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How to Paddle a Kayak: Basic Strokes

The ability to explore anywhere on a body of water is one of the most appealing aspects of flatwater kayaking. The skill to control your craft, then, is the key to proper exploring. You may paddle efficiently and get to exactly where you want to go by learning a few strokes, such as the ones provided here. We'll go over the fundamentals of kayak paddling:

  • How to grip your paddle for an efficient stroke

  • The forward stroke for—you guessed it—going forward

  • The reverse stroke for slowing down and backing up

  • The sweep stroke for turning

  • The draw stroke for scooting your kayak sideways

If your kayak has a rudder or skeg, practice without it on the water. Your goal is to learn how to turn and track straight using only stroke technique. It's important to practice these strokes until they're second nature in a calm and safe environment.

It is recommended that you learn proper technique from an experienced guide or instructor. When you think how many paddle strokes you'll be doing, all of this attention to detail may seem excessive. You can quickly become exhausted if you have poor form.

How to Hold Your Paddle

To have an efficient, non fatiguing stroke, you must hold your paddle appropriately. In addition, you should have a paddle that is the correct length for you. If you're unsure about yours, consult your guide or a paddle shop, or read How to Choose a Kayak Paddle for more information.

Holding a paddle the right way involves four things:

  1. Knowing what type of paddle blades you have

  2. Orienting the blades properly

  3. Adjusting where you grip the shaft

  4. Relaxing your hands on the paddle shaft

1. Know Your Paddle Blades

  • Are the blades aligned (parallel) or feathered (at an angle)? With matched blades, it's easy to learn. If yours is feathered, look for a push-button and holes ringing the shaft in the center. To parallel the blades, press the button and spin the two shaft halves until they are parallel.

  • Are the blades symmetrical or asymmetrical? If one side of each blade is somewhat shorter than the other, the answer is yes. (This can be subtle, so look closely.) As you drag the paddle through the water, its form helps it track straight (rather than spinning). You have "symmetrical" blades if you see a uniform oval instead. You can learn to paddle with either sort of blade—all you need to know is which one you have.

  • Are the blades slightly concave (curved)? The answer is usually "yes," therefore pay attention to which way the concave side of the shaft faces when you grip it. For a more powerful stroke, this form allows you to "catch" more water.

2. Orient Your Paddle Blades

Pick up the paddle, hold it in front of you and check three things:

  • You want your large knuckles pointed up and your blades perpendicular to the surface of the ground.

  • You want the shorter side of each blade on the bottom. (Not a concern if you have symmetrical blades.)

  • You want the concave side of each blade facing you. (Not a concern if you have completely flat blades.)

If you didn't hold the paddle exactly this way, simply rotate it until your hands and blades are in the desired position.

3. Adjust Where You Hold the Shaft

  • Rest the paddle shaft’s centerpoint on your head.

  • Now readjust your grip along the shaft so that your elbows are at a 90-degree angle.

You'll have "the paddler's box" as you bring the paddle down in front of you, a shape formed by the shaft, your arms, and your chest. Maintaining that box as you stroke aids in proper torso rotation, which is another important aspect of effective technique.

4. Relax Your Grip

Your arms, wrists, and hands will not become exhausted if you maintain a relaxed grasp. It also serves as a reminder to use your torso to propel your paddle:

  • Make an “O” around the shaft with your index finger and thumb.

  • Then rest your other fingers lightly on the shaft.

Forward Stroke

Paddling's most basic stroke, the one you'll spend the majority of your time doing, entails more than just arm strength. The majority of the work should be done by your stronger torso muscles (core and back).

Make sure you're holding the paddle correctly. You're now ready to move on to the three stages of the forward stroke:

  1. The catch phase: Wind your torso and immerse your blade fully on one side of the boat next to your feet.

  2. The power phase: Rotate your torso as the blade moves behind you. Follow the in-water blade with your eyes and your torso will follow. Focus, too, on pushing against the shaft with your upper hand as you move.

  3. The release phase: When your hand reaches just behind your hip, “slice” the blade out of the water.

To repeat, simply dip the out-of-water blade next to your feet. (Your torso will already be properly wrapped.)

Technique Tips:

  • Instead of using your weaker arm muscles to propel your stroke, concentrate on employing your powerful core muscles. If you don't use good technique, your muscles will tire quickly. You'll be more prone to injury as well.

  • Maintain a near-vertical orientation and a continuous (full) level of immersion with the blade. You'll be able to keep your track straighter and travel faster.

  • Keep as upright as possible. You'll keep your equilibrium and improve your efficiency.

  • Throughout the stroke, keep the paddler's box in mind. This will assist you in properly aligning your body for each part of the stroke.

Reverse Stroke

The reverse stroke can be used to stop a moving kayak. If you've come to a halt, use the reverse stroke to get moving again. The backward stroke is exactly the same as the forward stroke:

  1. The drop phase: Wind your torso and immerse your blade fully on the side of the boat next to your hip.

  2. The power phase: Rotate your torso as the blade moves in front of you.

  3. The release phase: When your paddle blade is even with your feet, “slice” the blade out of the water.

To repeat, simply plunge the out-of-water blade next to your hip on the opposite side of the boat. (Your torso will already be wound correctly.)

Sweep Stroke

You'll see the boat slowly moving in the opposite way if you do the forward stroke on the same side of the boat frequently. It is more effective to turn the boat by using the sweep stroke on the side of the boat.

  1. The catch phase: Extend your arms forward and immerse the blade near your feet to begin your sweep. Begin on the opposite side of the boat from the direction you want to turn

  2. The turn phase: Sweep the blade in a wide arc toward the stern of the boat. Put some power into your body's rotation to optimize the stroke, especially after the paddle has passed the cockpit.

  3. The release phase: When the blade approaches the hull behind your cockpit, finish the stroke by slicing the blade out of the water.

The end result should be a smooth arcing turn with minimal momentum loss. If necessary, repeat the sweep stroke or return to your forward stroke.

Technique Tip:

A wide sweep is important, so picture the hands of a clock in the water and try to touch all of the clock numbers along your arc.

Draw Stroke

Draw strokes are used to move your boat sideways. This stroke is useful if you need to pull close to a dock or another boat:

  1. Rotate your paddle blade so it’s horizontal.

  2. Reach out with the tip of your blade to about two feet away, directly on the side of your boat, and touch the water. (Make sure your paddle shaft is angled steeply.)

  3. Use your lower hand to pull the blade straight toward you, keeping the tip of the blade immersed in the water during the stroke.

  4. Stop before the blade hits the side of the boat.

Typically, several draw strokes are needed, so you can repeat the stroke:

  1. Rotate the blade 90 degrees, then slice it out of the water sideways.

  2. Repeat steps 1 through 4 above.

Safety Tip:

If your paddle hits the side of your boat, don't try to pry it out of the water since it could flip your boat over and capsize. If you feel it hit you, simply relax your body and let go of your top hand. Don’t pry - retry.

Credit: Rei Expert, 2021

Paraphrased by: Joey Tai

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