Thursday, April 13, 2017

The Art of Kayaking meets the Science

My mantra is to achieve the greatest effect with the minimum effort. I find efficiency seductive but to best achieve this I need to start again with the basics. Efficient paddling makes use of the body’s most powerful muscle groups to do the bulk of the work powering the kayak, with good posture ensuring the most effective alignment for performance. 

Good body position and blade alignment make for effective maneuvers

I also try to maximize the traction from my paddle in the water so I can power forward or make smooth turns without wasting energy. I want to make my kayak move forward; I don’t want to use my energy to move water.

Edging into a turn. The blade here is in neutral
Science can explain how a kayak moves through water, why it might turn more easily when held at a particular angle or why different turns can be more effective when you lean forward or back. It’s not like rocket science, where you need a huge thrust of energy to push you into space, and complex mathematical equations to navigate to a far off planet.  Instead it’s about things like understanding how when you shift your weight a little to trim your kayak, it subtly changes the effective hull shape in the water. Some maneuvers become more efficient with this alternative hull presentation, so you need less power to make the same maneuver. You can fine-tune your skills more effectively if you not only know how to do it but also why.

Basic science can explain why in some kayaks it doesn’t seem to make any difference whether  you edge into a turn or edge away from it, both seem equally effective, while in some other kayaks you can clearly turn more quickly when edged into a turn, or in others most quickly when edged from a turn. 

It will also explain why you can turn some kayaks more rapidly while reversing than when you are paddling forward. 

It’s a good idea to hone the effectiveness of your paddling skills on flat water where you can focus on mastering the details even if your normal playground is far from flat. It is easier to compare the effect of every nuance once you eliminate the variables of wind, current and waves. With control strokes, begin with the blade close to or in a neutral position, engaging the blade gradually and only as much as you need. 

The blade is lightly engaged for steering


After paying attention to the details, the next phase is to add those variables, wind, waves and current one at a time, so you can see how each affects the moves you have practiced on the flat. Practice in wind without waves for example. Now you’ll see how one technique for turning will become far more effective for turning from the wind than another that works best for turning toward the wind. 

When you understand how to get the most effective performance from your kayak in wind alone, or in waves or current alone, then the next step is to combine them, wind and waves together, or all three.

Work on your efficiency in different conditions

Your paddling can become smooth, efficient and effective without you understanding the science behind it. You can still become an artist on the water. But if you question why one move works better than another in a particular situation and understand the reasons behind each effect, then you’ll be able to push your skills into new realms of efficiency. You’ll use the wind, current and waves to your advantage instead of fighting against them. 

I’ll leave you with three questions.  Revisit one of them when you next paddle.

1) Can I improve the efficiency of my body movement for power? For example, can I use my torso more and my arms less? Am I using my legs and feet? 

2) How much do I move water with my paddle, and when do I do this most? Can I reduce this, maybe by slowing my paddle stroke a little, or by adjusting the path of my paddle?

3) Am I working against the waves, wind, and current, or working with? If I can identify a particular situation when I have to work harder than I would like, can I find a way to use less effort in this situation?

The book, The Art of Kayaking offers a lot of useful detail

My new book The Art of Kayaking offers a lot of detail for the inquisitive paddler, explained in a way that is easy to understand. It describes in detail the basic paddle and kayak skills, and then focuses their use toward different rough-water environments. The goal is to achieve more effect with less effort. You’ll also find help for trip planning with weather, charts, buoyage and safety.

Find The Art of Kayaking at, (there is a signed copy option) Or support your local bookstore, or order on-line, perhaps at Amazon or Book Depository.

Interested in joining a class to learn more on the water? Please contact me through my web-site