Your Paddle is Your Best Friend
When I first started paddling sprint canoe many years ago the first thing the coaches told me as I stepped into the canoe for the first time was “do not let go of your paddle”. Sprint racing canoes are extremely tippy craft paddled out of a high kneel position (one knee down and the other foot in front of you). Most people have shaky balance in that position on land, let alone when sitting in an extremely narrow canoe built solely for straight line speed at the expense of stability and manoeuverability. Almost everyone falls in within seconds of kneeling in the canoe for the first few times they try it.
Why would the coaches tell me to not let go of my paddle? Well, with the paddle in my hands I had a chance of balancing the boat and staying in it longer than just a few seconds. Without it, it’s an instant swim.
Whether the craft you’re paddling is a canoe or a kayak, a racing boat or pleasure craft, a SUP or a surf ski or an outrigger canoe, your paddle is the essential tool not just for propelling yourself forward but for providing you with balance and stability as well. It truly is your best friend when you are on the water.
It’s like walking a tightrope
If you’ve ever seen someone walk on a tight rope you’ve seen them holding a long pole in front of them, extending horizontally out to either side which helps provide them with balance. If you’ve walked a slack line or even just walked along a curb without falling off you’ve instinctively put your arms out wide to either side to assist with balance. Whether it’s the tightrope walker’s pole or your arms, having something extended out to either side but attached to the center of your body allows you to more easily make the fine adjustments necessary to maintain balance. The distance the pole or your arms extend from your body allows extremely small adjustments and counter-adjustments to be effective.
Now consider walking along a slack line or the curb with your arms by your side. Your balance is significantly diminished and the adjustments you make to maintain balance are a) much less likely to be appropriate and b) much more likely to be excessive, resulting in over compensating every time you try to make an adjustment. This usually results in you losing your balance to one side, then the other and back again, with each loss of balance more extreme than the last. Invariably you fall off the slack line or the curb.
Now imagine standing on a SUP board. The board is moving underneath you because the water is a fluid, dynamic medium as opposed to what we feel when standing on solid land. The board’s movement is also affected by its shape and width. Even in flat water on a reasonably stable board, things can feel quite jittery, especially if you’re new to paddling. It can feel very much like standing on a slack line. Having a paddle in your hands is the equivalent of the tight rope walker’s pole or having your arms out to either side. When the blade is not in the water the paddle and its length help you with your balance and the adjustments you need to make to maintain it.
But what about when the blade is in the water?
When the paddle blade is in contact with the water it provides you with balance and stability in a different way. In this case it provides you with something to “lean on” to support your body weight and more or less hold you up in the process. Again, think of walking along a curb with someone else beside you spotting you. When you lose your balance sometimes all you need to maintain it is the slightest contact with the person spotting you. Just placing your hand lightly on their shoulder for fraction of a second is often enough to maintain your stability. Your paddle can work in a similar way as it interacts with the water.
Placing your paddle blade flat on the water will give you, for a moment, just enough to lean on to support you. It’s often enough to save you from falling in. Using your paddle in this fashion is called “bracing”. You use your paddle to not only pull against the water and move yourself forward but to brace to help you maintain stability. So, let’s look at bracing in a bit more detail.
Bracing for balance and stability
Any time your paddle blade is in the water or resting on the surface it will provide you with some support that can help you maintain your balance and stay on your board. Is it enough to support all of your body weight? No, since the water you’re paddling on is not solid you’re never going to be able to lean on it like you can on solid ground. But it will, for a brief moment hold a considerable amount of your body weight and help you prevent falling in when you were certain you were going to. However, it’s not just preventing falling in where your paddle is useful. Just the slightest contact of your blade with the water will provide you with enough support to help you keep your board level, stop it from twitching underneath you and give you enough confidence in your stability to allow you to start taking constructive strokes. So, let’s look at how to brace and some of the different ways you can use this skill.
How to brace
- Make sure your paddle is always in your hands. You can’t brace and have your paddle blade support your body weight if your paddle is not in your hands.
- Start on your stronger, more comfortable side first. Keep your top hand as low as possible so your paddle blade is as flat on the water as possible. If your top hand is up by your head, your blade will not be resting very flat on the water and will not stay on top of the water surface as easily if it is asked to support any of your body weight. Thus it won’t offer you much support. If, on the other hand, your top hand is down by your waist, the blade will lie flatter on the water offering you more support when you need to lean on it.
- Let the paddle blade lie flat on the water with the pulling face facing up. It is important that the back of the blade be down and the blade face up, otherwise the blade will not stay on the surface as easily and will provide you less support. This is your basic brace position.
