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Ever Increasing Circles

Learning to paddle a kayak with our kayak coachesIn his second article in this series, PYB Kayak Coach Ben Lawes offers some advice on how to paddle forwards effectively and efficiently.

This article focuses on the potentially frustrating skill of paddling a kayak forwards, looking at the building blocks for developing a good technique right from the word go.
The chances are that the kayaks you're using are designed to be highly manoeuvrable. If it's got a flat hull (bottom) it's going to be very easy to turn. This makes it a very stable craft, good for beginners bad for going in a straight line. Bad but not impossible! Take solace in the fact that the more paddling you can do the better your technique will become. That goes for your mates, your coaches, mine and anyone else, professional or otherwise who participates in paddlesport.


Inside the kayak

Inside the Kayak - a good fit is essentialHow you sit in the kayak will influence the effectiveness of your forward paddling technique. There needs to be contact between the kayak and various parts of your body. This is necessary in order to transfer the energy generated by performing a stroke, through your body to the kayak and thus moving the kayak forward. 


  • The balls of your feet should be resting on the footrest in such a way that your legs are bent and your knees are in contact with the underside of the deck near the cockpit area.
  • This should put your thighs in the correct position for the thigh braces (if fitted).
  • Ideally your hips should be touching the sides of the seat. This may require padding to be fitted or the purchase of removable hip pads.
  • The back rest should be adding support but not so tight as to restrict lower back movement. If your back hurts during your session the back rest may be too tight.



Don't lean back when paddling - it makes steering difficultTry to resist leaning back when paddling. This upsets the *trim by weighting the stern (back) of the kayak.
This has a negative effect on the kayaks, already questionable, ability to go straight. It also makes it very difficult to employ your back and stomach muscles (trunk rotation) and maintain hip control producing an ineffective paddling style.
*Trim; with you in it the kayak should be sitting flat in the water looking balanced. Not with one end submerged the other pointing up to the sky.



Try rolling you kayak from side to side on the grassYou can test how well you've outfitted your kayak. On grass, get in and try to roll it from side to side, keeping your body upright i.e. using your hips, knees, thighs and feet to rock the kayak. You should feel pretty secure within the kayak and not sliding about in the seat.

NB; Outfitting your kayak doesn't (shouldn't) make it harder to exit in the event of a capsize. It does, however, improve your overall control.

Sustainable Power

Unless you've been blessed with arms of Swartznegger like proportions you will need to tap into the bigger muscles in your back and stomach for a more sustainable source of power. The arms and shoulders are used primarily for setting the blade in the correct position, their power rating being of secondary importance.


Utilizing the trunk

By rotating your trunk, you not only engage the more powerful muscle groups of your back and stomach but you also increase the length of your reach. This in turn increases the efficiency of each stroke.

  • No rotation. Hands level. (see pic 1 below)
  • Rotate the trunk and the length of your reach increases significantly.(see pic 2 below)
  • No rotation. Less efficient stroke.
  • Rotation. Greater effective distance for the stroke.


Correct trunk rotation is vital when paddling a kayak
Correct trunk rotation is vital when paddling a kayak
Pic 1
Pic 2


If the efficiency of the paddle stroke in pic 3 below is greater, the stroke rate should be less i.e. number of strokes needed to cover the same distance as kayaker in pic A. Consequently the kayaker in pic 1. will fatigue quicker because he's paddling inefficiently, all other things being equal of course. Also, you must avoid rocking back and forth - that is not trunk rotation. If the kayak appears to be dipping like a seesaw (as in pic 4) you are rocking!

Correct trunk rotation is vital when paddling a kayak
Avoid rocking your torson when paddling a kayak
Pic 3
Pic 4



Holding the Paddles

Make sure you're gripping the shaft with an equal distance either side of your hands to the blade. This should help to cut out the circling phenomenon.
The shoulders and arms are about positioning the blade accurately. Remember, power comes from your trunk rotation.

  • Blade is placed around the feet area
  • Right(bottom) arm is extended
  • Left (top) arm is high and your hand is just left of your head.
  • Blade is perpendicular to the kayak.
  • Note the trunk rotation.

Making sure the blade is totally underwater.
Begin pulling with the bottom hand.

Paddlinga kayak forwards efficiently
Paddlinga kayak forwards efficiently
Pic A
Pic B
Paddlinga kayak forwards efficiently
Paddlinga kayak forwards efficiently
Pic C
Pic D


This is where the power from the trunk rotation comes into play pulling the blade down the side of the kayak. Your other arm can assist this by straightening and pushing the shaft away from your body. This action also sets up the trunk rotation for the next stroke on the opposite side.  Take the blade out of the water when it's about level with your hip. As mentioned your arm should now be extended and your trunk rotated the opposite way. This should have the blade poised to be placed in the water. Repeat the process described aiming for as fluid a transition as possible and you should be moving forward!


The Feet

The feet play an essential role in transferring the power from the body through the kayak and thus into moving forward.
Try this simple exercise to demonstrate how; by using your footrest, you utilize the power generated by your trunk rotation most effectively.

  • Sitting down, feet braced against nothing. Partner resists you pulling on the shaft (pic E)
  • Sitting down, feet braced against a wall. Repeat. Partner offers feedback on how much force felt with feet braced and without feet braced. (Pic F)


Correct trunk rotation is vital when paddling a kayak
Avoid rocking your torson when paddling a kayak
Pic E
Pic F


I tend to push with the same foot as the side on which I'm initiating a stroke i.e. right stroke, right foot push. On the water see if you can get the front of your kayak to twitch left and right as you use your feet when paddling forward.



Your hips provide the control and balance when you're in the kayak. If padded out correctly you shouldn't lose efficiency of your paddling technique by slopping about in your seat. The importance of hip control will be looked at within a subsequent article. 


Corrective strokes.

Essentially that is the breakdown of forward paddling technique. If paddling in a straight line is still proving tricky the following may help.

If your kayak drifts to the right when paddling forward sweep the blade away from the bow on the right then pull as a normal stroke. This should straighten you up. Do the opposite if trending to the left.

Experiment with how close to the kayak you place your blade in the water. Change it from side to side; does it counter the wandering off line?

Finish off a stroke by sweeping out level with your hip then back in to the stern. Do this on the opposite side to that which you're drifting off to.

Experiment with moving the blade in an S shape as you pull on it. Concentrate on feeling the pressure of the water on the blade and what effect it has on the front of the kayak.

Try paddling, over a short distance, with your eyes closed. Focus on using the same amount of power for each stroke. Do you stay on line?


And Finally

That is an awful lot of information to absorb. Break it down into your own sessions. Go out and focus on your trunk rotation (it's been mentioned once or twice) before worrying about another aspect.
Remember the more you do the better you will get. There's nothing like paddling a long way to hone your technique. Canals are great for this and usually have appropriately placed watering holes serving light refreshments.



More articles written by our kayak coaches and outdoor instructors

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