Paddling a kayak doesn’t seem that hard, right? It involves dipping the paddle blades in the water and pulling yourself along the water’s surface. How hard can that be?
The reality is that learning to paddle efficiently and effectively is challenging and takes time to master. Learning to paddle the right way has several benefits for your kayaking experience. You’ll find you don’t tire as fast with the right paddling technique.
Learning to paddle your kayak the right way requires understanding effective paddling techniques. It might seem simple, but the slightest changes to your paddling can make a huge difference in how your kayak performs on the water.
This post unpacks the nuances of learning how to paddle a kayak. We’ll look at the best techniques to get you moving.
- Holding the Kayak Paddle – Hand Placement and the Paddler’s Box
- How to Paddle a Kayak – Basic Paddling Techniques For Beginners
- Learning Kayaking Paddling Techniques – The Strokes
- Positioning and Maneuvering the Kayak
- In Closing – Practice Makes Perfect
Holding the Kayak Paddle – Hand Placement and the Paddler’s Box
Your hand placement on the paddle is the first place to start with learning the correct paddling technique. Follow these tips when setting up your paddling grip.
- Keep your hands slightly wider than shoulder-width apart.
- Keep your knuckles facing up as you hold the paddle.
- Ensure your hands are at an equal distance from the ends of the shaft.
- If you have the right paddle size, your hands should be around 6-inches from the end of the shaft.
- Keep your elbows bent at approximately 90-degrees, forming the “paddling box.”
- Orient the paddle blades perpendicular to the water’s surface.
- The shorter edge should be towards the water’s surface if you have symmetrical blades.
- Keep your grip relaxed but secure.
- Your power hand should have a firmer grip on the shaft but not tight.
- If you’re a right-handed person, your right hand is your power hand, and vice versa.
- Maintain a loose “O” shaped grip with your other hand.Your Sitting Position and Posture for Paddling
You might not realize it, but your sitting position in the kayak has a lot to do with your paddling efficiency and effectiveness. Many beginners overlook the importance of posture in their paddling technique. This is a mistake.
Your paddling posture determines how much drive you can generate with your paddling stroke. If you have poor posture in the boat, you’re going to reduce paddling efficacy, and you might end up experiencing an injury, like a sprained lower back.
Follow these guidelines for the correct sitting posture in your kayak.
- Sit up straight, with no curve in your spine.
- Pull your shoulders back and push your chest out to engage the shoulders and upper back in the paddling movement.
- Never slouch in the seat when paddling, or you risk tiring yourself out and injuring your back.
- Some kayaks come with optional seats featuring lower-back support.
- A seat allows you to lounge into it, supporting your back while paddling in the correct position.
- Brace your feet against the footpegs. It will enable you to bring your core into your paddling technique.
- Keep the legs slightly bent at the knees to accommodate movement.
- Rest your upper thighs, not your knees, against the thigh braces.
- The thigh braces combined with bracing against the foot pegs give you a powerful paddling platform.
How to Paddle a Kayak – Basic Paddling Techniques For Beginners
After you understand how to hold the paddle and sit in the kayak, it’s time to move on to learning paddling techniques. It might surprise you to discover there are several paddling techniques. Let’s look at each of them in detail.
Understanding the Stroke
We can break down the paddling stroke into three separate movements. Each phase of the paddling stroke serves a specific purpose, and kayakers must be competent in each of the three areas.
The wind-up involves how you position your body throughout the paddling stroke. You use your core muscle in the lower back and abdomen to wind up the paddle in your stroke direction. The upper arm on the paddle should have a slight bend in the wrist when it gets level with your face.
The catch is the phase of the paddling stroke where the blade enters the water. Unwinding your core will pull the blade through the water. The arms are a guide, and your core does the work. Newbies may find it challenging to engage their core, especially if they are unfit and out of shape. If so, it’s time to build a workout routine focusing on building core strength.
The unwind is the recovery phase of the paddling stroke. You need the proper form to set you up to execute an appropriate paddling stroke. As soon as the blade emerges from the water, use your elbow to guide the stroke and reset into the wind-up for the other side.
Each of your strokes should be purposeful, fluid, and consistent. You’ll need to learn how to link all three phases of the stroke into one continuous movement. Every person has a slightly different paddling technique. It’s fine to make small adjustments if it doesn’t reduce paddling performance.
Learning Kayaking Paddling Techniques – The Strokes
The Forward Stroke
The forward paddling technique is the most common in kayaking, and it’s the first stroke a beginner learns. You’ll be using the forward paddling stroke around 90% of the time you’re on the water. Follow these tips to optimize your forward paddling stroke.
- Sit in the correct posture and focus your eyes on the horizon, don’t look down.
- Brace your feet against the footpegs and your thighs against the thigh braces to engage your core.
- Anchor the paddle blade in the water by your feet.
- Insert the paddle into the water as close to the side of the boat as possible.
- The paddle should be fully submerged and the shaft in a near-vertical position when dipping the blade into the water.
