The most difficult skill to master when you take up canoeing is to, essentially, treat the boat as an extension of your body. By combining canoe, paddle and body into a single unit, you can propel the vessel more efficiently and control steerage and speed to an amazing degree. As a novice, you are likely to paddle using only your elbows and shoulders. This is tiring, and it is necessary to bring in the trunk and thighs to help power the craft as well. The following section relates to kayaking (in which a double-bladed paddle is used). In canoeing (which involves a single-bladed paddle) the techniques used to propel and manoeuvre the vessel are different and are dealt with separately.
The first three kayaking techniques to be mastered are paddling forwards, paddling backwards and stopping.
To propel the kayak, hold the paddle away from your body (at arm’s length) and away from the kayak, place the blade in the water and lever the kayak past it. Lift the blade out of the water as it comes level with you hip, and drop the other blade into the water to repeat the process on the opposite side. Mastering this basic technique of paddling forwards is much more time consuming than you might imagine. Plenty of practise is the answer, but also remember these key points:
- Keep the paddle as upright as possible before it enters the water.
- Keep the blade of the paddle square to the side of the kayak.
- The blade of the paddle should exit the water when it is level with your hip. If you lift the blade out too late, you will waste energy and the kayak will bob up and down.
- Keep your grip on the paddle relaxed. There’s no need to hang on too tight on flat water, and opening your fingers will allow your paddle to reach further on each forward stroke.
- Avoid bending your arms too much. It’s tempting to let your arms and shoulders do all the work, but by keeping your arms as straight as possible throughout the stroke, your thighs and torso will come into use, giving you much greater power and reducing fatigue on the arms.
- Lean into the stroke. By leaning forwards when paddling forwards, you can reach further ahead and lengthen the stroke. However, don’t hurl your weight back and forward, as this will result in an inefficient see-sawing action.
To move backwards, you essentially need to reverse the procedure for paddling forwards. First, turn to the side on which the blade is going to enter the water, then lean back and put the blade in the water behind you, close to the side of the kayak. Push the paddle forwards and down, thus levering the kayak backwards, and chop the blade out of the water when it is roughly level with the knees. Repeat the process on the other side, and continue alternating strokes until you reach the desired position.
To stop a kayak, the blade is used as a brake. Drop the blade into the water at right-angles to the kayak, lift it out and repeat the process on the other side. You need to brace yourself firmly in the kayak, using your legs, or you risk spinning around or capsizing as a result of the force created by coming to an abrupt halt. Also remember:
- You can slow down the braking process by only submerging half the blade each time.
- Alternating strokes from side to side in quick succession will make the stopping process much smoother.
More Basic Kayaking Techniques
Even if the kayaker is paddling correctly, it may not be possible to steer a straight course without some adjustment. Wind, current and water conditions can all cause the vessel to veer off-course. To avoid this, paddling can be modified in the following ways:
- Speeding up the passage of the blade through the water.
- Sweeping the paddle further out from the bow than usual
- Pulling the blade in at the stern more than usual.
Turning the kayak around, either by pivoting around a single point or tracing a wider, circular path, requires a sweep stroke. This is a controlled, powerful stroke and can be done on the left of right, either in a forward or backward motion. The same principles apply to both forms of the sweep stroke. To turn to the left using a backward sweep stroke, the kayaker would:
- Reach back and place the blade into the water at the back of the kayak, on the left hand side.
- Sweep the paddle around in a wide arc until the blade has come all the way around to touch the stern, leaning back slightly and pulling the blade into the body with the rear arm.
- Repeat the steps above.
The same movement could be achieved by using a forward sweep stroke on the right hand side of the kayak.
A draw stroke, as the name implies, moves the kayak in a sideways direction. This is a particularly useful technique for pulling the boat into the bank after drawing alongside, for rafting up with other paddlers and avoiding obstacles in rough water. It is also essential for slalom. The technique is:
- With the paddle vertical, and the blade parallel to the side of the kayak, place the blade into the water as far from the boat as is comfortable.
