Having trouble keeping your kayak going straight? Paddling slower than the rest of the crowd? Crashing into too many other paddlers? Match your symptoms with our diagnosis in the list below to help cure your paddling maladies and improve your technique on the water.
Inefficiency or lack of speed
Does your kayak seem to move slower than everyone else’s?
Do you feel like you’re exerting more effort to keep up?
If so, the problem might be your stroke. Assuming your kayak honestly has the potential to glide and turn as nimbly as the next guy’s (boat design does make a difference), there are several components of the basic forward stroke that you can practice to increase your efficiency.
First, think of each forward stroke in terms of what many paddlers refer to as the “push-pull”. In other words, don’t just pull the blade through the water with your “active” hand (the hand closest to whichever blade is currently being pulled through the water); instead, think of the entire paddle shaft as a lever, and exploit this leverage by pushing forward with the “off” hand (the hand closest to whichever blade is currently in the air) while the active hand is pulling. You will be pleasantly surprised by how much additional leverage and power you will gain by adhering to this simple “push-pull” mentality.
Second, use your torso. Proper torso rotation will generate far more power than your arms alone could ever generate. During each stroke, your shoulders should rotate approximately 45 degrees to each side of center. While this may sound difficult or awkward, the easiest way to practice it is to try paddling without bending your elbows, keeping your arms straight so that you are forced to rotate your torso in order to pull each blade through the water. Try doing this for a few miles or a few hours and you will gradually condition your torso to become a habitiual component of your forward stroke. As you do, you will suddenly find that you can paddle just as fast as ever (maybe faster) with less effort and, consequently, less exhaustion. Some paddlers are astonished to discover that they can paddle twice as far as before once they learn to incorporate adequate torso rotation into their stroke. If you haven’t been using your torso, start now.
Third, keep the paddle blades as close to the sides of the kayak as possible. The closer you keep the blades to the kayak, the more forward force and speed you will generate. If you paddle further out from the boat, more of your effort will be transferred into turning force and less of it will be propelling the kayak forward.
Finally, try occasionally varying the spacing of your hands on the paddle shaft. When you change the spacing of your hands by just an inch or two, you utilize slightly different muscles. By varying the muscles you use, you give some of them time to rest and recover. This, too, will allow you to paddle further and harder than would otherwise be possible. Just be sure not to get too dramatic with how much you diverge from your usual grip and spacing. If you put your hands too close together or too far apart, you risk putting undue stress on muscles and joints, which could result in injury.
Zig-zagging or Poor Tracking
Does your kayak insist on zig-zagging or swerving off course despite your best efforts to keep it going straight?
A variety of factors may be contributing to this problem.
First, the problem might be in your boat. If you’re paddling a “recreational” kayak, odds are it is so short (12 feet or less in length) or so wide (26 inches or more in width) that it simply may not be conducive to effective tracking. The longer and narrower your kayak, the better your kayak will track in a straight line. On the other hand, if you are paddling a sleeker kayak, you may simply need to add weight to your boat. Many “touring,” “expedition,” or “sea” kayaks are designed to accommodate a hefty amount of cargo in addition to the paddler’s weight. Lighter paddlers (or even heavy paddlers, in some cases) may not weigh enough (by themselves) to sink the kayak to its proper “design waterline” (DWL), in which case tracking performance can suffer dramatically. Gather a few empty one-gallon milk jugs, fill them with water, and load them into your hull. (Remember to balance the weight fore and aft so your kayak doesn’t end up nose-heavy or tail-heavy.) Try loading the jugs two at a time (one fore, one aft) and see how the additional weight affects your kayak’s performance. Often, lighter paddlers will see a remarkable improvement to tracking, especially in terms of resistance to weathercocking.
Second, some paddlers are using a paddle that is simply too long. Ideally, your paddle should be just long enough to get the paddle blades out to either side of the boat without needing to lean to each side and without banging your knuckles on the deck as you paddle. If your paddle is longer than it needs to be, you will naturally paddle further out to either side of the boat, and the further out you paddle, the more rotational force you will generate to turn the boat. The only solution, in this case, is to move down to a shorter paddle or to exaggerate the vertical angle of your stroke (raising your “off” hand much higher in the air than is normally comfortable) so that the blades can be kept tucked in closer. The latter solution, however, will tire you needlessly. Buy a shorter paddle.
Third, even the mildest winds and currents can seriously affect your course. One of the two is usually to blame if your kayak seems to consistently turn off-course in the same compass direction. If you don’t have a rudder or skeg to help you lock in and track better, you can try leaning the kayak to offset the tendency to turn toward one side. If your kayak is wandering toward the left, trying holding a constant lean to the left (which will help correct your course back to the right). If your kayak is wandering to the right, try holding a constant lean to the right (which will help correct your course back to the left). The amount of lean you apply will determine how much corrective turning you generate.
