Thursday, May 21, 2015

The Art of Sea Kayaking: Technique

This is part of a series of posts covering what it takes to paddle on the open ocean, exposed to swell and away from easy landings. I'll discuss the techniques and ideas I feel are important to understand in order to safely paddle in such a dynamic environment with the focus on how to approach thing instead of simply how to do things. While my intention is to help guide folks who are newer to the sport and possibly neophytes on the ocean, I hope some of the wisdom I share gives even the most seasoned paddler more to think about. This is not meant to teach any specific skills, but rather to inform people on what they should be learning and give some suggestions for going about it. Many of these things are covered in typical classes (some are not), and I highly encourage instruction from a skilled teacher. But I also know many paddlers learn through experience - properly so - and hope these concepts will lead to better learning experiences.

There's a sequence to these posts for a reason, so if something seems unfamiliar try starting at the beginning. Make sure to read the disclaimers and warnings in Part 1: Introduction. And feel free to ask any questions or share your own thoughts in the comments.


The Theory

As with whitewater, we start with technique. What is really required for ocean paddling? First and foremost is the forward stroke. The vast majority of paddlers work much harder than they have to and are not nearly as efficient or fast as they could be. You’ll spend 90% of your time paddling using your forward stroke; you’ll take one thousand strokes for every mile you cover. You don’t have to be perfect, you don’t have to have a racer’s form, but if you apply the basics of torso rotation you’ll be ahead of the crowd (quite literally).

That’s really what’s important: the basics. There’s a million little points and tweaks that will help eke out a tiny bit more speed, but all most people need are the fundamental concepts that you learn in your first day of kayaking. The power comes from your torso – make sure to wind up before planting the blade in the water. Get the blade in the water early (by your toes) and make sure it’s fully submerged. Once the blade is anchored, unwind your torso, keeping your top arm level (somewhere around chin height – high angle or low angle isn’t that important; you’ll find what feels most comfortable to you). Take the blade out at your hip – you lose efficiency when the stroke goes behind you. This should leave you wound up for the next stroke, and you repeat on the other side. The strength comes from your core, even using your legs to push on the same side as the stroke to help your rotation.

Here's a quick article and video from my friend Sean Morley that lays it out beautifully:

One thing worth mentioning is that many folks with good technique in the harbor lose it when they hit the swells and bumpy conditions of open water. But a strong forward stroke is actually one of the best ways to brace on the water – the power and support that comes from good technique will make you much more stable. Spend more time practicing on flat water and it will help you when things get rough.

To prepare for that rough water, people often spend a lot of time on bracing. Truth is, I hardly ever brace while paddling. You shouldn’t have to. But it’s in the learning how to brace that you discover the skills you really need: edge control and loose hips. Learning how to put your kayak on edge, and more importantly how to paddle and do whatever you need while your kayak is on edge is a necessity for paddling in rough waters. Controlling your edge gives you more directional control, but even more importantly it teaches you how to let your kayak lean with the waves and how to bring it back upright when you need to. The ability to disconnect your upper body from your lower allows the kayak to roll (slightly) and respond to the waves while your upper body stays relaxed and your center of gravity stays over your boat.

Like most things, it’s easiest to start in flat water. A lot of folks think of edging with their knees – pushing up on one and down on the other - or maybe using their hips. That’s fine, but also concentrate on using your body weight. Try to make one cheek heavier than the other. Use as little muscle as possible – the more relaxed you are the more stable the boat becomes.
So I’m not even going to talk about bracing technique (yet – we’ll visit the topic when we reach the surf zone). But definitely DO practice your bracing, just make sure the focus is on the lower body and the kayak, not the blade.

There are some other techniques that are good to know. In addition to the bracing I mentioned, there’s different rescues and rolling. They’re worth their own full discussion, which I’ll get to shortly, so I’ll just mention here that I believe if you paddle on the ocean you need to have a solid solo rescue option. Assisted rescues are great – normally faster and easier – but don’t count on your friends out there. They might be too busy trying to save their own ass to help you out. Be realistic and make sure you can take care of yourself.

Cross-bow draws, low brace turns, side-slips – all those advanced strokes are great but not a single one is necessary for paddling in open water. Learn them, have fun with them, but if your goal is to get out on the ocean, use them to develop boat control and body control so you can stay relaxed and comfortable while the ocean does its thing. You’ll get more use out of your basic sweep strokes.

