Kayak eBook

Sea Kayaking & Ocean Surf Kayaking E-School

Don't miss our extensive kayak rolling instructional articles. While most of the images are whitewater boats, virtually all the skills in rolling are the same as whitewater.

Forward stroke work, surf etiquette, and capsize recovery can be accessed through the links.

More advanced stroke work is available on these subjects:

Going forward
Punch or Pull?
Breakthru Tips

Buying a Kayak

You might want to start looking at gear by going to a paddling store, perusing catalogs, or by checking out the buyers guides put out annually by the major magazines.

You’ll find hundreds of different boat and gear designs. The number of styles and subtle differences in form and function can make your head spin! Fortunately, it is easy to narrow down the choices.

Whitewater play boats are usually plastic, fairly short (8-10 feet) and somewhat broad. These characteristics make the kayak ideal for spinning and dancing down rapids.

You should get in several boats before you make a purchase. Comfort and ease of entry/ exit, stability, and strength are important variables in choosing a boat. "Try before you buy" is a good plan.

Inside whitewater boats there is a foam pillar that travels the length of the boat, adding stiffness to the deck and flotation to the kayak. Most boats also have foot braces that are adjustable and thigh hooks. Check to make sure that each of these is adjusted properly for a good fit. Foam can be glued to the seat and thigh hooks to enhance your fit and comfort. Trust me—the time spent outfitting your kayak is well worth a great day on the river!

On the bow (front) and stern (back) are little handles, called grab loops, that are part of the rescue system. They are necessary if you’re pulling a friend to shore or to help you hold onto the boat in the event of a flip and swim.

High Tech Materials

The type of material the boat is built from is another choice that you'll have to make when you go out to select a boat. There are two basic materials that are used in kayaks today, fiberglass and plastic. The plastic is generally a rotomolded plastic, not unlike the big plastic trash cans out in front of your house, or the tupperware containers in your freezer. The plastic boats are thick, easily scratched, but most importantly, very indestructible. That trash can you've backed over in the driveway generally springs back into shape. The same is true for the plastic recreational kayaks on the market. (I am not recommending testing this feature.) The odds are that your first kayak will be a plastic boat.

Choosing a Kayak

The most basic variables in boat design are the length and width. All other things being equal, a longer, narrower boat will be faster than a shorter and fatter boat. But the short, fat boat will turn more easily.

Stability is another factor that is very important to paddlers evaluating boats. A boat that remains wide along the length of a boat will be more stable than a boat that only widens very briefly and then narrows again. Judging this is difficult because the width can be in different places relative to the water line. Width above water line doesn't create a boat that is as stable as a boat that has a lot of width below the water line.

Rocker is another feature to consider when deciding what kind of kayak you want to buy. Rocker is the degree to which the hull curves at the ends. A boat that has a lot of rocker will spin more easily, while a boat that has little rocker will be faster.

Try Before You Buy

The best thing to do before buying a boat is to try it out, ideally at a professional school where they have a variety of different boats that you can trade in and out of during the course of a day or two. If you can’t take a class, try attending a demo organized by local stores, or through paddling clubs. In just a day or two you can get a good feel for which boats will suit you best. On the deck, around the seat area, is the cockpit rim. The elastic cord of the spray skirt fits around the around the rim, and around your waist to keep the water out. While running rapids the spray skirt helps keep the water out of the boat.

Buying Used Boats

Buying a used boat can be an affordable option and a good rule of thumb is to look for boats that are in pretty good condition, with no major breaks. A boat that is less than 4 or 5 years old assures you of a design that's pretty far along in the evolution of the sport. Some of the older designs are less comfortable, so be especially careful that you fit the boat. Like most major capital expenditures, kayaks depreciate nearly 50% in the first year. After 5 years the value of a kayak in good condition rarely drops to less than a third of its original retail price.

Get the Gear

Paddles, skirt, pfd, other gear and a checklist....


Whitewater kayak paddles are usually about 180 cm long, and made of durable plastics and resins. You’ll notice that the blades are offset by 45 to 60 degrees, so you will want a quick lesson in holding the paddle with the correct grip so the blades catch the water correctly.

Top-of-the-line paddles range from $250 to $400, while standard versions can cost $100 to $150. The most inexpensive paddles might cost $20 or $30. These cheap ones have an aluminum shaft and a plastic blade. Rarely do these maintenance-free models have a solid or stiff feel in the water.

It's amazing how many times I discover a student of mine using what I consider a war club instead of a quality paddle. A lightweight, yet stiff paddle is the key to having fun kayaking. A well designed blade pulls and slices easily in the water. It feels like a natural extension of your upper body movements.

Paddle Materials

Paddles are made of two materials: wood and synthetics such as plastic or fiberglass. Wood paddles reward you with a delightful feel both in and out of the water. They respond with a softness and warmth in your hands. However, wood paddles require occasional varnishing and sanding. Also, they are more expensive than synthetics.

Synthetic paddles have aluminum or fiberglass shafts. Their blades are usually fiberglass. They have a broad range in quality and cost. The least expensive ones can be unacceptably flexible and weak, while the best synthetic paddle can rival the finest wood paddle.

Material advantage disadvantage cost

Wood delightful feel & aesthetics occasional maintenance $250

Fiberglass strength shaft shape and feel $250-400

Carbon light weight fragile $375+

Plastic inexpensive less precise feel $100+

Blade Shape

Blade shape is important to paddle performance. It allows slicing easily through the water and a secure stroke. The inside of the curved blade is called the power face. Some blades are dihedral, which is a convex, spoon-shape that improves the blade's performance.

Kayak paddle blades are offset; when you lay them on the ground, the blades face in different directions. This is called the feather, or the offset. Today's paddles are offset about 45 to 60 degrees. Ten years ago, virtually all the paddles were offset at 90 degrees. The sport is evolving to small offsets, which many kayakers believe is easier on the wrist. This offset, or blade feathering, makes the paddle easier to use in a headwind, and allows for more power on a wide variety of strokes.

Sizing a Paddle

To size a paddle, hold it over your head with arms at right angles to the shaft. Whitewater kayakers should have a fist width, four or five inches, between their hand and the blade. Sea kayakers hold their hands slightly closer, and have 10-20 inches between their hands and the blades. The following chart shows the correlation between height and arm span in relation to the paddle length. When shopping for a paddle, expect to find paddles sized in centimeters.

Your height (and arm span) Whitewater paddle

<5' 190 cm

5'- 5'6" 190-197 cm

5'6"- 6' 197cm

6'-6'6" 200 cm

Kayak paddles are one of the only things only measured in Metrics here in the US, probably because the largest paddle-makers are of Germanic descent!

Small people should pay attention to the shaft's diameter. Most shafts are standard sized to fit the average male adult's hand size. People with small hands, especially women and children, may want to order their paddles special to have a smaller blade and shaft diameter. If you experience wrist problems or mild tendonitis, your paddle might be the cause.

Spray Skirt

You will also want a spray skirt, which goes around your waist and the kayak’s cockpit rim to keep the water out. A helmet, lifejacket, and throw rope are important for your own safety. You’ll also want warm clothing, like a wetsuit or drysuit to protect your body temperature in colder regions. The rule of thumb is to wear extra warmth whenever the air plus the water temperature is under 120 degrees.

Buying the Right PFD aka Lifejacket

A PFD, a personal flotation device, is the most essential part of a kayakers gear. You'll wear it all the time in or near the water. Fortunately, PFD's are made for comfort; so you'll hardly even notice it. In fact, you'll get so accustomed to it that you'll feel naked without it.

A PFD helps you float easily in the event of a swim. It helps you getting back into your boat and provides some insulation as well as padding. Many states require that you always have a pfd on when in a kayak, but even if laws don't require it you should make it a habit. It just makes good sense to be prepared for a capsize by wearing vest style PFD's at all times. When you're starting out you should start with a PFD that is Coast Guard approved as there are a growing number of places that require that certification.

A US Coast Guard approved Type III PFD costs between $100 and $200. This vest model is usually used by kayakers because it's construction provides adequate flotation in rough waters. Other Coast Guard types are designed for larger craft, and are not appropriate for kayaking. A PFD also protects you from abrasion and provides extra warmth on cold days.

A PFD consists of flotation foam sewn into a nylon cover. In some models the foam is a broad flat panel, in others the foam is in tubes that run vertically in narrow pockets. There are a couple of life jackets or PFD's that you should avoid. Avoid the horse collar kapok type II, with a bulky collar that drapes uncomfortably around your neck. Throwable flotation devices, (Type IV), or boat cushions are handy as backup rescue devices but they should never be substituted for a Type III life vest. It's hard to rescue a kayak or swim while using a cushion for flotation. They're fine for when an airplane crashes.

Wearing a PFD properly

A properly fitting PFD will feel snug, but will not inhibit your breathing. The best way to test a PFD is in the water, making sure that it stays low and snug around your torso and doesn't ride up.

A PFD can be tested on land. After adjusting the side straps, the waist strap and zipper, try tugging up at the shoulders. You shouldn't be able to lift the shoulders up past the middle of your ear. If you can raise them past the middle of your ear then you may need a snugger adjustement or a smaller size. Make sure that your PFD fits comfortably over layers of clothing. A wet suit, sweater and paddle jacket are commonly worn on the water.

