A Whitewater Kayaker's Guide to Eddies, Eddy Lines, and Whirlpools

A Kayaker Eddies-Out
It's a good idea to eddy-out to get a better look at a rapid. Photo © by George E. Sayour

Eddies are a feature found in whitewater rivers where the water is either calm or moving in the opposite direction to that of the flow of the river.  Eddies are a whitewater kayaker’s best friend, providing them with safe haven for a variety of reasons.  Eddy lines, however, can be a kayaker’s worst enemy.  Here’s a whitewater kayaker’s survival guide for eddies, eddy lines, and the whirlpools that accompany them.

Eddies

Eddies are formed behind rocks and around bends in the river, among other places.  The current passes the boulder or shoreline outcropping thereby causing a calm spot known as an eddy behind the feature.  It is in these calm spots that the water is actually moving in the opposite direction from the main flow of the river.  

Since kayaker’s enter eddies with velocity in one direction and that quickly changes to velocity in the opposite direction, it is easy to flip upon entering an eddy.  It tends to have the effect of a quick stop which can cause an unsuspecting kayaker to flip over.  It is far more common however, to flip upon exiting an eddy when the kayaker goes from a slow or no velocity into the raging river across the turbulent eddy line.  

Eddy lines

Eddy lines are the barrier of separation between the river’s current which is moving downstream and the water moving upstream in the eddy.

  The faster both of these flows are moving the more turbulent this transition will be.  It is not only perilous to cross an eddy line, but once upside-down in them it is extremely difficult to try to roll the kayak back up in one. 

Whirlpools

Eddy lines with really clean and smooth directions of flow on both sides often create whirlpools within in them.

  The water moving in opposite directions alongside of each other tends to spin these whirlpools, forming one after another.  Kayaks who get stuck in an eddyline can find whirlpools forming around them and then get sucked down into them. 

How to Survive Eddy’s Eddy Lines, and Whirlpools

Eddy’s aren’t like other dangerous river features in that kayakers can steer clear of them.  It is often necessary to use eddys for safety, scouting, and a rest.  Therefore, kayakers must kayak into and out of them.  The best way to do that is to be aggressive when dealing with eddies.  Have an aggressive posture and keep your paddle moving or ready to brace. 

When entering an eddy, turn into it so that your direction of travel will follow the water’s direction of travel.  Upon entering the eddy you can be facing upstream into the feature that caused the eddy. Be careful not to get sucked too far upstream.  

When in the eddy, don’t let go of your paddle.  Stay on the alert. The water is moving here and many an unsuspecting paddler has followed the rotating water in an eddy right into the current, the eddy line, or into a whirlpool. Be sure to lean upstream in an eddy since the water is moving in the opposite direction here.

When existing an eddy, paddle out at an angle to the river’s flow, facing slightly upstream.  Paddle hard through the eddy line.  Once your bow is grabbed by the current, allow it to turn your kayak downstream.   Make sure to switch the direction of your lean to downstream when you are sideways in the main current.

If you flip in an eddy line, it will be very disorienting.  Try your roll, but don’t be surprised if you don’t get your first one.  Often times the paddle just sweeps through the water due to the changing direction of flow.  Don’t give up. Try to roll again, perhaps on the other side.  By switching the side of your roll, it will have the effect of turning the kayak into position.  After a couple of attempts one of them should end up on the correct side.  Once you’re upright, prepare to brace since your kayak will want to flip again.

  Paddle out hard.