Most people assume kayaking and paddling in general is as simple as sitting in a kayak and pulling a paddle through the water with your arms...and it can be that simple if you merely want to chunk your way through the water. Paddling can be so much more if you have a desire to advance your skills. Paddling (especially in kayaks) is a connection between your Body, your boat, your blade, your brain and your background!
No one technique, paddle or boat is the right one. There is no set "right way" of doing things. If it moves you then it isn't wrong but it can be done more efficiently. Our discussion here is based around training provided by the British Canoe Union and Paddle Canada.
In forward paddling there are arguably four phases in the stroke. In order to better understand how our body, boat, blade, brain and the background all connect we will look at a forward paddling stroke. The four phases are the Windup Phase, Catch Phase, the Power (or Propulsion) Phase and the Release (or Recovery) Phase.
Body - It is not your arms that move you in a kayak, they help but they are a very small part of the bigger picture. The upper torso, the lower torso, the shoulders, the legs and the hips all work together to maintain stability and to drive the kayak forward. The body is the kayak's engine!
To start, for this high angle style paddling technique to be effective you need a properly sized paddle. We can help ensure you have a properly sized paddle based on the width of your kayak and your rough height. To give some contrast, I am 6' tall and use a 210cm paddle.
To initiate the Wind-up Phase you need to wind up your body's upper torso at the hip flexors. You are essentially trying to point the rib cage towards your toes on the same side of the body that the paddle blade will enter the water. This in turn brings that shoulder forward (try it right now in your computer chair, try and point your rib cage towards the computer screen) see how it brings that shoulder forward? That allows the arm attached to that shoulder to reach further forward without you leaning forward. It will also keep the paddle shaft parallel with our chest (forcing us to use out core muscles like our pecks, abs, lats etc to provide the motive force). Once we have our upper body in the windup position we end the wind up phase by pushing the foot peg on the same side of the boat that the paddle blade is about to enter the water. This helps to transfer the torque we will create with our upper body into forward linear kinetic energy in the boat, driving the boat forward.
During the Catch Phase, the "wet hand" (or hand that will be on the side of the paddle entering the water) extends out straight and towards your feet. The paddler will be reaching for their toes but should not lean forward. With the arm extended the blade is driven into the water as far forward as possible, again, without leaning! If your paddle has been properly sized for this high angle style paddle technique then your upper or dry hand (on the side of the paddle that ISN'T in the water) should be at about eye level (roughly).
During the Power Phase, as we rotate our core, the wet hand will have a tension or tensile force and the dry hand pushes or has a compression force on the paddle (creating, in essence, a fulcrum effect on the paddle as whole). The forces are there to maintain the paddle shaft position relative to your core (as your core is actually going to do the grunt work). The way I like to practice my forward stroke is to pretend I have an object between my chest and my paddle. in order to hold the object in place I have to maintain a rough shape (a rectangle or square) between my paddle shaft, my chest and my arms. If I bend my elbows to much I no longer have a square or rectangle which is typically a result of pulling with my wet hand instead of transferring my core forces. The "dry hand" (or hand on the side of the paddle that is out of the water) should remain on the same plain or level in relation to the horizon as you rotate your torso. The torso rotation ends when (and this all depends on proper paddle sizing) your dry hand is roughly where you would read your watch in front of your face and your wet blade is about parallel to your hip. If you rotate further than that you are doing two things that will fight against you. You are starting to place your upper body away from the center of gravity of the boat (by bringing your other shoulder past the boat's center line) and you are not longer pushing water behind you (you have actually started to push water back at your boat).
The Recovery Phase
begins when the wet paddle blade reaches roughly parallel with your hip and your dry hand is in front of your face (provided your paddle is sized for high angle style paddling). At this point the blade should be pulled cleanly up and out of the water and if everything is lined up and sized properly you should now be in the Windup phase for the opposite blade!