I find that in the teaching I do, I'm constantly reminding my students that the responsibility is on them to make sure that their PFD is fitted, adjusted very snugly, and always on.

Other Essentials

Nobody needs to be a gear-head to enjoy kayaking. The basic equipment is required, and the same gear works well on most any water. However, the initial investment can be a shocking experience.

I recommend top quality equipment for every paddler. If you need to cut corners, do it by buying a used boat. A used boat is easy to sell after a year or two. If you take a real liking for the sport, then it's time to upgrade.

The Spray Skirt $100-150

The spray skirt fits around your waist and the rim of the boat's cockpit. The skirt elastic edge seals tightly to the rim. Generally the inside of the boat stays almost dry. Most paddlers use neoprene skirts which fit securely to keep water out effectively. Sea kayaking skirts are sometimes made of nylon, a material well-suited for the boat's large cockpit and the weathering affects of salt water, but they aren't waterproof..

Spray skirts are sized to fit your waist and cockpit size. A skirt's pull cord remain in front and on top of the cockpit. A pull releases the skirt for a quick wet exit after a flip. This loop is a kayaker's rip cord. Even without pulling the cord, a spray skirt should not hold you in the boat against your will.

Helmets $50-130

Whitewater helmets should fit snugly cover your forehead and temples. Test the fit by moving the helmet with your hand... it should slightly move the skin on your forehead, but not be so tight as to be uncomfortable. Stick with helmets designed for whitewater, to insure that they drain water easily. Sea kayakers rarely wear helmets... They wear them only when they are exploring caves or messing around in rocky surf.

Boat Rack

Once you have a boat you'll need a way to get it to the river. The best way to do this is on top of your vehicle. Rarely are the roof racks that come on a vehicle appropriate for boats, but if your car has rain gutters it is easy to add a boat rack. Most bike or paddling stores sell racks that fit nicely on the car. When you tie down your boat, do it securely with ropes or webbing straps. Boats flying off the cars at 55 miles an hour are a serious hazard to other road users and a serious hazard to your equipment as well. The standard minimum is to tie across your boat on each of the two racks, and bow line and a stern lines to the bumpers of your car.

Tip Hide the keys on or near your car, rather than risk losing them in the water.

Dressing for Success

Regardless of the clothing you wear, you'll get wet, be it from a paddle splash or a complete flip. The possibility of capsizing exists in all waters and it happens when you least expect it. What's more important is staying warm after the splash or soak. Coldness can lead to hypothermia, which is life threatening.

Choosing the proper clothing and accessories

Regardless of clothing you wear, you'll get wet, be it from a paddle splash or a complete flip. The possibility of capsizing exists in all waters and it happens when you least expect it. What's more important is staying warm after the splash or soak. Coldness can lead to hypothermia which is life threatening.

Loose, quick-drying apparel is the best clothing for kayaking. Jackets should feel comfortably loose. They shouldn't restrict torso movement while sitting. Choose roomy shorts and pants that don't bind when you sit. Synthetic materials dry quickly and will keep you warmer and more comfortable in the boat than will wool. Cotton can be used only in the hot, summer months because once it's wet, it remains that way with no insulating ability. Even cotton underwear should be avoided. Most boaters wear a nylon swimsuit under their layers, even in cooler weather.

Be prepared for cooler temperatures, especially from wind on large bodies of water. And remember that water temperature, rather than air temperature, is the most important consideration. The typical temperature of spring runoff rivers, lakes, and bays can be a frigid 40 degrees.... enough to rob you of your strength after a few minutes of immersion. It's wise to always be prepared for an unexpected swim. As you progress in the sport, you'll need to accumulate enough kayaking gear to protect you in a wide range of elements.

Clothing list

The following items of clothing are advisable, especially for cool weather or cold water paddling. Prices are in US dollars.

Paddling jacket $80-100. A paddling jacket is made of coated nylon with neck and wrist cuffs to prevent water from dripping in the arms and upper body. Made of a windproof fabric, it contains your body heat. Paddle jackets generally are not waterproof, yet it can maintain a fair amount of heat if you've been soaked.

Dry Top $180-350 Dry tops are an alternative to paddle jackets. While the tight seals at wrist and neck are less comfortable, the treated synthetic material eliminates all water getting in, keeping you dry. Most dry tops feature sealed neoprene closures seals at the wrists, a tight drawstring at the waist and a very tight neck seal. While a dry top affords you the luxury of staying warm and dry, it doesn't offer much in comfort. Until it's broken in, the neck seal binds and constricts. After enough wearings the jacket feels comfortable, but the neck seal begins breaking down. Dry tops are generally more expensive than paddling jackets.

Dry Suits $200-350 Dry suits resemble dry tops, but have no seal at the waist, and instead extend down the legs to ankle seals. Dry suits are great, if you end up swimming a bunch they can keep you dry. The disadvantage is again the discomfort of a tight neck gasket. Getting in and out of some of these suits is no easy chore.

Pullover or sweater $50-$150 . A synthetic sweater or pullover provides extra insulation and sheds water when wet. Wool provides warmth, but stays wet even though it wicks water away from the body. Some pullovers are made to wear specifically under paddling jackets with a low cut neck and shorter sleeves.

Farmer John wetsuit. $50 to $150 The Farmer John wetsuit is many paddlers' favorite for warm weather gear. Made of neoprene, it is a one piece body suit with thigh or calf length legs and a sleeveless top. A zippered front allows easy access, while some have a velcro or snap closure at the shoulder. The most popular thickness is three sixteenths to a quarter inch. The Farmer John is designed to get wet and provides some padding for those unfortunate swims in rocky waters. Its neoprene insulation works best when wet. By keeping a thin layer of water next to your skin which heats it to your body temperature, your warmth is maintained. For beginning paddlers, the Farmer John style wet suit is the best way to go in terms of warmth and durability. Perhaps the best combination for all kayakers is the the Farmer John combined with a wool or synthetic sweater and covered by a paddle jacket or a dry top .

Footwear $20 to $80. Foot protection from litter on the shore or rocks on the river bottom is real important. Not only will a sturdy soled shoe or bootie prevent a foot injury, it will enable you to run swiftly in the case of a loose boat slipping downriver, or a PFD's sudden flight with the wind. I recommend avoiding river sandals entirely, except as something to carry stowed in a dry bag or behind the seat. Booties will keep your feet warm, provide enough protection for walking on rocks, take up less foot room in today’s smaller boats, and have no straps, buckles or stiff soles to get hung up on hardware inside the boat. Ultimately you'll want footware that are specifically designed for kayak paddling. Strongly consider wet-suit booties or paddling shoes. They keep the sand out, your feet in better than most sandals or tennis shoes. Depending on the boat you buy, foot space may be limited!

Headgear $10 to 25 . Almost 75% of your body heat escapes through the head and neck. A wool hat is essential to staying warm on cold days whether you get wet or stay dry. On the coldest days, neoprene caps can save your life, especially in the event of a flip. A cheap but very workable alternative is a swimming cap combined with a wool hat.

Handy Accessories Personal preparedness goes beyond clothing; it includes the accessories that add to your general comfort. A baseball cap or a hat with a wide brim helps protect against the sun. Because water reflects the sun's rays, almost doubling their effects, it's not surprising to hear the unprepared paddler complain of a headache.

However, the sun isn't always the cause of headaches. Sometimes it's water, not drinking enough of it. Since kayakers engage in vigorous activity, their water needs are high, though often not noticed. A waterbottle that can tie or clip into the boat within easy reach is a good hedge against a symptom of dehydration, a headache.

Good quality sun glasses help minimize the glare reflected off the water. Paddlers wearing contact lenses rather than glasses are at an advantage because they are free to switch their sunglasses on and off without interfering with their vision. I use the disposable lenses and find that they work very well, even in whitewater.

A dry bag or a dry box, serve as waterproof containers to protect your extra clothing and food. Available in a wide range of sizes they can cost anywhere from $10 to $120. A small waterproof bag, is useful for storing your sunscreen, (an essential) lip balm, (preferably the kind with sunscreen) your car keys and driver's license, and a first aid kit, depending on its size. A high energy bar stashed in the ditty bag can give you a needed lift at the end of long day of paddling.

First Aid supplies

While carrying your boat to shore you puncture your foot on a stick poking through the sand. Scrambling to shore after a flip you scrape your calf on a rough rock. You cut your thumb while slicing cheese during a lunch stop. Injuries like these, and they are not uncommon, can jeopardize your day of paddling. Don't let a lack of a first aid kit ruin your trip. First aid kits can be purchased for $25 to $100 or you can develop your own kit based on your first aid skills and the remoteness of the paddling you will be doing.

Tailor the amount of first aid gear to the size and needs of your group. Know the medical history of every group member and check on everyone's current health before you leave on a tour, whether it's a day trip or a week long adventure. Find out if anyone in the group has a known allergy to bee stings and if so, include an antihistamine kit. A quick exit off a lake or river, regardless of an injury can be difficult and sometimes impossible.

\Tip\ If you are thirsty, then your body is a quart low on fluids. Drink before you get thirsty to stay properly hydrated.

A gear list

Kayakers have a lot of gear to remember, and as an instructor, I've seen many a day ruined when a beginning paddler forgot some of his or her gear. Even things like a hat or your visor, sun glasses, and water bottle are essential, and showing up with them at the start of your trip helps ensure you'll have a good day.

