Strokes & Strategy
Before you get on the water, lets go over some paddling basics. .
Many paddlers, novice and experienced, allow their arms to get
out of position when paddling. This leads to one of the most common
injuries to kayakers—a dislocated shoulder. With a paddle in your
hand, you can create a lot of leverage on your shoulder joint should
you flip over and your hands get out of position. The weakest
position for your shoulder is when your hand moves away from your
body with your thumb pointing back and your hand moving behind the
plane of your shoulders—the hitchhiker's stance. Put your hand in
this position while looking forward and you will immediately feel
the strain on your shoulder.
Keep your hand in this position and imagine a steel rod running
horizontally through your shoulders. Now turn your head toward your
hand and look at it. This brings your hand back in line with the
steel bar running through your shoulders. You are much safer now.
Another way to think about it is to imagine a box in front of you,
its boundaries formed along imaginary lines coming straight out from
your shoulders and hips. To keep your shoulder in a safe position,
always"box in," i.e. keep your hands inside this box.
This means your shoulders should always move with your hands. To
teach your body to do this watch the hand or the paddle blade that
is doing the work. This requires a lot of flexibility when you are
doing strokes at the stern of the boat. All the more reason to work
on stretching and flexibility.
A good paddle stroke is essential to kayaking. All too often,
kayakers use only their arms when they paddle. It's necessary to use
your upper body when you paddle; compared to the torso muscles, arm
muscles are very inefficient.
When you paddle, it should feel like you are propelling your boat
over the water rather than pushing or pulling water past your boat.
Anchor your paddle by making sure the blade is fully in the water
before you start your stroke. If your outfitting is snug, you should
feel like you and your boat are one, the kayak simply an extension
of your body.
When ready, get on a lake or pool with your boat and just paddle
around. Don't be too concerned with what happens. This is mainly a
warm-up session and gets you familiar with how your boat feels on
the water. As you paddle around, you will probably notice that your
boat has no trouble at all turning. That's because once it gets
momentum, the stern of the boat tends to swing out to one side. The
point around which your boat wants to spin is called the pivot point
and lies somewhere between your butt and your knees. In addition to
its momentum, the amount your boat spins will depend on how far your
paddle stroke is from the pivot point. The further away from the
pivot point you place the paddle blade, the more the boat wants to
Basic Paddling Strokes
Now lets see how we can put all this together and get to some
In order to maneuver your boat, you have to go either faster or
slower than the current, and it's more fun to go faster. The forward
stroke gives you this maneuverability. To start, rotate the right
side of your upper body forward, starting with the hip and going all
the way up through the chest and shoulders (which should be almost
parallel to the center line of the boat). Your right hand should
extend forward so that your right arm is straight. Your paddle
should almost be vertical and your left hand at about forehead
level, like you were reading a watch.
While still wound up, plant the right blade into the water near
your right foot. It's important to get the paddle in the water
before you unwind-otherwise you lose power. When you plant your
paddle at the beginning of your stoke, think about pulling your hips
up to your paddle. If you are doing this correctly you should feel
the muscles under your arm pit, back, and stomach doing the work.
Once the paddle is in the water, propel the boat forward without
bending your elbow. This means you have to untwist your upper body.
When your paddle blade gets to your knees, you can start to bend
your elbow in preparation for taking your paddle out of the water.
The blade should come out of the water before it gets to your hip.
If the left-hand blade crosses over the center line of the boat, you
have not pulled out soon enough. This is a lot to think about, so
just try it on one side, letting yourself go in circles for awhile.
After you get the feel of it on one side, teach the other side the
stroke, then put the two together and cruise.
A really good forward stroke takes a lot of practice on flatwater.
Once on the river, with current, rocks, and waves to think about,
our technique often tends to fall apart. So practice a lot on the
lake till it becomes second nature.
