The paddling basics presented here are aimed specifically at recreational paddling, but it will form a good foundation for beginner whitewater paddlers too.
As a general rule, a kayak will paddle better all-round if it is trimmed neutrally. That is, with the bow (nose) and the stern (tail) equally out of the water, or with the bow slightly higher out of the water than the stern.
Keep the maximum performance weight limit of your boat in mind. If the combined weight of the paddler/s and equipment on the boat exceed this limit, it will become unstable, especially on the ocean and in river currents.
If you paddle a double sit-on-top such as the Synergy, make sure that the heavier person is sitting at the back.
When paddling in tandem, it is crucial to paddle in sync. Unsynchronized paddles flying through the air are very ineffective and it doesn’t look good either. Keep in mind that the front person must set the pace. It is impossible for him/her to see what the back paddler is doing.
Whether you are paddling single or double, always try to get a rhythm going, it is more effective than starting and stopping all the time.
There are a few basic things to keep in mind to get your forward stroke right. First of all, try to put the paddle in the water as vertically as possible; it makes your grip on the water more efficient. In the case of Fluid sit-on-tops, an angle of about 60° with the water surface will be fine.
Secondly, put the paddle blade in the water next to your feet, or even in front of your feet (if your paddle is long enough) and pull it out when the blade comes past your hips.
When you pull the blade through the water, pull it in a straight line, almost against the side of the boat. Do not make wide sweeping strokes, these will just make the boat turn all the time.
Thirdly, try to use your whole upper body for the paddling stroke.
We could get a lot more complicated, but these basics will point you in the right direction. With just a bit of practice you will become quite efficient with the forward stroke, which is undoubtedly the most important stroke in recreational kayaking.
Sometimes it is necessary to do a back stroke. It might be to stop the boat from moving forward, or you simply might want to paddle the boat in a backward direction. The key, as with the forward stroke, is to keep the blade fairly vertical in the water while taking the stroke.
Secondly, put the paddle blade in the water slightly behind your hips and push the blade forward.
Take it out of the water when it goes past your knees.
Thirdly, try to get your whole upper body to assist with the motion.
Lastly, it’s always a good idea to look where you’re going!
When people start paddling, their natural reaction to keep the boat from turning or to make it turn is to use a strong backstroke. Don’t do it, It causes a loss of momentum. Use a sweep stroke instead.
Let’s say you want to turn right. To do that, put your left paddle blade in the water as you would for a normal forward paddling stroke. Instead of pulling it in a straight line though, pull it in a wide, semi-circular stroke towards the back, all the way past your hips. It should make a nice arc around your body. For a really powerful stroke, pull it all the way to the stern.
Use the same stroke to correct the boat’s direction if it starts turning and you want to keep going straight. Let’s say you are paddling forward, and the boat starts to turn to the left. Do a sweep stroke on your left side, and it will push the nose of the boat back in direction.
The sooner you can anticipate when the boat starts turning, the less effort needed to make it go straight again. Remember there can only be one master when paddling; if you don’t take control, the boat will. Use the sweep stroke to take control.
Kayaking in the surf – Getting out through the break
If you want to get out on the sea for a leisurely paddle, you may have to get through the surf zone. Here are some tips on how to get out.
One of the most important accessories to use when paddling a sit-on-top in the surf is a set of thigh straps. Without thigh straps to keep you connected with your boat and in your seat, you will swim a lot.
When a wave heads towards the shore it will pitch up and break when the depth decreases. The bulk of the wave’s force is expended as it initially breaks, then it moves towards shore as a foam pile. Where the waves break is called the impact zone. It’s critical to stay out of this zone until the conditions are favourable to dash through. Another important thing to keep in mind is that waves travel to shore in sets, normally with three or four waves in a set. Between these sets smaller waves will come in, but they aren’t as critical, being smaller.
First have a good look at how the waves are breaking. If they are higher than your head it might be a good time to reconsider! If not, choose a spot that is clear of other water users, put on your pfd, get onto your kayak and start to head out towards the impact zone. When your are 10-15m from the impact zone, hold your position. Accelerate for 4/5 strokes every time a foam pile comes at you, keeping your boat straight to go over the foam pile. Maintain your position as close to the impact zone as possible, while still maintaining control over your kayak. Eventually the impact zone will clear up, and you’ll get a gap between the sets. As soon as you register this, dash out to sea through the impact zone, and enjoy your day out at sea!
Remember if the swell is really big, the non-set waves inside of the impact zone could be big enough to really trouble you, and 10m away from the impact zone might not be enough.
When you are paddling out through the foam piles and waves, a classic mistake is to lean back with your paddle across your chest and turning your head, to avoid water splashing in your face. This will kill your boat’s momentum and allow waves and foam piles to push you backwards. Keep your normal paddling position and paddle straight through anything that comes at you; do not let the waves hit you side-on.
Kayaking in the surf – Getting back to shore
It goes without saying that if you managed to get out through the surf, you will need to get back to shore through the surf at some point. There are two options here. If you aren’t comfortable in the surf yet, or the waves are massive and dumping, you can sneak back in. The second option is to surf back in.
The first thing to do is get your kayak ready. Pack up and secure any equipment, tighten up your PFD and pack away your cap. Once this is done, paddle to a position where you will be able to observe what is happening in the surf-zone, being careful not to get too close until you are ready to paddle in. Make sure that your route back to shore is free of swimmers, surfers and other water users. If you lose control on the way back, it isn’t a disaster unless you hurt someone else in the process. Once you have located a clean run to the beach, start to look at the waves.
The worst situation for your kayak to end up in would be being picked up by a steep wave just before it breaks. The potential for the bow to dig in, the stern going over the bow, and paddlers getting aerial is very high! The trick to getting back to shore is to avoid the waves when they are at their steepest, and ride anything else. Once you have identified the impact zone you are ready to make your move.
If you decide to sneak back to shore, paddle in until you are within striking distance of the impact zone and wait for the next set to come in. Wait until the last wave of the set is coming through and follow it by paddling straight towards shore, with as much speed as you can crack out. Try to stay just behind the last wave of the set as it travels to shore. The important thing is to be just behind it as it breaks and moves out of the impact zone.
Once you have cleared the impact zone, keep heading straight towards the beach, looking back occasionally to see what is happening behind you. You will either get back in without incident or be picked up by a foampile; this varies according to surf conditions. If you do get picked up by a foampile don’t worry, you are now surfing. The boat will probably end up sideways on the wave. Simply lean towards the wave and ride it out.