A kayaking gear list:
spray skirt
boat flotation (air bags or equivalent)
Adequate weather protection for the season:
paddle jacket or drytop
booties, poagies (special gloves for hands and paddle), headgear
sunglasses w/ strap
drinking water
lunch, extra food
Throw Rope
rescue knife

Fit your Boat

You get in to fit your boat on dry land. Slide your legs in with your legs straight, then splay your knees wide, so your knees go out to the side of the boat. Usually this will put your heels close together. You will want the footbrace or bulkhead set so that when you press on your toes, that locks your thighs up into the deck thighbrace. When you relax your toes, your thighs should drop a quarter inch below the deck. Your hips should be just snug in the seat, so if you have more than a 1/2 inch or so of space, add some padding.

Getting into the kayak on the water without a flip can be tricky. A sandy beach is an ideal place to put in for the first time. Simply step in like on dry land, and scoot your way toward the water.

A rocky shoreline is trickier. Put the boat parallel to shore and use the paddle for stability while getting in. Set the paddle behind your cockpit with one blade up on shore. Stand in front of the paddle shaft with your back to it and reach directly behind you to grab it. Load most of your weight on the part of the paddle that's on the boat, but keep a little bit of weight on the part of the paddle closer to the shore. Slide both legs at the same time into the boat until your butt rests on the seat.

Putting the Spray Skirt On

Getting the spray skirt, especially a dry new one, onto the cockpit rim can also be tricky. With your skirt already pulled high on your waist, lean back and reach behind and hook the back of the spray skirt to the rim. Drag your elbows forward and across the skirt , positioning the sides. Reach forward to hook the front of the skirt to the cockpit rim. Adjust the sides last. Be sure you have the little loop on the front (the rip cord) freely outside the cockpit. Getting the skirt on can be frustrating, so don't be afraid to ask for help.

I've seen kayakers at the starting line of world championships ask for help putting on their spray skirt. It's simply an awkward maneuver that sometimes requires a little assistance. Hint - get the skirt wet first if it is tight.


Early in your first day of kayaking, you should learn and practice a wet exit. This is simply the process of swimming out of the boat when upside down. You should be under for only about 5 to 10 seconds.

The wet exit

Early in your first day of kayaking, you should learn and practice a wet exit. This is simply the process of swimming out of the boat when upside down. You should be under for only about 5 to 10 seconds.

Your future as a kayaker depends on being relaxed in the boat. This in turn demands that you are comfortable hanging out underwater. Practice the wet exit until you can do it in a slow, controlled manner.

Don’t worry about getting out. Sounds crazy, but if you are worried about getting out underwater, do the opposite. Get in underwater. Yep, flip the boat upside down, and swim around under it and try to snake your legs into the boat. An alternative system is to flip without the skirt the first time.

Rehearse these five steps mentally before you flip and practice your wet exit.

  1. Hold your breath and tuck (don’t worry about your paddle for now) The tuck forward provides protection and helps you to orient yourself
  2. Pound on the bottom 3 times (with your hands wrapped around the boat) This helps orient you, lets others now you are upside down, and most importantly, helps you slow down your exit.
  3. Bring your hands to the cockpit rim by your hips, and work your way along the cockpit to the front grab loop. Pull the loop forward and up.
  4. Move your hands back to by your hips, and push the boat away (something like taking off a pair of pants).
  5. Push back further, until your legs are free of the cockpit and the PFD can pop you to the surface. Stay tucked forward, and somersault forward out of the boat.

Hint: Usually, when someone has a bad experience getting out of a boat it is caused by an old design small cockpit boat, or leaning back. Leaning back and trying to swim to the surface accelerates your panic underwater, and can actually tangle your legs, and make the wet exit feel more difficult and rushed than necessary.

After your first few wet exits, get a friend to help you empty your boat. Then, with a little practice you can try placing one end on shore and lifting the other end to drain water.

Tip: Be especially careful of lifting your boat when you are cold and wet, or when the boat is full of water. Lift with your legs to avoid back injury!


Balance is obviously a pretty important part of the sport. If your whole body is stiff, you'll flip!

To be comfortable, powerful, and balanced, you will need good posture in the boat. Sit comfortably with your chest forward, and chin up. Then check if cramped boat outfitting impairs your posture. Also, tight hamstrings will make sitting up straight very hard. To balance easily and use a wide variety of strokes you'll want to be flexible. Gently stretch your muscles before, and after you paddle.

All your strokes should be done with your arms comfortably in front of your body. This keeps your arms from getting in extended or awkward positions. If you need to do a stroke that goes to the end of the boat, simply turn your torso to keep your elbows low and in front of your body.

Every time you get in your boat on the water, get comfortable with the inherent stability of the boat. To do this, hold the paddle low and out neutral, and wobble the boat gently. You will find it is really quite stable.

Many important maneuvering strokes require edging while you take a stroke. The masters in this sport don't rely on their paddle for support, even with their boat tilted on edge.

Tilting the boat is an important part of learning to paddle, but the leans you need are rarely described with precision. Leans can be categorized into three types: the J lean which is best, the bellbuoy lean which only occasionally is correct, and the body lean which doesn’t do much good!

The best lean to use is the J lean. The J lean, named for the shape of

The bellbuoy lean is named for the stiff rocking action of an ocean bellbuoy. Navigation bellbuoys are so bottom heavy that they are self righting. Boats aren't that way, so bellbuoy leans in a kayak require support from the paddle. This makes it an inappropriate whitewater lean for most instances.

The body lean leaves the boat flat while the body leans. Beginners like this lean since the boat feels securely flat. Unfortunately, a flat boat usually defeats the purpose of the lean. Beginning paddlers are easily fooled into thinking they are leaning the boat when in fact they are just leaning their body.

Work the J Lean

Still without the blade in the water, hold the boat at a tilt. Do this by shifting weight into one butt cheek, and fine-tuning the boat tilt by gently pressing up with your top knee. You will find the most comfortable and steady tilt comes from the ribcage and weighting one butt cheek.

Feel how the weight and pressure changes from both knees to just one. Thrust out your ribs and physically torque up the opposite knee.

Feel how the weight and pressure changes from both cheeks of your butt to just one. Keep your body comfortably relaxed over the boat with your head centered over its center. Rock the boat over to edge on the other side and try the same maneuver. If you can hold that lean for awhile, try paddling forward while you maintain a slight J lean.

First Strokes

The offset blades determine how you grip the paddle shaft. One hand, the control hand remains indexed, that is, it stays in the same place on the shaft. Ninety-five percent of the U.S. paddles are right hand controlled, which makes your right hand the control hand. Some people prefer left controlled paddles. However, there's little evidence that a left control paddle will ease your learning, regardless of which hand is dominant for you.

Holding the Paddle... Get a grip, but not just any grip!

The offset blades determine how you grip the paddle shaft. One hand, the control hand remains indexed, that is, it stays in the same place on the shaft. Ninety-five percent of the U.S. paddles are right hand controlled, which makes your right hand the control hand. Some people prefer left controlled paddles. However, there's little evidence that a left control paddle will ease your learning, regardless of which hand is dominant for you.

I will assume that you are using an offset paddle. Your control hand holds the shaft with the top of your knuckles lined up with the upper edge of the blade. The opposite hand has a relaxed grip so the paddle can rotate in that hand.

Check the width of your grip. Your arms should form a ninety-degree bend at your elbows. This may feel awkward at first. Given time, you'll come to appreciate the greater amount of power and control. Sliding each hand in an inch or two is okay, but more limits your power.

Sometimes you may find it advantageous to choke up on your shaft momentarily, especially for rolls and aggressive playpaddling. Your shoulders may feel more protected this way. Marking your hand position with a piece of tape can help you locate your original hand placement.

kayak paddle grip

Avoid gripping the shaft too tightly by relaxing the fingers of your top hand during each stroke. Allow the shaft to rotate freely in your non-control hand. Maintain index with the forefinger on your control hand, but allow your other fingers to relax.


One hand must release! or your grips are in constant conflict. It is subtle, but if this happens you'll develop a "boxy" style with limited dexterity and future tendonitis.

Old school paddles had a 80 or 90 degree offset between the blades. With those offset blades, a paddler had to learn a proper grip technique in order to have any semblance of an effective stroke. The recent popularity of 45 and 60 degree offset paddles has eliminated wrist problems for some, however is has created problems for others. You still need a relaxed, non-control hand for all but the most vertical strokes. Many paddlers limit their ability by grabbing tightly with both hands, and therefore don’t get either blade to grab the water with the correct bite. This limits power and keeps you on a skill plateau.

Taking your first Stroke

Every stroke includes both a push with one arm and a pull with the other. Your control hand holds the shaft with the top of your knuckles lined up with the top of the blade. This orientation ensures that during a right side stroke, your right forearm continues pulling in the desired direction. Your left arm is pushing the stroke through. Left side strokes begin with cocking your control hand wrist down (like revving a motorbike). This movement turns the left side blade in the position of a forward stroke. During the pull of this stroke you'll be gripping with your left hand while your right hand pushes. Rotate the paddle shaft back into position for a right side stroke by relaxing the left hand. Keeping the fingers extended on the top pushing arm allows a fluid movement.

TIP A common paddling error is holding the shaft with a two-handed death grip. This is tiring and ineffective. Remember to relax the non-control hand during every stroke. Let the paddle shaft roate freely between strokes.

