Broad Paddling Description Part 4

What is Paddling – Part 4

Power Phase and Recovery Phase

The basic stroke can be broken down into several phases described by terms such as “catch”, “stroke”, “acceleration”, “exit”, “recovery”, etc. In this article we will look a little more closely at the various phases of the stroke and then how the execution of those phases generate what is known as “rhythm”.

1. The “Set Up”

Before the “catch” is made, and after the “recovery”, is a moment in time where we “set up” the paddle/blade in preparation to make the “catch”.

The “set up” is a body position and a paddle position.

The body is at full rotation forward on the paddling side, with the knee on the paddling side drawn forward, the hip a little forward, the waist turned forward, the back turned forward, and the shoulder on the paddling side relaxed and forward. The bottom arm is fully extended (the bottom arm/hand is the one holding the paddle nearest to the blade and the arm that is closest to the water), but relaxed.

On the other side of the body the hip is a little turned back (hip movements should be done “inside the skin” as much as possible to minimise the effect of body movement on the canoe), the waist turned back, the back and shoulder turned back, with the top hand just on, or slightly above, eye height.

If the top arm is held fairly “open”, that is with a slight bend at the elbow, with the hand about 30 – 40 cm away from the face, with the bottom arm fully extended, the paddle angle will be about right. When the top hand is too close to the head, the paddle angle is too shallow and the effect is to push down on the water at entry. If the top hand is too far away from the head, then the paddle angle will be too steep and the effect will be to enter the water blade tip first which will lessen the effective blade surface.

In this “set up” position the head should be in a neutral position (remember the pole that goes on through your head and out through the seat that will rip your brains out if you wiggle your head???), jaw, neck and shoulders relaxed (no tension), shoulders down, arms relaxed, body rotated fully, legs set up ready to drive.

Checklist for the “set up” position:

– paddling side leg and hip, drawn a little forward

– back and shoulder on the paddling side drawn forward

– bottom arm extended but relaxed

– other leg and hip turned a little back

– other waist and shoulder turned back

– top hand about eye height and about 30-40 cm away from the head, slightly bent

– everything relaxed but wound up ready to drive!

2. The “Catch”

The “catch” is the point where the blade is fully buried and locked onto the water. In this article we will describe the entry of the blade as part of the catch process.

From the “set up” position, we need to drop the paddle into the water with minimal unwinding of the body. Several things are going on to achieve this, and there are some useful ways of thinking about this action:

Firstly, the boat is moving through the water. It is easy to just drop the paddle in, however, that usually takes about 6 inches off the front of the stroke! The paddle needs to be dropped in the water out in front of the feet. To achieve that you normally have to think about “going forward to the water” as you drop the paddle down. (Most people begin to pull the paddle back as they drop it down).

When you are in the “set up” position, there is a bit of water right under your paddle – but only for a moment. As the boat runs through the water, that bit of water quickly disappears behind you! So you need to aim for a bit of water that is still out in front of you! This piece of water will come to you as the boat moves forward so there is no need to reach for it with your body. The “reaching” is more mental than physical (except for not unwinding the rotation too soon!). This little mental reach – or aiming for the water that is not quite under your paddle just yet – is one of the vital keys to getting maximum boat run, separation between strokes, and a predictable rhythm that is easy to follow!

Once the paddle begins to enter this little piece of water that was out in front of you, you aim to drop ALL of the blade through the same hole in the water made by the tip of the blade as it began the entry. The boat will move up to it as the blade is going to the water and into this little hole you just made with the tip of the paddle. Imagine there is a letter box laying face up in the water. You can see the slot where the letter (your blade) has to go, but it is out in front of you. As the boat moves up to that spot, the tip of the paddle begins to go into the slot for the letter. As you get closer, the whole blade can be slipped into the letter box slot very cleanly. Just like dropping a letter into the letter box!

