How Hydrospeeding Works

By: Elizabeth Sprouse
Hydrospeeder in Slovenia.
Hydrospeeders love being in the thick of the action. See more pictures of extreme sports.

For thrill seekers looking to get close to the action, you can't get much closer than inside the action. If you like hydrospeeding, you want to find yourself right in the flow of the billowing, frothy rapids of Mother Nature's rivers.

Hydrospeeders ride torso-length boards through rapids. The sport came into being in the 1970s, when a man named Robert Carlson opened a rafting gear business on the West Coast of the U.S. and started teaching water rescue classes. When the boards used kept flipping out under the riders, Carlson developed a new board, the Carlson Riverboard. However, river guides had other plans and started riding them for fun. With this, riverboarding was born.


At the same time, a group of guides in the French Alps had a similar idea and developed their own boards called hydrospeeds, which is where the name hydrospeeding comes from. Whitewater athletes in New Zealand also got in on the action and developed their own version, the sledge.

Regardless of what you call it, this sport is garnering fans worldwide, as illustrated by the guide companies dotting the globe. Guided tours are available to match your level of experience and provide instruction. And if it sounds enticing to ride large rapids, you're not alone in your opinion. Hydrospeeding has a hold on about one-third of whitewater sports activity in Europe and is gaining favor in the United States. In fact, the United States Riverboarding Association was established in 2005, and global competitions are growing in popularity, including in the United States.

Before you go scout out a river, though, it doesn't hurt to do some research. Here, you'll learn the physics behind the sport, tips and safety measures. Let's get started with how the board and river work together to give you one wild ride.


The Physics of Hydrospeeding

Life on a river is similar to picking your vacation destination. You can go with a calm trip with plenty of relaxation, a busy itinerary packed to the brim with activities or a mixture of the two. And when you go hydrospeeding, you can also pick the mood of your ride when you select the type of rapids you want to meet. Rapids are distinguished by difficulty to navigate, from class I through the impossible-to-ride class VI. Class I rapids are easy, small waves, while IV or V are more violent and difficult to ride. The higher the class, the more you need to factor in the hydraulics of the river.

The hydraulics, or behavior of water over obstacles, is affected as water flows over those obstacles, such as logs and rocks. This can create unpredictable situations where a swimmer might be pulled under water. However, it also creates opportunities for whitewater athletes with hydrospeeds in hand to use the hydraulics to perform tricks and ride the rapids.


What does this mean? This means that where a lone swimmer may have a hard time fighting the hydraulics of a river, folks out hydrospeeding can use their boards to stay afloat, steer and protect their bodies. The board provides added buoyancy, or ability to float, in the river, which keeps the individual on a horizontal plane on top of the water -- meaning he or she won't get sucked down by the hydraulics.

With this added buoyancy, your ability to ride down a river and use the physics of the water flow to your advantage is enhanced. In fact, this is known as "reading the river." Reading the river involves three steps, as follows:

  • Approach: Line yourself up along the path you want to take to enter the rapids, overcompensating when needed to ensure you avoid obstacles like logs. Then, watch your route as you go so you can adjust in time if needed.
  • Entry: Enter the rapid where planned, as it will be challenging to change your route now.
  • Rapid: Now, hold onto your board, lift your legs, steer and ride your rapid!

Think you're ready to read a river yourself? Continue to the next section to pick up some tips to get started.


Hydrospeeding Tips

The open river is calling, and you're ready to get started? First, you need to have substantial athletic endurance and be a strong swimmer. Therefore, your first task is to take swimming lessons if needed.

Your second task is to get started safely. Venture out into calm water to test your skills. The board should end at the bend in your waist, freeing your legs. Roll around on your board to get the feel of it and practice for balance. Use your upper body for balance and steering; use your lower body for steering and movement forward. Practice kicking hard, stopping and turning.


Once you're comfortable, move to short class III rapids. Become familiar with how the water pushes and pulls you. If you flip backwards, move up on your board more. In this safer environment, practice falling in to see what that's like. Don't forget to read the river, as explained in the previous section.

