Okay, I’m a beginner who has been paddling since last August. So what the hell do I know about kayaking technique? In the grand scheme of things, not much. However I have practiced Wing Chun kung fu for the last 16 years. A martial art that has a lot of parallels with kayaking. The way the basic movements must be learnt, but then in the fluid application of real world scenarios must flow seamlessly into one another, almost without form. This is very similar to kayaking. So is the preciseness of body structure and balance. Having helped teach this fighting art to people over the years, and having gone through the stages and process of learning, especially in a conceptual basis, I thought I would throw in my thoughts here.
Wing Chun isn’t like arts such as karate which often have fairly rigid movements. Wing Chun’s structure is alive and moving, yet everything must be precise and able to mould itself to the opponent with minimal resistance (just as you kayak in moving water). Because of this similarity, and my knowledge on how to teach and practice this, I practice my kayaking in the same way.
It is very, very easy to simply go out on whitewater because it is fun. However so many people neglect the foundation of what they do in all sorts of physical activities, from Football, to Cricket, martial arts, and yes, kayaking. Sure, you want to have fun, but fun is also a result of noticing your improvements, being able to nail lines more easily, and generally being in more control rather than swimming all the time.
I have been practicing as much as I can on flat water. Each time I go out I practice side draws, hanging draws, break down the forward stroke into its component parts, practice carving etc. I’ll sit there in my boat holding as a extreme an edge as I can and seeing how long I can hold it there for to build my balance and edge awareness. I’ll paddle on one side, and then again on an extreme edge. I’ll sit with my eyes closed and move my paddle around in the water making shapes. I’ll practice creating verticality in my paddle. I’ll practice paddling backwards a lot, as well as practicing backwards paddling while carving from edge to edge.
Some people have asked me why I bother (especially given the number of times that I swim!), citing the fact that in whitewater my movements cannot be perfect, so why try to have perfect form by practicing on flatwater?
It is a legitimate question, but one that is based on misunderstanding. Does a world class footballer wait until they are playing in an important international game before practicing their ball control skills, or do they practice drills over and over between matches? Does a world class sprint athlete wait until the Olympics to practice their start off the starting blocks or do they drill their starting technique over and over in isolation? So why wait until you are on whitewater when you have a thousand different things to process at once to practise your base technique and posture?
By practicing as perfect form and structure as you can, as well as blade awareness on flatwater you build up muscle memory so when you are in the whitewater you can concentrate on your line and other important aspects rather than trying to fight inefficient technique. Certainly what you feel by paddling in flatwater will be very different in moving water, but you have to remember that this is a gradual progression of skill. It won’t happen overnight.
In moving water I need a lot of practice, but the more I drill my core techniques as outlined above and stroke linking on flatwater, the better chance I have of being able to progress faster, with practice, in whitewater.
We have a saying in martial arts that you need to get your hands dirty once in a while. That is to say it is all very well practicing the drills and structures, but at some point you have to enter the dragons den. But the drills and exercises that you have practiced will mean that in the flow of water you can concentrate on the things that are important in that environment. You see a rock, you’ve practiced your hanging draws, bow draws into forward strokes etc etc on flatwater, so now you can automatically react with those instead of flailing about with half arsed inefficient strokes that you never practiced with proper technique. As long as, and this is the important bit, you practiced your flatwater skills with moving water in mind.
Practicing on flatwater won’t help you deal with big wave trains, boils, catchy edges etc that you’d find in whitewater. For those you need to go on… whitewater (though you can still practise balance and recovery on flatwater by catching the boats edges on purpose)! But it will improve your boat control massively. But isn’t flatware a bit dull? That depends. I find it quite interesting to do. I can go out on a quiet river on my own without distractions. Few people I paddle with would want to sit around doing this sort of stuff, so I have no choice but to practise it on my own like a Billy Nomates.
A key thing though is practicing with proper technique, and for that you need some coaching. It is never a good idea to learn by watching others as you may not know what they are really doing, or whether their technique is as good as it could be. Especially if you try and watch people going down a knarly creek somewhere. Better to learn in a learning environment with an expert coach.
Having said that however, I would recommend taking a look at David Arnaud in this promo he made for Fluid Kayaks. Watch the way he flows, only using paddle strokes when needed, completely unfussed.