Lets talk about grip while we're on the topic of body. Do your hands and forearms hurt after a day of paddling? Have you ever stopped and wondered why? It could be because you are gripping your paddle to tight. Just before I went to college, I was in a motorcycle accident where A car pulled out from a stop sign right in front of me. I ended up having to take physio therapy for some time after the accident. Once I got back on a motorcycle I noticed I was very still and sore after each ride. It wasn't physical remnants from my crash it was psychological: I was tense for the whole ride resulting in a massive strain on my muscles. Many paddlers can end up doing the same thing in their kayak, especially if they are nervous.You actually squeeze out a lot of the blood in the muscle similar to a fighter pilot trying to shunt blood back to their core. It constricts the blood vessels resulting in less blood flow to the area as well (which will lead to eventual cramping). You need to keep a loose grip on your paddle, most of the work is actually only done from the middle finger to the pinkie! Remember how we said the dry hand makes a pushing or compressive force on the shaft? When that hand is pushing why not open it? It relaxes the muscles and allows the blood to flow. Do the same thing with your lower body: Relax it! Does your back hurt after a day of paddling? You may be reclined to far in your seat or clenching your muscles to much.
Boat - Your boat should also be considered an extension of your body. Such that the boat needs to
be properly set up to fit you. Your foot pegs should be set up so
that you can easily make contact with your thighs on the thigh braces without moving your but up on the seat. The back band should be somewhat loose. We do this to promote proper posture in the boat as it isn't the back band that will provide the posture, it is you. Having the back band snugged up completely can limit your rotation in the cockpit. Some folks I've paddled with have taken the back band out completely! For those of you complaining that you back band doesn't give enough support, let that one sink in!The kayak is ultimately what we are out to control and manipulate. I liken this to owning my first chainsaw, when I first got one in grade 9 I was scared of it, I read all the manuals and guides that came with it and I wore all my safety gear and very
quickly that fear transformed from a limiting factor to a respect that kept me on my toes. So it is with the kayak, you may
be scared of capsizing at first, so go capsize, keep doing it and eventually you will be very proficient at re-entering your kayak. Then take some clinics on learning to roll that kayak once you've mastered both you will have greater confidence to push your skills limits elsewhere and you will be in control of your boat instead of it controlling you!
Once you have gotten comfortable it is much easier to "edge" the kayak to turn it, to counteract a heavy side swell and to perform a high brace. The edge becomes fluid and not jerky when held. By edging the boat towards the wind we are able to effectively counter weather cocking and we are able to turn. We can then control our kayak instead of it controlling us.While paddling be mindful of what your boat is doing beneath you. Is it what you want it to do?
Blade - Your blade is your prime mover, if your body is the engine then your blade is the propeller! To start, we need to ensure your blade is properly sized.
There are many different paddling styles and techniques. None of them are wrong, they have each been created to fill a niche or fulfill a requirement. Our discussion here will center around the high angle style of paddling which has evolved from aspects of Greenland, Inuit, White Water, K1, C1 and low angles styles of paddling.
The most important aspect of your blade, you paddle, is that it is sized properly. If
you are looking to quickly link strokes, accelerate quickly and be able to very effectively support you and your boat on the water then the high angle style is right for you. The High Angle style suits itself to both the Bay of Fundy and many of our fast moving rivers and streams. To properly size the paddle most manufactures look at your height. But what if your torso and leg ratio dont fit that perfect mold that these manufacturers have in mind when posting their one size fits all graph? The most effective way to size your paddle is to measure your kayak width and your torso height. If we really wanted to get specific we would also measure how much water your kayak draws and how far of the hull your seat was. But we will (at least for now, while I write this) focus on width of the boat and torso height.
In reviewing sizing charts for various brands and going back to high school trigonometry it appears as though the angle of a high angle paddle is between 65 and 75 degrees off the horizon. This brings the paddle in close to the kayak creating less of a moment arm.