All strokes should be done with your arms stationed comfortably in front of your body. This position prevents your arms from becoming over-extended or in an awkward place. During strokes that sweep to the boat's end, you will turn your torso to maintain your arms in the proper position.

Holding the paddle correctly will increase your stroke power and decrease your chances of tendonitis. Keep your control hand fixed on the shaft, ready for an optimal pull. Allow the shaft to rotate in the other hand. Avoid holding on too tightly by relaxing your top hand during each stroke.

Stroke concepts

All strokes are based in two important principles. First, your torso, not your arms is the primary source of power. Second, a secure hold on the blade shaft is necessary before making any stroke movement.

Think of your torso as the engine, your arms as the transmission, and your paddle blade as the wheels. Too often paddlers use their arms as the engine and don't have a smooth transmission of power. The result is tired arms and ineffective strokes.

\tip\ Your torso is the stroke's primary source of power.

Going Forward

When you first tried paddling forward, you probably used your small, nimble arm muscles to provide all your power. A better strategy is to incorporate larger muscles for a more powerful, efficient stroke.

WAIT! I Recommend practicing turning strokes before you tackle learning to go straight forward. Whitewater boats are designed to turn, so you will have more success, sooner, trying to make them turn.

When you first tried paddling forward, you probably used your small, nimble arm muscles to provide all your power. A better strategy is to incorporate larger muscles for a more powerful, efficient stroke.

Sound familiar? As in sweep strokes, forward strokes depend on power that originates from torso rotation. The challenge is keeping the blade vertical to the side of the boat, which results in an efficient pull forward. The blade in a forward stroke should be very close (a few inches) to the boat, with your top hand remaining at eye level. This blade position minimizes the turning effect. The further away the blade is positioned, like a sweep stroke, the more the boat will turn.

kayak forward stroke

To begin the stroke, lead with your chest, the bigger the twist the better. Get extra blade extension by bending your top arm. Concentrate on getting the blade crisply and fully submerged in the water before pulling yourself forward. Use the power of your leg and torso muscles before allowing your bottom arm to bend. Push on the footbrace for extra power. Strive to find a smooth, gliding sensation, without any front to back bobbing. Pull the blade out as it reaches your hip, and wind up for the stroke on the other side..

TIP Torso rotation is most easily learned while standing on land, in front of a mirror. This allows you to monitor how much you are rotating and to feel the rhythm of movement without having to deal with keeping your boat stable or straight.

Going Straight

Paddling in a straight line may be your first frustration in kayaking. The boat may seem seem to have a mind of its own, twisting into tighter and tighter turns with each stroke. Although a sea kayak's rudder helps the paddler follow a straight path, certain strokes are useful to maintain the line.

When the boat start to turn, it seems to get a mind of its own. A solid sweep or stern draw corrects this. Be sure to line up on a distant landmark so you realize earlier that the boat is turning. With experience, you will anticipate a turn, and correct it before the boat starts to spin. Don't waste energy trying to correct by making stronger forward strokes.

To Go Faster: Paddle in Molasses

kayak forward stroke

Speed from a standstill is the key to kayaking all waters. Think of your boat as gliding in a giant vat of molasses Each stroke will stick securely in the water to carry the force it needs to move you quickly and efficiently. By imagining the blade pulling against molasses, you will use the force needed to effectively pull the boat forward.

The blade in molasses analogy can provide the answers to commonly asked questions about the length and speed of forward strokes. The blade should be planted as far forward as your torso twist allows, in order to pull yourself forward the greatest distance. Don't pull until the blade is fully immersed. When the blade reaches your hip, the power phase of the stroke is completed and the recovery begins. Simply increasing your stroke rate won't necessarily make your boat go faster. To go faster, concentrate on pulling harder while keeping the blade in the water, then recover quickly to the next blade plant.

Tip Imagine sitting in your boat and reaching forward to start a lawn mower? This twisting reach is the source of the torso/hip power needed for kayaking. However, using that power is tricky. Too much front to back motion bobs the boat and jeopardizes your control and efficiency. Instead, use torso rotation, twisting around your spine to provide the pull of each stroke.

To practice these concepts with your forward stroke, try flatwater paddling alongside a series of fixed points like dock pilings or buoys. The blade should enter the water cleanly, with minimal splash. Watch the blade and monitor how much it slips with each stroke. It should hardly move at all, while you move past. You should consistently feel resistance against the blade. Remember the boat in molasses analogy!

Forward Strokes

To a sea kayaker, a day of paddling is a significant challenge. Knowing a few special stroke techniques helps alleviate strain on your body, allows you to keep up with your friends, and builds your confidence.

The secret to efficient forward paddling is torso rotation, which incorporates the large muscles of your torso, rather than the small muscles in your arms. To wind up for the stroke, think of rotating your ribcage. The more you can twist the better, then use the power of your leg and torso muscles as you unwind into a stroke.

An easy way to practice the basic motion of a forward stroke is in front of a mirror, so you can monitor how much you are rotating. This helps you get the fluid motion before you have to worry about your stability or keeping your boat straight.

The most efficient way to paddle is to think of your paddle being stationary in the water, and then pull your self and the boat past the paddle. It's almost as though you had a series of posts stuck in the mud up in front of your boat. And as you get to each pole, you grab it, pull with your torso, and push the boat through with your feet. Pull your boat towards your planted blade, and get the blade out as it reaches your hip.

Let's look at the catch common to quality strokes. Concentrate on getting the blade crisply and fully submerged in the water before you pull yourself forward. The blade should enter the water cleanly, with minimal splash, and stay just under the surface of the water. To speed up, minimize the air time between strokes, but keep the same firm catch.

You can try locking your arms, to learn to maximize your torso rotation. Another good drill is deliberately pausing before you plant the blade. This reinforces the feel of extra rotation and a careful catch. Focus on rotation, on extension forward, on pulling your hips up to the blade, and on glide.

Hand Positions

Let's look a little more closely at the hand positions for a forward stroke. Equally skilled paddlers enjoy endless debates on the merit's of a power stroke with a high top hand and a touring stroke with both hands kept low.

For short distances and high speeds, people tend to paddle with a high shaft angle.... the top hand remains high, between shoulder and eye level. For shorter sprints, like dealing with surf, you'll find this power forward stroke useful. For extended paddling, energy conservation is a priority. The resulting touring stroke has a lower top hand and elbows, and the stroke comes back a little further. For extended tours most prefer a longer and narrower blade, and a wide variety of stroke techniques.

With any stroke, stay relaxed so you can use optimum amounts of strength and finesse. Avoid holding on too tightly by relaxing your top hand during each stroke. Open a few fingers for each push to ease the strain on your wrist. Pull with your fingers hooked, not actually gripped on the shaft.

Perfecting a forward stroke is a gradual, never-ending process. Experiment, think about each detail of your stroke, and develop a smooth continuous motion. Strive to find a smooth, gliding sensation, without any front to back bobbing. This helps insure that your power is efficiently pulling you forward. The best way to improve your stroke efficiency is by following, and mimicking, a really smooth paddler.

Heres the Catch

Do you see some of the best paddlers making hard moves look easy? Or does it look like they take half the number of strokes to do the same move you struggle through? Perhaps these paddlers have learned to get the most out of each stroke, and maximize the potential each time their blade goes in the water. If done efficiently, ‘less equals more’, when counting strokes and paddling whitewater.

Proper Stroke Placement in Whitewater Paddling

Do you see some of the best paddlers making hard moves look easy? Or does it look like they take half the number of strokes to do the same move you struggle through? Perhaps these paddlers have learned to get the most out of each stroke, and maximize the potential each time their blade goes in the water. If done efficiently, ‘less equals more’, when counting strokes and paddling whitewater.

kayak stroke catch

The catch is the most critical phase of your forward stroke. Pause at thebeginning of each stroke and focus on putting the blade cleanly in the water. Practicing this pause is a great way to focus on and improve your catch.

stroke placement

You will get the most distance from each stroke if the tip of the blade grabs water way forward up by your toes. Avoid splash by immersing the entire blade into the water before you start to pull. Do this by pressing down on the blade to launch the boat forward. This technique works far better than pulling back to get the blade into the water. You can simply pull yourself further with lots of extension and rotation.

kayak roll photo

The best way to get a good catch is to extend far forward by rotating yourtorso, and press down on the blade before you pull back. Pressing down works best if you have ample flexibility for an aggressive forward tilted posture. If the idea of pushing down to catch doesn’t work for you, think of sliding the whole blade into a sheath before you pull back. This helps you get solid strokes.

kayak stroke catch photo

Take your top shoulder and elbow back, so you can extend the tip of the blade forward. If the paddle pivots at the top hand, the blade has a good effect on the water throughout the stroke. If you pivot at the bottom hand, like when you punch, then you don’t get nearly as effective a stroke. To put this into practice, think about driving your top shoulder forward rather than punching your top hand out.



For pure acceleration, you will want a vertical shaft to propel yourself straight forward. Once you get a little speed, you can drop your hand to eye level. This gives you a nice traveling stroke, with lots of torso movement and good quickness between strokes.

On most of your strokes, you will probably be in traveling mode with the blade a few inches out from the side of the boat. This allows you to steer efficiently, with quick and easy adjustments.