- Push the paddle out with the upper arm, and pull the paddle in towards your body with the lower arm until the shaft is close in to the side of the kayak. Take care not to over ride the blade with the kayak – you could lose your grip on the paddle or capsize!
- Leaving the lower blade in the water, rotate the shaft through 90 degrees so that the blade cuts through the water as it returns to the starting position. Now repeat the push-pull motion.
- Repeat these steps until the kayak has been drawn into the desired position.
Also known as a brace or recovery stroke, the support stroke is used to balance craft and kayaker and prevent a capsize. There are two main types of support stroke – the low support stroke and the high support stroke:
Low brace support stroke
- Make sure your knees are braced.
- Keep the paddle horizontal about half a metre above the water, with the back of the blade facing upwards.
- Over-balance the kayak so that your elbow dips into the water, then drive the blade downwards to slap the water.
- The slap support stabilises the kayak, and you should regain balance by flicking your hips to bring the boat level.
High brace support stroke
The low brace support stroke is not suitable in some contexts, such as in white water or surf conditions. Here, the low position of the blade would mean the paddle was underwater, so the shaft of the paddle must be raised to a higher position to allow recovery and prevent capsize.
- Hold the paddle at chest height, with the elbows below the shaft, as though you were hanging from it.
- As you overbalance, the blade will hit the surface of the water. Drive the boat back up, using the paddle as a support.
You can practise the support stroke in stages, beginning with a slight over-balance and progressing until you are confident enough to dip your head in the water and still regain your balance.
Capsizing is an inevitable part of canoeing and, for safety’s sake, paddlers must know how to cope when the boat goes over and they end up upside down in the water! There are two ways to deal with a capsize – get out and right the vessel or roll the boat in order to bring it back into an upright position without getting out of the cockpit. With a spraydeck fitted, it’s possible to capsize a kayak without any water entering the hull. A wild water canoe can be rolled, as it has a spraydeck similar to a kayak, but rolling is not possible in an open canoe, which will quickly become swamped.
It’s essential to learn how to cope with a capsize. Until you learn how to roll the kayak, you must simply push yourself free of the cockpit once you are underwater, then swim to the surface. The kayak can be quite restricting around your legs, and the spraydeck will also be holding you in place. Following a capsize you should:
- Reach forward and grasp the release tab on the spraydeck and pull it towards you.
- Place your hands behind you on the sides of the kayak and push yourself out of the cockpit.
- Simulate a forward roll and, once clear of the kayak, head for the surface.
The Eskimo Roll
Learning how to roll is a gradual process, and most novices learn with the support of an assistant in a swimming pool or other flat water environment. Skills are built up until the paddler is able to perform an unsupported roll known as a Pawlata Roll, in which one hand is placed on the end of the blade – this gives more leverage and makes it easier to achieve the roll. When actually canoeing, the main technique used is the Screw Roll. The following sequence describes this technique:
- The paddler is in an upright position, with the hands in their normal position on the paddle shaft.
- The kayak overbalances and capsizes.
- The paddler, now underwater and upside down, leans forwards with the paddle parallel to the kayak.
- The kayaker moves the leading blade away from the side of the kayak, and slaps the blade on the surface of the water to ensure it is flat.
- The kayaker now sweeps the paddle across the body in a backward motion, sitting up to allow the passage of the paddle. The movement is similar to a pitchfork-over-the-shoulder motion! By twisting the upper body, the canoeist’s pelvis (and the canoe itself) are made to roll.
- The craft has now been pivoted back into position, so that it is almost upright.
- Finally, a hip flick is used to bring boat and body back into their correct, above-water position.
- The kayaker finishes in a laid back position, with the back of the head touching the deck.
The hip flick helps to right the boat. This action uses the knee to pull one side of the boat into the body and the hip to push it away on the other side. The aim is not to get the body clear of the water, but to use its buoyancy force to assist the righting action. At the last moment, the flicking action pulls the canoeist out of the water and into an upright position.