If the leaning technique requires more balancing ability than your skill-level or your kayak permits, another alternative is to offset your hands on the paddle shaft. If your kayak is wandering to the left, try shifting your grip on the paddle shaft (yes, both hands) a few inches to the right. If your kayak is wandering to the right, try shifting your grip a few inches to the left. The extra shaft length on the “correcting” side will increase your leverage and generate more power on that side, correcting the problem. Unfortunately, this also means the water has more leverage against you on the “correcting” side, so this solution may ultimately tire you out or generate uncomfortable stress on the arm producing the corrective force.
Fourth, most people have a “dominant” arm or a “power” side, which means that one arm is usually stronger than the other. This means that if you’re paddling as hard as you can with both arms, the stronger arm may be generating more force than the other arm can match—resulting in a tendency for the kayak to wander toward the weak-arm side. In this case, the problem is simply that you’re paddling too hard. The solution is to relax your stroke a little, making it easier for your weaker arm to match the power your stronger arm generates, and consequently, to balance your stroke. This particular problem is extremely common among novice paddlers. Many novice paddlers spend their first few paddling weeks or months swerving back and forth across the water, until their “weak arm” muscles finally develop enough to match their “strong arm” muscles, at which point the problem disappears and their kayak seems to have “suddenly gotten better at tracking!”
Finally, you may just have a poor sense of direction. Don’t be offended by the implication. This is an extremely common problem, and well known among Search-And-Rescue folks, who regularly find lost hikers wandering in gigantic circles in the forest. The fact is that most people naturally drift toward the right or the left even when they walk, and the problem is often magnified on the water, where there are fewer visual cues to help you determine whether or not you’re moving in a straight line. Fortunately, it’s easy to combat this natural tendency by deliberately picking a distant point to focus on while you paddle. The point you pick can be a tree, a rock, a cloud, or any other relatively fixed, recognizable point. Now imagine that the pointy bow of your kayak is a giant arrow, and make a concerted effort to keep it pointed at the distant point you selected. This will allow you to visually gauge the accuracy and “straightness” of your course, and will cause you to subconsciously adjust your stroke to keep the kayak moving in a straighter line. Over time, your body will develop a much better sense of what “going straight” feels like, and you’ll become less dependent on visual cues to paddle a straight course.
Capsizing or Tippiness
Does your kayak suffer from chronic tippiness, even when sitting still on calm water? Are you capsizing frequently, even when you don’t intend to?
Well, let me first say that some tipping over in a kayak is inevitable. In fact, if you’re not tipping your kayak, you’re not having nearly enough fun on the water. Any serious kayaker will tip his or her kayak several thousand times before learning to roll, brace, lean, and carve a turn like a pro. Having said that, if your kayak seems tippy beyond reason or comfort, there are a few things you can do to improve its stability.
First, always remember to keep your hips loose. When the kayak rocks or leans, your pelvis and hips should rock freely with it while your torso remains calm and upright. It’s a lot like riding a horse: stay loose and let the kayak (or horse) bob and buck where it will. Kayaking is largely about balance, and your balance will be dramatically better if you don’t sit there rigid and tense. By keeping loose, you help to keep your center of gravity low, where it should be. On the other hand, if you tense up, your head and shoulders become high, bobbing weights which help to tip the kayak over.
Second, almost any paddler—regardless of skill level or physical ability—can learn the simple and surprisingly effective maneuver called the “slap brace.” This is a bracing (supporting) stroke which works just like it sounds: As you feel yourself beginning to tip to one side, quickly slap the surface of the water with the flat of the paddle blade. If you slap hard, with conviction, this maneuver will generate plenty of force to push you back up and prevent a capsize. Practice this maneuver often until it becomes habit, then keep practicing until it becomes a true reflex instinct. A good slap brace, executed with sufficient force and proper technique, can allow you to recover from a 90-degree lean!
Third, if you’re even moderately athletic, you can learn and practice many advanced bracing strokes to improve your stability in even the roughest water and wave conditions. Consult the Techniques section on our home page for information about advanced bracing techniques.
Finally, if your kayak’s tippiness is severely problematic at all times, you might consider adding ballast to improve its stability. Ideally, you need to affix some kind of concentrated weight (10 – 20 lbs., possibly more in some cases) somewhere inside your cockpit, on the center of the floor. Fasten the weight down securely to prevent it from shifting when you lean or tip. This will effectively lower your center of gravity and create a counterbalance to significantly improve stability. The idea works on the same principle as a child’s inflatable punching bag, in which the sand-weighted bottom keeps pulling the bag back upright whenever it is knocked down. For kayak ballast, steel or lead are probably the best choices for ballast because these dense materials allow you to add significant amounts of weight with little added bulk. Keep in mind, however, that the added ballast may reduce other performance factors, like speed or maneuverability. If you find yourself having to go to the extreme of adding ballast just to make your kayak comfortable, it’s possible you own the wrong kayak, and may be better served by buying a replacement that fits you better.
Sore Wrists or Stiff Joints
Do your wrists ache or your joints scream after a good day of paddling? Do you find yourself waking up with inflamed muscles or stiff limbs?