A super vertical stroke is best for quick acceleration. A low shaft angle is nice and relaxed. You will probably want the vertical stroke in your repertoire for when you need the burst of acceleration. Many of the best paddlers find a happy medium for their typical forward strokes, with their top hand at about eye level.

Don’t forget, in all your strokework, strive to get the power from torso windup and rotation. Then work on transferring power through your pelvis into your feet and into the boat.


Once you’ve spent time working on your stroke, it is worth using it sparingly. Many paddlers miss the ideal stroke placement because they are taking too many strokes. By carefully placing your strokes, you will get the most out of each one. Generally, fewer strokes is better, unless you need a flurry of 3 - 4 to surf, to bust through a hole, or to catch an eddy. Let’s see where you can save your energy.

>If you need two strokes on one side, take them, rather than taking a half stroke or an air stroke. Multiple strokes on one side can be a sign of thoughtful stroke placement.

>You can save strokes when crossing a river, by planning on a key stroke when sideways in the current, so that you get more lateral movement across the current. The most important spot for a stroke when crossing the river is exactly when the boat is sideways or perpendicular to the opposite riverbank.

>Another example of important stroke placement is reaching through the foam pile of a hole, as this helps the blade get solid purchase on less aerated water to pull you past the grip of the hydraulic.

> On steeper, vertical drops, the boof move relies on a correctly timed well placed stroke that allows the paddler launch out past a hole at the base of the drop or to land flatter in shallower water.


It is important to understand how your balance, flexibility and power are directly related to your posture in the boat. Try this little experiment: wobble your boat and check your rotation while comparing leaning forward , leaning back, and in an upright perfect posture position.

If you truly want to improve, having enough flexibility to maintain quality posture and steady edging is important. For many paddlers, stretching the hamstrings and torso will be the single most important opportunity for improving our paddling. First warm up, then hold a gentle stretch. From the correct posture, with your chest out and chin up, you are ready to work on the other components of a quality forward stroke.


When you fall off of a surf or miss a move through a rapid the frequent culprit is an inadvertent, barely perceptible, wobble. If this wobble is enough to force you to brace rather than paddle proactively, that alone can cost the move. But even smaller wobbles can cost a move.

kayak wobble

Here’s the deal: the hull of a kayak (or canoe!) slows significantly when it bobs front to back, or rocks side to side. A barely visible wobble or bob, say one-half inch, is like dragging a coffee cup sized anchor on each side of the boat.

kayak wag inefficient

Even small wobbles (side to side) reduce boat speed. You also should avoid bob (abrupt dip of the bow) and zig zagging wag.

Instead, strive to find a smooth, gliding sensation, especially in your forward strokes. In general, this is more efficient than trying to paddle faster. If pulling harder makes you wobble, you won't necessarily go faster. Learn to disconnect your lower body, so you can maintain a perfectly steady boat, even during strokes.

Try this Drill: Know your enemy! On a flatwater paddle, exaggerate dip and rise, zig zagging wag, and side to side wobble. Then you'll feel extra smooth and fast when you eliminate these motions.

Haste makes waste

Be efficient. Use only the strokes needed to get the job done. We all tend to flail when trying too hard. This increases the chances of misplacing a stroke, or losing the glide in the hull. That in turn reduces our chances of making any given move and increases the geek factor.

There are times on the river when our adrenaline will have us wind-milling away. These strokes may be doing very little to actually move the boat. Stroke in a purposeful manner to accomplish your goal.

The optimum stroke rate is not the fastest stroke rate. Think of riding a bicycle. Too low a gear and you're pedaling quite rapidly, but you're not going very far or very fast.

Now add Power

Imagine your boat with wheels sitting on a smooth sidewalk. Parking meters line the walk, alternating sides every three feet. Reach forward by twisting your upright spine and grab a parking meter. Now fling yourself forward driving your hips forward, translating the power through to your feet. This is the same transfer of power you want in a kayak on water. In a canoe you drive your hips forward, driving your knees forward.

There is a lot of power to be gained by translating this torso power into your legs and boat. However, there is a lot to be lost if you rock the boat in the process of each stroke.

Drill: Start paddling ahead slowly. Then, on one stroke, stop, poised in thewound-up position, just before the blade touches the water. Did the boat wobble any, or glide smoothly forward? Follow through with a strong stroke, watching and feeling for a smooth boat. Repeat on your next stroke watching for zig zag or bobbing. Continue for a few minutes until you feel a smooth glide between strokes. A pipe on the bow will help you spot errors.

Focusing on glide with a careful catch and application of power will go a long way towards improving your paddling. You’ll miss fewer moves, and enjoy longer surfs. It all adds up to more fun on the water!

Punch or Pull?

As a teaching trick, instructors often advocate punching out at eye level during a forward stroke. While this is useful for developing torso power and blade position, it isn’t exactly correct for the ultimate power.

In each forward stroke you want to extend the tip of the blade forward, rather than reaching both arms forward for the plant. You’ll pull yourself further if the tip of the blade enters the water farther forward.

Higher Pivots for Longer Power

As a teaching trick, instructors often advocate punching out at eye level during a forward stroke. While this is useful for developing torso power and blade position, it isn’t exactly correct for the ultimate power.

kayak forward stroke

In each forward stroke you want to extend the tip of the blade forward, rather than reaching both arms forward for the plant. You’ll pull yourself further if the tip of the blade enters the water farther forward.

Reach with your bottom hand and bend your top arm slightly. Then use your top arm to drive the blade into the water. This gets the blade fully submerged and ready for power.

Once the blade is in the water, minimize how much you punch with the top hand. Instead, pull primarily with the lower arm and drive the top hand forward with your top shoulder.

kayak stroke with punch

Punching with the top arm lowers the pivot point of the paddle. This reduces blade bite on the water.

kayak stroke with pull

A high pivot point gives you better purchase on the water. Push with the top shoulder, don't punch with the top hand.


Working to develop finesse in your strokes is one of the quickest ways to improve your feel for the blade against the water. With finesse, you will be better able to anchor your strokes, and fine-tune the blade position so that it you get the desired effect.

The most basic finesse drill is to practice draw strokes, which are used tomove the boat sideways. Rotate your torso to face the blade, and practice a smooth in the water recovery. Adjust your strokes to keep the boat moving on a parallel path. In general, verticality on draws and bow draws is a good thing, because it gives the blade a better bite in the water. If the shaft angle is low, then the blade slides in the water.

Another important finesse drill to practice is sculling draws. There are twostyles of these draws you should spend time practicing . The most common sculling draw is taking the blade through an arc. It is also important to learn sculling using a long and straight path of travel with the blade. Open the leading edge of the blade so you can keep the boat moving smoothly sideways. Slice the blade along a three foot line, 6 inches from your boat. Gradually open the blade for each direction of travel, making sure to keep both of your hands out over the water by rotating your torso. You can get extra extension by working your top hand in the opposite direction as the blade.

Easy and efficient sculling is a prerequisite to skillful sideslipping. With a sideslip you can move with precision in an eddy to set up the precise angle you wish to leave the eddy with and double your options for sliding out of the eddy to a playspot. The sideslip move looks easy, but it's not! Pick a target and get a little speed. Place the blade behind your hip. The exact blade placement varies by your speed, rotational momentum, and the boat design.

With the right blade angle and placement you will move sideways smoothly. As your boat slows down, scull the blade forward. If the blade starts too far forward, or too open, you will turn, rather than sideslip.

All of these strokes and drills that have been mentioned will greatly improve your paddling if they are practiced. You now have options for how to make subtle corrections and adjustments in your own boating whether it is for river running or playboating.

Capsize Recovery

As a sea kayaker, you'll need to know how to recover from a capsize quickly, so you can minimize your exposure to the elements. Your goal is to be in the safety of your boat, and paddle away in a comfortable, stable manner. Even without a roll, most flips are no big deal if you are well practiced at capsize recovery options, and prepared for the water.

No amount of reading will prepare you for the most threatening situations. You have to practice! For the best success, take a class and learn some of the finer points of each capsize recovery. With each situation there are several of options that work. Your time experimenting will help you understand which variation is appropriate for a true dilemma.

With every capsize recovery you'll want to get back in the boat, and empty the water out. These two essentials happen in either order, depending on the rescue you choose. The primary determining factor is the water temperature. Cold water can rob you of your strength after only a few minutes of immersion. It's wise to dress for the water temperature in case of an unexpected swim, and think through rescues that get you out of the water quickly.

Assisted Rescue

The most common assisted-rescue occurs when the rescuing paddler pulls alongside the swamped boat to stabilize it for reentry. The rescuer leans over and spans the cockpits with a paddle to immobilize the boats.

Maintaining a low center of gravity makes re-entry easier. Usually this means crawling onto the boat with your chest on the rear deck. To get up on the deck, kick your feet up, so you are laying on the surface, and then pull the kayak under you.

From this low position you can slide into the cockpit, and twist into the seat. As you climb in, keep in balance by twisting towards your friend. Then put your skirt on, pump out, and stabilize yourself before releasing and continuing.

There is an alternative to doing all this pumping if the boat has a bulkhead to keep the rear compartment dry. In the T rescue, the rescuer moves to a position roughly perpendicular to the swamped boat and lifts the bow while you push down on the stern. Then flip the boat and pull it into the bow to stern stabilizing position for re-entry.

