10 MPH

River of the month #82

author: Pat Reilly
date: September 2005

The 10 mph problem - a study of paddling speed

How hard can it be to paddle 10 mph? The world record for paddling in flat water belongs to a Hungarian Olympic K-4 sprint team – a blistering 14 mph! Heck, with the push from a good current any adept paddler in a fast boat ought to be able to go 10 mph. But for how long? Consider Joe Creeker dropping off of Ohiopyle Falls or Wonder Falls. Surely he would hit 10 mph before splashing into the bottom pool on these 18-footers. So to keep it honest I challenged myself to paddle 10 miles in 1 hour. Again, how hard can it be?

In pursuit of this goal, two factors quickly arose that greatly inhibit paddling speed. First is current speed and what it does to water characteristics as it increases. Second is boat design and the speed/tippiness ratio. Generally speaking, the faster a boat design, the more unstable it will be, making it harder to paddle, especially on wavy, swirly water, just the kind of water you get as the current speed increases. So there’s the dilemma. The faster the boat, the harder it is to paddle on fast current.

This column could be subtitled – ‘overestimating current speed’. Everyone does it! I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen people look at the Susquehanna when it’s flooding and say something like, ‘Man, that current must be moving 20 mph!’ Not even close! Last September, during Hurricane Ivan’s flood, measurements taken by paddling against the current in the Susquehanna between West Fairview and Lemoyne showed speeds of 5 to 6 mph, with the river at 23 feet (6 above flood stage). Accurate measurements using a stopwatch were taken with the river just below flood stage (17 feet). I got 4.6 mph along Harrisburg’s waterfront and 3.7 mph in Wormleysburg. If you doubt these speeds, try a little experiment. With the river at 10 feet, a level that most observers estimate the current to be ‘really moving’, take a walk along the concrete steps at Harrisburg’s river front. Walking at a normal steady speed, you’ll find that you easily out-pace the current. It’s not so fast after all.

Okay, but we’re talking about the lazy old Susquehanna at Harrisburg. What about a river with some gradient - a whitewater river like the Cheat Canyon? Here we have a long stretch of big river with fast water (and rapids) that can feasibly be paddled in a race boat. In fact, I did just that in ’99, paddling a wildwater racing K-1 in the annual Cheat River race. The course measures 10 miles on the nose. Great! now what was the time? A blown spray skirt and a hole in the stern had me stopping to dump water, blowing any challenge attempt. However, reviewing the winning times in the race over the years, one sees that it is seldom under one hour and only then by the fastest wildwater racers in the country - the US team guys that compete in Europe. If these guys aren’t going 10 miles in an hour, who is? Well, I believe that you must get away from rapids to go really fast! Waves and holes slow a boat down. Other race times in whitewater seem to bear this out.

The 24-hour distance record in a K-1 is somewhere around 250 miles, over 10 mph for an entire day! That record is held by Ian Adamson. I was fortunate enough to paddle with Ian in ’92 on a dragon boat team in Thailand. Since then he has gone on to become arguably the greatest adventure racer in the world - truly in a league of his own. Still, he’s going 24 hours. I want just one hour at that speed.

Ian’s accomplishment was on Canada’s Yukon River and here, I believe, is where the real difference lies. Western and northern rivers are newer than the East’s old waterways. They haven’t worn down to flat and low or pool/drop. To make a fast manageable current you need a good consistent gradient with a relatively featureless bottom. And to the best of my research, rivers like this don’t exist around here. From reports I’ve seen, the Yukon, while not without some big wave rapids, generally flows very fast and smooth during spring run off.

There are reports of 5+ mph on the ole Big Muddy. Apparently, the Mississippi flows fast and smooth down in Mississippi and Louisiana where it is channelized and diked. But that’s too much human intervention. We’re looking for natural flow. I’ve read accounts of touring kayaks going 10 mph during a Grand Canyon trip in high water. Seems the canyon’s vertical walls keep the water contained during high flows making for very fast current. Only problem is the Grand’s pesky class IV-V rapids separating those fast smooth sections.

