Sea kayaking: The 5 essentials

Sea Kayak Essentials: Rough Water Boat Handling
The 5 Essentials

I’ve been coaching sea kayaking for about twenty years now in the dynamic and challenging waters of the UK coastline. During this time I’ve also coached at a similar level in white water kayaking, alpine skiing and windsurfing and it’s often struck me that while these sports demand different techniques, the core skills are remarkably transferable. I’ve met many ‘talented’ individuals who seem to cross over with ease between activities and environments, taking with them the same fluent performance.

Are these people the ‘lucky few’? Or can we all unlock the potential for high level performance in our chosen sport? Perhaps everyone can discover the secrets of precise, relaxed boat control in rough water environments. Don’t worry – there’s no need to swap your sea kayak for a surfboard, mountain bike or snowboard! The truth is, the best rough water kayakers take the same approach to their skill development as the best surfers, bikers and boarders. They develop an unshakably solid base of foundation skills that underpin their performance in big water. They can paddle in tide races because they can paddle. The evidence is clear in their relaxed efficiency on flat water. Many paddlers, entanced by the wonder of our fantastic sea kayaking environment, miss out on this crucial area of core skill development – and never return to it. So let’s go back there together!

This series of articles will break down and explain the key components of skilled sea kayaking performance, provide practical exercises and progressions for self-learning and will offer a strip-down rebuild of your paddling techniques in rough water. It’s a big subject, far beyond the scope of one article. To kick start the series I’ve chosen five images, taken this summer in my local tide races of Penrhyn Mawr and North Stack, that illustrate the core foundations of effective kayaking performance. I call them ‘The 5 Essentials’. They underpin advanced paddling technique in all environments, can be developed in flat water venues and interact together to give us the speed, control, balance, coordination, timing and power to paddle with grace and control in the challenging conditions of the ocean environment.

Later articles will focus on each of ‘The 5 Essentials’ in detail; this month I will introduce them together and take a look at their application in tidal races and other environments.

My 5 Essentials are:

Boat Speed
Boat Angle
Boat Trim
Body Position
Stroke Linking

The 5 Essentials are inter-related, of course: if we change one element within a skill we often change other elements, either as a consequence or in order to effect the original change.
The images presented here clearly show how these key components can work in harmony with great results!


Barry, Justine and Marcus enjoying the waves at North Stack, Anglesey North Wales

Boat Speed
This concept is easy to understand on flat water: the effort we put into each paddle stroke produces “boat speed” as the kayak slides through the water. In dynamic water, with the combined or cancelling effects of wind, tidal stream, swell and surf waves, it can become less clear just how much “boat speed” we have at any given moment. If we can develop an appreciation of our “boat speed” in the many situations we encounter as sea kayakers, we can use this knowledge to paddle more accurately, efficiently and dynamically.

We may need to produce acceleration when catching waves in a tide race. It’s often necessary to ‘go up through the gears’ over a short distance, between two wave crests to achieve enough speed to make the ‘take off’. There are also moments during a ride when we need to change speeds: to climb higher or lower on the wave face or to respond to the kayak’s changing boat angle. Short bursts of speed as we cross eddy lines are also a core component of the tide race experience. An effective forward paddling action, and sense of balance in the kayak, that allows a smooth transition through a number of paddling speeds will contribute to our paddling efficiency.

2-boat speed

On the top wave at Penrhyn Mawr, I quickly link strokes to accelerate onto the wave face. Boat trim is flat and my posture is upright for maximum speed, while the kayak’s position on the wave allows accurate changes in boat angle.

Boat Angle
We can consider a sea kayak’s “angle” in relation to the different forces acting upon it. Approaching an eddy line in a tide race, we can focus on ‘boat angle’: ninety degrees (across the flow), zero degrees (directly into, or away from, the flow); 45 degrees, and everything in between. Different boat ‘angles’ when paddling into, or with, surf waves can also exert a considerable effect on the outcome of a specific move. On open water, the angle of a sea kayak to the swell as it passes underneath the kayak also influences the boat’s movement through the water.

Choosing the correct angle in relation to any combination of these elements can also improve our accuracy, efficiency and effectiveness.

3-boat angle

Here Justine sets up for a straight run on an smaller wave in the outer race. Boat angle and trim combine effectively for a balanced ride, good body position encourages an effective rudder – and, as ever, Justine is remembering to enjoy herself!

Boat Trim
By this term we specifically mean here both the kayak’s trim laterally (edging and balancing) and the kayak’s trim longitudinally (bow to stern). Both are important and contribute to the hull shape – or “footprint” – that we present to the water; clearly, though, we can much more dynamically alter our kayak’s lateral trim through edging and leaning. Forward and backward weight shifts, however, can make small changes to the kayak’s longitudinal trim, as can good timing in open water conditions, choosing moments when our position on a wave unweights the bow or stern of the kayak.

