Paddling made easy: Just five basic strokes
Out on the water
This is one in a series of staff writer Graham Jaehnig’s personal experiences as a beginner kayaker.
When talking about five basic paddle strokes, we already learned two of them. First, we talked about the Forward Stroke; the Reverse Stroke is done by simply using the Forward Stroke backward. With the Forward Stroke, you simply alternate pulling the paddle blades toward the direction of the back (stern) of the kayak, propelling the boat forward. Pushing the paddle blades forward, toward the front (bow) of the kayak will propel it backwards. To turn the kayak, there is the Forward Sweep and the Reverse Sweep.
The Forward Sweep is similar to the Forward Stroke, but rather than draw the paddle blade straight back toward the stern, you want to place the blade in the water making a wide, sweeping stroke out from bow, at the beginning of the stroke, sweeping toward the stern in a fluid arcing motion. To turn the bow of the kayak to the right, conduct the Forward Sweep on the left side of the Kayak. The Stroke is done in reverse, but will turn the stern of the boat.
To turn quicker, you can execute a Forward Sweep on one side of the kayak, then a Reverse Sweep on the opposite side, alternating sweeps and strokes.
Because recreational kayaks are short, usually just 10 feet long, and are also wider, the use of sweeps will have immediately turn the kayak. For myself, I have found that if I need the kayak to turn immediately, the Reverse Sweep is much more affective. You may prefer the Forward Sweep.
So, with a bit of practice — again in shallow water to begin — you will very soon have the paddle strokes necessary to go backward, forward, and to turn around. The remaining stroke just helps you to move the kayak sideways, which can come in handy when you want to bring your kayak close to a dock. This is done with the Draw Stroke.
To perform the Draw Stroke, hold the paddle so that the blades are horizontal with the water just above the kayak cockpit. Reaching one blade straight out from your side, place the blade into the water at full arm’s length from your body and pull it gently in toward to the side of the kayak. If you do it too quickly, it will tend to tip the kayak over toward the side you are drawing on. That will either pull the kayak over onto to its chine, or tip it too drastically and cause you to capsize. The risk of capsizing while learning paddle strokes is why I advise always practicing them in shallow water, or even a swimming pool if one is available.
Once you have drawn the paddle back to the side of the kayak, repeat the stroke again. Essentially what you are doing is using the paddle to push the water against the side of the boat, which in turn pushes the boat in a sideways direction. In this way, you can draw your kayak sideways right to the side of a dock or other structure.
By the time you feel confident with your paddling skills, you will also have grown to feel comfortable with how your kayak responds to the strokes, and how it feels being maneuvered around. You will have become accustomed to your kayak’s initial stability and its secondary stability, and how it will perform in response to your strokes and shifts in your body movements.
The next step in your kayaking progress is to either plan a short trip staying close to shore, or find some friends to join you for a paddling adventure and get out on the water and enjoy your new hobby.
One final word of caution:
If you decide to take your kayak on lakes where you encounter motor boats and larger sailing vessels, stay out of their way and stay close to shore. I don’t know have a single explanation for why kayakers and canoe paddlers do this, but they seem to feel the need to paddle in the center of things. For instance, it is very common to see kayakers and canoeists on Portage Lake, paddling right in the middle of the channel. They risk getting struck and even killed by boaters who are not looking for small, slow-moving craft bobbing along just above the water’s surface. When a fast-moving boat speeds by, leaving a wake and a bunch of waves behind it pushing their way toward shore (and you), use your Reverse Sweep or Forward Sweep and turn your kayak so that your bow is facing into the waves. This will allow the length of the kayak to float up, over, and down the wave as it passes under your kayak. On the other hand, if you allow a large wave to strike the side of your kayak, it may capsize you. Always make sure you are no further from the shore than you want to swim back.