop, which means rapids are interspersed with pools, making life a lot easier. Some may be more continuous however they are still not too steep and therefore shouldn’t be too challenging. You want to run rivers and be comfortable the entire day. However, you’d also like to surf rivers waves as well as holes and don’t want to be restricted like you would in a creek boat. A river running play boat would probably suit you best.


Many people scorn these types of boats and claim they’re only suited for beginners but I really enjoy a river running play boat like the Spice. Some people also claim that these boats can do a bit of everything and are therefore good at nothing. Well I guess this is true in a sense and would be a characteristic of anything, including cars, trying to overlap within specific roles. While they can surf a wave, cartwheel in a hole and do some aerial tricks, they do all these things a little differently to a play boat. They require a deeper hole to cartwheel, they spin a fair amount slower and cannot get as much air as a full on play boat. So as far as playing goes, they are less radical. But their longer length means that they surf better, especially on an ocean wave which is quite a bonus. The extra length means that while river running one will make lines easier and also punch holes with less chance of getting back looped. Their higher parting line means the boat won’t be as edgy as a play boat and be more forgiving to a beginner. Getting to a play spot will be easier and safer and you can still have fun along the way.


Example 3


The rivers in your area have very few exposed rocks and/or the gradient is not too steep. These can be big or low volume rivers. More than likely you will find heaps of commercial rafting operations on such a river as well as a lot of play waves and holes. Your main aim is to run these rapids and to play. There may even be spots where you can just park your car and a river wave might be right there, this is known as a ‘park and play’ spot. A full on play boat would suit you quite well in this situation. Should you be a little older or more cautious in the way you approach situations then even a river running play boat would work well, remembering the limitations of both types of boats as discussed above. The learning curve would probably be steeper with the play boat and you’ll spend more time upside down but as long as you can roll there should be no problems. You should never paddle a boat that you cannot roll. This is very important. Most big volume rivers that are not steep are quite safe as the distance between you and the rocks on the river bottom is sufficient to avoid contact, which is rather unpleasant, to say the least.


Play boats, like this Fluid Nemesis, excels on big volume rivers like the Zambezi, as pictured here, and also for playing on any wave, or in any hole. A river running play boat would also be perfect for most rivers that are not steep and big volume rivers would be no exception.


If the rivers around you are low or medium volume and there are spots where you can play and don’t require difficult access or paddling down challenging rapids to reach them, then a play boat would also be a good idea. Provided of course that you really want to get involved with freestyle and all the fancy tricks that you’ve seen people pull off. Artificial white water courses are great places to learn the ropes in a safe and controlled environment. Generally, I wouldn’t recommend a beginner to buy a play boat as their first boat as invariably they get invited along on a trip that is way beyond their capability, they take their play boat along as that is their only boat, end up swimming a lot or having a bad experience and this can be very off putting in the beginning stages of the sport, and is unpleasant for the people you’re paddling with. Again, speak to your local shop or club and as many kayakers as possible for the best advice. Watch out for forums on the internet. They are most useful and many of them have experienced paddlers with some great advice but there are also a couple of idiots lurking around that dish out bad advice purely out of ignorance. You will soon distinguish between good and bad advice.


Example 4


You live at the ocean, you have no intention of running any rivers - get a surf kayak. Quite a simple and obvious choice! Big volume rivers can be run in a surf kayak (with the fins removed) but the lack of stern rocker and severe edges make the boat incredibly unstable and edgy. It would be considered fairly rare to see someone on a river, in a surf kayak and that person would typically be very skilled and experienced. The Fluid Element is a great ‘new school’ surf kayak and something to seriously consider. Most of the existing traditional surf kayak manufacturers have paid very little attention to outfitting and you will quickly find this out if you sit in a few. The Element has solid, dependable and comfortable outfitting at least, like the rest of the Fluid range.


Surf kayaks, like this Fluid Element, have the speed required to make a strong bottom turn and are able to accelerate away from the foam pile and back onto the face as is shown here. Note the spray generated from the hull.


After you have purchased your first boat and acquired all the gear then I recommend attending a swift water rescue course. Don’t forget to allow for rescue gear in the budget! And then two more things; never paddle alone and never, ever go creeking in a play boat! (or even a river running play boat)


Fluid Nemesis, medium size, is a play boat (left). The Fluid Element, medium size, is a surf kayak (right).


Fluid Nemesis, medium size, is a play boat (left). The Fluid Spice, medium size, is a river running play boat (right).


Fluid Nemesis, medium size, is a play boat (left). The Fluid Spice, medium size, is a river running play boat (centre). The Fluid Solo, large size, is a creek boat (right).


I hope this article has answered a few of the questions you may have had and cleared things up a little. I found that there wasn’t a single article on the internet where a beginner could go to and read up as much as possible on the various different boat designs and help with the decision of purchasing their first boat. It is my intention that this article does just that. Your feedback would be appreciated.


When you are starting out, get some professional tutorage. Learning by yourself, or from your mates, can lead to getting into bad habits from the start and these can sometimes be difficult to break. Once you are comfortable on class 2 water, go for a swift water rescue course. It will open your eyes as to all the dangers on the rivers, what can go wrong and how to deal with any problems in the correct manner. Going on a rescue course will also make you more confident and you are more likely to be invited on paddling trips as people will have more trust in you and your ability to help out in a tricky situation. So be safe, and enjoy!


One more final word of advice. After reading this article and speaking to a few people you may still have difficulty deciding what to buy. If that is the case then remember these words. ‘How many kayaks does a kayaker need?’

‘Just one more!’

Most people have two kayaks and some even a lot more. All the boats on this article are mine so I’ve got a boat for every occasion and for my mates to enjoy too! Good luck and have fun choosing and trying them out. Should there be enough interest I may write an article on choosing all the gear. You let me know!




  Liquid Inc.


Photography by: Adrian Tregoning (of the actual boats etc.), Tuomas Vaarala, Leon Bedford, Wihan Basson, Luke Longridge, Cheri Collett, Adrian Vroom, Anni Tregoning, Karl Martin and Bart Verkoeijen. All the actions photos are featured elsewhere on the website with further descriptions etc. Thanks to all those that took a photo somewhere along the line, much appreciated!


Words by: Adrian Tregoning.


Paddler: Adrian Tregoning, except the last photo which is of Rowan Walpole surfing the Element.


A massive thanks to Celliers Kruger and Luke Longridge for making sure I didn’t write too much nonsense by proof reading this. Usually I just write whatever I feel like and never really check what I’ve written but given the nature of this article I felt it needed to be better than the average article. I know you're always busy on the computer Celliers and Luke you're slaving away in the desert at the moment, but I really appreciate the effort you guys took. Thanks again!