Boat Control Strokes

Knowing how to edge the boat, sit up straight, and hold the paddle correctly are all prerequisites to developing a kayaking finesse. The best boaters are fanatics about their strokes, practicing and fine tuning them on flat, easy water.

I'll start by describing sweep strokes, which turn the boat, and help you control your direction. Draw strokes to move sideways, and reverse paddling will round out our strokes lesson.

Forward Sweep

A well developed forward sweep stroke enables you to reach your paddling potential. Used toturn the boat, forward sweep strokes incorporate three principles: They are powered by large muscle groups of the torso, they follow a full 180 degree arc, and require a solid purchase on the water.

The powerful muscles that connect your torso to the lower body power this stroke, while arm muscles are reserved for small, subtle adjustments. Torso rotation enables you to harness this large muscle group. Do this by turning your torso and extending the blade forward. Straighten the arm near the water and pull your other hand back and below your shoulder. Plant the blade completely in the water, then unwind your torso. As you reach the end of comfortable twist, lift the edge of the boat on the side of your stroke.

During the sweep, the blade should travel in an arc extending about three feet from the boat. In order to do this, both hands should start below shoulder level. Make sure the top of the blade remains submerged throughout the stroke. To maintain your torso rotation, watch your blade sweep all the way to the back. Pay close attention to insure the blade angle stays straight up in the water. Without your adjustment by cocking your wrist, the blade has a tendency to twist at the end of the stroke, reducing its bite on the water.

Note: there is an advanced sweep stroke, where your torso does not follow your sweep. I don't teach this for average recreational boaters learning to surf. This way they can develop better blade control at the back of the boat. For more see Sweep Debate.

Transfer the power into your boat with your legs, by pushing on the sweeping side's footpeg and pulling your hip towards the blade. Practice forward sweep strokes while the boat is flat and while it's on edge.

How you apply power is important as well. Yanking the paddle simply pulls it through the water. A solid hold on the paddle allows it to move effectively. Bubbles or splashes behind the blade are an indication that you are pulling too fast. Notice how well your boat turns when the blade grabs the water securely.

The Stern Draw

kayak moves

The last part of the sweep stroke is so important and frequently botched that instructors oftenisolate it by calling it a stern draw. For the purposes of practice it's important to move your sweep stroke in a full 180 degree arc from bow to stern. But often you will vary the the length of the sweep to provide the turn needed. For instance, the back portion of the sweep is used to pull the stern around without moving the boat forward. This is the stern draw.

A common mistake is to hold the paddle at a lifting angle which simply lifts water, and doesn't move the stern around. I recommend you punch across your body with your top hand, twist your torso with the stroke, and watch the blade as you pull all the way in to the boat.

Reverse Sweep

Occasionally, for a quick turn, you will use a reverse sweep. This is simply the opposite of the forward version. Use the back of the blade, and provide most of the power while your torso unwinds. Linking the two strokes, one on each side, can provide a crisp turn. Practice this turn, and critique how smoothly you are doing the motion. This stroke combination is great for turning around.

In a short whitewater boat you will be able to spin easily, and fast enough to get dizzy. In a sea kayak the turn will be slow, like jockying your car around in a narrow driveway.

The Draw Stroke

kayak draw

Occasionally, you'll want to move sideways. A basic stroke for this is the draw stroke. Turn your torso to place the blade straight out from your hip. With both hands over the water, push out at the top hand as you pull in the blade. Tilt your boat away slightly. Feather the blade 90 degrees for the recovery.

If you are enjoying these basic stroke drills, you might want to skip ahead to the more advanced drills in Breakthru Tips.


Reverse Paddling

Important for stopping and maneuvering, reverse paddling complements your other strokes. Without changing your grip, use the back of the blade and the same techniques for forward paddling.