Sea Kayak Skills

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The forward paddling stroke

Words By: Steven Bennett

There are many skills a sea paddler will use during a typical trip, and whether you are a recreational paddler or a committed, hardcore sea kayaking junkie, the most important skill to learn is effective forward paddling. You will be spending 99% of your time doing this and a good, effective technique will allow you to paddle for hour after hour.

It starts with your kayak. Correct posture is important, so sit with your feet against the footrests, your knees braced into the deck of the boat next to the cockpit with your backside comfortable in the seat. Sit slightly forward with your back supported by the back rest. You do not want to be too tight as this will restrict movement so adjust the footrests or backrest to suit. With your feet against the footrests you should be able to lower your knees and straighten your legs. With sit-on-tops, obviously you cannot brace your knees in the same way but the principle is basically the same. A backrest with sit-on-tops is especially important.


Next, you need to hold the paddle in the correct manner. Most kayak paddles have feathered blades which means the two blades will be set at an angle to each other. The reason for this is that as the lower blade is in the water, the upper blade is slicing through the air making your job easier.

Hold the paddle with your hands just slightly over shoulder width apart and an equal distance between each hand and the blades. Paddles can be either left or right-handed and depending on which your orientation. This hand will be your controlling hand. This hand provides the control to set the paddle for whatever stroke you intend to use. The knuckles of your controlling hand should be in line with the blade on that side and should not move in relation to that blade. The other hand holds on loosely but firmly.

Kayak forward paddling is a rotational action that theoretically doesn’t have a start or finish however, it can be broken down in this way. Catch. Power. Follow through.

  1. With your controlling hand forward and the other hand up level with the opposite shoulder the blade is placed fully into the water at 90° to the boat, close to the hull at a point level with your feet. The trunk is rotated with the shoulders at about 45° to the boat ready to unwind to provide power.
  2. Power comes not from the arms but from the back and shoulder muscles which are stronger. As you unwind your trunk you pull back on the paddle and the boat moves forward with the blade close to, but not touching the hull. To counter the twisting action involved, the foot on that side braces against the footrest. At the same time the upper arm is pushed forward at a head height and the trunk is rotated.

Follow through. The trunk is now fully rotated with the blade exiting the water just behind the cockpit. At this point the upper arm at full extension will drop slightly and during the entire stroke the top arm does not cross the centre line of the kayak. The only time it does is for turning or correction strokes. Upon leaving the water, the blade will be raised with the hand coming up level with the shoulder, at the same time your controlling hand will twist backwards allowing the blade on the opposite side to be presented to the water. The process is then repeated on the opposite side.


During this cycle do not hold too tightly onto the paddle. This can put strain on the hand muscles and become very tiring. On the push phase, the hand of the upper arm can be opened and the palm used to push the paddle. This will allow the hand muscles to relax.

The key points to remember: correct posture in the boat. Hand positions on the paddle with the controlling hand not moving in relation to the blade on that side. Trunk rotation to provide power. Top arm does not cross the centre line of the boat.

Remember, with a smooth, rhythmic action you can paddle for hours on end.

One point to note: this technique is for use with conventional kayak paddles. For wing paddles, the technique is very different. Wing paddles are used by competition paddlers and surf skiers and are rarely use by sea kayakers.

Happy paddling.

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