There are many more rolling techniques, suitable for different situations. Details of these, with tips on how to master the technique and accompanying diagrams, can be found on this Kayak Rolling on-line resource. Video clips and a comprehensive overview of rolling are also available on Kayak Wiki.
The following techniques apply to a two-person open canoe, sometimes known as a Canadian canoe, which is the most popular style of craft for leisure canoeing on British rivers:
The canoe paddle should be held in an upright position, with one hand vertically above the other. This ensures that the blade enters the water cleanly, and the whole face of the blade is used to drive the canoe along. The top of the paddle has a handle, which the fingers are curled around in a tight (but not too tight!) grip, with the thumb underneath. The other hand should grip the neck of the blade.
The paddler reaches forward slightly to place the paddle in the water, close to the canoe, then pulls it downwards in a powerful motion. The paddle is brought out of the water once it is approximately level with the hip. The paddle shaft is kept almost vertical at all times, with the body twisting through the stroke. Both arms remain fairly straight throughout all phases of the stroke, as this helps maintain power and proper paddle position. The stern paddler and bow paddler use the same stroke.
To paddle backwards, the forward stroke is simply reversed, with the paddle placed in the water just behind the canoeist and driven forwards. The stroke is sometimes known as a backwater.
More basic canoeing techniques
The draw stroke
The draw stroke, also known as the pull-to, draws the canoe into the side, making it useful for going alongside or avoiding obstacles. It is performed in exactly the same way as a kayak draw stroke, as only one blade is used. The paddler reaches out as far as is comfortable and, keeping the shaft vertical, is pulled in using the lower arm. The draw is particularly effective at moving the bow, and the stern paddler can either use the same stroke (on the same side) to bring the back of the canoe in, or can use a pry.
The pry stroke is unique to the open canoe, and is not used in kayaking. The shaft is angled in towards the canoe, so that the blade is actually underneath the vessel. Holding the shaft and the gunwhale (the side of the canoe) with the lower hand, the paddler then levers the blade up and outwards with the upper arm. This stroke is often more convenient, as the stern paddler need not switch sides.
Steering – the J Stroke
Most of the power is provided by the canoeist at the bow, while the stern paddler is responsible for steering and balancing the canoe as well as providing power. There are two basic ways to set the direction of the canoe. The first is to switch sides every 5-6 strokes. Because the bow stroke is more powerful, the canoe will tend to veer towards this side. Switching sides periodically counteracts this effect, and ensures the canoe takes a fairly straight line through the water.
The second method is for the stern paddler to use a steering stroke, known as the J Stroke which steers the canoe while still providing forward momentum. The stroke starts off as a normal forward stroke, but the shaft of the paddle is then twisted and levered outwards slightly. This pushes the blade under the boat and corrects the veering of the canoe.
Novices may find it easier to turn the canoe than to paddle it in a straight line! This is because the paddle must be kept as vertical as possible in the forward stroke. By holding the paddle at an angle of 45 degrees to the centreline of the boat, the paddle sweeps through the water, turning the canoe.
This Scouts Canada club website has a good, illustrated beginner’s guide to paddle strokes.
In an open canoe, there is no restricted cockpit or spraydeck so, following a capsize, both paddlers will simply fall out! The danger here is that you become trapped between the canoe and an obstacle in the river. To recover the canoe and get back in, you should:
- Ensure the canoe is completely upside down – this will trap air and assist with buoyancy.
- Hold onto the upstream end of the canoe, so that the vessel does not swing round and strike or trap you.
- Tow the canoe to the side of the river, right it and re-launch.
Rescue in deep water, such as at sea or on a lake, is more complicated, unless you are travelling in a party of two or more canoes. In this situation you can perform a deep water rescue by lifting the upturned canoe onto the deck of another canoe, before righting it and creating a raft to allow the capsized canoeists to re-enter their vessel.