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Paddling Strokes: The Basics

Basic paddle strokes

Going kayaking? Here are the basic paddling strokes as taught by REI Outdoor School instructors.

This article teaches you the forward stroke, turning strokes and the boat control strokes so you can get your boat where you want it to go when you want it to go there.

Holding the Paddle

Here's how to come to grips with your paddle:

  1. Picture the width of your shoulders. That, or a little less, is the amount of space that should separate your hands when hold the shaft.
    • If your hand spacing is too wide: You'll gain power but tire out rapidly because this hand position requires a lot of upper-body strength to pull the paddle through the water.
    • If your hand spacing is too narrow: You risk having no strength in your stroke.
  2. Wherever you hold it, avoid applying a death grip on the shaft. It causes fatigue. Instead, use a relaxed grip. Open your fingers slightly and create a loose handhold.
  3. In each hand, press the tips of your index finger and thumbs and create an O shape to loosely hold the shaft. This is a favorable, fatigue-fighting grip that reminds you that you actually push the paddle during most forward strokes.

When your hands are in the correct position:

  • Knuckles are pointed up.
  • One of the blades is vertical (this makes it your "power hand").

Matched blades (blades fixed in a parallel position) are commonly used by beginners. In windy conditions, though, using a "feathered" (angled) blade can cut wind resistance.

When you pull a blade out of the water, wind may hit a flat blade and cause it to behave like a wind-catching sail, creating drag. Feathered blades present less surface area to the wind create less drag.

Most modern paddle shafts include a pop-up button in its center that allows you to feather a blade by 30°, 45° or 60°. Common feathering angles are 45° and 60°.

The ideal angle? It's a matter of personal preference, learned through experience. Most paddlers prefer a high angle because it reduces wind resistance. Beyond 60°, though, a paddler's wrist would be cocked too severely to maintain long-term comfort.

Forward Stroke

The forward stroke, paddling's most fundamental motion, involves more than arm power. A well-executed forward stroke is a collaborative effort that combines upper arms and core muscles (back, abdomen and glutes). Intertwining these muscle groups allows you to efficiently propel your boat while minimizing arm and shoulder fatigue.

Tip: Think of the forward stroke as putting your blade in the water and moving past it rather than pulling a paddle's blade through the water. This allows greater paddling efficiency.

There are several ways commonly used to describe the stages of a forward stroke. This is described one way on the video (i.e., wind-up, catch and unwind). Here's another popular way:

Phase 1 (catch): Wind your torso into the stroke. Dip your paddle on one side of the boat and "catch" a blade's worth of water. (Note: Sometimes the "catch" is considered part of the second, "unwinding" phase.) If placing the blade on the boat's right side, the right side of your rib cage should be angled toward the bow (front).

Tip: The best place to dip your paddle is in an area roughly parallel to your feet.

Phase 2 (propulsion): Unwind, or rotate, your torso as the blade pushes the water behind you. Use core muscles to push past the blade rather than pulling the blade through the water with your arms. This boosts efficiency and reduces fatigue.

Phase 3 (recovery): As the paddle pops out of the water, you're now wound up for the next stroke, with the opposite side of your rib cage angled toward the boat's bow.

Overall, the forward stroke is a continuous, simultaneous push-and-pull motion—a push with the upper hand, a pull with the lower, all resulting in smooth torso rotation.

To add power to your forward stroke:

  1. Think of your hands as extensions of your body.
  2. Imagine throwing a punch with one hand.
  3. Gripping the paddle, position one hand about shoulder height.
  4. From your shoulder, throw an imaginary punch for an extra burst of power. Add aggressive torso rotation for an extra power boost.

In paddling, good technique is more beneficial overall than sheer upper body strength.

Sweep Stroke (for Turning)

What's the simplest way to turn a moving boat? Just drop a blade into the water on either side of the boat. The boat will immediately turn in that direction—but you will lose much of your velocity as you turn.

To turn while sustaining forward momentum, use the sweep stroke.

Phase 1: Lean the boat toward one edge while maintaining a comfortable balance. Extend your arms forward and dip in the blade near your feet to begin your sweep.

Phase 2: Sweep the blade in a wide arc toward the rear of the boat (the stern). The most effective part of this stroke is the rear 20° to 30°. Put some power into your body's rotation to optimize the stroke.

Phase 3: Finish the stroke by lifting the paddle after it comes near or touches the stern. The result should be a nice, gradual, arcing turn with little loss of momentum.

As drivers, we're accustomed to cars on pavement that turn from the front. In the water, however, keep in mind that boats turn from the back.

Draw Strokes (for Pulling Close)

Draw strokes are used to move your boat sideways so you can pull close to a dock or another boat.

The basic draw stroke, sometimes called a T-stroke, works as follows:

  1. Use your arms to extend the paddle away from you.
  2. Place a blade in the water about 2 feet or so from you; the shaft should be on a slight angle with the lower blade tilted away from you.
  3. Use your lower hand to pull the blade straight toward you.

To repeat, twist the blade 90° so the blade can slice through the water away from the boat. The slicing motion is also known as feathering.

If the blade begins to get sucked beneath your boat, resist the urge to apply a prying motion. You could cause your boat to tip. So simply let go and start over. Keep this little rhyme in mind: Don't pry; better to retry.

Sculling is a more powerful and effective draw stroke that requires a little more technique. The motion is like using your blade to spread peanut butter on bread.

  1. Extend the paddle away from you.
  2. Place a blade in the water about 2 feet away; keep the shaft as vertical as possible.
  3. Rotate your wrists so the blade face repeatedly opens and closes as it moves across the water.
  4. Maintain a "climbing angle" with the shaft by pushing gently toward the bow when the face is open, toward the bow when it is closed.

Reverse Forward Stroke (for Stopping)

  1. Drop a blade in the water on one side of the boat then the other to slow your momentum.
  2. Begin to back-paddle as needed. This is simply a reverse of the forward stroke.
  3. Remember to rotate your torso while you back-paddle.

Compensating for Wind

More than any other factor, wind influences kayaks. Anything over 10 knots (11+ miles per hour) begins to affect a kayak. (Water current can also impact a boat.) When sitting on water, your body or any part of your boat can capture wind and act as a sail. This will impact your speed and direction of travel.

If, for example, you have a ruddered boat and the rudder is in the up position on your boat's deck, it can catch wind and potentially hinder your progress.

A direct headwind is the toughest for a paddler to overcome. More often a kayaker is faced with what is known as a quartering wind, where wind hits you on an angle.

If your goal is to paddle straight toward an object and wind blows against you at an angle, your boat will act like a weather vane. For example, if you want to paddle toward noon, and the wind is coming from 2 o'clock, the back end of your boat will want to conform to the wind and fall in line with it, just like a weather vane. Thus the front end of the boat will head right into wind.

How do you correct that? Counteract with corrective paddle strokes, such as a sweep stroke on the opposite side of your boat. Or you can drop your rudder. That's what a rudder is mainly designed to do—to control the back end of the boat and keep it from being blown around in the wind. You can also steer with a rudder, but a rudder's primary use is to minimize the effect of wind.

Other boats have a skeg—a fixed blade that can't be rotated as a rudder can. It effectively acts as a rudder, but it can't be used to turn your boat. It enables you to more easily track a straight line in case you're coping with big winds, or one of your hands tends to overpower the other during your strokes.

Skegs can be fully or partially deployed. Tinker with its positioning as you progress. Try it fully deployed. If that's too much, pull it back just a little bit. With a little experimenting and fine-tuning, you should eventually find a sweet spot.

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