Power Through

Improving your paddling technique. 

Spring run-off: Just the thought of all that snow melting out of the mountains and filling the rivers and creeks to their capacity is enough to get any kayaker’s heart pumping. Small creeks transform into raging torrents of frothing brown water, and rivers suddenly have the power to sweep away entire buildings.

This high water dramatically changes the character of the rivers and we should change our style of paddling accordingly. For starters, keep it simple. Throw out your duffeck stroke; forget about your cute little “C” stroke and all those other fancy maneuvers you’ve been practicing in the pool. When the water is huge and the eddy lines are ten feet wide, full of boils and whirlpools, you only need two strokes: a strong forward stroke—or power stroke—and a forward sweep stroke. Both of these are very effective positive strokes that will propel your boat quickly in the direction you need to go. The forward stroke is perhaps the most basic kayak stroke, but it’s also the one that needs refinement for most boaters.

It begins with a properly outfitted boat. To maximize the power of your forward stroke, your kayak must be snug. This includes having something solid to push off of with your feet. Different boats allow you to achieve this in different ways. Thigh hooks allow you to quickly pull your upper body forward using your abs. Snug hip pads keep your butt in place as your upper body rotates. Finally, be sure you have a solid back band that keeps your butt in place as you push off your bulkhead with your feet. Remember that as the weather changes, so does your choice of clothing and the number of layers that you wear. Your kayak will start to feel roomier as the weather warms up. Also, remember that things inside your kayak will change after a swim and you may need to make some refinements.

Torso rotation is where the power should come from when you take a forward stroke. The biggest misconception is that it comes from your right arm. Stop and take a quick peek at your right arm; no matter who you are, it is relatively puny in comparison to your torso. Focus on your torso for power. Initiate the stroke by planting your right-hand paddle blade in the water in front of your ankle. Be sure to completely bury the paddle blade beneath the water—to reach this far, you may need to slightly rotate your upper body. Once you’ve planted your right paddle blade, lock your right elbow in a fairly straight position.

Now focus on your left hand (top hand). The knuckles of your left hand should be at eye-level and your paddle shaft should be relatively perpendicular to the water. Without letting your knuckles go above eye level, drive your left hand forward toward the front of your kayak, creating an “unwinding” sensation. Imagine that your paddle is staying in the same place the entire time—acting as a lever—while you move your kayak past it. When done correctly, this motion will rely almost entirely on the strength of your stomach and have very little to do with arm strength. Finally, when your right hand (bottom hand) travels behind your hip, remove the paddle blade from the water and you will be ready for your next stroke.

Now find a target to aim for—a rock creating an eddy, or maybe just a tree along the bank downstream. Once you’ve acquired a target, forget about your immediate surroundings. Especially in big whitewater, waves will push your boat to and fro. Do not try to compensate for every one of these microdisturbances; instead, focus on the big picture and your target. Take full strokes and bury your paddle blade completely in the water. With your top hand, push in the direction of your target (instead of toward the front of your boat). If your target is off to your left, you will push across the deck of your kayak with your right hand. Always look toward your target. This will force you to square up your shoulders in the direction of the target and allow you to achieve power through torso rotation rather than arm strength.

The next time you find yourself paddling down the flat water of the Yellowstone River, visualizing the mind-blowing tricks you plan to throw down at your favorite surf wave, take a few minutes and brush up on your forward stroke. Try taking 200 forward strokes in a row. Vary the speed from slow to fast, and exaggerate winding up your torso and pushing through with your top hand on every stroke. Remember where your power is coming from. Focus on clean, full strokes that are taken for a purpose and you will be amazed at the confidence that will come from positive boat control.

Brian Fletcher is the former co-owner of Montana Surf Kayak School.