During all phases of the stroke the paddle, and blade, should be kept low and close to the water. So, the “set up” position is also low to the water. The action required to take the paddle to the water for the catch is then a minimal movement. Just drop it in, with a mental reach for the bit of water that is coming to you as the boat moves up to it, and drop it cleanly through the letter box slot!

It is natural, and required, that the stroke begin as you begin to put the paddle into the water. You will naturally begin to pull on the paddle and begin to apply pressure to the water with the blade, even before the blade is fully buried. SO, it is important to “bury the blade” relatively quickly. The paddle should not “float” down to the water. Drop that letter into the letter box, and mean it!

Achieve the above actions and you will achieve the “catch”. We want the catch to be made as far in front of you as possible. Since ALL of the stroke is in front, and never behind you body, the more in front of you that the paddle gets fully buried and makes the “catch” the longer stroke you will have!

On the other side of all of this is a catch that is too aggressive, and a rotation and reach that is too exaggerated. Rotation comes from the hip movement, a movement that runs like a parallelogram, that is parallel with the water and synchronized with the forward movement of the boat.

All rotation and force to move anything with the human body comes from the pelvis (ask a golfer about their pelvis!), and the torso has to connect it “as one” to the upper body. The hip movement in the canoe needs to be small – bum kept on the seat, back and forward movements of the hips and leg drive kept inside the skin, and everything kept parallel to the water (not up and down and not side to side, nor rocking forward and back).

The moral is that you do not need to overdo the rotation, the reach, or the effort to make the catch! Keep your “effort” for the work in the water!

There are a couple of extra elements about the catch to be aware of:

– the blade should be square to the water – that is, with the blade face 90 degrees to the direction of the boat

– the blade should be fully buried – that means to the part of paddle where the blade joins the shaft. many people put the paddle too far in the water (more later) and some don’t bury the blade enough.

– if the blade is “open” – that is, facing away from the side of the canoe, the effect is to turn the boat away from the paddle, push your body off the stroke (this means that you will lean away from the paddling side, and therefore minimise the power you have available for the stroke), and to disturb the run of the boat.

– if the blade is too “closed” – that is , facing in towards the canoe, the main effect is to slip water, minimising the power going into the stroke.

3. The “Pull”

Now the paddle is fully buried in the water, the phase of the stroke turns into the pulling phase.

Remember, the boat is already moving through the water so if you just put your paddle in the water and do nothing it will look as though you took a stroke anyway! In an OC6 it is certainly possible to dip your paddle into the water and not contribute to the acceleration and drive of the boat at all!

In the pulling phase you lock onto the water with your paddle and lever yourself (and the canoe) up to the paddle. The drive begins at the foot, travels up the leg and into the hips, then the waist, back and shoulders. You minimise the amount of “paddling” done from the arms. The lower in your body you can get your paddling power, the stronger you will be, and the greater your endurance, since you will be activating larger muscles, and muscles that have a greater aerobic capacity (calf, leg and bum muscle contains more mitochondria than arm muscles per bulk of muscle fibre, even if an athlete is highly trained in upper body endurance exercise).

The arms simply hold onto the paddle and make a strong connecting bridge between you and the paddle in the water. This idea of the arms just making a strong connecting bridge between you and the paddle and you and the boat, can be thought of as a “frame”. The frame pretty much maintains the same shape throughout the entire pulling phase. The frame moves as one piece. From the legs up, the frame moves in one piece!

You can also think of this frame like an old fashioned coil spring. At the set up it is coiled up ready to release its energy. As the stroke progresses you can see the legs move, the frame rotate and the coil unwind. The power for the pulling phase comes from the legs, hips and torso, NOT the arms. It starts low and unwinds, like a coil spring, through the legs, hips, waist, lats and then finally the paddle.

Many outrigger paddlers substitute rocking back and forward for rotation. They reach by leaning forward, and pull by using the small muscles of their lower back and small muscles of their arms as they rock back. The body weight shift of forward to back gives a false idea of power. It is not biomechanically sound, and will lead to injury, or at least, wear and tear!

