Sea Kayak Essentials: Rough Water Boat Handling
Kayaking is a simple sport; sit in a boat, hold a stick, dip it in the water and pull. That’s it really, isn’t it? Want to go faster? Pull a bit harder. Fancy spinning around? A nice wide arc should do it. The devil, of course, is in the detail. If we begin to consider the subtle interaction of catch–power–exit, the contrasting effects of laminar versus turbulent flow, the boat–body– blade relationship, before long we’re submerged beneath an ocean of technical concerns.
If, however, you’d like to keep it simple and develop more effectiveness in your paddle strokes, take a closer look at the ideas and exercises in this article. They might make a difference next time you’re on the water.
Dabbles with Paddles
To tell you the truth, I’m a pretty lazy paddler; I just can’t see the point of working harder than necessary. When paddling in wind and tide, if there’s a more efficient option you’ll find me there. It’s much more fun to reach the beach with energy to spare (it makes the walk to the pub easier). I’m also pretty keen to conserve energy in my boat–blade connections. I discussed more relaxed positions in the kayak in previous articles, but let’s focus on the way we use our blades in this article.
The principles outlined here can help to develop specific paddling skills. If we consider them ‘blade awareness’ exercises, however, we should find them useful every time we dip a paddle in the water whether flat water cruising, surfing, rock hopping or rough water kayaking. Try them in all environments and feel them working for you when different forces are acting on the kayak and paddle.
When I took up kayaking the best equipment advice I got was to buy a high-quality paddle. Over the years I’ve used a wide variety of kayaks for all kinds of activities, but my paddle choices have always focused on lightweight models, a glass/carbon construction for a thin blade cross-section and a suitable blade size/ shape and overall length. For the purposes of this article, I’ll assume that you’re holding the best paddle for you.
Sea kayakers are faced with a choice between wings, ‘flat’ blades and Greenland sticks. The fundamentals of their use, especially in forward paddling technique, vary considerably and some allowances for blade shape will need to be made when practising the exercises outlined in this article. Many of the principles described, however, can be applied to all paddle types.
If you make use of ‘modified crank’ shafts or similar, you’ll be familiar with the injury-prevention benefits of the angled shaft and stable blade position that encourage a more relaxed grip on the paddle. The performance advantages of the blade’s extra ‘reach’ at the start of each stroke are also a motive for sea paddlers to use ‘cranks’. The exercises that follow, however, can be practised equally with straight or bent shafts.
Sticks, Wings and Flat Blades
Just as it is valuable to spend time in different sea kayaks, it also useful to use different means of propulsion from time to time. My background as a UK recreational sea kayaker has exposed me to flat blades for much of my paddling life, and I’ve become pretty familiar with the feel of this blade shape in the water.
In 2011 however, setting off around the coastline of Denmark, I elected to borrow a Greenland stick for the journey. Ten kilometres into the trip, in a loaded kayak and a stiff cross-wind, I was questioning the wisdom of my decision and cursing the apparent lack of power. A couple of days in, the stick and I had reached an understanding. One thousand kilometres later, I had long ceased dwelling on the differences between this hi-tech broom handle and my old familiar blades.
More importantly, my ‘blade awareness’ had experienced a new challenge as my muscle groups learned to respond to the forces generated by an unfamiliar blade shape. Boat speed had been pretty good throughout the trip too, once I got used to the quirks of my new traditional blades.
Back home in Wales, reunited with my old paddles, I felt the benefit of this experience. I seemed to have a heightened awareness of blade angles and pressures, and appreciated the advantages that a month of experimentation had delivered.
I’ve also experimented with wing paddles more recently, and have been impressed with the need to respond to the feedback from the blade as pressure is
applied to the stroke. Resist the movement of the blade and much of the advantage of the ‘lift’ is lost, not to mention the additional energy required to work against the blade’s design. Another 1000 km of wing-powered trials should answer a few questions …
The notion of ‘relaxed power’ with wings is intriguing; witness Mick Berwick making easy work of the Falls of Lora, surfing and rolling with ‘wobbly wings’ in This is the Sea 3. Likewise, Sean Morley, Patrick Winterton and John Willacy, who have all completed committing expeditions in UK waters with these ‘racing blades’, benefiting from the economy of effort that the efficient blade shape delivers (in the right hands).