- Note that you can lean on the paddle blade a bit before your weight starts to push it deeper into the water. Remember, if you keep your blade flat on the water and pulling face up it will sink more slowly into the water that it will if it is not flat. This provides you with a little time to lean on your blade and regain your balance.
- If you want the blade to support you for a longer period of time or to support more of your body weight you’ll have to move it across the surface of the water to keep it on top of the surface. To do this practice slowly moving the blade, blade face up, back and forth over the water surface.
It is imperative as you do this that you keep the leading edge of the paddle blade up as you move it. In other words, as you move the blade towards the tail of the board face up, have the edge facing the back of your board slightly higher than the opposite or trailing edge. This will keep the blade on the surface of the water. Similarly, as you move the blade toward the front of your board you’ll need to make sure the edge facing the front is now tilted slightly up so the blade stays on the surface. Use your top hand to control the leading edge of the blade, letting paddle shaft rotate slightly in your bottom hand as you do so.
Moving the blade back and forth like this, always with the leading edge up keeps the blade on top of the water and will allow it to support more of your body weight. Should you accidently move the blade with the leading edge down, you’ll find the blade will quickly cut deeper into the water depriving you of the ability to lean on it in the process and possibly causing you to fall in. This back and forth motion of the blade across the surface of the water is called feathering, and it makes your blade much more useful in supporting you.
- If you want the blade to support more of your body weight for a longer period, feather the blade back and forth more quickly so that it stays on the surface longer despite the extra weight it is supporting.
- When you’ve practiced the steps outlined above on your strong side and developed some confidence with them it’s time to practice them on the side you feel less comfortable on. Simply repeat the process described above, applying what you’ve learned on your stronger side.
- Once you’ve experimented with bracing and feathering on both sides it’s time to put your new skills to the test. Practice actually getting some body weight outside the board and over the water, slapping your blade down in a brace as you do so. You’ll find that rather than falling in as you would if you failed to brace, your brace will hold you up long enough to allow you to get your weight back over your board. As you get more and more confident with this, practice seeing how much of your weight you can get your brace to support and for how long. You’ll be surprised how much weight you can actually support with your brace and should be able to visualize how bracing can save you from falling in when you suddenly lose your balance by accident.
Trusting your paddle to support your weight as you pull your stroke
Just as the back of the paddle blade will support your weight when you slap it down in a brace at your side, the face of the blade will support your weight when you pull a stroke. In fact, the more weight you get off your board and on to your paddle as you pull, the faster you’ll go and the more stable you’ll feel.
When you paddle, you move your board forward not by pulling your paddle through the water but by setting your blade in position in the water (by gathering water on the face of your blade and holding it there) and then pulling yourself (and your board) past the paddle. This water gathered on the blade face provides enough support for you to get some weight off your board and onto your paddle. In fact, the more weight you can get off the board and onto the paddle the faster and more effortlessly you’ll be able to paddle.
In this sense, your paddle works much like a brace during the pulling phase of the stroke. You should feel more stable whenever your blade is in the water and pulling and, even as the water gets rougher, you should feel enhanced stability through this blade/water connection. As long as you’re exerting force by pulling against the water held on your blade face, your paddle will support you the same way it does when you’re bracing.
Practice makes perfect
Of course, whether you’re using your paddle to support you and enhance your stability by doing a traditional brace or by pulling a well-connected stroke, it’s practice that gets you there. The more you experiment with these skills, the better you’ll be at them.
Start on a warm day in calm, warm water. Don’t be afraid to fall in. Remember, you’re only going to learn how to get the paddle to support your body weight if you dare to put body weight on it. It is entirely likely you’ll fall in while learning how to do this, but that is a very necessary part of the learning process.
A great idea is to practice bracing and getting your blade to take your body weight with a friend. Challenge each other to see who can get more “outside their board” without falling in. Making a game of it with another person is always a little more fun. Before you know it, you’ll be bracing on both sides and pulling connected strokes and feeling a lot more stable than you did before.
Want to learn more?
There’s lots more to learn about using your new-found bracing skills as part of a larger group of skills that provide you with enhanced stability, even in rough water. Similarly, learning that the blade face can act as a brace when you pull a stroke is just the beginning. Enhancing your paddling technique, learning to use your body weight as you pull and learning to use your big muscles preferentially over your smaller muscles will all help you become a better, faster and more stable paddler able to paddle in a wide variety of conditions.
Paddle Monster has a full spectrum of instructional articles and videos on stability, technique and much, much more available to those who subscribe with a basic membership or who choose to buy on-demand access to groups of articles on specific topics. For more information see https://www.paddlemonster.com/paddle-monster-services/