Until now, I’ve largely stayed away from trying to teach kayaking on my site since there is no shortage of good instructional books and internet resources. However, I have not found a forward touring stroke instructional that I really like, so here’s mine.
First off, know that paddling correctly feels awkward at the start. It’s like learning to play a musical instrument. In the beginning you’ll only get negative feedback, the people who live in the apartment above yours stamp on the floor. But in time, with lots of practice, you’ll play Mozart, and you’ll never stop improving.
You’ll need to hold the paddle correctly.
If you’re right handed
- If you’re using a European or winged paddle, the pointy tip of the blade should be above the rounded tip of the blade.
- The side of the blade that’s facing you should be the power face. On some European paddles it’s smoother or curved towards you a little, on others there’s a line down the center. On Greenland paddles, every face is the power face and on winged paddles it’s the face that’s concave in.
- If your shaft is feathered in order to reduce wind resistance - the blades are not parallel - then the left blade’s power face should be facing the sky when the right face is facing towards you.
- Your hands should be a little bit wider than your shoulders and equidistant from the blades.
- Then you probably have some association with the devil and need to repent.
The goal of the touring stroke is to paddle as many nautical miles over as many hours as possible. Don’t use your arm muscles, they’re not strong enough. If you’re thinking, “But I hit the gym every day and take steroids,” and you’re wearing a tank top in case there was any doubt, then lay off the drugs and know that your arm muscles are not strong enough.
Use your core muscles. If they’re not strong enough yet, then don’t worry because core muscles get strong fast. Kayak a lot and you’ll be able to start wearing t-shirts that are too small and impress people, though like many things, you probably shouldn’t do that in the office.*
In order to use your core muscles you must rotate your body starting at the hips. Imagine a line through you from one armpit to the other. This line should swing back and forth around the vertical axis of your spine to generate your forward momentum.
Here are some things to keep track of, some of them are obvious and others are not, but they are all important:
- Sit up straight. Stick your chest out, be proud to be a kayaker. Everyone who sees you wants to be you.
- Don’t lean forward and backwards with every stroke.
- Keep the angle at the bend of your elbows constant.
- The lower hand should start the stroke a little bit farther from your body than the upper hand.
- Do not pull the lower hand in, that pulling is arm strength. Move the paddle through the water by rotating your core.
- Keep your elbows in front of you. At all times you should be able to place a baguette flat against the front of your life jacket and behind both elbows.**
- This keeps you from over using your shoulders and forces you to use your core. Also, having your elbows in front of you is a stronger body position in the event of a sudden wave or shark attack.
- If you want to get your paddle farther back in the water than you can while keeping your elbows in front, either you’re taking the paddle to far back or you need to rotate around that axis more.
- Relax. Relax your shoulders. Relax your arms. Relax your grip on the paddle so that it’s nearly loose.
- Pull from your armpit, not your shoulder or your arms Your lower arm should be taught like a rope from your armpit to the shaft to the blade. All the power should be coming from the end of the rope, your armpit.
- Your upper arm should be rigid and pushing the paddle forward because that side of your body is swinging forward, and not working beyond that.
- When your business hand pulls on the paddle, you should be pulling predominantly with your loose fingers and not your thumb or your hand.
- The blade should enter the water near your feet and come out just behind your hips. Taking the blade out of the water is the only time you should be changing the angle at your elbow.
- Make sure the entire blade goes in the water. You’re not swatting flies, you’re pulling the boat forward.
- The power face should be perpendicular to the surface, or slightly canted for Greenland paddles.
Once you’ve mastered theses rules, and are confident you’re using your core because those, and maybe your thigh muscles, are the ones that hurt at the end of the day, and your arms don’t and shoulders just a smidgen, then you can add on one more feature.
- Try keeping the business end of the paddle closer to the boat by letting your lower hand swing down instead of out and your upper hand go out in front of you like you’re checking the time.*** You’ll have to rotate your body even farther to keep your lower elbow in front of you.
With your feet, on the business side straighten your leg slightly. On the other side pull your knee up into the brace. This motion resembles pedaling a bicycle and facilitates body rotation at the hips. It should come naturally from good butt and torso movement.
A good way to help get into the right motion is to take the paddle out of the water and hold it horizontally in front of you with your elbows slightly bent. Rotate the line connecting your armpits back and forth keeping the paddle parallel with the line. Once you feel comfortable with this motion, continue it but immerse the blades in the water. Now you’re paddling.
Good luck and I hope to see you on the water.
*Okay, I guess that depends on where you work.
**Unless it's really fresh, in which case you should be eating it.
***If you’re always checking the time on your phone, get a watch so that you know what time it is when you’re on the water and people will treat you like a grownup. Make sure it’s waterproof.