4. “Acceleration”

As mentioned in previous articles, once the blade “grips” the water and presses on it, the body of water behind the blade will begin to move. To maintain the grip on the water, the paddler needs to increase the pressure, incrementally, on this body of water.

This action is called “acceleration”. Without acceleration, the blade is not just “dead” in the water but it could also be offering drag, rather than any kind of pull!

Once the boat, particularly a big boat like an OC6, is moving, it is easy to put the paddle in the water and allow the boat to move over it. The various capacities of people to “move the boat” can be summed up by their ability to accelerate the blade in appropriate amounts.

The converse of this is the ability of the paddler to apply just the right amount of pressure to accelerate the paddle just enough to keep the boat running at a steady speed. In this manner the boat runs smooth and the paddler conserves energy.

Over pulling can result in:

– cavitation of the blade in the water

– disruption of the run of the boat

– difficulties for the steerer

– waste of energy!

A good team boat paddler will find the feeling of the boat and settle into it, rather than try to force the boat to do his/her wishes!

Acceleration is a bit like Kellogs “Just Right” – not too heavy and not too light! It’s Just Right! Of course this requires water feel. Water feel is one of things that cannot be taught, only learned. Things to keep in mind are ideas like:

– 1% pressure throughout the pulling phase

– thinking of the “varooom” sound of a rowing ergo and increasing pressure in the same feeling as the sound of the fan accelerating on the rowing stroke

– the pulling phase is “on” while the recovery phase is “off”

How do you know if the water has been accelerated, or if the paddle is just sitting in the water?

By the whirlpools! Theoretically the paddle does not move in the water. However, due to the fact that the water behind the paddle beings to move, the paddle must move and accelerate, to keep hold of the water. This action will create a “bubble”, or “lump” of water behind the blade. On each side of this bubble, are streaming whirlpools, or vortexes, where the edges of the bubble are spilling off the edge of the blade.

Mostly, the size of the bubble of water corresponds to the power with which the water was accelerated.

Acceleration occurs right through to the exit!

5. The “Exit”

The stroke finishes when the blade in the water is level with the hips. Some strong men can take the paddle back a little further than the hip, and keep it vertical, and keep the power on it, but these men are few and far between, and probably have an Olympic class paddling background behind them!

So, lets keep the idea that the stroke finishes at the hip as the standard! If the paddle goes behind the hip, it begins to drag rather than pull, and only the rare paddler can push the boat with the paddle behind them!

Taking the paddle out of the water is not at all complicated. Just take it out! The boat is running over the paddle and the moment it reaches just past vertical it must come out or else we are dragging the paddle. At this point, when it must come out, it will “pop out” of the water with very little effort!

Since we have taken the stroke with the body rather than the arms, and the arms have merely been a bridge, or frame, from the body to the paddle, we find that at the end of the stroke the bottom arm is still fairly straight! At this point we simply lift the hand up and let the paddle blade pop out of the water.

Acceleration occurs right through to the exit! Until the paddle is out of the water.

6. The “Recovery”

The recovery phase is the part of the stroke where the paddle is out of the water and the paddle and body are returning back to the front ready for the next stroke.

At the exit the leg drive is fully finished, the waist is turned back and the shoulder is turned back, and the opposite side is  now rotated to the front. The top hand should still be in the same spot it was through the whole stroke.

As the paddle exists, the bottom hand lifts a little, as does the top hand. The recovery of the body should be executed as freely and easily as possible. People often refer to the action as “swing”. It’s as if someone else is turning you from waist/lats area and you don’t have to do anything to get your body back to the set up position.

While you are returning to the set up position, you are “off” (the stroke is “on”), so relax, breath, chest up, and allow the recovery to be easy. If you feel the recovery from low down in your body, and as if someone else has done it for you, you will naturally begin to get the rhythm of off and on, with separation in the strokes, that we are looking for.

