Proper technique key to enjoyment
LINDA FREEMAN PHOTO
Kayakers enjoy gentle waters in Maine.
By LINDA FREEMAN
If you’ve ever tried to pick up a club and play a round of golf “just for fun,” you know that attempting a sport with limited skills or inappropriate equipment is downright frustrating and not “fun” at all. I do not suggest that you need to become an expert, unless you have a flexible budget, ample time, and a bucket-load of motivation; but, the better you play, the more appropriate (note, I did not say expensive) your equipment, the more you will enjoy any activity. Like paddling.
Been there, done that. I know what it feels like to paddle into the wind and get nowhere. I’ve spent many hours battling tracking, finding myself constantly correcting direction. In the beginning I even had trouble getting into and out of the dumb thing. I’ve moved from a plastic box of a cheap kayak to one appropriately designed for my size and ability. I’ve blamed difficulties on the boat or the paddle. I’ve blamed difficulties on my lack of ability. I addressed the former and did a fair job on the latter. Now I’m ready for more.
While playing around in the waters of Maine, I decided to revisit basic paddling skills that always look different when practiced anew. Though I had had enough training and experience to be safe and get where I was going, I wanted to take it up a notch. So, I went to an expert.
Jared Chute, 30, is Sales Manager and Lead Instructor at Lincoln Canoe and Kayak in Freeport. He is also one of a small number who have successfully qualified as a Registered Maine Guide. He knows his stuff. More importantly, he has a good eye and can teach.
Chute recommends, if your budget matches your eagerness, to take a private lesson. One-on-one learning is the best way to individualize your learning experience. There are no distractions. The instructor is there for you alone and will quickly identify your personal stumbling blocks and help you perfect your technique as you become more comfortable.
When a potential student approaches Chute, he gathers information such as what does the student want to achieve, what kind of paddling does he or she want to do and where. He must assess the student’s current and potential fitness level, physical size and personality.
Once a suitable boat and paddle have been selected, the lesson begins on the shore.
A student is asked to raise his arms overhead in a V to determine paddle grip width, just wider than shoulders. Seated in the kayak, the foot pedals must be adjusted so that the knees are slightly bent and gently pressed up into the gunwales, or knee pads, along the insides of the cockpit. This position, along with a straight back (NOT lounging in the seat back) promotes stability.
A word about stability: I was obsessed with the concept of “tippy.” I was always worried about the tippiness of my boat and the possibility of dumping in. Perhaps it is a matter of education as I know how to self-rescue. I have even spent a few hours with the help of a coach trying to learn to roll and have decided I’d rather bail and swim. Besides, I tend to paddle relatively near the shoreline when I venture onto Vermont lakes and ponds, my personal choice. Hours in the kayak add up. I strongly suggest that a large part of confidence and skill in any sport comes from simply doing it. The more intimate we become with the sport, in this case, our boat, our paddle, the water with all its variability, the more confidence we gain. I find that, at least for now, anxieties about “tippy” have vanished.
Back to Chute’s lesson plan. The basic forward stroke needs to be learned and learned well. Good technique is a continuing practice. Put the paddle blade in near the toes and pull it out at the hips. How simple can that be?
Strokes differ, however, depending on the type of paddle you use. In this case, I used a bent shaft paddle with a relatively larger face. This was fit recreational paddling on an ocean inlet. Though variations in techniques suggest “different strokes for different folks” depending on desired speed, conditions and abilities, this is a good pattern to begin with.
The hands, however, are integral to the stroke and subsequent success. The grip, as mentioned, must be relaxed. The paddle should move in the hands just enough to allow the blade to enter the water efficiently. (This is partly a function of a personal decision to feather or not. Feathering is a means of setting the paddle’s blade at an angle: 20 percent or so for racing and 50 to 60 percent for recreational are good averages. Feathering is also right and/or left handed so if you’re not doing this already, get some help setting it.) Economy of movement is important for performance and duration.
Here’s a key concept, one to remember and practice: the top hand must push far more than the bottom hand pulls. (The top, pushing, hand must be so relaxed that the fingers open similar to a small wave.) At the same time the torso must rotate. Thus paddling strength centers in the core not in the arms.
The foot pegs are often merely contact points with the boat. When paddling needs to be powerful, pressure on the opposite peg to stroke increases clout.
“When you get your technique dialed in,” Chute said, “you become a faster paddler. If you want to go faster, paddle faster.”
Every paddler should know the basics. Here’s a helpful list. To the boat, paddle, PFD (life jacket) and whistle, add a pump, inflatable paddle float, whistle, cell phone or radio, something that can make you seen or heard, sunglasses, water and a snack. Leave a float plan behind. As with hiking, cycling or any distance sport, tell someone where you are going, when you are leaving and when you plan to return. Safety rules.
To your skills add: wet exit and self-rescue, leaning, bracing, backward and draw strokes. Watch weather. If in doubt, don’t go. If you get caught in windy conditions, “don’t let technique go,” Chute said. “You must make yourself relax or you will get exhausted. Don’t fight. Adapt.
Swells rise unexpectedly. “Taking them to beam is an option,” Chute said. “Depending on how steep they are you can take them sideways, let your hips roll. You can make a horseshoe approach as opposed to going straight if you’d like.” Wakes, on the other had, are expected. Anyone sharing a body of water with a motorized boat knows to anticipate wakes, even with Vermont’s 200 law in effect. “You can quarter it rather than sideways,” Chute said. “If you approach the wake head on, you will slap down.” You will have ample opportunity to practice which approach works best for you.
When in rough waters, “the worst thing you can do is stop paddling,” Chute said. Beginners are more stable if they are moving. If feeling tippy, just keep going. Continuously dipping the paddle into the water is stabilizing. With every stroke you are rebalancing. Take the paddle out and you have only the boat.”
Chute’s recap is spoken in the voice of a younger paddler but works for all of us. “Kayaking as a sport is heavily focused on safety. Make it as intense or relaxing as you want. It is totally safe to do as long as you’re responsible. If it’s your first time, talk to somebody, do yourself a favor and get basic instruction. But don’t overwhelm yourself with too much. It should be fun, not work.”
Bottom line: just get out and do it.