What’s in a grade?


Estri Ranga, Southern Iceland – A fun rapid, with a nasty siphon around the corner.

I’ve had some conversations with people focused on going up the grades recently, especially concerning grade 4. In my mind grade 4 is a bench mark grade. It’s the level where the consequences of “getting it wrong” increase, meaning that a certain level of technical ability is needed to get through ok. The step up from grade 3 to 4 involves being able make and link “moves.” At grade 3 a rapid may involve a break in, punching a hole and then a break out. A grade 4 rapid could involve breaking in on to wave, surf across to be in the right position for a boof over a hole and then break out. That example was a massive simplification, but I hope you get the idea.

Are grades important?

Grades are obviously important, to allow paddlers to gauge the difficulty of a run. Also, the harder grade you can paddle, the more options you have available to you when paddling in a new area. But running hard rapids just for the numbers game is pointless. In my mind there are 3 grades: “fun”, “challenging” and “oh dear.”

Fun: Fun rapids are cruisy. These are the ones where you wish you had your playboat to surf, wave wheel and generally play every last drop of the river. You’ll attempt harder moves just to make things more interesting, safe in the knowledge that a mistake can easily be rectified.

Challenging: You’re in your element here. You look at the rapid, decipher the necessary moves and break in to the rapid confident that you’ll get it right. It’ll be tough and maybe you’ll be “concerned” at times, but the challenge creates the excitement. Perhaps you’ll be pushed off line, or roll, but you’ll end up in the eddy buzzing. When you match your skill level to the correct level of challenge and it goes well, the reward is instant. Even a swim at this level is not too much of a problem with the correct safety in place. Perhaps you’ll walk round and run it again, to get a better line.

Oh Dear: Some rapids you just aren’t ready for, or willing to accept the risks. Your mind is full of negative thoughts and reaching the end unscathed makes you think “that was lucky” rather than “that was awesome!”

stopper tungMy advice for those going up the grades:

  • Set appropriate safety – it goes without saying.
  • Take a gradual learning curve. When learning to climb, I climbed at least 40 VDiffs before moving up to Severe. I only upped the difficulty when I was happy that I was moving confidently on my current grade.
  • “You can make an easy river harder” – challenge yourself at your current grade. Play games with yourself – only catch the smallest eddies, run the hardest lines etc.
  • “Make a hard river easier” – look for the grade 3 lines on grade 4 rapids. You may be able to find sneak lines to avoid running through the guts of the rapid, or perhaps there’s a less technical line that is closer to your ability.
  • Work your weaknesses. Perhaps your boof stroke is inconsistent, or you find it hard to catch small eddies. Practise in a safe environment before you take it up a level.
  • Be selective.  Climbers are far better at this than paddlers. Climbing topos often have symbols for routes that need good footwork, require a lot of muscle, or have small holds. At first, pick rapids that match your strengths. If your boof isn’t great, consider walking around the rapid with the must-make boof over a sticky hole.

Closing thoughts:

Being able to paddle at a grade is relative. Just because you can paddle grade 4, doesn’t mean you have to paddle every grade 4. I recently walked round a fairly easy rapid, that had nasty consequences. The line wasn’t hard, but rolling in the shallow, rocky boulder garden would have been unpleasant. Your mood can have an effect on your paddling too. Some days you’ll be styling hard rapids making all the breakouts, others you’ll straight-line and be happy to get down in one piece.

Be honest about your abilities. I know a number of people (myself included) that have only paddled at their maximum over short distances. There’s a difference between short, pool-drop rapids and continuous rapids. Somebody that can paddle Town Falls (IV) on the Dee, may become unstuck on the Upper Dart’s “Mad Mile” for example.

And lastly, paddling is meant to be fun – enjoy your time on the river, it’ll be well spent whatever the grade.

This entry was posted in Canoeing, Coaching, Kayaking, Tutorial. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to What’s in a grade?

  1. oureverydayadventures365 says:

    Nice post. I’m keen to develop from sea kayaking to rapids. This was very informative.

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