Resigning myself to the fact that I’m here in Pennsylvania and don’t have access to these faster rivers, I began concentrating on fast boats and high water levels. It was back in ‘98 that I first got interested in the challenge, when I noticed that 2 training trips on my regular 11.2 mile course down the Conodoguinet Creek came in at 1:12; that’s 9.3 mph, using a USCA downriver boat. Hmm, that got me thinking. The creek was high (around 6 feet) for both runs, but 2 feet below flood stage. I was in a fast boat but not my fastest boat. So, a little higher water, a slightly faster boat, and I’ve got 10 mph! Not quite.

The gentle Conodoguinet is so featureless and has so little gradient that it remains pretty much flat water, even at flood stage. But it is not calm enough for the ICF boat. These Olympic sprint boats are fast (among the fastest paddle boats made), but get nearly impossible to paddle when the water gets turbulent. 10 mph attempts on the Cono in the 6 feet range using the ICF boat were actually slower than the USCA boat as I hesitated and occasionally braced instead of hammering full speed ahead.

I had high hopes moving to a wildwater boat with the Cono at 8.6 feet last fall. Many time trials have shown that 6 mph is easily doable in the wildwater boat, so all I needed from the creek was 4 more. Wildwater boats are made for racing in whitewater but that doesn’t mean they’re real stable. My boat was a bit squirrelly around the bridges with the creek at flood stage. Still I had peddle (er.. paddle) to the metal for 95% of the trip. The time? 1:09:38 for 9.7 mph. Dang!

Let’s try this in the Susquehanna; the Conodoguinet is just too flat and slow. Attempts in the USCA boat, the wildwater boat and the ICF boat, with the river between 9 and 13 feet, all fell short. On a good day, under ideal conditions, 7 mph may be possible for 1 hour in the ICF boat with no current. But even between Marysville and New Cumberland, where the river is relatively flat, I had to hold back as the tippy boat pitched and wobbled in the little waves and swirly whirly eddies that are generated at these higher levels. My best ICF attempt was 9.7 mph in spring of ‘02 at 11.5 feet.

Enter the Looksha!

The future of kayak racing is in the new longer boats that are coming out now. Formerly, if you wanted to be the fastest guy on the block you had to paddle an Olympic boat (aka ICF boat). Besides being hard to keep upright, and having a lengthy learning curve, these boats are also terribly uncomfortable. By the rules of the International Canoe Federation (ICF), the Olympic boats are limited to 5.2 meters (17 feet and change). Knowing that length is the most important characteristic of a watercraft with respect to speed, builders are now making longer boats that match (or maybe exceed) the speed of the ICF boats, with improved stability and comfort! Racers are rushing to buy these fast boats and races are changing their premiere kayak class from ‘Olympic boat’ to ‘unlimited’.

The boat dominating this new ‘open’ class comes from New York’s Doug Bushnell and is called the Thunderbolt. While I can’t afford the price tag on one of these sleek 21-foot carbon fiber beauties, I was able to get my hands on an old Necky Looksha this past spring. The narrow 20-foot Looksha is maybe 2nd to the Thunderbolt in popularity but is really a touring boat and not a racer like the Thunderbolt. Plus mine is an older very heavy lay-up. I was quite disappointed when it time-trailed at the same speed as my wildwater boat, about 7% slower than the ICF boat. Bummer!

Ah, but while the Looksha may not be able to turn like a wildwater boat and isn’t any faster than one, it is a bit more stable, especially in bigger water. So this spring, I again had high hopes when rains and snow melt brought the river to the brink of flood stage at 16.9 feet. I did the Marysville-to-New Cumberland course staying close to the west shore in case of problems. At flood, the big river was kicking up wave trains ½ mile long below riffles at Marysville, Rockville and West Fairview. These waves were not big, but brain waves and whirlpools at the bridges would rock the long boat and swing it sideways, giving me concern and making me think that keeping the rudder down would have been a better choice (I had raised it to prevent drag). My measurements came up with a course length of 10.15 miles and the time was 1:01:00 making for 9.984 mph. Missed it again! Or did I? I always round to the nearest tenth in my log books, so rounding this number = 10.0 mph. Success! Well... sort of.

In any event, the next time you hear a paddler tale with a line that goes something like, ‘Dude! with the record high water and the fast planning hull on my new Super-spinner Yakson boat, I was doin’ like 20 miles an hour’, you ought to be a bit skeptical.

Pat Reilly

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