May 2018 - PADDLING
Getting Started Kayaking - Basic Strokes and Connecting with Paddlers
By Alan Mapes
If you are new to kayaking, or are just getting back into the sport, here are the basic strokes to move your boat with grace and efficiency. A smooth, efficient paddle stroke will make you look great on the water! We will also check out two local paddling groups that you can join to learn more about the sport and find like-minded paddlers.
Paddler Mike Cavanaugh of Slingerlands,April 28, on Fish Creek in Saratoga Springs.
Go Straight with a Forward Stroke – It seems so simple, doesn’t it? Put the paddle in the water and pull back. But there is more to it. As a beginner, I bet your arms get tired quickly. Your back may hurt and your hands may cramp. There are a dozen things you can do to make your forward paddling more efficient, graceful and effective. You will go farther and faster, with less effort. Here are a few ideas to start with, but first a definition. The “wet hand” is the one near the blade that’s in the water at the moment; the “dry hand” is the one near the blade that’s up in the air.
- Keep your arms out almost straight, with just a comfortable bend at the elbow.
- Reach forward and put a blade in the water by your toes.
- Pull the blade out as your hand gets back near your hip. “Feet to seat” as we like to say.
- Push with the dry hand as much as you pull with the wet hand. Combined with your fairly straight arms, this puts the big muscles of the torso to work.
- Follow the line of the bow wave with your paddle blade. It starts right next to the boat at your toes and angles out a little as the blade moves to the rear.
- Move the dry hand across the boat during the stroke. It starts over the near edge of the boat (gunnel) and ends over the far gunnel.
- Keep your head up and look at something far away – this will help keep you going straight.
- Add a bit more force to the stroke on one side to bring the bow back to center.
Turn Better with a Sweep Stroke – You can turn by just doing forward strokes on one side of the kayak; strokes on the right side will turn you left. But to turn quicker and more easily, do a sweep stroke.
- Start at the toes, but with the paddle shaft more horizontal – the dry hand down low and blade just under the water surface.
- Carve a big semicircle, reaching out far to the side.
- Carry the stroke farther back, as close to the back of the boat as is comfortable.
- Put the paddle all the way in the water – you paid for the whole paddle, use it all! This goes for all the strokes.
With the forward stroke, we want most of the force carrying us straight forward; paddle blade close to the boat. When turning, we want the force moving the bow to the side; blade reaching farther out to the side of the boat.
Move Sideways with a Draw Stroke – Your paddling partner, sitting eight feet away on the water, has the last granola bar. You can paddle a big circle to come around next to them and get your half, but it’s probably gone by the time you get there. Get there quicker by doing some draw strokes.
- Turn your shoulders to face the side of the boat.
- Reach out with the paddle blade facing you; parallel to the boat.
- Put the blade all the way in the water, and move it to your hip; think of shoving water under the boat.
- Very important: pull the blade out of the water before it hits the boat. Why? To find out, try letting the blade hit the side of the boat. Hint: do this when the water is warm, you are in a safe shallow spot, and your life jacket is securely fastened.
- Done well, the draw stroke will pull your boat sideways, right to the dock – or the granola bar.
Stop & Reverse
Stop and Reverse – Putting on the brakes and backing up can be a good thing, especially if you are about to hit a rock, or you’ve come to a tree laying across a narrow creek.
- To stop while underway, place a blade in the water by your hip and push toward the bow of the boat.
- Do it again on the other side, and again on the first side, then again on the other side.
- If you are moving with good speed, the water pressure on the paddle is intense. Make it easier by starting with the blade at an angle; top edge leaning forward toward the bow, so the blade is nearly flat to the water.
- As you push forward, rotate the paddle so the blade is straight up and down against the water.
- Keep doing this, and you will stop, then start to go backward.
Paddling with a Group
Although I sometimes enjoy paddling alone, it’s not the safest way to go. Paddling with like-minded folks can be lots of fun. It gives you a big edge on safety, and the chance to learn from other paddlers. As I struggle with my 40-year quest to get beyond the beginner stage at playing guitar, people always tell me I’ll learn the most by playing with folks who are better than me. The same goes for paddling. I’ve learned a lot from better paddlers about boat handling technique and about on-water safety. I’ve also discovered many great places to paddle.
To connect with other kayakers and canoeists, I recommend two groups in our region – the Adirondack Mountain Club and the Capital District Kayakers Meetup. Both groups are full of friendly people who enjoy nothing more than helping out a beginner.
My first outings with a paddling group were with the Albany Chapter of Adirondack Mountain Club (ADK). This group conducts a Tuesday evening paddle every week from late April through October. The location rotates each week, but the launching places are mostly on the Mohawk and Hudson rivers. The group meets after work and paddles for about two hours. They split into two groups each time – a “relaxed” group and a “moderate” group. The relaxed folks go no faster than the slowest paddler. The moderate group goes as fast as the fastest paddler – a joke, but the moderates certainly go farther and faster. On a typical evening, you will find both canoeists and kayakers.
An optional “paddler’s committee meeting” is held after each outing and involves some time at a local restaurant. We talk paddling, of course, over a bite to eat and a little something for rehydration. Contact the ADK Albany Chapter paddlers through albany-adk.org. Most participants are ADK members, but new folks are welcome as guests. Also with ADK, the Schenectady Chapter (adk-schenectady.org) has a very active whitewater paddling group and the Glens Falls-Saratoga Chapter (adk-gfs.org) offers some nice paddle outings.
Capital District Kayakers is one of the many groups that organize their outings by using the “Meetup” system on the web. If you want to start a group for, say “walking backwards while singing Irish songs” or any other activity, Meetup is a convenient way to do it.
Paddle trips are posted by individual members, open to others who are interested. You can check out these trips by going to meetup.com/capital-district-kayakers. If you sign up on the system, you will get a notice as each new trip is posted. At the time I write this, the group has whopping 1,144 people signed up! Obviously, not a big percentage of the members attend any given outing. We had 16 people on the first trip this year, a lazy paddle on Lake Rensselaer in Albany. This group is free to join – they ask for a donation to help cover the cost of using the Meetup system, but emphasize that it’s purely voluntary. My kayak instructing partner, Mike Cavanaugh, and I always post a few classes on the meetup, including basic kayaking skills and kayak safety and rescue.
The paddling season is here, finally. Go learn some new skills and find new friends for a fun time on the water!
Alan Mapes (email@example.com) is a sea kayak instructor and guide, certified by the American Canoe Association and Paddlesports North America. He lives near Delmar and offers kayak instruction through the Capital District Kayakers Meetup Group.