As always, keep the hands quiet, and the body quiet. Keep the hand heights simple, and the paddle close to the side of the boat (no need to swing the paddle out sideways) and no need to “feather” at the exit – too complicated!

7. The “Rhythm”

Rhythm is essential and often people who are musical feel the rhythm more than those who are not – it really is a tempo, a beat, with highs and lows, just like music. When music is just 1, 2, 1, 2,…. it tends to be boring! When paddling is just 1, 2, 1, 2, it actually doesn’t go!

Each stroke has highlights and shadows, ons that build and offs that swing! Different shades and different rhythms. The “on” is on and the “off” is off.

Acceleration is one of the factors that makes the rhythm of each stroke more complex than just 1, 2, 1, 2. Additionally, the “frame” is drawing an oblong, rather than a circle, in the air, so the movement is not circular as you might think of a wheel going around. 1, 2, 1, 2, is flat, or even black and white, while the rhythm of paddling is like a sampling from an artist palette with every colour you can imagine. This multi colour palette is one that give the paddler infinite choice of “how” to apply the power in “this” stroke by feel rather than by rote.

From the catch the stroke builds, through acceleration, and you can hear/feel the “varoom”. At the exit there is a release of tension and a relax, but at the same time an easy swing forward. At the set up position as the paddle goes to the water there is a mental “reach” as you wait for a fraction of a second for the water that is a head of you to come under your paddle, and you slip the paddle through the letter box! This is rhythm!

8. “Timing”

In an OC6 the number one important technical element is timing! If the timing is out it doesn’t matter how good individual techniques are! A crew with shocking technique but with perfect timing can beat a crew of good paddlers with bad timing. Timing, timing, timing!

Number one has to have a good rhythm, one that is consistent, that doesn’t change from side to side, and doesn’t alter during changes. They have to be able to hold the rhythm through any water conditions, be able to reach for the water when they can, but keep the rhythm. They have to be predictable and they have to know how to let the boat run between strokes without making an obvious pause between strokes.

That having been said, everyone else HAS to follow number one exactly! In together, out together. No exceptions! If your number one is doing something other than the job they are supposed to do, everyone else has to follow them exactly. Number two can quietly encourage them for more length, more rating, snappier action, etc. But beyond that, everyone follows.

Broad Paddling Description Part 3

What is Paddling – Part 3

Posture, Rotation, Top Hand


Sit evenly on the seat! There is no need to change your bottom or hip positions when you change paddle sides. When you change your driving leg side you will naturally make the very small adjustments to your position on the seat just by doing that! If you change your position on the seat it is likely that you are doing so to compensate for an inability to drive with your leg through proper rotation.

Keep your cheeks on the seat! If you are lifting your bottom off the seat (especially if you are lifting the cheek opposite the paddling side) you are NOT rotating to get your full extension – you are rocking back and forward, leaning too far out of the canoe, throwing yourself/weight forward for reach, etc. Keep your cheeks firmly inside the craft at all times! Keep them both down on the seat and do your rotating “inside” your skin by using the pelvis/hips in a flat plane. Remember, any actions that are up and down in nature (and not parallel with the water) disturb the run of the boat.

Front leg drives, back leg recovers! In an OC6 the front foot (on the paddling side) is usually placed on the bottom of the canoe. It is in front of you, in an easy and natural position, with the foot in a non-slip position (paddling shoes help but if you are bare foot it is best if the bottom of the canoe has some good non-slip paint!). Sometimes smaller paddlers may need to put their knee on the side of the canoe (on the inside please!) to help lock them into the canoe. As the paddle reaches the full catch you apply pressure from the foot through to the hand (foot, leg, hip, waist, lats, shoulders, arms, hands – in that order) as if you were a spring unwinding. (We’ll go into “how” to do that in a later article). So the first part of the pressure to make the paddle stroke comes from the front foot!