When the swamped boat doesn't have a watertight bulkhead, it can be pulled further over the deck to drain it completely. This TX rescue takes more effort, lots of teamwork, and risks damage to the boats. So usually paddlers will choose to reenter and pump out boats that don't have a bulkhead.

If a paddler has trouble re-entering the boat a stirrup made from a loop of rope or webbing can wrap around the paddle and provide a welcome step for re-entry. Wrap the stirrup close to the boat, to make it secure. This stirrup can be adapted to many of the rescues.

Self Rescue

The sort of conditions that might cause you to flip are going to make getting back in the boat quite challenging. The ideal is to have assistance with re-entry.

However, if you flip out of range of assistance, a paddle float outrigger can provide extra stability. First, hang on to all your equipment. Then, you’ll use the paddle with a paddle float to form an outrigger held perpendicular to your boat.

After the swim hook a leg into the boat. This frees both hands to attach and inflate the paddle float. This is harder than you might think. A paddle float made of foam is often the preference of paddlers in very cold regions, where cold hands and cold water shock make inflating a float difficult and unpleasant.

Once the float is ready, grasp both the paddle shaft and cockpit rim to form an outrigger. Then kick with your legs to plane your body out before pulling the stern deck under your chest.

Rest your legs on the paddle shaft, then slide one leg in then the other. Turning towards the paddle float will help you lean in that direction, so you can establish a balanced sitting position. At this point use your bilge pump to empty the water. Stow the pump and paddle float, then continue on your way.

By carefully flipping the boat before you re-enter, you can keep out some of the water and reduce your pumping time. This requires a snappy kick of your legs while you lift and twist the bow. Some boats have special deck rigging which greatly simplifies a paddle float re-entry. Deck rigging also leaves your hands free to pump and attach the skirt.

Practice capsize recovery in warm water and calm conditions, so you'll gain confidence in your ability. Take a class to learn some of the finer points, and to get valuable feedback on your technique. Don't underestimate how difficult it can be to maneuver into a helpful position. These rescues are harder than meets the eye, so please practice!

Fitness for Paddling

As an instructor I find it's disturbing to see paddlers who are pushed into aspects of the sport that are beyond their interest. A classic example of that is people getting taken on more and more difficult, very difficult rivers with their friends, even though those rivers are beyond their skill level. It's important to get a good progression as you start, a good learning progression.

The following check list will help insure that you learn the sport at a good pace. If you're not accustomed to learning new sports, you might want to plan your first experience kayaking to be a easy day, maybe just an hour or two during the day. On the other hand, if you're an athletic person, quick to learn different sports, you can go out and really have a good full day of it on your first time.

Checklist on learning

Take a lesson. Even a two day lesson can give you a solid understanding of safety, and save you some unpleasant experiences.

Be thirsty for information. Ask lots of questions, and read books, watch videos.

Try before you buy! Trying equipment and talking to others in your area will help you narrow your range of paddling interests.

Pick your paddling partners carefully. Experts aren't always the best teachers, and rarely is a spouse or boyfriend/ girlfriend the best choice for lessons.

Be realistic in appraising your skill and experience level.

Getting Fit for Kayaking

Improved fitness will make your paddling more enjoyable, because you will feel more energetic, and be able to paddle greater distances without fatigue. You will feel stronger, and be able to do routine tasks like carrying boats and dealing with unexpected difficulties like tough moves on rivers or increasing winds on open water. You'll also feel more flexible, and you'll be able to use your entire body to execute your strokes strongly and efficiently.

The best fitness program for kayaking is paddling. "As much as possible, time in z boat" is the motto borrowed from the broken English of European elite level paddlers. This is because Specificity is the cardinal rule of sports training. The more specific your preparations, the better your performance.

The best plan is to take time for short paddle sessions dedicated to techniques and fitness. You can jump in a boat for a quick hour of exercise on a nearby lake, flatwater river, or quiet ocean bay. This can be a relaxing cruise, or sprints designed to improve your strength and cardiovascular fitness. Stroke drills (Available at performancevideo.com) will help you know what to practice.

In addition to using kayaking to improve your fitness, you can also condition your body beforehand to enhance your experience. One option is a general fitness program at the local sports club. Aerobics and strength training will give you more general endurance when you are in the boat. Ask one of the club's fitness consultants to teach you a routine for general fitness. With their help you might add a few upper body exercises specifically to aide your paddling. Torso twisting and abdominal exercises are among the best.

Whether you do some training on the water, or in a local sports club, these three stretches are recommended as very beneficial to your comfort and efficiency kayaking. These stretch the 3 directions your torso can move in a kayak. When you do these stretches, warm up for a few minutes with some light running or paddling motions. Then stretch gently, just to the point where you feel the stretch. Hold this position for 15 to 20 seconds. Repeat 3 times each direction. Stretching before each paddle helps prevent injuries like tendonitis, muscle soreness, strains, and dislocations. Stretching afterwards is most likely to improve your flexibility.

Begin with stretches in the three major ranges of motion.

  1. C Stretches Sitting on the floor or in a boat, work your lateral flexibility on each side. This helps rolling, bracing, and general edging of the boat.
  2. Torso twists Twist your chest and shoulders so you feel the twist low and deep in your torso. This twist is easy to do in a boat, with you hands assisting by grasping the deck, one hand in front of you, one behind.
  3. Hamstring stretches. The hamstring stretches that are safest for your back are done lying on your back, with your leg extended straight up. Prop your leg against a wall, use a short section of webbing, or better yet, a friend if you can't reach your hands up to help the stretch.

Many people include shoulder warmup and stretches and neck rolls in each direction as part of their stretching routine.


Tips for avoiding injuries

Warm-up and stretch before each paddle

Be systematic in the distance and difficulty

Cool-down, and stretch after each paddle

Shoulder Dislocations in Kayaking

Shoulder dislocations are infrequent but are still the most common serious injury in kayaking. Most first time dislocations are related to poor form while performing a brace or a roll. To prevent this painful and hard to rehabilitate injury, keep your arms low and in front of your torso when performing a roll or brace. Slouching your back puts stress on the shoulder by reducing both boat stability and your rotation.


shoulder excercises for kayakers

shoulder excercises for kayakers

The weakest position for a shoulder:




shoulder excercises for kayakers


This hitchhiking position is the weakest spot of the shoulder joint.


A better bracing position: elbows low, twisted to look at the blade.

Shoulder Maintenance for Kayakers

Balancing your muscle development is the guiding principle of preventative maintenance of your shoulders. Paddlers typically overdevelop some muscle groups, leaving other muscles underdeveloped. Underdeveloped muscles in the back and shoulders can lead to an injury.

shoulder excercises for kayakers

Balancing your muscle development is the guiding principle of preventative maintenance of your shoulders. Paddlers typically overdevelop some muscle groups, leaving other muscles underdeveloped. Underdeveloped muscles in the back and shoulders can lead to an injury.

Frequently these problems arise when the larger muscle groups (“the movers”) overpower the smaller ones (the stabilizers and rotator cuff). This can lead to shoulder dysfunction, so it is important to strengthen and work rotator cuff muscles to control excessive shoulder movement.

It is just as important to work the posterior shoulder and back muscles for the shoulder joint to work properly. Working the shoulder and back will strengthen the muscles that hold the scapula in the correct position, further reducing risk of injury.

To avoid or relieve impingement syndrome, a common complaint of paddlers, it is important to stretch the shoulder, utilize proper posture and strengthen the rotator cuff muscles. Impingement syndrome is a sharp stabbing pain on the front of the shoulder, about an inch down. This is often caused by poor shoulder positioning (slouching), poor flexibility, and poor rotator cuff control. On the bright side, impingement pain tends to respond quickly to therapy.

Heavy weight training can bypass working the stabilizing muscles, so it is important to perform the following exercises with very light resistance. Done daily, these exercises will strengthen and coordinate your paddling muscles. Consult a physician or physical therapist if pain accompanies any of these exercises.

These exercises strengthen the rotator cuff muscles. Start this exercise with your elbow at your side. If you feel painfree, move to the elevated positions. These positions strengthen the rotator cuff for paddling situations – but don’t push it.

shoulder excercises for kayakers shoulder excercises for kayakers


Internal Rotation:

(use a stretchy sport band to provide a little more resistance.)

shoulder excercises for kayakers shoulder excercises for kayakers


External rotation:


shoulder excercises for kayakers shoulder excercises for kayakers


Internal Rotation elevated:

Strengthening the rotator cuff in this vulnerable position will also help prevent dislocations. Do not do this exercise if you feel pain!


shoulder excercises for kayakers shoulder excercises for kayakers


External rotation elevated:


shoulder excercises for kayakers shoulder excercises for kayakers


Rowing (very light weight):

Focus on pinching shoulder blades together in the last half of rowing motion

Do both with elbow at side and with elbow away from body.



These exercises strengthen interscapular muscles. Good for controlling the position of the scapula, and for posterior shoulder strength.

shoulder excercises for kayakers


shoulder excercises for kayakers

Lying down abduction with external rotation. (Finish Thumbs up)



shoulder excercises for kayakers shoulder excercises for kayakers


Lying down abduction with internal rotation (Finish thumbs down)



These exercises help shoulder flexibility:

shoulder excercises for kayakers


Doorway stretch

Vary hand and elbow position to get stretch in different areas of the chest.



shoulder excercises for kayakers


Towel Stretch

To stretch internal rotation. Good to reduce impingement problems.