One of the manufacturers we retail has come up with a bit of a graph to provide a quick reference to paddle selection. It is not the be all to end all authority on paddle sizing but it will give you an idea. Essentially the closer you bring the paddle to the side of the kayak the less torque you will induce into the kayak (this is even more critical on short, wide shallow recreational kayaks that are easily turned).
Torque, as we recall from our physics courses back in high school (I'm from Charlotte county and luckily managed to scrape through phys...oh wait no I failed it twice) well for those of you lucky enough to have passed physics class you'll remember that torque (T) is essentially force (force vector) F (measured here in lbs) x the distance pivot point and the applied force (moment arm) d.
In high angle style paddling, the paddle shaft is kept close to the side of the kayak thus minimizing the moment arm (d).
The formula T=Fxd can be applied to show how paddle length can effect torque. I dont want to get into more complicated trigonometry but to keep it simple I'll say this: for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Those reactionary forces are called resultant forces or vectors (a vector because the force has a direction of travel.
In the the figure above I'm applying a force from my torso being rotated. That force is transferred through my arms into the paddle and from the paddle shaft into the water through the paddles blades (where the force is actually applied into the water. There is a equal and opposite force applied to the kayak (Fr). It is the resultant force of the force I applied into the water, this is how we move the kayak forward much like a propeller on a ship. The difference is a ships propeller is attached at its center line so the resultant force is completely forward on the center line. The kayak's force however is applied a distance away from the pivot point (our torso) therefore the resultant force (Fr) will not be straight ahead it will actually be at an angle away from the center line as shown below.
The applied distance will make more toque (the foot in foot pounds of torque) but will result in more torque in the kayak which will have a tendency to turn the kayak.
So if I use a 210cm paddle (I'm 6' tall and have a fairly narrow kayak) (divide that by 2 as only half the length is used to the center line therefore 105cm) and I can create perhaps 100 lbs of force about the center line of the kayak we can figure out how much torque I am applying (keep in mind that the paddle is also near 70 degrees which decreases the actual distance away from the center line). Let figure out what d is:
COS (70)= X/105
X = 35.9 cm
The actual distance from my torso is 35.9 cm give or take a few. Now if I apply my 100 lbs force (F) a distance (d) of 35.9 cm (or 1.18 feet) away from from the forces pivot point (my torso) then the resultant force (a vector Fr) will be:
Torque = Force x moment
= 100 lb x 1.18 ft
= 118 ft lb
Because the force was applied off of center we have a vector that is off of straight ahead. What we've actually done is induced a little angular velocity into our kayak (we're slightly turning it). The longer the kayak is the longer the moment arm is that resists this force (and the harder it is to turn the kayak when we actually want to do it).
We can increase the torque we are applying to the kayak with a longer paddle but it will result in our course over ground being less and less a straight line and more of a sin wave (exaggerated). Thus one of the reasons for the high angle style of paddling. The shorter and closer to the kayak the paddle is the more efficiently we can apply a forward force.
Because a high angle paddle is placed in the water at a higher angle the blade shape can be slightly different (it doesn't have to be as long) resulting in a shorter and wider blade with slightly larger surface area. This larger surface area lends very well to quick adjusting strokes as a larger amount of water can be used as friction against the blade which Newton's Third Law tells us (for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction) will result in more force being applied to our kayak.
Brain - The brain can be a hindrance or a help when paddling. It can induce emotions that prevent us from reaching our peak performance BUT it can also help us be strategic in our approach to things like currents and surf. You can use various strategies to tackle a tidal passage, come in high, ferry or depending on the distance, use time and tide changes to your advantage.
Background - Our surroundings and various objects in our field of view can help us determine what our boat is doing. Ranging can help determine drift and help to set drift angles.
Having situational awareness is also key to successful paddling, being aware of vessel traffic will prevent collisions and when playing in dynamic water, knowing what's coming at you will help you be prepared.