Whitewater Voyages River Rafting Training & Skills

With over 30 years of rafting experience, Bill McGinnis has authored numerous books and articles on the subject of running rivers. Bill shares some of his insight into river running through the following series of articles:
  1. Leadership Skills: Creating Deep Fun
  2. Leadership Skills: The Inner Question
  3. Rafting Technique: Punching Holes
  4. Rafting Skills: Eddy is Your Friend
  5. Rafting Skills: Coping with Flips
  6. Rafting Skills: High Water Safety
  7. Guiding Skills: River Games
  8. Guiding Skills: Games for River Trips
The Guide's Guide Augmented

Rafting Technique: Punching Holes

by William McGinnis

December 6, 2005

Punching a hole is, arguably, one of the most exciting things you can do on a river rafting trip. We'll talk about how to read the hole, how to set up, and how to punch the hole with the greatest chance of an exciting and succesful run.

HolesAdrenaline pumping, heart pounding, you speed down into huge holes alive with upwelling mountains of erupting white popcorn foam.The exploding foam overwhelms and stalls and knocks your boat for a loop, inundating your raft, slamming and lifting your bow paddlers.

You yell, "Dig, dig, dig! Forward! Forward! Need ya now! Need ya now! FORWARD!", spurring your crew, every one of whom is stroking like a wild demon while fighting to stay braced in the boat... Need I say more? Clearly, we are talking about a ton of fun!!! To pursue this extraordinary pastime...

First, build broad skills and learn to read holes: Work your way up the difficulty scale slowly over time in the company of more experienced boaters. As you start mild and work up gradually, learn a full array of boating and rescue skills, including what size holes your boat can — and cannot — handle, and how to distinguish big, fun, runnable, flushing holes from unrunnable keeper holes.

Holes are places where the current, generally after accelerating downward, swings upward and revolves back on itself, often in the form of steep back-cresting waves or sometimes in the form of flat, foamy, surface back flows. In big holes, the flow often blasts in at an incline and explodes in an awesome back-cresting wave, with some of the white foam exploding in place and some blasting on through. The more foam blasting on through compared to the amount of foam merely exploding in place, the more likely the hole is to be runnable. In my experience, holes where the flow enters at an incline of less than 45 degrees, are more likely to have a higher portion of foam blasting on through, providing what some call stabilizing surface blow through – and hence, are more likely to be runnable.

On the other hand, holes below vertical water falls, although often flat and seemingly less violent, are more likely to be unrunnable because there is no stabilizing surface blow though. Instead, all the foam on the surface is flowing back upstream into the vertical face of the falls, forming a treacherous keeper that can hold and flip boats and entrap and tumble swimmers.

How to actually punch holes: First, well upstream, position your boat directly up current from the hole, that is, maneuver into the water going into the hole. Next, point your bow straight toward the hole, and then, to pick up the momentum needed to break through the wave/surface back flow, accelerate squarely down into it. Do this in a paddle boat by having your entire crew paddle forward, and in an oar boat by portegeeing, that is, pushing on your oars. Above all, in the moments before contact, to reduce the chances of flipping, be sure to square off to the wave/hole – so the long axis of your boat is perpendicular to it – angling your boat as necessary if the wave/hole is diagonal to the current.

Also just before contact, to help keep people in the boat, it is often a very good idea to have everyone lean in, and even, depending on your crew and the hole, have them grab inboard, center-of-boat hand holds and slide down low in the boat. When people lean in and hold on, they can reduce the chances of cracking heads with their boat mates by pointing their shoulders, not their heads, toward the person opposite them in the boat. Also, they should control their paddles, so they don't wap themselves or others with their paddle handles – perhaps the most frequent cause of bruises on rafting trips.

At the moment of impact in many big holes, to overcome the stopping power of the surface back flow, it is often necessary to dig paddle and oar blades deep, plunging them below the surface back flow, down into the downstream current, where the blades, like sea anchors, can pull the boat through. In paddle boats, it is especially important that the two bow paddlers dig deep to power the boat through. In oar boats, the guide, usually with one leg braced forward and the other back, assumes the position: bracing the oar handles high and somewhat forward at arm's length to hold the blades down as deep as possible – to grab that downstream current below the surface to pull the boat through!

And generally, amazingly, the boat takes the mighty blow, slows and staggers, but eventually, sometimes just by the skin of its teeth, struggles forward, and, like a drunken sailor staggering out of a bawdy tavern, emerges from the hole eager for more.

Again, before tackling this yourself, build broad skills over time, learn how to create strong crews, how to cope with flips, wraps and swims, and how to self-rescue if you and/or your boat get caught in a hole.


Bill McGinnis' new book is The Guide's Guide Augmented. The definitive how-to book on professional guiding, The Guide's Guide Augmented has the latest scoop on safety, rescue, entertainment, guide training and much more. To learn more about Bill's books, river trips, and 2-, 5-, & 7-day guide schools, visit WhitewaterVoyages.com or call 800-400-RAFT.

" Wendy and group, great day on the North Yuba (Goodyear Bar Run). Maytag was a total trip. Holly you did a super job as guide. Whitewater Voyages is the only way to go. I will use you all again. "
- Bruce Richardson
Reno, Nevada

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