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The forward stroke is one of the most important techniques in paddling, for obvious reasons. But there are a few things to take into account when trying to improve it, and also some important takeaways with regard to its relevance to pretty much all other strokes, even sweep strokes.

Before reading the rest of this, you might want to get yourself two things. Your kayak paddle, and a cup of tea.

Firstly let’s get some obvious traits of a good forward stroke, or indeed any stroke, out of the way. Many of you will know these already, some may not.

  • A good stroke is quiet. The paddle slips into the water with minimal splash and noise. During the stroke minimal to no water is splashed or lifted.
  • Do not bring the stroke too far back. This lifts water, which is not only inefficient for driving the boat forward, but because you are ‘connected’ to the paddle it has the effect of sinking the boat, creating drag.
  • Get the paddle deep into the water to maximise its drive.
  • The more vertical the stroke, the more forward drive. The more horizontal the stroke, the more turning power it creates.
  • The stroke is powered by your core, which is connected from your feet at its base, to your shoulders, which are connected to your arms, which are connected to your paddle. This is called stacked power, and everything moves as a unit, not as separate unlinked structures.
  • Your aim is to move the boat past the paddle, not the paddle past the boat. In other words if you place the catch for the paddle in line with a tree on the bank, as you take the stroke your paddle should stay roughly aligned with the tree while your boat moves past it.
  • Your paddle is a lever, not a spatula.

Important considerations

It is quite tempting in the course of learning better forward paddling to look to disciplines that specialise in doing it, such as sprint kayaks. Slalom is also a place people look.

But while slalom is excellent to get techniques and methods from, both sprint kayaks and slalom kayaks have some key differences to them, which makes direct transfer of their methods not quite fully translatable. Although there are some important parts of their technique that are relevant. But let’s look at the factors at play that we need to be aware of.

Sprint kayaks and to a lesser degree, but still important, slalom boats, are much narrower than the majority of modern white water kayaks. Back when river runners were also peoples slalom boats and vice versa the techniques were directly transferable.

But the width of modern white water boats has an effect on how one stroke carries on to the next. There’s also a big difference when it comes to feet.

Now WW kayakers are often taught to use their feet more when taking strokes. This is a very important aspect to strokes that by their own admission a lot of kayakers don’t do enough.

But what usually gets taught is to use pressure on the same foot as the side you are taking your stroke on. This generally comes from sprint or marathon kayakers. If you watch the Olympics you can clearly see each leg alternating as the athlete paddles along. So what’s wrong with this?

The key is to know why a sprint kayaker does this movement. And the reason is because it rotates the hips, aiding with the powering of the stroke. But in a sprint kayak the seat that the athlete is sitting on actually pivots. In a WW boat it doesn’t. Not only that, but in a WW boat we have tight hip pads and thigh braces ensuring we are connected to the boat’s hull to make things like edging easier and more precise.

In other words, we are so locked in that our hips cannot rotate in the seat. At least not to a useful degree. Another important difference is that a sprint kayaker is only going in a straight line. They have a very set rhythm and are not having to make micro stroke adjustments to turn the boat slightly or react to waves continuously.

It simply isn’t practical in a scenario where a gazillion things are happening at the same time to have a nice precise single leg push for each alternate stroke side.

A Nelo Sprint Kayak seat, showing the rotating pivot in the middle.

But. Using pressure on the feet is still very important in a WW kayak. But you don’t really need to do the alternate leg thing. Just use pressure with both feet while taking the stroke. If you naturally do an alternate leg, that’s fine. It’s not wrong by any means at all. But if you are one of the many people who need to learn to use their feet during paddle strokes in the first place, don’t worry too much about using alternate legs.

But. Rules are made to be broken, as I’ve outlined. There is one good use for using single leg pressure, and that’s to help some turning strokes. And it’s pretty easy to do if you are taking multiple strokes off one side. But that’s not the same as needing the coordination to do alternate strokes on a continuous basis. So you needn’t get too hung up on it.

Core and body rotation and wind up

A forward stroke starts with the wind up. If you are no good at using your body from your core and up through your shoulders and arms for rotation then you will not have a good wind up. Further, if you take too long to start the catch once you are in the wind up position you can end up losing a lot of torque that gets stored up during the wind up phase.

