Paddling a kayak is hard to do gracefully. When you stop and think about it, you’re sitting in a chair at water level, windmilling your arms with little leverage, and are likely afraid of dumping yourself into the drink. But paddling can also be a graceful, effortless ballet with the water, and when you see a truly skilled paddler dancing in their boat, it’s a joy to watch. Whether your playground is whitewater rivers, the sea, or calm lakes, here are some tricks to become more fluid while on the water.
A Farewell to Arms
At first glance, paddling seems like an upper-body sport. But that’s the greatest fallacy of paddling. All your arms should be doing is holding the paddle and putting it in the right position. The power comes from your legs, pushing against the bulkhead or foot pegs, and then triggering a rotation through your hips and core.
Just like your mom nagged you: sit up straight. In fact, lean ever so slightly forward. Keep your hands just a hair wider than shoulder-width apart, keep a light grip on the paddle, put the balls of your feet on the bulkhead or foot pegs, and put your knees under the thigh braces. This gives you the best combination of paddling power and boat control through contact with your feet, hips, knees, and butt.
Separate Your Upper and Lower Body
Most boat control happens below the sprayskirt with subtle shifts of your weight. Graceful paddlers can make a kayak turn, go straight, or accelerate—without doing anything visibly different. The ability to move the lower body in a totally different direction from your torso is the biggest aspect of making a kayak dance. You’ll end up finding find a bunch of small muscles in your hips, butt and lower abdomen that you didn’t know you had in the process.
Live on the Edge
Edge your boat with your butt, hips, and knees. Tilt the boat to one side without changing what you do with your upper body—again, think of the two as separate. Kayaks are designed to be edged: that’s how to carve turns, ferry across currents, or counteract the effects of wind. Big beamy kayaks are harder to edge, so while they feel more secure to beginners, they don’t perform as well in the wind or dynamic water. Once you learn to roll, your edging will become even more confident—it’s at 360-degree world.
Use Your Trim
Subtle body movements aren’t just to tilt the kayak side to side. Use shifts in your weight forward and back (or fore and aft, if you want to get nautical). Subtle shifts forward will make a kayak turn down current or upwind, and leaning back slightly—as long as you’re not far out of the power position for long—will make things head up current or downwind.
Back it Up
Paddle backward. Turn going backward. Go straight going backward. Use different edges and trims going backward. Two things will happen. First, you’ll have to use your legs and core to get power, which means you’ll learn to stop using your arms. Second, you’ll learn the cause and effect of what strokes and edges do. You’ll be confused at first, but, once you figure it out you’ll have a blast.
Play! Race around buoys or pilings, do slalom courses between your buddies, retrieve tennis balls, invent games, have water fights. You’ll stop worrying about what you’re doing and just do it—and that’s when you’ll learn the best. And you’ll have a smile on your face.
Stay relaxed. Don’t worry about tipping over and simply have fun on the water. When you relax, your body stays looser—which makes a capsize even less likely. Look around. Watch the wildlife, joke around with your buddies, and enjoy being on the water. Graceful paddling comes from having fun.