Shoulder excercises provided by Phil Rambo of Integrated Physical Therapy in Durango, CO. Thanks to Phil for rehabing my shoulder to 100% painfree function!

Paddle Reverse

If your local river is getting too boring, or if low water has your bummed out, try to spice up your run by going backwards. Try to ferry in reverse, catch eddies, and surf while facing downstream. Paddling in reverse will give you a new perspective on your familiar run, and will increase your paddling skills.

reverse strokes

Working on backstrokes and paddling in reverse has two primary benefits. The first is your develop an effective stroke for moves like backferries and backsurfing. Secondly, you strengthen and toughen a lot of the muscles that paddlers tend to injure in the shoulder area.

On flatwater, gradually work up to being able to paddle for 5 - 10 minutes in reverse. Even this short time will be quite tiring. This is a good indication of your muscular imbalance, which can ultimately cause a shoulder injury.

reverse strokes

When you start to go reverse, you might find that you lose control of the boat’s direction. Just like learning to go forward, you will need to make corrections. Start with balanced pressure on each blade. You will also want to learn stroke corrections since these are important for reliable backsurfing control.

reverse strokes

As you are going backwards, practice corrections with both a bow rudder, andbow draw. The Bow draw moves the bow to your blade. The bow rudder moves the bow away.

Try to keep your speed when you make these corrections, otherwise the strokes may pull you off a wave once you are backsurfing. Be sure to learn both the rudder and the bow draw for correction on each side of the boat. Most people don’t think about steering in reverse until backsurfing, and then it is too late... and a tough place to learn!

You don’t need to limit your practice time to flatwater. Spend a lot of time on the river going backwards… this too will help you develop reliable backsurfing skills, as well as working on your balance. Paddle an easy rapid reverse. Catch eddies reverse, and make some easy ferries in reverse.

You may also realize that you usually fall off spins in a hole when you are backwards. This is because of weakness in your reverse paddling repertoire. So practice!

reverse strokes

If you want an extra challenge, and better control, try the compound reversestroke. The compound reverse stroke is quite difficult, but it is a nice exercise for shoulder strength & finesse. The extra control of a compound reverse can come in handy when you need to see where you are going, like catching an eddy in reverse. It helps you learn to keep your body and boat independent so the boat doesn’t wobble with each stroke. The stroke starts with lots of rotation, and a very gentle draw stroke reaching back to the stern. At your hip, flip the blade so you can take a normal reverse stroke. During the transition points you do not want any pressure on the blade.

Trying to paddle in reverse maybe frustrating initially, but over time with practice you will increase your stamina and boat control. Ultimately with this improvement in your paddling skills, you will become a better, more well-rounded paddler.

Kayak Surfing Basics

Kayak surfing in the ocean is different in some ways than kayak surfing in a river. It is important to learn about the anatomy and mechanics of ocean waves, as well as the boats and equipment recommended for use in the ocean. With the right gear, decent waves, and practice, you can be shredding up ocean waves just as you maybe already can the river waves.

Even though I am a veteran whitewater instructor, I was glad to get some tips from Dan Crandall and Doug Schwartz, last year when we shot the Kayak Surfing video. Here are some of the tips I picked up from instructors in the Kayak surf community:

Pick Your Boat

The speed and tracking ability of a sea kayak is ideal for getting outside breaks and exploring, but it has limitations for playing in the surf, since it is difficult to turn due to its longer length than whitewater kayaks. Generally you will get turned sideways as the wave starts to break. A wipeout can be violent in big surf, so a sea kayak is best for catching large ocean swells that require lots of speed, and catching little rides on easy waves.

Sit on tops boats are the most common boat for paddlers first-ever surfing experience, especially in warmer areas. Many sit on top designs are difficult to control in the surf because the boats do not lean very easily and carving is difficult. Due to this inability to edge the boat, lips can be violent. Also due to the boat’s volume, these boats frequently stick sideways in the break all the way to shore.

Depending on the hull design, a sit on top boat can be a great warm water surf machine. Sophisticated surf designs, called wave skis, are essentially sit on top surfboards. These are the boats that people are getting familiar with now, that are incorporating the flat-bottom features of the Wave Skis and the high performance boats that we've been using on the ocean for years. This allows people to do the flat spins and other really dynamic moves on, on ocean waves.

Rodeo boats designed for whitewater are able to flat spin on wave face, and get vertical maneuvers in the whitewater pile of the wave. Classic board and kayak surfing have traditionally been I on the glassy part of waves, with the occasional rodeo move at the end of the ride. Now dynamic tumbling rodeo moves in the whitewater add exciting possibilities.

The Basics

The stern of your boat gets picked up first by the wave, and starts moving down the face of the wave. The bow is still essentially sitting on still water, so the tail is getting moved first. That is why getting some momentum before the wave gets to you helps. When you tip over, it is usually a surprise. But many capsizes can be avoided if you understand some of the dynamics of a typical flip. The wave is moving, but the water in front of it is not moving. The water in front of the wave tries to grab the bottom of the boat, then the wave knocks over the boat.

The solution to this flipping problem is easy though, simply lean hard and tilt the boat into the wave as the boat turns sideways to the wave . Good posture, with a little lean forward, will help you edge the boat correctly. Tilt the boat by transferring your weight onto one butt cheek, and get a little stability from your paddle blade stuck into the wave.

When you're surfing down a wave, you may find that you get turned sideways in front of a white foamy pile. When you do, it's important that you go immediately into a low brace for the smaller waves, or a high brace position for the larger ones. In either case, be sure you keep your elbows tucked close to your sides, never allowing them to get extended above or behind the plane of your shoulder. Either case can cause serious shoulder dislocation.

Many paddlers use a short paddle with small blades to minimize stress on their body. Start with small waves so you can get a good feel for bracing when you get turned sideways. Keep your hands loose on the paddle, because a tense grip keeps you from being relaxed and balanced in the boat. For the best surfing, you will want to actively steer the boat onto the glassy part of the wave.

Learning to kayak surf takes time and practice. Ask the local experts where to go, what boat and gear to use, and for any pointers. Soon enough you will be smiling as you stay in control surfing down the face of a glassy ocean wave.

Evaluating Surf

I got started in Kayak surfing during the shooting of our recent video production: In the Surf. I was lucky to have some expert assistance, from folks like Dan Crandall, Doug Schwartz, Rick Starr. These tips are distilled from some of their advice.

– A Beginners Guide to Evaluating Surf

I got started in Kayak surfing during the shooting of our recent video production: In the Surf. I was lucky to have some expert assistance, from folks like Dan Crandall, Doug Schwartz, Rick Starr. These tips are distilled from some of their advice.

Playing in ocean waves in a kayak can be an exhilarating way to paddle. Long dynamic surfs, dramatic cutbacks, flatspins, and vertical moves are all the maneuvers out there in the waves waiting for you. Trying these and excelling at them will first require some understanding of the ocean’s currents, wave shapes and characteristics, types of waves, as well as where are the ‘sweet spots’ on a wave when beginning to surf.

The most common type of surf is a beach break. At first glance it may look uniform down the beach, but changes in swell direction, tide height and bottom configurations can give a variety of surf conditions, from peeling waves with big well formed shoulders to pitching waves that close out and leave a kayaker few surfing options.

A shore break is where the waves end to close out all at once right onto the beach. Unfortunately for a lot of people, they think this is where they need to start learning to kayak surf. Realistically it's probably the toughest and worst place to start because it's very difficult to get out past these breaking waves without already having surfing skills. The surfs tend to be very short and, and violent. Also, the potential for injury is actually a lot greater when you're working in shore break.

A gradual bottom profile will tend to create a mushy wave, which is ideal for beginning surfing. A sharp change in the bottom profile will create a pitching wave, which is more challenging.

Usually the best place to surf is off of a point break. It can give you an opportunity to get out to the line up without having to pound your way through incoming surf. A point break is formed when parallel lines of swells refract around the point, bending into progressively shallower water. Depending on the swell direction and bottom contour, this can create a series of ideal surfing waves.

Many point breaks have waves that reform several times. Each successive reform is smaller, gentler, and friendlier. Point breaks allow for multiple times to surf the whitewater, which is rarely possible on a beach break. Plus it's easier to get out and find the ideal takeoff spot.

A reef break can be a lot of fun to surf because the reef is simply the shallow spot out in the ocean. The waves break over that reef giving you deep water exits on both sides so you can paddle out to the deep water, get into the line up, surf it and get off and never have to deal with the beach break. Not all reef breaks are friendly though, since the reef can have sharp rocks very close to the surface.

Factors for Selecting Waves

There are essentially three factors to look for when evaluating surf. One is swell height and direction – preferable to have a long steady swell. Second is the wind – no wind at all or an offshore wind is preferable. Third is the tide – determining when is the best time (high or low tide) to be at the chosen location.

Each location has different characteristics. So you have to research each spot to know whether they it is best at low tide, high tide, or an incoming tide or an outgoing tide.

When you arrive at the surf, take a few minutes and get tuned into the rhythm of the waves, their size, and their frequency. A few minutes of study will pay off well. Especially if you can get up high, you can get a big picture feel that is difficult once you are on the water. It takes a lot of experience to evaluate swell size, wind direction, and the tide and conclude what sort of waves you will have available to play. Locals and the internet are often the best resource.

