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The Fundamentals of Good Paddling

by Dan Lewis

Many of you will have seen skilled sea kayakers cruising by your house at sunset, at symposia, at local beaches. Every stroke seems effortless, their boats seem an extension of their bodies, and appear to be commanded by their will more than by any visible techniques. But, while this may look effortless, it's really the result of sound fundamentals.

Good kayak instructors, like all good teachers, use what is called a "teaching progression". The skills which give fluidity to a skilled paddler are broken down into components to be learned separately. The mastery of one skill prepares you to learn the next. Once you've learned how to hold a paddle properly, you are ready to learn how to use it in the water. To learn paddle strokes first would hinder you skill progression.

Think of each individual skill as a building block. To become more skilled you can add more blocks precariously on top of the narrow base you already know, or you can broaden the base by practicing your foundation skills. One of the nice things about the latter approach is that you can advance while still staying in your comfort zone. And when you strengthen a base skill, you get better at all the skills which rest upon it.

Me, I'm a bit of a fundamentalist when it comes to kayaking. I delight in finessing basic skills, and tend to play with them every time I go paddling.

So let's begin. Have you ever done a wet exit? Many paddlers have not and you can tell. Oh, they're smiling, all right. They're having a good time out there, but somewhere in the back of their mind they're thinking 'What the hell would happen if I tip over?' The greatest fear for novices is getting stuck upside down in the boat. This is probably why many people avoid practising wet exits. Unfortunately this means they get stuck in their skills progression.

When you learn to wet exit properly, there is a tremendous release of energy. You become confident you can get out of an overturned kayak, and anxiety is reduced. Someone who has practised tipping knows where the point of no return is, and is much less likely to actually capsize.

Practise in a pool, or a warm lake in summer. Have an experienced friend stand in the water beside you, to offer assistance should you need it. First tip over without a paddle or spraydeck, then with the spraydeck attached to the kayak, then while holding onto your paddle with one hand and removing the spraydeck from the boat with the other hand. You don't have to like it, just do it enough times to convince yourself it works smoothly!
For those who can already wet exit, do you always come to the surface holding on to both your paddle and kayak? This is a critical habit to develop if you think you're going to perform a paddlefloat rescue after capsizing. Letting go of either can get you in real trouble, especially in a wind.

Have you tried wet exits in cold water? In rough water? When was the last time you practiced... two or three years ago?
By the time I choose to wet exit, I'm in extemely turbulent conditions, and have tried to roll many times. By the time I realise my roll ain't gonna work, I usually have very little oxygen left and thus feel a little panicky. So I have to really talk myself through the wet exit, and stay calm. It helps to have the technique down pat at these times.

Here's another example. Practice edging your boat while cruising on flat water. Lock your knees, shift all your weight till you're balanced on one side of your butt, then lift the deck with your opposite knee. Now paddle forward, keeping the boat on edge. It will be hard to do at first, but very quickly you will build new muscles and become comfortable in this awkward and precarious position. Practice until you can paddle in a straight line with the edge of your spraydeck underwater. This training really pays off if you're paddling in strong beam winds, and want to lean into the wind a bit to prevent a capsize.

Most of our kayaking time is spent paddling forward and there are things you can do to improve the efficiency of your forward stroke. But don't neglect your manoeuvring and bracing strokes. A good time to finesse these strokes is right after a paddle, when you're close to home, camp or car, and an accidental capsize won't be dangerous or otherwise ruin your day. Spend a few minutes playing around. Sweep strokes, low braces, and draw strokes are the most important. The latter are critical during rescue situations.

When performing paddle strokes like braces, sweeps and draws, most of us have a preferred side and an 'off' side. I urge you to eliminate this thinking! If you practice only on your 'on' side, you will get better but only on that side. But the discrepancy between the two sides will only increase. When you practice, work mostly on your 'off' side, and it will steadily improve until you may find yourself having difficulty remembering which side was which!

Navigation is another example of skills progression. First, learn to estimate your speed in a variety of conditions. Do this by timing yourself paddling a known distance, then calculate your speed. This skill is essential during crossings, so be sure to master it beforehand.

Practice listening to marine weather reports. The best practice is to record what they're saying. Learn to distinguish between the synopsis, your marine area forecast, and the actual weather observations in lighthouse reports. You can access the Environment Canada Continuous Marine Broadcast recording by phone. For example, the local number for us in Tofino is 726-3415. This number is given at the beginning of each broadcast in Tofino. Presumably the same holds true for Vancouver, Victoria, etc. You can do this from your desk at work during lunch-hour, and it will really pay off some Sunday morning when you're the only group member who has a clue what they're saying on the weather radio, and can thus determine if it's safe to go or not!

You can take any basic kayaking skill, analyse it in this way, then practice, practice, practice, to fine-tune your technique. Make it part of your paddling routine, and have fun doing it.
Dan Lewis is a kayak instructor based in Tofino. He can be reached at Box 511, Tofino, BC, V0R 2Z0. Phone/fax: 250-725-3117.