Consider the following principles:

A sea kayak with a flat hull on the water is typically more directionally stable than a sea kayak hull presented at an angle when edging. The longer waterline length and bow/stern keel line of a flat hull reduces the kayak’s maneuverability. An edged sea kayak is more maneuverable than a sea kayak hull flat on the water. Also, the slightly reduced waterline length and reduced grip of the keel line contribute to the boat’s maneuverability.
A sea kayak with moderate amount of edge will lose only a small amount of boat speed compared to flat hull.
A sea kayak with a radical amount of edge will have noticeably slower boat speed than a lesser degree of edging or a flat boat; it will also be much more maneuverable.

Different situations in tide races can demand different boat trim, according to the shape/direction of the waves and our position among them.

4-boat trim

Here I’m committing to a dynamic turn to set up a better boat angle for the next Penrhyn Mawr wave. An extreme change in boat trim is producing a tight turn with rapid loss of speed: I’m committed to the active blade that is anchoring the entire turn. A second later, I sit upright and begin to accelerate in a new direction to make the take off.

Body Position
This principle refers to all aspects of our dynamic posture: head position, body rotation, fore/aft weight shift, edging/leaning, connectivity within the kayak and tension/relaxation of active/passive muscle groups. Rough water sea kayaking involves dynamic boat movements and wide range of environmental factors such as wind and waves. Good body position is essential for accurate, efficient paddling, for example:

Head Position – a sea kayak turning rapidly on a wave or across an eddy line creates dynamic changes in boat speed and boat angle. By anticipating the kayak’s movement, good head position allows us to ‘lead’ the kayak around the turn, improving balance and efficiency.

Body Rotation – If we can ‘lead’ with the head, we can also ‘lead’ with the upper body by rotating into the turn, or pointing towards our next target. This also ‘opens up’ the upper body for stronger, more effective paddle strokes and encourages better, more consistent edging.

Upright Posture – this dynamic position, sitting upright and slightly forward with the pelvis tilted forwards, maintains a strong, flexible back position, encourages weight shifts to trim the kayak effectively in rougher water and allows the upper and lower body to work independently.

Effective body position therefore encourages good balance, economy of effort, power and accuracy. It underpins all our sea kayaking activities.

5-body position

At the top of the tide race at North Stack, Barry’s boat speed and angle is perfect to slide sideways across the wave face. He’s focused towards his new target, opening up the upper body and encouraging a change in boat trim. Aware of his positioning, he’s taking a moment to actively relax and allow the the kayak to run with a minimum of input from the paddle.

Stroke Linking
Effective use of the previous four essentials will also greatly assist the effective use of the paddle. In dynamic sea kayaking situations, rapid boat movements will demand the efficient linking of different paddle strokes to achieve the desired move, or combination of moves. The following key principles will underpin all effective stroke linking.

Active Blade – this refers to the blade immersed in the water, against which pressure is applied to propel, turn, steer and brace the kayak. The “active hand”, the one nearest to the active blade, controls that blade throughout the stroke. The “non-active hand” should remain relaxed to avoid compromising the accuracy of the paddle stroke.

Light Grip – in any situation a light grip, just firm enough to control the movement of the active blade, will bring many advantages. These include: reduced risk of injury; improved body rotation and effective use of muscle groups; improved feedback from the active blade; more accurate movements and better paddling!

Clean Entry – a clean blade entry, with minimum turbulence, will also bring advantages: a better grip in the water, especially if combined with a full immersion of the active blade; more effective power transfer, with less loss of energy; more accurate, precise moves.

Clean Exit – all the above benefits!

Blade Angle – many moves, especially steering and turning strokes, require a changing blade angle to deflect water flow, generate blade pressure and influence the kayak’s movement. A sea kayak’s relatively high boat speed and relatively low maneuverability require the subtle use of minimum blade angle to get the job done. Less is more! Start with zero blade angle (in relation to the kayak’s movement at that moment) and gently increase angle until the desired effect is achieved (with minimum turbulence).

6-stroke linking

Here Justine is committed to making the take off on this glassy North Stack wave. With the kayak balanced at the crest of the wave, she’s coming a flat boat trim with effective forward paddling and a weight shift to ensure the bow drops towards the trough. A second later, these 5 Essentials all change as she switches to a diagonal left run.

In conclusion, it’s clear that breaking down such complex skills into five related ‘Essentials’ helps us to improve our understanding and to organise our practice time afloat. The real challenge, of course, is putting these components together again to improves our performance. Later articles will focus on unlocking these secrets and giving us the freedom to paddle dynamically in challenging ocean environments.


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