Sea Kayak Skills: Basic Turning Strokes

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Last month we looked at the forward paddling stroke and why it is important to develop an effective technique. This month we are looking at two basic turning techniques namely, edging the boat and the sweep stroke.

Firstly we need to look at the turning characteristics of different boats. All kayaks will want to turn and this turning ability is dependent on the design of the boat. Essentially, the longer and narrower the boat, the better the tracking ability, this is the ability for the boat to stay on a straight line, and the harder it will be to turn. The shorter and wider the boat the worse the tracking ability but the easier it will be to turn. Another factor to consider is the rocker of the hull. This is the curve of the hull from the highest point in the bow and stern to the point in the hull where it is flat. The greater the rocker the more manoeuvrable the boat will be. Sit on tops and many touring kayaks will therefore be more manoeuvrable due to them being generally shorter and wider and possibly a greater rocker. True sea kayaks will have better tracking ability but will also have reduce manoeuvrability due to them being longer and narrower with possibly a reduced rocker.

Now let’s take a look at turning with edging first. The hull of a sea kayak is symmetrical along the long axis. This is to enable the boat to travel in a straight line. Edging the kayak, tilting the kayak to one side, changes the shape of the hull in the water and this change in shape alters the flow of water around the hull. The result is the kayak will turn to one side. Edging the boat to the right and it will turn to the left. Edging the boat to the left and it will turn to the right.

In practice it works like this. To edge your boat to the right raise your left knee whilst lowering the right. This will raise the left side of the boat and lower the right. During this process, arch the midsection of the body to the left to allow the torso to remain upright. This will enable you to remain in balance. The kayak will now want to turn to the left. Edging the boat to the left will have the opposite effect.

Edging can be done whilst conducting a normal forward paddling stroke and can produce a long, graceful turn. It can also be done to enable the kayak to remain on course. However, doing this for long periods of time can be tiring, which is where a skeg or a rudder becomes desirable. Edging is not possible using sit-on-tops as they have no cockpit to grip with your knees.


For a tighter, more aggressive turn we can use the edging technique with another basic turning stroke, the sweep stroke. The sweep stroke is where the paddle is swept out in a semicircle to one side of the boat. The effect is to turn the boat to the opposite side of the stroke.

Like a great many paddling strokes the power for the stroke comes from the torso and not the arms. To begin, the torso is rotated and the paddle is placed forward level with your feet. Keeping your hands low, and with a slight bend in the lower arm, the body begins to unwind and the paddle is arched out away from the boat in a semi-circle with the paddle extending as far from the boat as is comfortable. The body continues to unwind until the blade is about six inches away from the rear of the boat. Ensure that you stop the stroke at this point because if the blade touches the hull at the rear it can capsize the kayak. During the turn the boat is edged on the same side as the stroke.

To bring the paddle back to the starting point, the torso is rotated back and the rear of the blade skims the surface of the water for support and balance. Once you have completed the turn, level out the boat and continue.

These are the two most common turning strokes used in sea kayaking and like all strokes they take time to master, so get out and practice.

Happy paddling.


Words By: Steven Bennett

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