How to Paddle a Kayak – Proper Techniques

Perhaps the biggest draw to kayaking is the peace and beauty of exploring waterways. Whether floating calm lakes or riding the surf or rapids, a good adventure comes from knowing how to paddle.

Proper watercraft control comes from the knowledge of a few paddling strokes like the ones we show you here. When you know the proper strokes, your efficient paddling takes you where you want to go.

In this article, we’ll show you the basic strokes you need to know to get you moving on the water.

The basics we’ll cover are:

  • The best grip for more efficient paddle strokes
  • The forward moving paddle stroke
  • The slow down and reverse moving paddle stroke
  • The turning sweep stroke
  • The sideways draw stroke

We recommend that when you practice these paddling strokes, you do so in calm water and remove the skeg or rudder. Your goal is learning how to maneuver your kayak on your paddling technique alone. Once you gain paddling confidence, up your game by adding the rudder and practice on swifter waters.

Beginners might find these detailed paddle strokes overwhelming, but not understanding and using them properly quickly wears you down.

Holding the Paddle

For performing a stroke that doesn’t tire you out, knowing the correct holding posture is a top priority. To get the correct hold, you need a paddle that is the right size for you.

The paddle length best for you is easily determined, based on kayak width and paddler height. A wide kayak and taller person needs a longer length paddle, while narrow kayaks and smaller paddlers need shorter lengths.

There are four key rules involved in correctly holding a paddle:

  1. Knowing the paddle blade type, you are using
  2. Keeping your hands relaxed while holding the paddle
  3. Being mindful of where you place your grip
  4.  Proper blade orientation

1. The Paddle Blade Type

There are three main paddle blade distinctions you should become familiar with:

  • Matched or parallel and feathered or angled blades
  • Asymmetrical and symmetrical blades
  • Curved and flat blades

Parallel and angled blades—Parallel, or matched blades are the easiest to use when learning. If you have feathered blades, the shaft should have a push-button system for realigning until the blades are parallel.

Asymmetrical and symmetrical blades—An asymmetrical blade has one side of the blade shorter than the other side. It’s not a noticeable difference, so you must look closely. The asymmetrical blade helps with straight tracking without spinning when pulling the blade through the water.

The symmetrical blade is a uniform oval shape. Either blade style works well for beginner paddlers, but you need to know the difference for effective paddling.

Curved and flat blades—Curved blades are flat, but have a slight curve running the blade’s length. The curvature gives the stroke’s beginning an early catch, making it a standard style for high-performance racing paddlers.

Flat blades are best for the beginner because you can use them with all the paddle strokes. The flat blade paddles are better for beginners, recreational, long-distance, and smaller sized paddlers.

2. Keep Your Hands Relaxed

To keep your hands, wrist, and hands from hurting and for preventing fatigue, it’s important to keep a relaxed grip. You want to rely on the power of your torso, and not your paddle, to move the kayak.

Keep your grip relaxed and follow these tips for avoiding hand and arm stress:

  • Form your thumb and index finger in the shape of an “O” when gripping the paddle shaft.
  • Don’t grip the shaft too tight, keeping a light finger grip on the paddle shaft.

3. Where You Place Your Grip

To maintain a proper hold on your paddle for a more comfortable excursion and efficient paddling, you need a proper grip.

Follow these tips on where to place your hands on your paddle shaft:

  • Start by resting the center point of the paddle shaft on the top of your head.
  • Readjust your grip on the paddle shaft until your elbows form a 90-degree angle.
  • Keeping your hands in place, bring your paddle down and place it in front of you.

After lowering the paddle, your arms should have the paddler’s box shape, formed by the arms, chest, and shaft position. Remember to keep this paddler’s box shape throughout your strokes. The box shape helps with correct torso rotation for giving you the best paddling technique.

4. Proper Blade Orientation

When you first pick up a paddle, you want to check for three things while holding it:

  • Knuckles pointing up and the blades perpendicular to the water.
  • If you have a curved blade, have the concave side facing you. If you have a flat blade, this doesn’t matter.
  • Asymmetrical blades need the short side at the bottom. With symmetrical blades, this is not an issue.