The other foot/leg is tucked under the seat but it is not just hanging out there doing nothing! The “other” foot is usually on its toes and those toes need grip too! The back of the calf may be gripping under the seat (especially in rough water or if you are a tiny person and the canoe is big around you). It needs to be locked in as it actually assist in the ease of the paddle recovery. As you will discover in later articles the paddle recovery is done with everything other than the hands that hold the paddle! (Recovery means the bit after the stroke has finished and you are taking the paddle back to the beginning ready to make the next catch and the next stroke). This “other” leg helps you to recover your hips (“inside” your skin) ready for the next leg drive!

So, we have our bums on the seat and our legs inside the canoe, locked onto the hull, either in front of us (paddling side) or under the seat (opposite side). Let’s work up from there!

There is a slight forward lean of the torso, from the hips (not the lower back). The amount is minimal – you want to think “sitting tall”, rather than leaning forward. As mentioned in an earlier paragraph, NO rocking forward for your catch! This minimal forward lean from the hips actually comes from the position of the pelvis! Think about your tail bone pointing out and away from the seat, while your pubic bone is pushing in closer to the seat. This tilt of the pelvis will give you a natural forward lean with no effort from your back at all.

Moving up! Chest up, back comfortably straight (don’t force it), shoulders down and relaxed. Head in line with your spine, and again, relaxed! Your head should appear to be totally stationary as you are paddling – no going back and forward or side to side! There is an imaginary steel stake entering your head from some place in the sky and travelling down through your body and into the seat! You can only rotate around this big steel stake, if you try to rock back and forward, side to side, or wiggle your body bits in some other strange fashion, the big steel stake will rip your brains out! (Sorry for the graphics!!!! – Not really! – Hopefully you get the idea!).

To properly get your “weight on the blade’ (more later) you need to lean into the paddling side a little. Look at front on pictures of OC6’s and you will see a row of heads on one side and a row of heads the other side. Importantly you should feel as though your waist area is being pulled into the stroke (it shouldn’t actually move that way – you just feel the strength there). The opposite is where you feel that your stroke pushes you away from the paddle – this is not good! Feel strong “into” the work!

Shouldn’t need to state this but it is important that you NOT lean too far out of the boat, especially if you feel as though you want to protect the ama! In reasonable water the steerer will want to keep the ama light and if you are leaning all over the place you will make things difficult for the steerer! In various water situations seat 4, 5 and the steerer will take care of the ama (maybe seat 3 at times), the rest of the time try to keep yourself central in the canoe, with your weight on the blade, without leaning too far out of the boat!


The paddle stroke in an outrigger canoe (OC6 specifically) is not that long or big, so the rotation is not that big either. However, it is certainly essential!. Maybe because it is not big it is harder to learn? Rotational movements are more difficult movements to learn for a human than flat plane movements as well. So, to describe one of the tougher elements of technique, in writing, is a bit on the challenging side too!

In an OC6 we get the extension for our stroke by rotating rather than just reaching. As hinted at in the last paragraph under “legs” the rotation starts at ground level and works its way up. Let’s start with the paddling side, shall we?

At full rotation and forward extension, we place the paddle blade in the water (forward of the feet, as if “going forward to the water”, square to the water, and buried to the hilt). At that moment, we begin to squeeze, beginning at the front foot on the bottom of the canoe. The pressure travels up the leg (which will straighten just a little), through the hip (which will slide backward in our skin just a little), into the waist and core.

The torso from hips up, the chest, the shoulders, the arms and the hands holding the paddle have formed a strong frame which does not break. No movement of the top hand, no changing of the angle of elbow and shoulder joints, or wrists for that matter, no bending or collapsing of the torso. This strong frame could be thought of as a bridge. From the side the form of the torso, arms and paddle shaft makes a particular shape (some refer to it as a “D” shape). However you think of it, it is important to understand that the bulk of the stroke is executed from the leg, hips and the strong frame/bridge/”D” shape.