Let's revisit the boat skid you experienced when you practiced
the forward strokes. To compensate for this undesired turning, you
need to pull the stern back in line with the bow. The stroke used to
do this is called a stern draw. The following describes how to
compensate for a boat turning to the right.
Twist your upper body to your right, looking over your right
shoulder to the stern grab loop. Both hands should be over the water
with the front hand at shoulder height. If you drop your paddle it
should hit the water and not your boat. Put a little more weight on
your left butt cheek to compensate for having both hands on one side
of the boat. Keeping your back paddle blade parallel to the boat,
place the right blade in the water a couple feet from your stern. If
you arch back slightly and raise your left hand to about chin level,
you will be in good position to cover your right blade fully in the
Now pull your stern to your paddle by bending your right elbow
ninety degrees as you rotate your upper body around further toward
the stern. It's a short, powerful stroke. Just before the boat
touches the paddle, lift the left blade out of the water. In the
finished position, you should be able to drop your right elbow down
and touch the center line of the boat.
Try it on the same side again, this time think about pushing your
feet to the left as your upper body rotates to the right. Imagine
your upper body twisting one way and your lower body twisting the
other way. This is one of the most useful strokes you will learn.
Spend time to learn it well now and it will pay off later.
If you do too much of a stern draw, you may over-correct and
start to turn in the other direction. This takes a lot of trial and
error, so keep at it. (You've probably found that a back stroke on
the side opposite the turning side will straighten you out, but this
kills your forward speed and reduces maneuverability.)
The forward sweep is used to initiate a turn while maintaining
momentum. To turn left, begin in the same position as in the forward
stroke. Rotate the right side of your upper body forward, keeping
the paddle more horizontal than vertical. Now push your feet to the
left, away from your paddle, as you rotate your upper body around to
the right. Your right elbow should be slightly bent as the paddle
makes a semi-circle around the pivot point. Your left hand will
travel across the front of the boat and end up on the same side as
your right hand. Finish the sweep with a stern draw. There is a
tendency to lean your boat toward the side of the sweep, so keep
your boat flat throughout this stroke.
This stroke slows speed and reduces maneuverability, yet in
certain situations can be quite handy, especially when you get spun
upstream by a wave or eddy line and want to turn your boat back
around to avoid going backwards.
The starting position is the same as the finished position for
the forward sweep or stern draw. Rotate your upper body to the
right, twisting from the hip up. The right blade should touch the
boat near the stern. Both hands are on the same side of the boat,
the right elbow is bent behind the cockpit and over the center line
of the boat. Both hands are held low. If you were to drop the
paddle, it would not hit the boat. With the right paddle blade fully
submerged, push the stern away from the paddle by straightening the
right arm and elbow. At this point the paddle has not moved forward
at all. After the arm is fully extended, begin to sweep the paddle
toward the bow by pulling your feet toward the paddle blade and
rotating your upper torso forward. Keep your hands relatively low so
the paddle blade stays away from the kayak as you make a semi-circle
around the pivot point. The stroke is complete when the paddle
touches the bow near your feet.
This stroke slides the boat sideways. It is very convenient for
moving over in an eddy or to position your boat for a ferry or peel
Rotate your torso to the right and place your paddle in a
vertical position, right hand near your hip, left hand positioned
directly above your right and in a position as if you were reading
your watch. Your shoulders should be in line with the boat and "box
in" the vertical paddle. Both hands should be over the water. Now
rotate your right wrist forward so that your paddle blade is
perpendicular to the side of the boat. Slice the blade away from the
boat. Straighten your right wrist so the paddle blade is now
parallel to the side of the boat. Pull the boat and your hip to the
paddle. As you do, lean your boat slightly away from your paddle so
that the water goes under the boat rather than piling up on the
When the paddle gets next to the boat, rotate your right wrist
forward again and slice the paddle out to start another draw. If you
find your kayak is turning a bit instead of sliding sideways, you
may need to slide your paddle a little forward or back to
compensate. Make sure the paddle blade is parallel to the boat
before you begin