Kayaking 101: The Paddle and Strokes
Kayaking: Learning The Strokes
A lot of stroke variations are utilized in paddling, and this article will give you a solid foundation on which to build. First, though let's establish the most basic skill — how to hold the paddle properly.
How To Hold The Paddle the Kayak
Grasp the kayak paddle shaft in your dominant or control hand, which we would assume for now is your right hand: Circle the shaft, wrapping your thumb under the shaft. The flat part of the back of your right hand must be parallel to the surface of the water. Without changing your grip on the shaft with your right hand, loosely circle the shaft with your left hand, putting your left hand about a shoulder-width away from your right and holding the paddle symmetrically. Your left thumb must be wrapped under the shaft and the back of your left hand should be almost parallel to the surface of the water. But imagine your hands as having different tasks: Your right hand will control the paddle. Your left hand will only help support the paddle for the moment.
Now concentrate on the blades. The blades of a kayak paddle kind of act like a swimmer's hands. When a swimmer uses the forward crawl stroke, his hands are a bit curved and the concave palm side of the hand "catches" the water. Likewise, when a paddler uses a forward stroke he uses the curved side of the kayak blade to "catch" the water. We'll call this curved or concave side of the paddle the power face. Orient the right blade so it is perpendicular to the surface of the water, with the power face (the concave side) pointed toward the stern of the boat and the backface (the convex side) pointed toward the bow.
If you're using a flat-blade kayak paddle, orient the blade on your right side as described above and assign the blade surface facing the stern as the power face. Use duct tape, waterproof athletic tape or waterproof marker to make a visual reference point on this face of the blade to help make sure you're using the correct side as you perform the strokes.
With the right blade oriented as described above, look at the left blade: When the right blade is perpendicular to the surface of the water (set to "catch" the water in a forward stroke), the left blade is almost parallel to the surface of the water. If you tried to take a forward stroke with the left blade in this position, it will slice through the water without "catching". To take an effective stroke on your left side you'll have to change the orientation of the left blade.
When making that change, don't let the shaft rotate in your right hand. Hold your grip on the shaft with your right hand, but let the shaft rotate in your left hand. Cock your right wrist back as though you were gunning a motorcycle, allowing the shaft rotate in your left hand. Now grip the shaft in your left hand, and the power face of the left blade must be perpendicular to the surface of the water and ready for a forward stroke on your left side. To take a stroke on your right, you would merely return your right wrist to its original position, letting the shaft rotate in your left hand.
Practice this motion out of the water, watching the blades, until it feels natural. Hold the paddle symmetrically in front of you, bend your elbows and bring your hands to your shoulders; your hands must be shoulder-width apart. While some kayakers, especially racers, position their hands much farther apart on the shaft of the paddle, the wider stance for entry-level recreational Whitewater kayakers isn't recommended. The shoulder-width hand position decreases a paddler's vulnerability for shoulder injuries. If you find your hands creeping into the wider stance, wrap narrow strips of waterproof athletic tape around the shaft on either side of where each hand should be to keep that shoulder-width stance. Those visual and tactile reference points on the shaft will help remind you to position your hands in the more protected position.
Translation for Lefties
To use your left hand as your control hand, grasp the shaft with your left hand first, letting the shaft to rotate in your right hand. Orient the left blade so it is perpendicular to the water; the right blade should be parallel to the surface of the water. To change the orientation of your right blade, cock your left wrist back. The following stroke descriptions are oriented to right-hand-control paddlers.