|by Ed Gillet
(Editors Note: Ed Gillet paddled his kayak from California to Hawaii.)
Many athletic people, accustomed to using their legs for transportation, are nonplused when they are faced with their first 15 mile paddle. Why is it that some people can paddle strongly all day while others burn out in an hour or two? What are the day-long paddlers doing differently?
In this essay, I'd like to sketch the elements of an efficient kayaking stroke, so that anyone, regardless of size and strength, can paddle confidently over many miles.
Efficient paddling doesn't require a great deal of upper body strength.
Strong-armed people might appear to be strong paddlers at first but arm-only paddlers rarely go the distance. Some conditions do require power - surfing, sprinting, and paddling against a strong wind. But most of the time on a kayak trip you'll be trying to keep the boat moving forward at the cruising pace of 2.5 to 3.5 knots.
Beginning kayakers are all arms when they paddle. All they can think about is pulling the paddle through the water. Beginners seem to be clawing at the water. An accomplished paddler's stroke looks longer and smoother. Even when the beginner and pro paddle at the same stroke rate, the pro's kayak moves faster, while the pro seems to be hardly working.
What's going on here? The paddling pro is working with a different model.
Rather than thinking about pulling the paddle through the water, the pro thinks of the paddle as almost stationary and tries to pull the kayak past the paddle. The long kayak paddle is used as a lever to move the boat forward. Using leverage to pull the kayak past the paddle allows the experienced paddler to employ every major muscle group including the lower back, abdominal muscles, and thighs in moving the kayak forward. For a really powerful stroke, forget about paddling through a liquid. Think of the water as viscous mud. If you pretend that you are levering yourself along through a sea of mud when you paddle, you'll have the elements of a power stroke.
Here are some points of concentration.
Try planting the paddle in the water as far forward as you can reach with a slight forward lean. Push forward with your upper arm at jaw height until the pushing arm is almost straight.
Use your lower arm as a fulcrum. This increases the leverage in your paddle stroke and prevents you from pulling too far back with your lower arm. Keep your feet on the kayak's footbraces while you paddle. You need something to push against so you can pull the kayak along with you. Near the end of your arm extension, a little torso twist combined with a forward thrust of the shoulder adds extra power to this stroke. End your stroke with your arm upper nearly straight and level with your shoulder. Your fist should be at chin level, and your thumb should be at the centerline of the kayak deck.
Keep a relaxed grip on the paddle. When you grip the paddle too tightly you feel tense, your forearms tire and cramp and you promote tendonitis or carpal tunnel syndrome. If your hand falls asleep during or after paddling, or your wrist and forearm are swollen and sore from paddling, you're probably gripping the paddle too tightly. If you are using a feathered paddle, and you think you are developing carpal tunnel problems, try adjusting your grip on the paddle shaft so that very little wrist movement is needed to feather the blade. Always try to keep your wrist, forearm, and shoulder in a straight line for the pushing part of the stroke. Try stretching tight forearms by bending your wrist while pulling your fingertips towards your elbow.
Most kayaks have flexible back rests to prevent back injuries. The drawback to this kind of backrest is that they give little lower back support. Consequently, people who lean back in the seat are quickly uncomfortable.
Leaning back or slouching while you paddle destroys the symmetry of your paddle stroke too. A slight forward lean while you plant the paddle gives you a longer stroke and lets you rest your back.
Sitting up straight strengthens your abdominal muscles and allows for the torso twist and shoulder thrust that make up the efficient forward stroke. With practice, you can learn to "hang" horizontally on the stroke and you'll feel no lower back fatigue at All. If your back begins hurting, simply lean and stretch forward on the next stroke. Stretch your neck and drop your shoulders every few minutes. Vary your paddling technique slightly through the day, resting some muscles while you work others harder. Relax, breathe and look around.
With practice the paddle will disappear and you'll be surprised how quickly the time and the miles fly by. The more poised and relaxed you are in rough water, the more energy you can put into moving forward to your day's goal.
Paddling upwind can be hard work but you can still make good progress against the wind if you bear down and paddle effectively. When it's really windy and headway is difficult, wait for a lull in the wind and then paddle hard to the next spot where you can rest. Work your way upwind as close to the beach as possible. Take advantage of natural windbreaks like points or rocks or kelp beds for rest stops. Don't try to power up the faces of waves, you'll wear yourself out quickly working against gravity, and your kayak will pound - slowing you down.
Do accelerate down the backsides of waves, helping gravity accelerate your kayak into the troughs between waves. Remember that boat speed is paramount. Don't let the kayak slow down, especially when you are paddling upwind. Keep the kayak flat - don't rock the boat - and control your stroke so that you don't pull too hard at the beginning or end of the stroke. Pulling too hard makes the kayak porpoise up and down and slows your progress. If you concentrate on your boat speed and work every little wave, the hours will fly by. Set mileage or distance goals, not time goals.
You'll know that you have attained true paddling enlightenment when the paddle seems to take on a life of its own. You only need to guide the paddle through the water to move forward. A balanced stroke lets you rest your arms and back while you paddle, and a leveraged stroke means you can paddle strongly with little fatigue. The act of paddling becomes automatic, unconscious and effortless. When you have truly mastered the long distance touring stroke, you will be able to relax and enjoy the rest of your kayak trip.
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Downwind Paddling Technique
Long Distance Touring Technique
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