Sea kayak essentials: Free the kayak, feel the performance!

Sea Kayak Essentials: Rough Water Boat Handling
Boat Trim – free the kayak, feel the performance!

In the last article I introduced a way of focusing on the components of skilled sea kayak performance in rough water by identifying ‘five essentials’: boat speed, boat angle, boat trim, body position and stroke linking. This article takes a closer a look at one of these elements: boat trim.

Let’s begin by establishing what I mean by ‘boat trim’. This is a general description of the shape of the kayak’s outline in the water; its ‘footprint’ if you like, the shape of the kayak where it meets the water and the view you would have of the hull from directly below your kayak.

Different kayaks have different footprints: some are longer, their ‘waterline length’ influenced by their dimensions and ‘rocker’. Some are wider and some have their widest point in front of or behind the kayak’s mid-point. The same kayak can have a different footprint on different days: a heavier paddler can give the kayak both a longer and wider outline; and waves passing under the kayak can momentarily change the kayak’s footprint as the hull moves from trough to crest and back again.

A paddler can actively change a kayak’s footprint by using ‘boat trim’: to a lesser extent with fore and aft weight shifts; and to a much greater extent by making lateral changes in the waterline shape of the boat. Most kayakers use the term ‘edging’ to describe this effect.

Enough theory already! This is not an article about boat design, but rather is concerned with the effect that changing the shape of your kayak’s footprint can have on its – and your – performance. One of the most magical experiences of paddling a well-designed sea kayak is the fantastic combination of speed, maneuverability and rough water seaworthiness it offers us – qualities that can only be truly appreciated with an ability to actively change the kayak’s footprint according to the demands of the moment. Sea kayakers wishing to develop their skills in rough water should consider boat trim as a vital, fundamental technique to master.

The Benefits of Boat Trim

The benefits of boat trim are known to many sea kayakers: most contemporary sea kayaks will respond to the asymmetric hull shape of an ‘edged’ kayak. Paddling in light winds, a gentle turn to the kayak’s ‘high side’ is a consequence of the boat following the curved shape of the ‘low side’ where it meets the water. A small or moderate amount of ‘edge’ can create this turning effect without noticeably affecting boat speed.

We often use this principle to good effect: to make small course changes without breaking our forward paddling rhythm; to tighten the radius of an ‘outside edge turn’ as we use sweep strokes to change direction; and to either increase or reduce the ‘weathercocking’ (or upwind turning) effect of a crosswind by ‘edging’ on the upwind or downwind side of the kayak.

More extreme lateral changes in hull shape exert much greater effects on the kayak’s performance. Such changes can produce two major outcomes: the kayak’s maneuverability noticeably increases as the kayak’s waterline length reduces; and the potential hull speed reduces. We can use both these effects to great advantage; the precise outcome will depend upon the duration and amount of change in hull shape, our boat speed at that moment, the combination of paddle strokes used, and the degree to which we are in balance over our kayaks.

Balancing Skills

Let’s dispel any confusion between ‘leaning’ and ‘edging’ – the terms are often used to describe the following actions:

‘Edging’: the paddler’s centre of gravity remains over (or near) the kayak’s centre line as the kayak tilts laterally; the kayaker remains flexible around the body core and makes independent movements of the upper and lower body.

1.'edging'

Changing the hull shape of a stationary sea kayak using ‘edging’ skills. The centre of gravity remains close to the kayak’s centre line, with leg pressure keeping the boat at a constant trim.

‘Leaning’: the paddler’s centre of gravity moves laterally as the kayak tilts laterally; the upper and lower body move as one unit.

2.'leaning'

As a stationary exercise, many paddlers will find it hard to ‘lean’ very far before the upper body’s lateral movement creates a sense of imbalance. Compare this image with those displaying ‘dynamic leaning’.

Kayakers are often coached to the mantra of ‘edging good, leaning bad’. This advice is unhelpful and can hinder skill development, as it implies one ‘technique’ over another; the reality is more subtle – an analogue approach in a digital age! In later articles we’ll take a look at ‘outside edge’ and ‘inside edge’ turns; the different skills involve body positions that might be considered ‘edging’ and ‘leaning’, each a good technique in the right context.

3.edging or leaning?

Relaxed balance over a laterally tilted kayak: the centre of gravity has moved away from the mid line of the kayak but remains able to balance without the support of the paddle.

So let’s take a different view of effective boat trim. Our desire is to create a lateral change in the kayak’s footprint, while remaining in balance. A simple exercise to practise and develop these skills is as follows:

Sit in your stationary kayak and experiment with progressively increasing the lateral changes you make in the kayak’s hull shape. You’ll probably achieve this by increasing the pressure of one leg against the underside of the kayak’s deck. Don’t worry about whether you’re ‘edging’ or ‘leaning’; just focus on the moment when you begin to feel less comfortable and begin to feel the need to either flatten the kayak or to use your paddle for support. And right there is the key point! You are aiming to change the shape of the boat in the water without losing the ability to move your kayak in any direction you choose – you should still be able to paddle forwards, backwards, turn and stop.