A couple of years ago I coached Erik, a Danish paddler who had only a few seasons’ experience but went on to paddle the coastlines of Norway, Sweden and Finland in one summer season. Erik was armed with all three blade types, had no particular preference for any, and was keen to develop his abilities with all three paddle types. His openness to experimentation was inspiring and it’s no surprise to me that he went on to achieve his goals.
If you are used to a particular blade type, why not borrow something different for a while? Once you get past the initial unfamiliarity, you might make a new friend for life!
The quest for the perfect blade feather can be a holy grail for the kayaker seeking an efficient technique. Take a bunch of top paddlers and you’ll find they use a range of different blade feathers. The reasons for their choices vary although, in most cases, the prevailing argument seems to be ‘it’s what I’ve always used’. I paddle with friends whose chosen feather varies between 0 and 65 degrees, and all have fairly efficient paddling actions judging by their achievements.
With this in mind and determined to crack the mystery, a few seasons ago I embarked on an experiment. My trusty Lendal – set at 65-degrees RH – had faithfully provided 10 years of trouble-free mileage. The new Werner, however, offered the prospect of 180 degrees of choice in 15-degree increments. I gradually reduced the feather over time, all the way to zero. I then built up to 45 degrees LH before returning to zero. I now use a 30-degree RH feather. My conclusions? Anything other than a zero feather felt completely natural – both LH and RH – over time. In rough water, I naturally favoured a small RH feather, probably a consequence of 20 years’ reinforcement. Zero feather felt pretty good at times in lighter conditions, although in windier weather I found it more difficult to maintain a completely relaxed top hand.
My overall aim was to maximise efficiency, find the angle that worked best for me, and reduce wrist injury concerns. I’m happy with 30 degrees RH, although I remain open-minded about future changes. All this experimentation generated at least one tangible benefit: by focusing on a key element of kayaking (the hand–paddle connection), my technique improved greatly during this period. I’d like to think that my ‘feel’ for the paddle blade has improved as a result.
Try it: it’s a fascinating experience to experiment with a wide range of blade feathers. Just watch out for those wayward blade angles!
Get Some Feedback
Our paddles are an important source of feedback to us in lots of situations: the clean ‘catch’ of a well- placed blade in the forward padding cycle; the support provided by a flat blade on the water; the resistance of the blade as we pressure it during a turn. As the blade angle changes and the paddle generates different forces in the water, the feedback changes as a result. It’s really important to receive this information as clearly and
as accurately as possible. To get a feel for this crucial element, try making accurate moves while wearing neoprene gloves. I’ll take cold hands every time!
Sports scientists call this feedback ‘proprioception’, but we don’t need to worry about the jargon. Basically, when we send a message to the relevant muscle groups to move the paddle in a specific way, the subsequent movement generates forces that are in turn received by us as feedback. Our brains then compare the actual movement with the intended outcome.
Some feedback is obvious, but the challenge is to develop awareness of more subtle differences between intention and outcome. It’s a tough task for beginners, who often struggle to ‘feel’ the blade while coping with the alien sensation of holding a paddle shaft. For more experienced paddlers, we often enjoy a quality of feedback that allows us to consider the paddle blades as extensions of our hands.
Inexperienced paddlers can improve their ‘feel’ for the blades by progressively working through hand-paddling, then holding the active blade, then gripping the shaft at the neck of the paddle blade and gradually moving the hand to its final position. This progressive approach can be an effective way to develop proprioception (for example, when acquiring sculling skills).
There are a number of ways in which we can develop the quality of this feedback. The first is to extend the range of paddling conditions in which we feel able to maintain a relaxed grip on the paddle shaft. A relaxed grip allows more subtle changes in pressure and helps to conserve energy. The classic white- knuckle-death-grip in rough conditions may help
us feel securely connected to the paddle, but does little for the exchange of feedback between hand and blade.
One way to develop a more relaxed grip is to periodically experiment with the extremes of hand pressure on the paddle shaft. For a half-dozen paddle strokes, grip your paddle with as much force as you can. Then switch to the opposite extreme, maintaining just enough grip pressure to prevent the paddle dropping from your hands. Now, when you return to your ‘normal’ grip you’ll have a much better sense of how relaxed your hands are on the paddle shaft. You can give that grip a number on a personal 1–10 scale. The final step is to try reducing the tension of your hands by one number or more. Observe how long you can keep a more relaxed grip and whether you can maintain the same number in changing conditions.