Finding the Takeoff Spot

I got started in Kayak surfing during the shooting of our recent video production: In the Surf. I was lucky to have some expert assistance, from folks like Dan Crandall, Doug Schwartz, Rick Starr. These tips are distilled from some of their advice.

My first attempts at kayak surfing were met by a good pummeling, probably because I didn’t understand how to line up for the best part of the incoming waves. It's a strategy game of choosing a wave to surf, then figuring out how to line up and get the best ride. This takes a combination of positioning and timing to find the powerful part of the wave, called the pocket. This is where the curling whitewater meets the smooth part of the wave.

An important question to be asking yourself is, "Where do you take off on the wave?" The answer to that varies, but in general you are looking for the peak of the wave, since that is where the pocket will form first.

The peak is the prime take off spot on the wave. The problem is that the exact spot changes from time to time, as the peak shifts around depending upon swell direction and the type of the bottom. Paddle out, find a peak, and set up yourself with reference points on the shore so you can come back to that spot quickly and then make small adjustments as the peak shifts around from there.

To help you return to your favorite take off spot after each ride look for markers on the shore, chimneys, cliffs, or trees and use these to establish reference lines. Try to find something that gives you an exact line marker, so that you may return to the ideal take-off spot quickly after each surf.

To identify where the waves have been breaking you can also look for a white foam line from the previous wave. You can set up right alongside that foam line-it is a good for where you want where to be when setting up to catch a wave.

Once you are actually sitting in that great spot that you determine to be the ultimate take off place, the next trick is getting on the waves. Catching a wave is a commitment, as it requires aggressive paddling to get your boat moving in order to get up to hull speed. Once you are gaining the wave, it will feel as if the wave is picking up the tail of your boat. Begin leaning forward with your body weight to shift your weight down the face of the wave. Next you will want to quicken up the pace of your strokes by taking shallow strokes.

When you are sprinting to catch a wave use a quicker windmill-type stroke and keep your boat running perpendicular to the wave. Even if you start too early, try timing your paddling so you reach top speed exactly when the top of the wave will hit the stern of your boat. Then, remember to steer! If you are far from the break, drop into the wave and angle towards the break, so you can tap more power of the pocket.

If you drop in close to the peak, your first turn will take you down the line of the breaking wave; this first turn is called a bottom turn. It is your ticket to hours of enjoyable surfing.

Anywhere there is an accessible surf zone it is likely there are going to be other people out there enjoying it. It is a Kayaker's responsibility to learn some of the rules of the area so that everyone will stay safe and have more fun.

Pick a place to surf where you have absolutely no possibility of running into people that are playing in the same area. Try to be respectful and as courteous as you can to everyone you encounter. A lot of board surfers are irritated by kayaks because kayakers have such an advantage, and the ability to catch swells well before they break. You have to kind of realize the advantage you have and try not to take too much advantage of it. In other words SHARE. Kayakers can expand the sport by finding surf that requires a little bit of a paddle to get to; these areas rarely have a crowd.

Tensions in the Surf

A conversation with big wave board surfer Richard Schmidt

I have been there… surfing my boat in the ocean, only to get the wrath of local boardsurfer. Their anger seems to out of nowhere, and I don’t know what I have done wrong. It is a common experience of kayakers…

In shooting our latest video, I had opportunity to address the problem with famed big wave surfer, Richard Schmidt. As a frequent headliner and big money winner at Maverics surf competition, Richard also operates a surfing school in Santa Cruz, California.- Kent

Kent: It seems it is a fact of life-anywhere there's an accessible surf zone there are going to be other people out there enjoying it. Why do we kayakers often seem to get in trouble?

Richard: I think it is often inadvertent. Sometimes it is not knowing the rules of surfing, and sometimes it is not recognizing the surfers point of view.

Kent: Lets start with the rules…

Richard: Two factors determine who has the right of way. Which surfer catches the wave first, and which surfer is closest to the break. If it's close who caught the wave first, it's generally the person that's the closest to the curl, the surfer that has the inside. That's the most defining rule of right-of-way in surfing.

Also, surfers or kayakers paddling out through the surf should make sure and paddle well around the surf. You don't want to see a group and head for them. When someone catches a wave you're going to be an obstacle for them. It's a real bummer having to steer, and run an obstacle course on this wave because of people paddling out.

Kent: You run a surf school. What do beginner board surfers do to learn without pissing people off?

Richard: I tell my beginning surfing students that they should learn on a soft surfboard so they don't present a hazard to themselves or anybody out there. Kayakers don't have that luxury, you don't have those soft spongy kayaks like surfers.

So I guess you want to make sure you get yourself in a situation that's not real crowded and really learn basic skills away from everybody else.

I have seen kayakers who see a crowd of surfers and plow into the middle of them. Be creative. Look at the ocean and try to find a niche where maybe you can get away from the crowd and really learn your skills, get really confident before you get yourself around any other surfers.

Kent: Can you generalize about how surfers view kayakers?

Richard: I think a lot of boardsurfers are frustrated by kayaks because you have such an advantage. You can catch swells well before they break. You can paddle out very easily. So I think you have to realize the advantage you have and try not to take too much advantage of it.

Also, when a kayak gets knocked sideways in the white water it looks like it really hard to break out of that sideways thing. As a surfer, when I'm paddling out the only thing I can do to save myself and is to dive under. And a lot of surfers see the potential for that and they're very intimidated by kayakers out in the same surf alongside them.

Kent: Kayakers paddle out faster, and catch waves more easily. So it doesn’t take long until kayakers have gotten more rides than board surfer. Does that frustrate surfers?

Richard: You kind of have to take turns to an extent. Sometimes we go out, and if it's crowded, it's a lot more courteous if you sit off to the side and you kind of wait your turn. Watch a couple people get a wave and kind of see how the waves are.

Kent: How much is territoriality an issue?

Richard: Some surfers feel that if they've surfed there longer, that they kind of have more right to the wave than anybody else. I'm not saying that's right, but there is kind of an unwritten rule that people that have been surfing a long time you kind of have to respect.

When I travel to Hawaii and I paddle out to a new spot I'm not going to be openly aggressive. I respect the people that live there, that have been surfing there a really long time. I want to tread lightly and just get a few waves and not really wear out my welcome.

Kent: So you will pass up waves just to let a local get it? I know I rarely think that way when out in a kayak.

Richard: Its something to think about.

Kent: What else can kayakers do to ease tensions at the surf?

Richard: Kayakers can expand the sport by finding surf that requires a little bit of a paddle to get to. These areas rarely have a crowd of surfers.

I think what's really important is respecting the other people out in the water. Have a smile, you know, say "Good day."-whatever. Don't go out there and just try to get a lot of waves. If you catch less waves and you're a little bit nicer with your approach-you're going to get respect in return and have a lot more fun.

To Go Faster: Paddle in Molasses

To go anywhere in this sport, you need to be able to develop speed from a standstill. In fact, forward paddling is the greatest weakness of 90% of the boaters on the river.

Too many people think of pulling the blade through the water on a forward stroke. Instead, you should plant the blade firmly in the water, and pull your hips up to that point. The difference between pulling the blade back, or the boat forward, is subtle but important. Think of your boat as gliding in a giant vat of molasses. Each stroke should stick in the molasses, so you have a firm blade to pull against. What happens if you strive to pull the blade through the water? You won't get firm resistance on the blade, so the blade will slip, and you won't pull yourself as far.

The blade sticking in molasses analogy can provide the answers to many commonly asked questions about the length and speed of forward strokes. The plant should be as far forward as possible, so you can pull yourself forward a greater distance. Don't pull until the blade is fully immersed. Once the blade reaches your hip, you can't pull yourself forward any further, so that is the logical point to finish the power phase of the stroke. Simply increasing your stroke rate won't necessarily make your boat go faster. To go faster, concentrate on pulling harder while keeping the blade stuck, then, recover quickly to the next plant.

When you first learned to paddle forward, you probably used your small, nimble arm muscles to provide all your power. A better strategy is to incorporate larger muscles for a more powerful, efficient stroke.

Can you imagine sitting in your boat and reaching forward to start a lawn mower? This twisting reach is the sort of torso and hip power you want to harness on the water. However, using that power is tricky. Too much front to back motion bobs the boat and jeopardizes your control and efficiency. Instead use torso rotation, twisting around your top shoulder to provide the pull of each stroke. To wind up for the stroke, lead with the chest on your paddle side. Then concentrate on getting the blade crisply in the water before you pull your hips forward. Strive to find a smooth, gliding sensation.

Really important to good paddling is keeping the paddle shaft vertical throughout the pull phase. The further the blade wanders from the side of the boat, the more your stroke resembles a turning stroke.

Just how you apply power is important. Yanking the paddle simply pulls it through the water, instead of allowing it to get a good purchase. Bubbles or splashes behind the blade are an indication that you are pulling too fast.

To practice these concepts with your forward stroke, do some flatwater paddling alongside a series of fixed points like dock pilings or buoys. Watch the blade and monitor how much it slips with each stroke. What you want is to feel resistance against the blade.

One way to check your stroke efficiency is by following, and mimicking, a really smooth paddler. The easiest way to learn this motion is on land, in front of a mirror, so you can monitor how much you are rotating. This helps you get the rhythm before you have to worry about your stability or keeping your boat straight.