A little bit goes a long way

Seriously. You don’t necessarily need to make big changes in your paddling technique to see big gains in your paddling proficiency. You’re part-way there already. Honing just a couple of basic kayaking fundamentals can make a difference in whether you catch that big wave or that tough eddy. The better you get; the greater the result. Here are some small changes to play around with and test out the next time you’re on the river or in the surf. I promise you’ll see results when you implement these changes.

  • First, recognize intent and form your stroke to that intent. No matter which way you want your boat to go, the most effective blade angle to achieve that will place and keep the flat part of the blade and the force it produces pointed 180? opposite to that direction. In other words, if you want to move forward, you want a flat (power) blade face oriented directly toward the rear: Not upward, not downward, not left, not right….Straight Back.Ask yourself: “What do I do to my stroke to make that happen?” If you want your boat to turn, the same applies. If you want to turn left, you want your blade applying pressure directly away from the boat to the right at the bow (for a right bow sweep stroke) or directly toward your stern (for a right stern draw stroke). Not upward, not downward, not out at 45? to the side of the boat. Any off-angle efforts produce less-than-ideal effects. The longer the blade and stroke can be maintained at an ideal angle during the stroke, the more effectively that stroke will achieve your intent.Similar to blade angle, ask whether your intent is to make the boat move straight ahead or back or rather to turn. If it is straight ahead or back, you want the blade to apply force near the center of spin of the boat and will therefore be using a very vertical shaft angle. If the intent is to turn the boat, you want the blade applying force away from the center of spin and therefore want a very horizontal shaft angle with the blade near the bow or stern.

    If the intent is to roll the boat (e.g. a C-to-C roll) or keep the boat from rolling (e.g. a low brace), the blade face and shaft should be parallel to the water’s surface with the force/counter force applied far away from the center of spin (or, in this axis; rotation).

  • Forward/power stroke: Rotate your entire forward stroke farther forward. You may just try catching it 1″ at a time farther forward. Plant this mind-worm in your brain when the instant arrives that you know you’ll need more power for a move. Gain that extra little bit of power by winding your shoulders up; not by just bending forward. You don’t need to make the stroke longer; just more forward. You can release earlier. The chances are that your current release is too far rearward already. Remember we want to draw the boat to the anchored paddle; not push water backward.By enhancing your rotation, you’ll generate more energy from your core and that energy will be delivered to the boat more closely to centerline. Use this new forward position to gain better aggressive body contact with (and control of) the boat. Use this new position and its intent to make a solidly planted and executed stroke, making more use of the more efficient position of the stroke. Make. Each. Stroke. Count. Windmilling a bunch of short, ineffective strokes will never deliver the result of fewer, well applied ones.
  •  Stern draw stroke: Any time your kayak is moving forward through (or relative to) the water, it is creating a bow/pressure wave ahead of it that tends to lock the bow in place. Therefore, it is the stern that will most easily turn. If you find that you tend to be “blown out” of ferries with your bow turning downstream, the correction stroke you need to enhance is the stern draw. This is counterintuitive and most will try to correct a failing ferry using a series of choppy strokes near the downstream bow. It doesn’t work very effectively.Practice your stern draw by ensuring the blade stays completely caught and applying power all the way to near-touching the stern edge of the boat before release. Keep the blade vertical in the water all the way to the stern. Most people will let the blade angle start curling upward as it moves behind their body. The latter only serves to lift water upward and push the bow downward, rather than the intent of turning.(Note that if paddling/ferrying backward, the pressure wave and thus the end of the boat that wants to turn is reversed and correction strokes will become bow reverse sweeps or bow draws)
  • Posture forward: Remember that “aggressive posture” you were  taught in your beginner kayaking course? When game time arrives and you’re at the top of the drop or the crest of a wave about to make your big move, be sure to have your boat weighted ever-so-slightly forward with your pelvis rotated forward and knees/thighs firmly engaged for contact with the boat. This nuanced change from a relaxed position places you in firm control of the boat. It helps minimize any tendency for water to pile up on your stern or catch and grab your stern edges. If you suddenly need to change the pitch (forward-aft) of your boat rearward, it is much easier and quicker to correct by shifting weight to the rear by tilting back than by drawing forward. Get in the habit of resetting to this aggressive position right before the going gets tough and it will serve you well. From this position, plant your paddle through and across any features (holes/waves) that momentarily slow or halt your momentum and draw yourself through it, keeping that upstream edge or end up and water flowing underneath.
  • Eyes up: Your eyes are the windows to your balance. You don’t need to look at your paddle blade or your bow. Keeping your eyes up to the horizon gives your vestibular system the real-world beta it needs to keep your balance, keep you upright and gives you early-clues about the boat’s movement in the three dimensions. Keeping your eyes up will improve your surfing by being able to see the boat’s lateral and longitudinal position and movement on the wave and allow you to better anticipate needed shifts in pitch. Keeping your eyes up enhances your aggressive, chest-out posture in the boat and allows you to more easily and effectively engage torso rotation for power. Besides the benefit of better balance,  looking up and out allows you to anticipate lines and avoid obstacles: plan ahead.

You don’t need to be an olympic athlete or a sponsored paddler to make these changes and improvements to your paddling, although I’ll guarantee that if you watch top-level paddlers you’ll find they incorporate all of these suggestions in their paddling. They know these fundamentals of physics and of boat/body mechanics play a real role in the success that they’ve achieved. Just give yourself a mental checklist as you paddle or practice and see how many of these you can incorporate and enhance to finally find yourself on that elusive wave.

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