We can also improve feedback between hand and paddle by focusing on the smallest changes in technique. For example, during the forward paddling cycle observe the involvement of each of your four fingers on the paddle shaft at different moments. With the blade locked in the water and your active hand ‘pulling’, are all your fingers engaged in the action? Can you relax the last two fingers completely, with the paddle shaft held only by the thumb, first and index finger? As the top hand guides the paddle forward, is your wrist maintaining a straight line between your forearm and the back of your hand, or is there an angle? If so, how much? Can you change it?
This focus on detail trains the brain and body to receive and process the fine changes in technique that can produce big differences in outcomes. High-quality practice time also helps us to develop economy of effort, reducing the likelihood of injury.
A Slice of Technique
Can you slice your blade through the water? No problem. Can you slice it cleanly, without generating power, without causing the kayak to move from its starting position? OK, that’s a little more difficult.
Starting in a ‘stern rudder’ position, try slicing the submerged blade from the back of the kayak to the front, exiting at the feet. Most ‘flat’ blades have a curve or spine on the back of the blade, creating ‘lift’ as the blade slices through the water. The aim of this exercise is to minimise the lift created by maintaining a neutral blade angle that allows the blade to track alongside the hull of the kayak, generating minimal sideways movement. This ‘pendulum’ slice is the foundation of many effective stroke-linking techniques.
You can develop this exercise in a variety of ways, such as by changing the speed at which the blade moves through the water. This raises the stakes a little with a greater chance for the immersed blade to disappear under the kayak. Keep a light grip with the top hand, ready to let go completely if necessary. You can reduce the speed of the exercise again and work on maintaining an even more relaxed grip.
Also try pausing the slice at its midpoint, with the immersed blade level with your hips. The paddle shaft should be precisely vertical. It’s easier to achieve this if the blade is quite deep in the water, with the top hand no higher than chin level. You can also bring your hands a little closer together and use a shorter paddle.
You can build some variety by trying the same exercise with a moving kayak, both forwards and in reverse. To minimise the turning effect on the kayak, drop the skeg and work on maintaining a clean slice with as little turbulence as possible. You can also develop feedback by practising with your eyes closed. Check the accuracy of the slice with the one-handed version: engage the immersed blade in the water and release your top hand from the paddle shaft. A bit of one-handed practise will convince you of the merits of a fully immersed blade!
Blade Angle: Less is More
You can take the results of the slicing exercises and build them into a variety of techniques, such as moving sideways (stationary and on the move) and turning (bow rudders, if you use them in sea kayaks). The key component of these exercises is to experiment with the amount of blade angle used to achieve the desired outcome. To take a simple example, let’s consider the sculling draw.
Beginning with the slicing exercise, repetition creates a gentle sideways movement of the kayak. You can increase its speed with an increase of blade angle by a few degrees. The challenge is to establish the minimum blade angle needed to achieve an acceptable sideways movement. With less blade angle the kayak may take longer to develop its speed, although each individual movement of the blade will require less effort.
Experimenting with increased blade angles, a point is reached at which the blade begins to ‘break’ its hold in the water and turbulence forms around the blade. The effort needed for each movement of the blade is also much greater, and accuracy is sacrificed.
Returning to a reduced blade angle with heightened awareness of the movement of the blade through the water, the challenge is now to find the optimum angle that combines economy of effort with an effective sideways movement. Combining other principles, such as a relaxed grip, moving kayak and eyes closed, will help to produce a versatile, efficient use of the immersed blade.
These exercises can be applied with a range of other techniques. Other components of the skill will affect the outcome, although here we’re concerned primarily with the effect of changing blade angle.