The wind up allows you to really get the paddle as far forward as possible. It is this that allows a longer stroke to happen.

Part of the wind up and reach phase. I’m leaning a little here, so maybe some slapped wrists needed!

Make note that when your paddle enters the water, it needs to enter it slightly away from the hull. Why? A boat is, well, boat shaped! At the front of the boat the nose tapers to a point. Obvious right?

If you place the catch far forward, but next to the hull, the stroke will have to follow the form of the boat. If you do this, because of the shape of the boat, the stroke won’t go directly back in a straight line, but instead slightly outwards at an angle.

This adds turning power to the stroke, and lessens the forward drive. Only slightly, but it happens. Draw an imaginary line perpendicular to your hip out to the point next to your boat where you want the stroke to end. Now draw a line straight forward, parallel to the direction of travel you want to go in, to where the catch should be. Notice that it is slightly further away from the boat hull than where the stroke will finish.

The wind up is one of the most important parts of the forward stroke, and one that often gets thoroughly neglected in favour of more interesting details such as what to do with the top hand/arm during the stroke.

The top arm

I see a lot of advice to push the top arm out during the stroke. But often this gets focussed on to the detriment of remembering to rotate from your core and up through your shoulders and out to the paddle shaft.

Never lock your top arm out. Perform the motion more like a slightly more extended boxers cross punch (not a hook punch).

Keeping the top hand high, in this case during a boof/power stroke into an eddy.

The top hand must stay high throughout the motion. If you drop it low through the stroke your paddle angle will change and you will lose power off the face of the blade and start to lift water, creating drag.

Be careful not to cross the centre line of your boat with your top hand at the end of the stroke. Why? I am pretty guilty even now of letting my top hand cross the centre line. Even guys like Sam Sutton do. But there are solid reasons to stop yourself from doing this.

By not crossing the centre of the boat, when the stroke ends it is much quicker to literally lift your back hand (the lower hand from the last stroke) and drop your front/top hand into the catch for the next stroke. If you cross the centre line, when you finish a stroke you have to move the paddle further to start the next catch. Which affects your wind ups torque too.

When doing this properly it will also highlight any deficiencies in your paddle length (a lot of people use too short a paddle, but that’s another article). Having too short a paddle means you will have to lean into the stroke to get the necessary reach on the wind up, which again is not good for posture or rotation.

The bottom hand

Don’t pull with the bottom hand. Remember what I said about making the boat go past the paddle, not the paddle past the boat? As you power your top arm with core and torso rotation and foot pressure, all the bottom hand needs to do is hold the paddle in position as the boat goes past it. It does not pull the paddle through the water.

This is a difficult concept to grasp sometimes, and temptation is always there to pull with the bottom hand. But once you get to grips with the idea that you don’t need to, you find that using all the techniques above you can lift the nose of the boat out of the water with one really good power stroke. And I shouldn’t have to tell you what that means! It’s a basic boof stroke, and you can practice, and see the results of it, on flat water.

Entry to Eas a' Chathaidh
Winding up for a boof to ‘hang’ the paddle. This wasn’t my smoothest day, but the photo illustrates enough.
‘Hanging’ the paddle during a boof stroke. In this shot my paddle could have been further forward off the ledge to get more ‘grip’. Nobody’s perfect. But it all worked out and I skipped out.

Because that’s what a good boof stroke is. A really perfectly performed power stroke. And that part about the bottom hand is very, very important as a result. Because when you boof off a ledge, the bottom hand doesn’t pull. It ‘hangs’ in place over the edge of the drop, held in place against the ledge, (or green water depending on the type of drop) with just enough pressure. Move the boat past the paddle remember.

It can be used as the basis for any boof variant, and it can be used to power over eddy lines both in and out. Think of the eddy line as a boof ledge.

Final thoughts

There is, amazingly enough, even more to the minute detail of the forward stroke than this. For more thoughts and tips Eddy Mead wrote this entry for Palm recently. The basic ideas behind how the stroke moves the boat, with variance in hand height and distance from the hull can be applied to all strokes, including sweep strokes. In particular the idea of fixing the blade in position and moving the boat past or around it, and not the paddle past the boat.

Anyhoo, I’ve rambled enough for one day. There’ll be more details I’ve forgotten but that’s it for now.

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