After you have built up a strong relationship with hydrospeeding and ridden some stronger rapids, you may be ready to perform some whitewater tricks. You'll find you have some nice trick options available to you -- all with fun names like boogie surfing and el rollo. If you're out with a guide, talk to them about these tricks and other ones you might be ready to add to your lineup. Here's a quick description of boogie surfing and el rollo to get that conversation rolling like the river you're riding!

  • Boogie surfing: Sometimes, the hydraulics of a river create a "hole" as the water flows over an obstacle and back down onto itself. In these areas and others with rapids similar to the ocean, you can potentially go boogie surfing and ride in one place. Enter from the side of the hole and make a 90-degree turn back to facing upriver -- kicking and keeping the board's front above water as you turn.
  • El rollo: In an el rollo, you basically roll over. Face forward upriver. Hold on tight as you drop over the wave and then flip yourself onto your back. Roll all the way over and kick your way back into the wave.

Now that you've picked up a few pointers, boogie over to the next section for some important safety reminders. After all, who wants to be sidelined by a preventable injury?


Hydrospeeding Safety

When it comes to extreme sports, proper safety precautions can not only be your best friend, but also a true lifesaver. Consider the following before venturing out to the river:

  • Be honest about your swimming capabilities and physical strength. You will need to be a strong swimmer and physically fit to tackle hydrospeeding. Take care of these two things first before scheduling your trip.
  • Never go into a part of a river beyond your ability.
  • Never go alone and choose experienced companions.
  • Wear all of your gear -- helmet, personal floatation device, wet suit, booties, gloves, knee pads, shin guards and fins.
  • If you get stuck in the hydraulics of the river, remain calm. Relax to see if the river will naturally pull you out. If this doesn't work, try rolling over within the hydraulic down the river.

As much as these tips will make your trip safer, you also need to use your best safety advocates: your own quick thinking and common sense. Always be aware of your surroundings and keep an eye on where you're heading so you can avoid any hazards. Take a break and get out of the water and scout the river for obstacles.


For example, avoid logjams -- one or more logs obstructing a river's flow. Stay away from sieves, which are areas where water gets caught around obstacles. When looking for a sieve from the shore, you'll see the river flow into the obstacle, but might not be able to tell where it comes out.

While you're at it, also be on the lookout for eddies, areas that are almost like a whirlpool, and shallow, rocky rapids. Most importantly, look down the river to make sure you aren't approaching a waterfall out of your league. From on the river, you can watch the horizon line and listen for the loud noises associated with waterfalls.

Keeping these safety measures in mind, you, too, can join in on the action and hop in the river. And whether you decide to call your new sport hydrospeeding, riverboarding or sledge, you'll be following in the wake of other adventurers and creating your own way down the river.


Lots More Information

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  • Face Level. "A Brief History of Riverboarding, Sledge & Hydrospeed." September 15, 2007. (December 6, 2009)
  • Face Level. "Boogie Surfing & Riverboarding Tricks." November 12, 2007. (December 6, 2009)
  • Face Level. "Choosing the River." November 12, 2007. (December 6, 2009)
  • Face Level. "Extreme Riverboarding Tips." April 9, 2008. (December 6, 2009)
  • Face Level. "Frequently Asked Questions." January 5, 2008. (December 6, 2009)
  • Face Level. "Picking the Line." November 12, 2007. (December 6, 2009)
  • Face Level. "Reading Whitewater." November 12, 2007. (December 6, 2009)
  • Face Level. "Riverboarding 101." November 12, 2007. (December 6, 2009)
  • Face Level. "Riverboards, Airboards, Inflatables and Bodyboards." March 26, 2008. (December 9, 2009)
  • Face Level. "Scouting the River." September 15, 2007. (December 6, 2009)
  • Howard, David. "On a Riverboard, It's Down the Creek Without a Paddle." The New York Times. May 27, 2005. (December 6, 2009)
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  • Rafting America. "River Ratings." (December 8, 2009)
  • Stires, David. "Rapid Transit Riverboarding -- its' like rafting without the raft -- is the next wave in whitewater fun. David Stires takes a ride on the Wenatchee River in Washington State." Fortune. July 21, 2003. (December 6, 2009)
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