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Teaching outdoor adventure skills: rafting

By Christopher R. Pelchat and Michael L Kinziger

Edited by Mark Wagstaff and Aram Attarian

Maneuvering an Oar Rig


Understanding and being able to execute the proper rowing strokes and oar rig maneuvers in whitewater environments is an essential function of a river guide. This lesson covers rowing strokes as well as strategies for moving an oar rig downriver.


Knowing how to execute strokes and maneuver an oar rig efficiently will enhance a raft guide’s ability to row successfully and safely in a variety of conditions.


To develop students’ ability to control and move an oar rig in whitewater environments.


At the end of this lesson, students will be able to

  • understand the proper rowing techniques (cognitive),
  • analyze moving water and pick appropriate maneuvers to navigate a variety of river conditions (cognitive),
  • demonstrate the proper rowing techniques (psychomotor), and
  • appreciate how specific strokes relate to desired maneuvers (affective).

Equipment and Areas Needed

  • Personal river equipment for each student (PFD, wet suit, booties, and so on)
  • Raft for each crew with appropriate frame
  • Oars for each boat with one spare
  • Spare PFD for each boat
  • Two throw bags for each boat
  • Two flip lines or a belly strap
  • First aid kit
  • Rescue kit (enough to build a Z-drag, which is covered in lesson 9)
  • Buoys

Risk Management Considerations

  • Always check river and weather conditions before embarking on any river trip, even if you were on the river the day before. Rivers are dynamic in nature and can change quickly.
  • Always leave your trip itinerary with another person. In an emergency that person will be able to help you organize outside help while you focus on the incident.
  • Choose an appropriate river classification for the lesson. No instructor should be teaching at the threshold of his or her own skill level. If you are a class IV boater you should be teaching class III and lower. Introductory rafting classes usually run class II to III whitewater according to the American Whitewater International Scale of River Difficulty (see unit 6, lesson 5, and figure WK5.6 on page 449).
  • The desired student-to-instructor ratio for rafting with oar rigs is 3:1 because of space constraints.
  • See lessons 1 and 2 for additional considerations.

Lesson Content


Rivers are dynamic in nature, always changing. A river guide must be able to initiate the needed strokes to maneuver the raft at a moment’s notice. To attain this skill level, practice and time on the water are essential.

Main Activities

Activity 1: Strokes (45 Minutes)

Oar strokes follow the same school of thought as paddle strokes, covered in the canoeing unit, when it comes to the reach, catch, power, and recovery phases of the stroke. The basic rowing strokes and maneuvers covered in this section are as follows: back rowing, portegee, turning, and shipping.

For this activity, demonstrate the basic strokes in a calm body of water. After the demonstration, have students board their rafts and practice their strokes. Set up an obstacle course of milk jugs or buoys. Challenge students to make tight turns, spin their rafts, and so on. A game of Follow the Leader works well in this situation.

Back Rowing Back rowing is initiated by pulling back on the oars with equal pressure on both oars.

  • To begin the stroke, start with the reach phase by lifting the oar blades out of the water and pushing forward.
  • After the reach phase is complete, move to the catch phase by lifting up on the oars to drop the blades into the water.
  • After the oar blades are behind you and in the water use the power phase to propel your boat backward. Pull straight back on the oar shafts until your hands are close to your chest.
  • You complete the stroke in the recovery phase by pushing down on the oars to lift the blades from the water.
  • You are now ready to begin another cycle.
  • Tips: Back rowing is your strongest stroke. Use your larger muscle groups such as your back and legs. Ensure that your foot bar or rest is close enough that you can use your leg muscles.

Portegee, or Forward Stroke The portegee, or forward stroke, is the opposite of back rowing. You initiate it by pulling back on the oars with equal pressure.

  • To begin the stroke, start with the reach phase by lifting the oar blades out of the water and pulling backward.
  • After the reach phase is complete, move to the catch phase by lifting up on the oars to drop the blades into the water.
  • After the oar blades are in front of you and in the water, use the power phase to propel your boat forward. Push forward on the oar shafts until you are completely leaned forward.
  • You complete the stroke in the recovery phase by pushing down on the oars to lift the blades from the water.
  • You are now ready to begin another cycle.
  • Tips: The portegee is your weakest stroke. To maintain your energy during flatwater sections, you should vary your strokes. A handy variation of the portegee is to do one cycle at a time varying from your left arm to the right.



Turning You can perform single-oar turns using a back row or a portegee. Use the previously described technique for either stroke but use only one oar.

  • Pushing forward on your right oar turns the boat left.
  • Pushing forward on your left oar turns the boat right.
  • Pulling back on your right oar turns the boat right.
  • Pulling back on your left oar turns the boat left.
  • Do double-oar turns using a back row and portegee simultaneously.
  • To turn right, portegee with your left hand and back row with your right (figure RA6.1a).
  • To turn left, portegee with your right hand and back row with your left (figure RA6.1b).
  • Tips: The double-oar turn is more powerful and versatile than the single-oar turn. Mastering it, however, can be challenging. The easiest way to remember which way your boat will turn using the double-oar technique is that the back stroke is the strongest stroke and will turn your boat that direction.

