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Basic Strokes of Paddling a Kayak

If you are new to kayaking, then you might benefit from a few tips and pointers that will make your experience more rewarding or take the fear out of a new endeavor. Learning a bit about the rudimentaries of kayaking before you set out can make for a more enjoyable process.

However, theory and practice are two different things so it will be important to put these skills to the test as well.

Even before you head out on the water, you can practice a few basic paddling strokes. Here are a few things that every kayaker should know.

The kayak paddle is uniquely suited to propel a kayak through the water with a shaft that has blades at both ends. Then the paddler is able to alternate strokes on either side of the kayak without bringing the paddle back and forth (as you would need to do with a single paddled oar.)

Kayaks were created with the goal of letting a single paddler propel his/her craft through the water efficiently in order to hunt, fish, travel, etc.

Today, it is also important to learn your strokes, so you are operating as efficiently as possible - so as not to wear yourself out, prolong your time on the water/distance traveled, and get where you are going without frustration.

Holding the Kayak Paddle

The first thing you must learn to do is hold your kayak paddle correctly. With your body in correct alignment, you will be able to conduct all the other strokes better.

  1. Place the paddle in your lap and then grasp the shaft with the fingers over the top and thumb underneath.
  2. Align the blades so that they are vertical (up-and down) to the water. If your blade is symmetrical, it doesn't matter which edge is where. If your blade is asymmetrical, ensure that the short side is down. Typically, blades are concave (curved) so check that the curve is facing you. (This allows you to “grab” more water for better power).
  3. Raise the paddle over your head and rest (or pretend to rest) the shaft centered on your head.
  4. Move your hands along the shaft until you form a right angle with your elbow.
  5. Lower the paddle to your lap again. (You’ve created the “paddler’s box” with your chest, arms, and shaft.)
  6. At this point, you might find that you have a death grip on your kayak paddle. Relax your grip or you will quickly become fatigued. Make an O around the shaft with just your thumb and index finger. Your other fingers should rest on the shaft but not grip unduly. This reminds you to focus on your torso and not your arms/hands when paddling.
  7. Now you are ready to try your first stroke.

3 Basic Kayak Paddling Strokes

Forward Stroke

The forward stroke is the most used stroke in your kayaking arsenal. You will use this movement probably 90% of the time you are on the water. Remember to focus on using your core muscles rather than your arms to propel the stroke. Also, sit as upright as possible to maintain balance and paddle more efficiently. Keep that paddler’s box in mind.

  1. Grasp the kayak paddle as described above.
  2. Wind your body and place the blade in the water near your foot on one side.
  3. Move the blade backward toward your hip.
  4. Keeping your eye on the blade will help your torso to follow your gaze.
  5. Don’t just pull with your lower hand but also push with your upper hand. However, the power of the motion should come from your core.
  6. When your lower hand reaches your hip, slice the blade out of the water. (In other words, let the narrow edge of the paddle cut through the water).
  7. Repeat on the other side. As you immerse the other blade in the water near your other foot, you should be aligned correctly for another pull from your torso.

Backward / Stop Stroke

Another vital stroke to know is how to stop or move backward. This stroke is simply the opposite of the forward stroke.

  1. Wind your body to the side and place the blade in the water near your hip on one side of the kayak.
  2. Move the blade forward as you “unwind” your torso.
  3. Slice the blade out of the water when you reach your foot.
  4. Repeat on the other side if needed.
  5. If you are coming to a stop, holding the blade in the water can help you track/hold you in place.

Sweep Stroke

Also known as the turning stroke, a sweep stroke is an exaggeration of the strokes you have already done. If you need to turn your kayak, use this motion.

  1. Begin on the side opposite of the way you want to turn.
  2. Extend the kayak paddle to your feet as with the forward stroke and immerse the blade in the water.
  3. Sweep the blade back in a wide arc to the stern of the kayak. (Don’t stop at your hip like in the forward stroke. Make a bigger movement and put your body’s power behind it.)
  4. When the blade gets past the cockpit, you can slice it out of the water.
  5. Repeat on the SAME side as needed.

This should result in a gradual turning with little loss of speed. When you have achieved the direction you want, you can return to your forward stroke on alternating sides.

With these three strokes, you can accomplish most of the movements you will want from your kayak: forward/backward motion, turns, and stops. Once you have mastered these, you can move on to more complex maneuvers, but these basic paddling strokes will serve you well especially as you begin your kayaking journey.



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