River Basics
Strokes & Strategy


Excerpted from
Kayak Essentials
by Bob Beazley

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.


Illustration of the Stern Draw


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 spin.

Basic Paddling Strokes

Now lets see how we can put all this together and get to some specific strokes.

Forward Strokes

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.

Stern Draw

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 water.

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.)

Forward Sweep

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.

Reverse Sweep

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.

Draw Stroke

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 out.

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 side.

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