Shipping When traveling through narrow channels your oars may be too long to pass through without damaging them. In this case you will need to ship your oars to pass through safely.

  • When using frames with oarlocks, shipping your oars is easy work. Pull straight across your chest with both arms at the same time. This action will quickly reduce the length of your oars.
  • When using frames with pins and clips or stationary oars, your options are to ship forward or backward. To execute this maneuver, complete the reach phase of either the back stroke or the portegee with a little more exaggeration.

Activity 2: Maneuvering (Time as Needed)

Running a raft down a river requires the ability to read water at a distance. Rafts are much larger than canoes or kayaks and require more time to set up for a desired route. Beginning rafters may have difficulty staying in the main current.

You can teach maneuvers in a variety of ways, depending on the students’ background knowledge. Students with little knowledge benefit from discussion and demonstration of maneuvers using toy boats and mock rivers drawn in the sand. After giving explanations, the ideal progression is to find an appropriate place in moving current to practice ferries, eddy turns, and so on. You should row on the first moving-water experience to allow students to begin to use their river-reading skills to identify river features and the habits of the current. Allow students to get on the oars during flatwater sections or in an eddy to practice the strokes. Maneuvers such as eddy turns, ferries, and peel-outs are discussed in other water-based units. Specific tips for maneuvers are discussed here because they are the most common and needed maneuvers.

Ferrying Ferrying is used to get from one side of the river to the other while losing minimum ground. The technique is also used to avoid danger.

  • Back ferries are initiated by turning the bow opposite the direction in which you want to travel and using a back stroke.
  • Forward ferries are initiated by pointing the bow in the direction in which you want to travel and using a portegee.
  • Maintain a 45-degree angle to the current when using either ferrying technique.

Eddy Turns and Peel-Outs Eddy turns and peel-outs refer to entering and exiting the water feature known as an eddy, covered in earlier units. Eddies provide places to stop or slow the pace of your group.

  • The angle of entry into an eddy is critical, as explained in other water-based units. Power is needed to break through strong eddy lines.
  • Warn passengers that the upstream tube may be sucked under if a tight eddy turn is needed in powerful current.
  • The upstream tube may be sucked under and flush passengers out during a peel-out in strong current.
  • Back rowing is the most effective method for breaking strong eddy lines.
  • The best place to enter and exit an eddy is often farther downstream in the eddy where the eddy line is typically not as strong.

Paddle Assists Under certain conditions, such as extremely technical water, participants may need to assist the rower by paddling in the bow of the raft with a raft paddle.

  • For example, smaller oar rigs that navigate technical water benefit from paddle assists. In this case, the raft is commonly rigged with stern frames. This setup provides more room in the bow for paddlers and reduces the likelihood that the oars will hit the paddlers.
  • Center frames are more common on multiday trips in which large, heavy loads are carried and must be balanced in the center of the raft.

Closure Activity

Maneuver Practice (Time as Needed)

Find a challenging place on the river where the current is powerful. Practice various maneuvers in challenging water as the students’ skills develop. Have students take turns executing the maneuvers. An ideal location would be where students can easily recover and row back into the eddy for multiple attempts. Consider placing students downstream to practice throw-bag throwing to assist rafts in moving back into eddies.

Follow-Up Activity

Running Rapids (Time as Needed)

Each day on the river, cycle through your students to allow them to take challenges when they are comfortable. Take advantage of all flatwater opportunities for practicing. The American Canoe Association recommends 14 hours of on-river experience before becoming certified as a raft guide.


Check that students understand specific rowing techniques by having them explain the strokes needed to move the raft to the desired location.
Confirm that students can analyze moving water and pick appropriate maneuvers to navigate a variety of river conditions by consulting with them on the routes that they wish to take and the reasoning behind those choices during a trip.
Verify that students can demonstrate proper rowing techniques by observing them practice each of the rowing techniques during the obstacle course exercise and while on the river.
Check that students appreciate how specific strokes relate to desired maneuvers by observing their improvement as they face more challenging situations.

Teaching Considerations

Using stern frames allows you to teach oar strokes as well as crew management. If you have many students on a course, stern frames allow more room with fewer rafts on the water.
Before you teach this lesson, cover river reading and boat placement for executing maneuvers such as ferries, eddy turns, and peel-outs. Lessons on these topics are found throughout the paddling units, such as in lessons 5 and 6 of unit 6.
Rafting on several rivers allows students to experience different currents and rapids, which builds the knowledge that they need to make informed judgments on future river trips.


This is an excerpt from Technical Skills for Adventure Programming: A Curriculum Guide.

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