When you fall off of a wave or miss a move through a rapid the frequent culprit is an inadvertent, barely perceptible wobble. If this wobble is enough to force you to brace rather than paddle proactively, that alone can cost the move. But even smaller wobbles can cost a move.
Here’s the deal: the hull of a kayak or canoe slows significantly when it bobs front to back, or rocks side to side. A barely visible wobble or bob, say one-half inch, is like dragging a coffee cup-sized anchor on each side of the boat. Even small wobbles (side to side) reduce boat speed. You also should avoid bobbing (an abrupt dip of the bow) and zig-zag wag.
Instead, strive to find a smooth, gliding sensation, especially in your forward strokes. In general, this is more efficient than trying to paddle faster. If pulling harder makes you wobble, you won’t necessarily go faster. Learn to disconnect your lower body, so you can maintain a perfectly steady boat, even during strokes.
Try this drill
Know your enemy! On a flatwater paddle, exaggerate dip and rise, zig zagging wag, and side to side wobble. Then you’ll feel extra smooth and fast when you eliminate these motions.
Haste makes waste
Be efficient. Use only the strokes needed to get the job done. We all tend to flail when trying too hard. This increases the chances of misplacing a stroke, or losing the glide in the hull. That in turn reduces our chances of making any given move. There are times when our adrenaline will have us wind-milling away. These strokes may be doing very little to actually move the boat. Stroke in a purposeful manner to accomplish your goal. The optimum stroke rate is not the fastest stroke rate. Think of riding a bicycle. Too low a gear and you’re pedaling quite rapidly, but you’re not going very far or very fast.
Now add Power
Imagine your boat with wheels sitting on a smooth sidewalk. Parking meters line the walk, alternating sides every three feet. Reach forward by twisting your upright spine and grab a parking meter. Now fling yourself forward driving your hips forward, translating the power through to your feet. This is the same transfer of power you want in a kayak. In a canoe you drive your hips forward, driving your knees forward. There is a lot of power to be gained by translating this torso power into your legs and boat. However, there is a lot to be lost if you rock the boat in the process of each stroke.
Try this drill
Start paddling ahead slowly. Then, on one stroke, stop, poised in the wound-up position, just before the blade touches the water. Did the boat wobble any, or glide smoothly forward? Follow through with a strong stroke, watching and feeling for a smooth boat. Repeat on your next stroke watching for zig-zag or bobbing. Continue for a few minutes until you feel a smooth glide between strokes.
Focusing on glide with a careful catch and application of power will go a long way towards improving your paddling. You’ll miss fewer moves and enjoy longer surfs. And it all adds up to more fun on the water.
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.