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How Kayaking Works

Basic Kayaking Techniques
The low brace technique.
The low brace technique.
HSW 2008

If you've never been in a kayak, it might feel pretty unstable at first, and the paddle itself may frustrate you. Just getting the boat to go straight is a little tricky, so taking a beginner's class is a great way to get moving in the right direction.

It's best to start out in a calm lake to get the basic strokes down. Once you're in the water, pick out an object on shore and try to paddle toward it. You'll most likely find yourself zigzagging or going in circles at first. Keep your strokes short and close to the kayak -- the farther out the blade is, the more you'll turn. For a basic forward stroke:

  • Sit up straight.
  • Put the blade in the water near where your feet are.
  • Keep a relaxed grip.
  • Stroke deep.
  • Make even strokes on both sides to stay on a straight line.

Once you're moving in a straight line, you need to learn how to turn. One way is to use the paddle blade as a rudder. Drag the blade behind you in the water, close to the boat. The sharper the angle from your forward position, the more the boat will turn. The kayak will turn toward the same side as the blade. So if you want to go left, drag it on the left. Practice moving toward an object on shore and you'll get used to how long you need to rudder to correct your path.

This rudder action will slow the kayak down, so you should also work on a steering stroke to keep the boat moving forward. The forward sweep stroke is similar to the regular forward stroke. Put the blade in near your feet, but instead of paddling straight back, arc the stroke out more and bring it further back toward the rear of the kayak. The harder the stroke, the more you'll turn. Again, practice this stroke until you get a good feel for it.

Another widely used stroke is the low brace. This is used to avoid capsizing when you feel the kayak beginning to tip:

  • Pull the paddle in close to your belly, on the deck.
  • Stick your elbows out straight and high on each side.
  • Depending on what side you're tipping, put the back side of the blade flat against the water.
  • Apply downward pressure -- this will brace the boat and keep you from tipping further.
  • Use your hips to bring the kayak back under your body, while the blade keeps you steady.

These are just a few of the basic strokes. It's impossible to learn all you need to know by reading about it -- the only way to really get the hang of it is to try it out in the water. Touring kayaks are much easier to master than white-water boats. Never attempt to white-water kayak unless you've taken lessons and go with an experienced boater.

In the next section, we'll look at the history behind kayaking.