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.