Many paddlers like to give numbers to different ‘footprints’, with a zero representing a flat boat and a five the maximum they can change the lateral shape of the kayak without losing balance. One, two, three and four are stages in between these two extremes – it’s a useful way of developing awareness of our body position.

Throughout these exercises, ensure you maintain a relaxed upright posture, sitting slightly forward, with the body core engaged and pelvis tilted forward. We’re about to experiment with lateral weight shifts, but will gain no advantage from leaning back. Don’t do it! (By the way, if you think you’re not leaning back, practise all your exercises while looking down at the surface of the water next to your kayak, just behind your hip. If you can’t look there, you’re leaning back…oh yes you are!). If we lean back, we lose the ability to make subtle changes to the lateral movements of our upper and lower bodies – not good in the rough stuff.

Are you still practising? It’s time to switch your attention to the amount of upper body lateral movement when experimenting with different ‘footprints’. One way to achieve this is to compare the extremes:

Try dropping one edge of the kayak while keeping your upper body as centred as possible over the midline of the kayak. Try not to let your body move laterally, even a single inch towards the low side of the kayak. Check out how much the kayak changes its shape in the water, and also focus on which muscle groups are working – and how hard – to achieve this position.

5.dynamic 'edging'

During an ‘outside edge turn’, the centre of gravity is is close to the mid line of the kayak. The kayak is ‘edged’ using leg pressure, with the upper body rotated into the turn, towards the ‘high side’ of the kayak.

Now try the other extreme. As you drop one edge of the kayak, keep your body core relatively fixed and allow your upper body to move away from the mid line of the kayak. Go as far as you can in this direction before you begin to feel unbalanced (this might not be far!) and make the the same observations as in the first exercise.

6.dynamic 'leaning'

Midway through an ‘inside edge turn’, body weight is committed beyond the low edge of the kayak, but remains balanced with a solidly planted reverse sweep stroke. This ‘dynamic leaning’ produces a dynamic turn!

Now you can start to work between these two extremes, comparing gradual lateral weight shifts and their effect on both the shape of the kayak in the water and the muscular tension needed to hold that position. With practice, you’ll be able to find an optimal posture that allows a combination of maximum change in hull shape, least muscular tension and a feeling of balance that allows the paddle to be freely used in a variety of ways.

The results could leave you with your body weight centred somewhere near the bottom corner of the kayak seat when the kayak is tilted laterally. This can be a comfortable, relaxed place to be…

Developing the Skills

While working on the exercises above, experiment with upper body rotation, turning the head and shoulders towards the low side of the kayak. You might notice that you can achieve the same change in hull shape with a little less muscular tension. This more relaxed position will allow you to fine-tune the kayak’s hull shape, and to conserve your energy. Less fatigue, more miles, more waves! You might also notice that your body weight more naturally sits in the bottom corner of your kayak seat, a reference point to which you can return when making more dynamic moves.

It’s time to develop this skill, so try the following progressions:

Work on left and right – don’t develop a weak side. If one side feels less precise or comfortable, spend more time practising until it becomes more skilled.
Keep experimenting with the variables – you’re trying to develop a versatile, responsive skill. Practise different lateral weight shifts, use the 0-5 values, find relaxed positions.
Try all the above exercises while the kayak is moving – if you paddle a short leg with the skeg down you’ll reduce the kayak’s tendency to turn when you change the hull shape.
Practise your boat trim skills while reversing, turning, stopping.
If you’ve come this far in a flat water venue, begin the whole process over again in slightly more challenging conditions – a few small waves will do for now. In fact, you can apply the 0-5 values to paddling conditions, with a 5 being the limit of your comfort zone. Work progressively and gradually until you begin to feel more comfortable with these skills in a wide range of conditions.

It’s often a good idea to observe the performance of a fellow paddler. Be careful however, with direct comparisons, as the variables of body size/weight and boat design can encourage very different weight shifts. A small paddler in a stable kayak will inevitably ‘lean’ much more to effect a change in hull shape and will be able to laterally move their centre of gravity a long way before feeling ‘unbalanced’. The opposite will be true for a larger padder in a less stable kayak. Many of us will work with variables somewhere between these two extremes.

8.dynamic 'leaning' in rough water

The same ‘inside edge turn’ in rough water follows the same principles for success. A confident commitment to the weight shift and good timing ensures a successful move.

Applications

The exercises listed above will develop what I consider a core skill. They are a key element of many sea kayak ‘moves’ and combine with other fundamentals such as posture, boat speed and stroke linking. We’ll take a look at specific applied skills in later articles; for now, effective boat trim is a worthwhile skill to develop in its own right. You’ll find that your turns, forward paddling and balancing all improve as a result. Work on these exercises regularly and you’ll see rapid results.

Conclusion

I’ve attempted to highlight the importance of the ability to make small, moderate and extreme changes in your kayak’s ‘footprint’ while remaining relaxed and balanced. If we can achieve this skill in challenging conditions, we will unlock the amazing performance that our sea kayaks can deliver. Next time you’re on the water, check out your boat trim skills, work through a few exercises, set some goals and begin the process of taking your sea kayaking to the next level!

9.flat boat!

Sometimes it’s just a good idea to sit upright and keep a flat kayak!

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