- Engage your core muscles, pulling the paddle along the side of the hull towards you, creating the force you need to drive the kayak forward.
- When the paddle blade aligns with your hips, slice the blade out of the water to reduce drag.
- Slightly rotate your upper body and hips, dipping the other blades into the water to complete the stroke on the other side.
The Sweep Stroke
Learning the forward stroke takes time, but you’ll get it right with enough practice. However, turning the kayak requires you to understand how to execute the sweep stroke. Some kayaks have a built-in rudder, so the sweep isn’t important.
However, if you’re using a rudder-less kayak, you’ll have to master the sweep to turn effectively. You can drop the paddle blade into the water and brace against it to turn the kayak, but executing the sweep stroke gives you a precision turn in a tight space.
Here’s how to execute the sweep stroke.
- Extend the arm and drop the right blade to turn left and the left blade to turn right.
- Start the sweep with the blade positioned in the water around your toes.
- Sweep the blade, forming a wide arc, reaching the paddle as deep into the water as possible.
- Imagine that you’re drawing the letter “C” with your stroke.
- Pull the paddle blade toward you and rotate your hips, keeping your arm straight during the movement.
- Pull the blade to the stern until it’s around 10-inches away from the hull.
- Finish the stroke by slicing the blade out of the water.
- The kayak should make a gradual, controlled turn with no reduction in momentum.
- Repeat the sweep stroke if you need to turn more.
The “reverse sweep” stroke is more or less the stroke in reverse. Follow the instructions above from back to front to execute the reverse sweep.
The paddle blade enters the water at the stern, traveling in the opposite direction towards your toes. You stop the reverse sweep at your toes.
There are occasions when the waterway is too narrow to turn the kayak around. So, you’ll have to know how to reverse paddle the yak back to open water. To execute the reverse stroke, you’ll run the reverse of the forward paddling stroke, moving the paddle blade from stern to bow.
Here is how you execute your reverse paddling technique.
- Bring your paddle to the kayak’s stern and wind up your core and torso in the same direction.
- Follow the paddle blade with your eyes, and your body will follow where your eyes lead it.
- Ensure you’re looking behind you.
- Dip the blade in the water and pull your paddle towards the bow, keeping it parallel to the boat’s sides.
- When the paddle blade reaches your feet, slice it out of the water and repeat it for the other side.
Positioning and Maneuvering the Kayak
The Draw Stroke
The draw stroke helps you make precise turns. It’s a useful technique when docking or pulling alongside a friend’s boat.
Here’s how to execute the draw stroke.
- Rotate the paddle blade horizontally, turning your body in the direction you want to move.
- Extend your arms and dip the paddle blade in the water around two feet from the side of the kayak.
- Pull the blade towards you using your bottom hand.
- Stop the stroke before hitting the side of the hull, slicing the blade sideways out of the water.
- You may have to execute more than a single draw stroke. So, recover the paddle blade and repeat the process.
The Sculling Stroke
The sculling stroke is possibly the most challenging stroke to master in kayaking. When you get it right, it’s the most powerful stroke for turning your boat.
Here’s how to execute the sculling draw.
- Wind up your core and torso to the side of the boat.
- Dip the blade in the water and hold the paddle upright in a near-vertical position.
- Keep your upper-arm high and bend your elbows at a 90-degree angle.
- Turn the power face of the blade toward the kayak.
- Open the power face in the direction of your sweep and move the paddle back and forth, traveling a short path.
- Keep your movement parallel to the hull, using a continuous stroke with the blade fully underwater.
Carving and Edging the Kayak
If you’re dealing with strong winds or current, you’ll need to know how to carve and edge if you want to stay on track. You can use the carving technique on its own or combine it with the turning methods mentioned above.
Carving and edging is a versatile and powerful paddling technique, allowing you to maneuver the kayak in the presence of current or wind. Carving and edging are two different techniques, but you’ll need to use them together to get the best result from your effort.
When executing the carve, you might feel like the kayak will capsize, buts that’s normal. Here’s how to carve and edge your kayak correctly.
- Keep your eyes on the horizon. Your kayak goes where you’re looking, so don’t look down.
- Push a knee against the hull and shift your weight to your opposite hip simultaneously.
- The curve in the hull will submerge it on one side, lifting the other.
- You’ll need to stay upright. Don’t lean with the kayak, or you’ll capsize.
- Hold your edge, and then roll it over by raising your opposite knee slowly.
- When you carve, it means you hold the edge, throwing a forward stroke into the action. It will take plenty of practice, and don’t expect to nail it on your first try or your 50th.
In Closing – Practice Makes Perfect
Paddling is all about practice. It’s time in the seat that makes great paddlers. If you have a pool at home, you can practice your paddling. Secure the kayak to a tree and leave it floating in the water. This strategy allows you to paddle in the pool, keeping the yak in a static position.
Learning the correct paddling technique will go a long way to improving your kayaking experience. However, the best way to improve your paddling is to get out onto the lake or the ocean. You’ll find you have developed the perfect paddling technique with enough time. Good luck with your kayaking adventures!