Basic Paddling Strokes
This section is intended to give you some very basic information on what you can expect as a beginning paddler. There are many highly detailed books written by paddling experts that will provide you with better information than you will find here. Remember though, there's no substitute for getting out in the water and trying it yourself -- but do it with a club until you've developed some basic skills.
There aren't really basic and advanced strokes with kayaking. There are several simple strokes, and each has several variations. Advanced kayakers combine multiple strokes and perform them as a unit. It's not something you'll have to think about; it will come naturally as you spend time on the water.
One thing to keep in mind is that kayak strokes utilize the whole body. Your torso is frequently a pivot, your strength comes from your back, and you use your legs for stability.
Your hands should form hooks around the paddle; don't squeeze it tightly. That will just hurt your hands and contribute to carpal tunnel syndrome. More importantly for our purposes, a tight grip will interfere with the efficiency of your stroke. Keep your pinkies off the paddle; for some anatomical reason I don't understand, this will keep you from clutching the paddle too tightly.
Hold the paddle with your hands about a hips-width apart. The paddle is a few inches above the deck of your kayak.
The forward stroke is the first stroke you'll need. Holding the paddle as described, punch out at about shoulder level with one hand, using the palm of your hand to push against the paddle. Your other hand, which is the lower hand, is curved into a hook and acts as a fulcrum for the paddle -- it does not pull. The force of the movement does not come from your arms, but from your obliques, the muscles of your waist. Your waist will twist with every stroke. You'll know you're doing this stroke correctly when you look down and see the zipper of your PFD twisting from side to side as you paddle.
Users of the Greenland style paddle perform the same movement but a little lower toward the deck of the boat.
The paddle will enter the water near your toes and emerge from the water alongside your hip. Pulling the paddle further back is a waste of energy; it doesn't serve to move you forward enough to justify the additional effort. The paddle blade is about perpendicular to the water as it breaks the surface.
In the meantime you are incorporating your whole body into the stroke. If you're pushing with your right hand, your right foot is pressing against its footbrace, and vice versa.
Ideally, you are using all the kinetic energy in your body to propel your craft. This is the most efficient way to make progress. Rather than tiring out your smaller muscles, like your biceps, use the strong big muscles in your obliques, hips, and thighs.
Carry your 'punching' movement through, but don't cross the center line of your craft. That would be a waste of your energy, and in kayaking you'll find that efficiency is the essence of all strokes. The Aleuts and Inuits who paddled in icy seas to hunt for sustenance couldn't afford to waste energy, and when you find yourself becoming tired in the middle of high boat traffic or choppy water, you'll see the benefit of having energy reserves.
Using a paddle that fits your physical dimensions will make it easier to paddle with good form. I found that out the hard way -- my too-long paddle was forcing me to perform the punching movement above my shoulder, and I was becoming tired much too quickly.
The reverse stroke performs two functions; one, to go in reverse, and two, to stop.
The reverse stroke starts behind you. You hold the paddle more vertically than you would with a forward stroke and insert it into the water as far back as you can comfortably reach. You are leaning back a little as you do this.
The paddle is at a very shallow angle as it enters the water, almost flat. The rear edge of the blade is a little lower than the front edge. Lean back and place the paddle as far behind you as you reasonably can. Lean on the blade a little; since it's almost flat on the water it will support your weight. At this point you're twisted at the waist. Look over your shoulder to see where you're going.
With your lower hand use your palm to push the paddle forward to your hip. Your upper hand is hooked around theupper paddle shaft. Straighten out your torso as you push. You'll feel that the unwinding of your body is provides much of the power of this stroke.
You will feel your kayak tilt toward the side you are stroking on. This is okay, although a little scary at first. Brace the knee on the stroking side against the top of your boat and keep your torso perpendicular to the water. This will keep your craft from slipping out from under you.
As you perform the first reverse stroke you will feel your boat begin to turn in the direction you just applied the paddle. As you dip your paddle on the opposite side, it will even out.
Repeat on the other side, then the first side again, and so forth. One note of major importance -- look behind you when you paddle in reverse! It takes a little getting used to to twist your head around and still feel stable in your boat, but a few tries and you'll become comfortable.
To stop your kayak, do the same stroke. You should only have to perform the strokes two or three times on each side. Once again, you wil feel your boat start to turn, but applying the paddle on the opposite side will even things out. The main difference between a reverse stroke and a stopping stroke is that the stopping stroke occurs when you're already moving forward. The effect on your craft will be more extreme than when performing a reverse stroke because you will have momentum working against you. With a reverse stroke, we're assuming that you're doing it from a dead halt or from a slow forward movement.
It will take at least two complete boat lengths to stop your craft. In other words, to stop a 17-foot kayak assume you will need at least 34 feet to stop.
The sweep stroke is a way to turn your boat.
Lean forward and insert your paddle into the water near your toes. The blade is almost flat on the water. The front edge of the blade is slightly lower. Lean on the blade a little, pressing your knee on the opposite side up against your craft and keeping your torso perpendicular to the water. Sweep out to the side, stopping when the blade is even with your hip. Remember not to grip the blade tightly; a tight grip will twist your wrist and put an unnecessary strain on it. That's the straightforward description. The way it feels when you try it is that the blade stays stationary in the water while you use your body to pivot the boat around it.
Here we'll talk about two ways to go sideways.
First, the draw stroke. Hold the paddle nearly vertical. Insert it into the water near your hip, as far as you can comfortably reach. The blade is parallel with the craft. Draw the blade toward you. At the end of the stroke, turn the blade so it is perpendicular to the boat. Slice it back to the starting point and repeat until you're where you want to be.
A sculling draw stroke is used when you want to have the paddle continuously ready to begin a different stroke, or when you need added stability. Hold your paddle to one side in an almost vertical position. Insert the blade into the water at a 45 degree angle to the boat and move it in a figure-eight. As you move through the center of the figure-eight, twist your wrist so that as your blade moves into the other curve it's angled the opposite way. By placing the blade at a flatter angle to the water, this stroke provides extra stability, which is useful in rough water.
Your kayak is tilted either toward or away from the side you're stroking on; it depends on the boat and you'll have to experiment. Your knee on the raised side is pressed up against the top of your craft and your torso is once again perpendicular to the water.
Braces are strokes you use catch your balance when you start to tip over; think of them as preventative strokes, although some people certainly do them just for fun. It takes skill to ease your kayak onto its side, lie your back on the water's surface, and swirl the paddle over your head in figure eights -- and hang there indefinitely.