When starting your ride, always position your paddle, so it meets these key positions.

When the paddle is down, you have a paddler’s box. The box is the shape you get from the proper alignment of the shaft, arms, and chest. By keeping the box throughout your strokes, you get correct torso rotation which is a component of proper stroke technique.

The Forward Stroke

The most used paddling stroke, the forward stroke engages the strong core and back torso muscles for moving your vessel. When performing this and any other stroke, always make sure you’re holding your paddle correctly.

The forward stroke consists of these three phases:

Catch phase—The stroke beginning starts by fully immersing the paddle blade into the water, next to your toes.

Power phase—The power or propulsion phase is where you rotate your body and move the blade back toward your hip. Make sure your eyes follow the movement, and you’re pushing against the paddle shaft with your hand.

Release phase—Once your hand reaches your hip, the paddle blade should cleanly slice up and out of the water.

Once you reach the end of the release phase, start over from the beginning. Your torso automatically winds around correctly with each phase.

A Few Tips to Help with Technique

  • Always use the strong core muscles, instead of arm muscles, for powering your strokes.
  • Keep your blade as close to a vertical position as possible.
  • Keep a full level of paddle immersion.
  • Maintain an upright posture position for better balance and efficiency.
  • Maintain the paddler’s box position throughout each stroke.

Slow Down and Reverse Stroke

The reverse stroke brakes your kayak and moves you backward, and is the exact opposite of the forward stroke.

The reverse stroke consists of these three phases:

Drop Phase

  • Keep your normal hand position
  • Fully immerse the blade, close to the hip
  • Keep the paddle shaft parallel to the kayak

Catch Phase

  • Pull the blade forward while rotating your torso as the blade moves in front of you

Release Phase

  • Pull the blade from the water when it reaches your feet

Repeat the stroke by immersing the blade on the other side of your kayak, starting next to the hip.

Sweep or Turning Stroke

When you’re ready to turn your kayak, you utilize a stroke known as the sweep stroke. The forward and reverse sweep strokes make an effective maneuver when stationary. Or, you can adapt these two strokes to change course while moving.

The sweep stroke consists of these three phases:

Catch phase—To begin the sweep, with forward extended arms, immerse your blade near your toes. Start on the side of the kayak that is opposite of the way you plan to turn.

Turn phase—In a sweeping motion, move the paddle blade in a wide arc, moving toward the kayak stern. Once the paddle passes the cockpit, add power to the rotation of your body, for optimizing the stroke.

Release phase—As the blade nears the hull, behind the cockpit, slice the blade out of the water to complete the stroke.

Performing a wide sweep stroke on the side of your kayak makes more efficient turning. The result should be a gradual arcing turn with little loss of momentum. You can repeat the sweep stroke if needed, or resume your forward stroke.

Draw or Sideways Moving Stroke

When you need to move sideways, like alongside a dock or another kayak, you use the draw stroke.

For practicing your draw stroke, follow these four steps:

  • Rotate the paddle blade until it’s horizontal.
  • With the blade tip, touch the water located directly to the kayak side and about two feet out. You want the paddle shaft at a steep angle.
  • With your lower hand, pull the blade toward you. Keep the blade tip immersed in the water throughout the stroke.
  • Stop pulling the blade in right before it touches the side of the boat.

Chances are it will take several draw strokes before reaching your destination. Finish your sideways movement by taking the following two steps for each extra draw stroke:

  • Rotate your paddle blade to a 90-degree angle. In a sideways angle, slice it out of the water.
  • Repeat the above four steps.

Safety First

Before hitting the water, it’s important to refresh yourself with all safety precautions since capsizing is always a possibility.

If the paddle ever hits the kayak side, never pry the blade from the water since this can cause capsizing. When you feel the paddle hit the boat, relax your body, release your top hand and start over.

Never pry the paddle, always retry the stroke.

KayakBest is among the largest and most dedicated kayak review sites. We aim to help enthusiasts discover the best tips and products for an enjoyable paddling experience.

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