One steering stroke that’s worth mentioning is the stern rudder. It’s quite easy and very efficient, especially paddling down wind or down-wave, but so many people do it poorly and end up avoiding it. The key to an efficient rudder is getting the blade parallel to the boat. It’s not a reverse sweep. Rotate your body, get the whole paddle on one side with the back blade fully submerged and vertical. Simply extend your back hand while keeping the front one still at shoulder height. The faster you’re moving the more powerful the stroke is, and done properly it takes little effort and produces almost no drag.

More important than any single technique is the simple attitude of trying to improve. If you make a conscious effort and spend some time dedicated to improving how you do things, you will find that it makes a difference as to where you can do things. The more you want to paddle in rough water, the more you want to visit exposed coastlines, especially if you want to play around the rocks, solid fundamentals will get you much further than anything else. If you want to get to Carnegie Hall…

The Practice

I’ve taught a number of forward stroke workshops, where people spend an entire day just working on their forward stroke technique, and I’ve assisted some of the best instructors out there, world champion racers and high level coaches. Such courses are great, and I see people make quick improvements during the day, but when I go paddling with people it’s not the ones who’ve taken the most classes that lead the pack – it’s the ones who’ve practiced. A half-way decent forward stroke, done consistently and on a regular basis, will beat out that top-notch technique you accomplished for a brief period while supervised and never seen again. And it’s so easy to practice – you’re going to be using the stroke anyway so why not try to improve it? All you have to do is put a little mental effort into paying attention to what you’re doing every time you go out.

Your best practice will come when your body is relaxed and you feel comfortable in your boat, so work on your stroke at the start of your paddle, maybe while in protected waters or before the wind comes up. At the end of the day, when you’re tired and just want to get home, it’s a little harder to focus on form. Be aware that something new always feels different – so don’t expect improvement to immediately feel better. What you want to focus on is that the feeling is correct – that you feel your core muscles activating, that your arms seem fairly relaxed without a lot of pushing or pulling, that the blade feels anchored in the water, not sliding through it. Know what your body and the boat should be doing, and even if it feels a little odd keep with it. You’ll soon feel the difference in your speed and have more energy at the end of the paddle.

Flat water is also where to start with your edging. Stationary drills are alright, but try to focus on moving and doing other things while you edge. Simply holding the edge and paddling a serpentine course is a great way to work on skill and control while still heading towards your destination. Use some stern rudders to help change direction. See how they combine with sweeps. When one thing feels comfortable, try blending it into another: sweep stroke into a bow draw; forward stroke form while holding an edge. Combine things and see what happens.

And here’s where I think working on those ‘advanced’ strokes really pays off – you’ll never need to do a cross-bow draw, but the skill it takes to pull one off requires a fair bit of boat control so as you practice one thing you’re really learning several. Same for sculling braces. Go ahead and play around a little.

When you’re ready to try things out in a little more realistic conditions, start easy. Pick a windy day to go paddle in some chop. Find a marina where you can poke out around the breakwall to find swells but just as easily duck back in when you want. The best way to discover what you can handle and what you like is to try it a little bit at a time. Be prepared for some discomfort (or worse: seasickness) the first time you really paddle in swell. A simple part of practice is to experience the general conditions you ultimately want to handle while giving yourself an easy option to escape if things are a little too much for any reason.

But if you find you can handle the conditions, do more than just paddle – get back to practicing. See how different it is when you go downwind versus across it. Same with swell. You’ll find a good forward stroke does wonders for paddling into the wind, and solid edge control and an efficient rudder will let you fly ahead of your companions when traveling with the elements. If you’re too busy trying to survive to spare any thought or energy to your technique then you need to scale back and spend more time in mellower waters. It’s fine to occasionally push it, and even essential for improvement, but if that’s all you ever do you’ll find it takes longer to advance, and for most people it’s less fun-time and more fear-control.

At the end of the day, what you practice isn’t nearly as important as the fact that you do practice. Putting some conscious thought into your actions and doing so on a regular basis. It helps greatly if you have some fun while doing it (this is all supposed to be fun, remember?) and even better if your paddling buddies join in. There’s an old expression that it takes time in the seat to get better. True. But the rate of improvement depends greatly upon what you’re actually doing while in that seat. You don’t need to charge right out into the gnarliest conditions you can handle. It’s attitude, dedication, and persistence that pay off at the end of the day. 


While the better your technique the more you can get out of paddling, and sometimes the safer you’ll be as you do it, technique alone isn’t what makes a good paddler. What goes on in your head is much more important than what your body can do. I start with technique because it’s something you can work on as you start your career. There’s no need to wait, no experience needed before you can begin practicing. And the sooner you start, the more you work on it, the more it will give back.

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