Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Technique: 5 Alternative Paddle Strokes

There's a fair amount of information available on how to correctly execute kayak paddling technique. Here's a great video from PaddleTV that shows how to do it:

This post aims to offer some alternate paddling techniques that I use from time to time, and find quite handy in the right situation. I'm not claiming to have invented these paddle strokes, nor am I contending they don't exist under names other than what I call them. That said, here are the 5 alternate paddle strokes I use, and when I use them:

1. The Torque Paddle. So, the standard paddle relies on a mid to wide grip position, and engages your back in the stroke. It's not necessarily a pulling stroke, but the idea is to use a wide array of muscles (in a relaxed manner) to keep from tiring out smaller, individual muscles (forearms, shoulders, etc.). Nevertheless, you can still get tired, and having an alternate to switch to for a while can give you a nice break. I use something I call the "torque paddle". This is where I position my grip narrower than the standard paddle position, tighten the circles traced by my paddle motion, and rely on the leverage of the paddle length (generated by the torque produced from my shorter grip, also moving in a much tighter circle) to apply force to the water. This technique can be remarkably powerful, and works well in confined areas (under tree branches, etc.). You'll have to play with your grip position and the size of the circles you trace, both with your hands and the paddle tips, but try to find the "groove". You'll know it when you feel it. You'll feel yourself generating power at your paddle blades from a compact, smooth hand rotation. This technique does not always work well in heavy chop that may drop out underneath and leave your paddle blade hanging mid-air. It's a nice change of pace to have in your toolkit, though.

2. The Crawl Paddle. Heading straight into the wind is not a fun direction to paddle. It's helped a bit by your smaller profile relative to being sideways to the wind, but you're still an upright wind block, acting like a sail that wants to send you in reverse. Getting your profile even smaller can only help. So, in this scenario, I lean forward with my eyes raised to see where I'm going, and paddle from this bent position. It seems like you'd tire out your lower back, but the resistance of the water helps to brace your body position. You can use either a modified standard paddle here (maybe reach longer in front to engage as much of your back muscles as possible) or a torque paddle a bit more out in front of you. Even if you can only perform this technique intermittently, it will give you a little break from the wind in your chest, and will help to quicken your overall pace. 

3. The Backward Paddle. This paddle technique is not meant for extended use (it's always better to see where you're going). However, it is something you should practice and use in the occasions that call for it. You can use a backward paddle on one side of your kayak, alternated with a forward paddle on the other side to turn your 'yak in a much tighter radius than would be possible using a rudder alone, or another paddle technique. Combine this alternating paddle technique with the correct rudder position (you'll have to switch from side to side to match the paddle stroke), and you can turn even a long touring kayak on a dime. You can also use backward paddling on both sides of the 'yak to radically slow forward progress (say, if you want to avoid a hazard in a hurry), to back out of a tight rock crevice, or to re-position or hold yourself steady in a current. Remember, your shoulders will be doing most of the work, so take it easy - and try to use as much of the paddle blade as possible. I personally use this technique when I'm surfing my waveski, and I want to re-position myself while keeping an eye on incoming waves.

4. The Canoe Paddle. A kayak paddle is designed to take advantage of the efficiency of both paddle blades working to propel the 'yak forward, without having to switch a single blade from side to side. There are times, though, when using a single blade can be the best choice. Changing your orientation by dragging a paddle blade or using a backward paddle technique will slow or kill your momentum. You worked hard to get that momentum going, so slowing it down for anything less than an intentional choice doesn't make sense. If you have a rudder deployed, you can use it to steer your direction in a wide arc (the faster your speed and momentum, the wider the arc). If you don't have a rudder, or if you want to assist your rudder, you can paddle on one side only for a couple or several strokes - depending on how much you want to change your orientation. You won't keep the same speed as two paddles doing the work, but you also won't impact your speed like a dragging a paddle blade or backward paddling will. Try not to pull too much with the paddling hand - try to push with the opposite hand over an imagined shaft point (a fulcrum). This will better approximate paddling with an actual canoe paddle.                                  
5. The Paddle Drag. OK, so this isn't exactly a stroke, but it's not really a brace either. Dragging one blade on one side of your kayak will slow that side down relative to the opposite side - resulting in a turn of direction more to the dragged paddle side. This can be deployed in a spectrum from a feather light touch to a full on paddle plunge, with the affect on your speed and direction relative to the angle and duration of the paddle drag. This is a fun one to play with. Sometimes, giving up a little speed is worth it to learn how effective your paddle blade can be in changing your direction. Plus, getting comfortable with a paddle drag can set you up to learn side bracing and sweep strokes. Try different angles on your blade, different plunge depths, different durations - and see what affect they have. It's also very handy in an emergency stopping situation - it can slow you down quickly and set you up for a backward paddle to reverse direction.  

I hope these alternate paddle strokes are useful for you on the water. There are variations on all of them existing or yet to be discovered. Just make sure to work with your paddle and not against it.

A paddle is another tool, and like all tools we clever monkeys create, can be used well or used poorly. Remember, part of using yours well is to use it paddling waters that engage your mind and sing to your heart - what better use could there be than that?

TB on the Water   


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