A variety of factors can cause soreness or stiffness in limbs and joints. Sometimes the causes are benign. Other times, they can be extremely serious. Here are a few major considerations about the source of such problems.
First, the single most common source of joint troubles among kayakers (wrist and elbow pain, in particular) stems from gripping the paddle shaft too tightly. The more tightly you grip the paddle, the tenser your wrist and forearm muscles will be as a result, and the more your wrists will be forced to bend at strange angles during your stroke. When that happens, wrist pain is almost inevitable, and elbow pain usually follows soon after. The quick and permanent solution is to only maintain your grip on the paddle shaft with the first two fingers on each hand. In other words, grip the paddle shaft snugly (but not too tightly) with only your index and middle fingers, while allowing your pinky and ring-finger to lay loosely over the shaft. By keeping your pinky and ring-finger relaxed, the paddle shaft can pivot in your fingers without requiring your whole hand and wrist to pivot with it. This means less bending for your wrists, effectively reducing the strain on your joints. This is the right way to paddle, but if you find yourself unable to resist the temptation to squeeze your paddle like a vice, another alternative might be to invest in a “bent-shaft” paddle. As their name implies, bent-shaft paddles incorporate a slight bend into the shaft at the places where you typically grip it, reducing the amount of bend your wrists require to hold it comfortably throughout the stroke. I consider this to be the less desirable solution, but still an effective one.
Second, another extremely common source of joint pain and stiffness (one whose seriousness is not to be underestimated) is dehydration. Strange as it sounds, your body can become dehydrated even if you don’t feel particularly thirsty. And if you do feel thirsty, you can rest assured that dehydration has already begun. When your body is dehydrated, it loses much of its ability to heal itself, to contain or reduce inflammation, and even to flex and stretch. All of these consequences spell bad news for kayakers, whose consistent exposure to heat, sun, and prolonged exertion (paddling) makes them particularly susceptible to such effects. The obvious solution is to drink plenty of water. For a kayaker, this means training yourself to take regular sips of water throughout the day, at five or ten minute intervals, even when you don’t feel thirsty. Remember, thirst is a sure sign that dehydration has already begun. Hydrate yourself defensively to stave off the effects and to increase your body’s natural resilience to the exhausting effects of prolonged paddling and the repetitive exercise of the forward stroke.
Third, joint pain and stiffness can be a basic sign of poor conditioning. Although kayaks are renowned for their efficiency, paddling still requires a level of exertion that your body may not be accustomed to. If you have never paddled before, or if it’s been weeks (or months, or years) since the last time you paddled, don’t expect to just go out and paddle several miles without feeling the strain. In such cases, joint pain and stiffness are the body’s natural alarms to let you know that you’re pushing it harder than its ready to be pushed. If you heed these alarms when they arise, you’ll be fine. If you continue to push yourself despite them, you could cause serious injury to yourself or find your body failing you at a dangerous moment (such as when you find yourself caught in severe, tossing waves). The best and smart solution to join pain and stiffness brought on by a natural lack of conditioning is to let your body rest and recuperate. This doesn’t mean you have to end an expedition early. Just shorten your daily travel distances, lengthen your rest periods, hydrate more frequently, and take a mild dose of Ibuprofen to help your body deal with the inflammation and the pain. Pushing yourself a little beyond your comfort level can be a healthy thing, but pushing yourself too far is a recipe for serious setbacks and possible dangers.
Fourth, it is entirely possible that stiff joints and sore wrists may be early symptoms of a larger problem, including arthritis, tendonitis, detached tendons, or other, more serious problems. If joint problems ever persist more than a day or two, despite relaxation, you should definitely consult your doctor. When you do, ask your doctor if there’s any reason you ought to be concerned about the impact of kayaking on the general health and well-being of your joints. Generally speaking, kayaking is a very good, very healthy, “low-impact” activity, but for people suffering from certain medical conditions, its highly-repetitive actions (the constant up and down movement of the forward stroke, for example) may be detrimental. Your doctor will be able to tell you if this should be a concern for you.
Finally, even when you’re well-conditioned and well-hydrated, the repetitive activity involved in paddling can still aggravate your tendons at major joints. The elbow is one site of common troubles. As you bend and flex your elbow to paddle, the tendons in your elbow can slip back and forth over the joint, producing inflammation and surprisingly sharp pain—either during or after a long day of paddling. The smart move is to ask your doctor for advice how to prevent or reduce this problem. In most cases, your doctor will recommend some kind of soft brace or neoprene strap that you can wear above or below your elbow to reduce the agitating movement of the tendons. For many paddlers, these braces make a significant improvement in their paddling comfort.
Arthur G. Moore is a veteran paddler. He has over 10 years of whitewater kayaking experience in his kitty. When he was young, he used to love kayaking in rapid III and rapid IV but as time went on, he decided to concentrate mainly on covering long distances on a standard touring kayak. He is currently working as a senior editor for Kayak Manual.