This is a simple concept, relating to which hand controls the paddle blade during a technique or sequence of moves. At its core is the principle that the hand closest to the immersed blade, the ‘active hand’, controls the action. This is easy enough when for example moving sideways, although it’s also important to remember the principle of a relaxed grip. If using blades with feather, you’ll need to accommodate the different blade angles by rotating the paddle shaft in your non-control hand before the stroke. Most experienced paddlers do this automatically, but it’s worth checking the symmetry of your paddling on left and right. Does one side feel more comfortable than another? Take a close look at your active hand: is your wrist angle identical on both sides, or is there a small difference? If so, a simple drill can help:
Hold your blades at arms’ length in front of you, the paddle shaft across the kayak. Check out the blade angle of your control hand: it’s probably poised to drop into the water for a forward paddle stroke. Now focus on your non-control hand, and change the blade angle until it is also perfectly angled for the entry of a forward stroke. Is your wrist perfectly straight? It should be. If that’s easy enough, now move the blade into various positions, such as stern rudder, draw stroke or low brace. Can you maintain left-right symmetry now?
The aim of course is to allow for the different blade angles in a smooth action, contained within the technique itself. Isolating the moment when the blade angle changes, as an awareness exercise, helps to build accuracy and consistency.
When controlling the immersed blade with the active hand, remember to apply as light a grip as your comfort in the conditions allows.
One final exercise is to try a variety of one-handed moves, for example stern rudder or hanging draw. Place the immersed blade where you want it and release the non-active hand. It should be equally easy (or tricky!) on both left and right.
Feel the Pressure
The pressure we apply to our strokes is another key variable in developing blade awareness. A simple experimentation exercise involves spinning the kayak on the spot. Gentle blade pressure will produce a slow turn but will also encourage a ‘clean’ entry of the blade and a minimum of turbulence. Gradually building the blade pressure will increase the speed of the turn, but will also place greater demands on a precise ‘locking’ of the blade in the water at the start of each stroke. A point is reached where an increase in blade pressure will simply create a turbulent blade and a loss of control. Interestingly, this problem can be overcome by increasing the edge or lean of the kayak. The more manoeuvrable hull shape will turn more quickly and will allow a more powerful blade pressure.
You can test this principle by making some inside- edge turns on the move. The added boat speed demands a precise blade entry at the start of the turn. If you commit to a stern rudder position, pause a second to ensure the blade is ‘locked’ in the water and then drive the active blade away from the kayak, far greater blade pressure can be applied. Combined with boat lean, this produces a tight and dynamic turn.
In every paddling skill we can experiment with changes in blade pressure. We might find an optimum pressure in specific situations, although the real benefit will be in the awareness it develops of the feedback we can receive from the active blade. So let’s get practising!
The real test of blade awareness lies in the ability to smoothly link individual strokes into a seamless combination of moves. The slicing exercises described in the article make a great starting point. Here are a few others to experiment with:
• Stern rudder: slice forwards to a vertical paddle level with the hips, then return to stern rudder
• Repeat exercise: open blade angle to create a sideways movement (hanging draw)
• Repeat exercise: slice blade in front of hips to create a turn towards the active blade.
• Link two forward paddle strokes on the same side of the kayak without removing the blade from the water
• Reverse sweep stroke, rotate blade level with hips, pull the power face of the balde towards your knee
• Draw the active blade towards the knee, change blade angle and convert to a power stroke
• Reverse kayak, apply ‘stern rudder’ at bow of kayak, experiment with blade angle to create small changes of direction
• Same exercise, slice active blade level with hips back to reverse stern rudder
• Active blade vertical in water level with hips, apply reverse blade angle to create ‘sculling push’
• Hanging draw, switch to reverse blade angle to create ‘hanging push’
• Cross-deck hanging draw
• Sit stationary, write your name with your paddle blade. Don’t remove the blade from the water!
As these exercises become more familiar – on both sides – you can up the challenge by practising in more demanding conditions.
The ideas and exercises outlined in this article form only the starting point for exploring the hand–paddle connection and developing the effectiveness of increased blade awareness. There are many other stroke-linking exercises that can sharpen our skills in this respect; you’ll find plenty in Doug Cooper’s Sea Kayak Handling books (Pesda Press) and in our Kayak Essentials DVD series.
Blade awareness is a key element of effective forward paddling and a future article will address this skill.
So now you have a few blade-awareness ideas to take on the water next time. Getting to know our paddles a little better is an excellent goal that can only help develop our boat-handling skills. These, combined with good body positions as explored in earlier articles, give us a solid foundation in sea kayaking techniques in all conditions.