Common Kayak Paddling Mistakes
by Jon Nelson
By paddling more efficiently, especially on forward strokes, you can paddle longer distances, finish familiar trips with more in the tank, and impress youngsters with your newly found athleticism. Wildwater and whitewater slalom racers have to learn to paddle efficiently in order to be at the top of their sport, so they often exhibit good form.
1. Paddle Grip too Narrow (or, rarely, too wide). Get the proper distance between your hands in the following manner: With both hands on the paddle, place the shaft on top of your head – your forearms should be at a 90-degree angle to the upper arms. Put tape on the paddle shaft to mark this distance. A little narrower is okay, but avoid limiting your reach and power by too narrow a grip. The tape also helps keep your hands equal distance from the blades (so you don’t paddle in circles).
2. Avoid Paddle Hugging. Novices tend to hold their paddle too low and too close to their bodies, and then paddle with excessively low and bent elbows. Paddle hugging also means the paddle shaft is too horizontal (like a sweep stroke) resulting in – you guessed it – the boat going in circles. Keep your upper arm at eye level and extend the stroke until the arm almost straightens. Studies in other sports demonstrate that the stronger back muscles are activated by keeping the hand slightly inside of the elbow. Think of a boxer throwing a right-hook or a shot-putter’s arm position. In cross-country skiing, double-poling is more efficient if the hands are kept inside the elbows. Cut off the stroke when the lower hand reaches your hip – going beyond the hip just lifts water and doesn’t add to forward propulsion. This means the top hand does not cross the center line of the boat very much and the lower arm stays fairly horizontal while pulling.
3. Lack of Torso Rotation. Novices lock their torso in a stiff upright position. Instead, adopt an athletic stance with a slight forward lean of the torso. Don’t be so tight in the kayak as to limit your ability to shift your hips slightly (think of pumping some with the feet). The torso rotation comes at the beginning of the stroke (called the “catch” phase), and it must come from the waist. Don’t confuse torso rotation with extension by bobbing the body back-and-forth. This is a common mistake among intermediate paddlers. Single-Stroke Drill: paddle with only one blade; concentrate on reaching as far forward as possible and stretching the back muscles. Don’t go beyond the hip. After 3-4 strokes on one side, switch to the other side. Lean the boat to the active side.
4. Splash on the Catch. Nothing limits your efficiency like a stroke that splashes water, either because the blade is not firmly planted before “power” phase begins or the paddler drops the blade on the surface, rather than inserting it. Try to paddle forward aggressively with no splash whatsoever. Think about inserting the blade almost vertically in the water and pulling the boat forward to the blade (in fact, the blade doesn’t travel as far in the water as you think it does). Pause-and-Catch Drill: Pause between each stroke, letting the boat glide some, and then insert the blade fully in the water. Pull as hard on the blade as you can, but alternate sides. Avoid rolling the boat from side to side. Keep it flat in the water. Here is an on-line animated demo of the forward stroke: http://web.mac.com/jamesgstuart/iWeb/Site/C%26K_Forward_Stroke.html
5. Wind-up, Catch, & Un-wind. So, by now you have the basics of an efficient forward stroke. The “wind-up” is the extension due to torso rotation and the “catch” is the planting of the complete blade in the water, placed close to the boat with a fairly vertical paddle. The “unwind” or “power” phase is the drive of the top arm and the horizontal pull of the lower arm (the main source of power combined with the torso). The un-wind is also the wind-up for the next stroke. As the lower hand reaches the hip, there is a recovery as the blade is sliced out of the water. All of this is accomplished better if you hold the paddle shaft in the fingers (like a baseball bat), rather than in the palm of the hand. And avoid too tight a grip of the paddle by relaxing the top hand on each stroke.
6. Paralysis on the River. No, this not the title of a new Meryl Streep–Kevin Bacon movie. Novices often freeze up and stop paddling when the whitewater action starts to overwhelm them. Instead, try to stay relaxed and keep an athletic position in the boat. Avoid leaning back when big waves threaten or when you start down a drop into the action below. Don’t get knocked over backwards. Keep a smooth controlled forward stroke, and remember that trouble is often best avoided by hitting it at right-angles. A bit of timing helps as the downstream face of waves contain solid water. Time your forward strokes to reach over the wave or beyond the hole. Relax. Nothing inhibits good paddling so much as a fear of the water.
7. Do Paddle into the Eddy. Many novices approach an eddy with the boat’s bow facing downstream and stop paddling when the bow reaches the eddy line. This has several undesirable effects: (1) the boat has to be turned 180-degrees to face upstream in the eddy; (2) the boat spins on the eddy line, which is unstable water; and (3) you don’t really catch enough of the eddy with the boat to be able to stop. Instead, do this: (1) turn some in the current and time the approach with the boat more perpendicular to the eddy line; (2) paddle into the eddy – in many cases, this means just one more stroke to get the front half of the boat into the eddy. When you feel the eddy begin to stop the boat’s momentum, put it on edge and insert a draw stroke.
8. Do Paddle out of the Eddy. Exiting an eddy involves the same principals – timing the strokes, letting the water do some of the work, and putting the boat on edge (and keeping it there). Time your strokes so the last stroke in the eddy is on the upstream side. The next stroke can be a draw on the downstream side or maybe a bracing stroke. In either case, the boat has to be on its downstream edge, accomplished with the knees and hips. All paddlers have dropped their upstream edge or shifted their weight to the upstream, and done an inevitable underwater “trout survey.” Successful paddling means maintaining weight control, edge control, and paddle bracing on the downstream side. Failure to use strong, well-timed strokes can mean the boat doesn’t really exit the eddy, and the paddler ends up half-in and half-out on the unstable eddy line.
9. Practice, Practice, Practice. There are lots of simple drills. I like to do drills for the big muscle groups as a warm up (single-blade, pause & catch, offside single-blade, reverse paddling, sweeps) and drills for the smaller arm muscles (sculls, draws, pivots).