Importantly, the stroke is NOT done with the arms! Watch a good paddler with good eyes (I say it that way as it takes skill and understanding to “see” what a person is doing) and you will understand that they DO NOT paddle with their arms, but with their bodies.

So, a key aspect to rotation is the ability to form this strong frame and be able to get the power phase to begin with the legs!

The “other side” to rotation is literally the other side (of the body). While the paddling side is turning “back” the opposite side must be turning “forward”. Even this concept (of the “other side” going forward while the paddling side is going backward) can help in the development of rotation and the strong frame that is required to support it.

There is still another “other side”! The recovery! Without rotation in the recovery phase, the rotation in the power phase will not occur!

At the end of the stroke (blade at hips, hand at mid thigh) you simply take the paddle out of the water (more in later articles) and return it to in front of the feet ready for the next stroke. This action is nice and relaxed – as if someone else is doing it for you. Imagine a hand on the back of your lat giving it a light shove as you bring the paddle forward. Imagine someone gently dragging your little finger forward as you bring the paddle forward. Now add your own effort of drawing up the leg and hip and you should have recovered your rotation/body ready for the next stroke!

The recovery of the rotation is in reverse of the stroke. Hands and arms first, torso next, hip then leg! As if someone else is doing it for you. Easy and relaxed. Many people refer to this easy recovery as “swing”, and it certainly does have that feeling!

Top Hand

Aaahhhh! The top hand! So, why is the “top hand” the next topic of discussion?

Of course, the top hand is the control centre for the strong frame, for the angle of the dangle, for the vertical paddle, and a major factor in the ultimate length of the stroke! Collapse, drop, move, divert, change the top hand, and your stroke will disappear!

The “top hand” is the one that is holding the t-bar of the paddle, the one on the “other side” of the stroking side, the one that you forgot about.

Like the bottom hand, the top hand must maintain the same horizontal plane through out the stroke. That is, it should stay at the same height above the water, the same height and position in comparison to your face (with the assumption that you do what described above and keep your head still!). That means it DOES NOT DROP DOWN – ever.

To be more descriptive it’s easier to detail the results of not keeping the top hand in the right place. so let’s look at some of these effects (you might recognise them as common paddling errors, but not have realised how much they had to do with the top hand!).

Shortened lever length – when the top hand moves anywhere in space throughout the stroke the most common result – and one that is often not picked up – is a shortening of the lever. Remember in the opening paragraph of this blog I said that we move the boat though the water via a system of leverage between feet/bum/boat and paddle in water. The lever is the paddle and the hands set the fulcrums and potential power to “move the boat”.

Ideally, when the top hand is still, the lever is at its longest (and therefore at the length that requires the most strength), however, at its longest the lever will move the boat the furthermost! You can quickly reason from this that one of the reasons people let their top hand move is because they are not strong enough, particularly in the required positions, to hold the longest lever! (I don’t believe that they are actually not strong enough, however, most people haven’t learnt how to maximise the strength they have by using ALL of the body, not just their arms). (I will add pictures here at a later date).

Compromised paddle angles – when the top hand drops the paddle angle must change to one that has the ti p of the paddle traveling first (reducing the surface of the blade in the water – the anchor the lever is attached to), or the tip is being pushed down (again releasing the anchor) or the paddle is trailing – DRAGGING – not doing anything!

You don’t want to drop the top hand even in recovery – if the top hand is low during recovery it is very hard to get that ‘swing” in the recovery that everyone is looking for. The paddle has to recover out sideways, wide in a big arc (slower), and the bottom hand then has to lift the paddle over waves and everything….. Better lift top and bottom hands a bit and simply bring the paddle forward. More simple. Less energy. Safer in waves. Less chance of the body rocking or leaning. Need more?

Directions the top hand often goes:

– pushed forward – reduces potential length of stroke

– pushed down – compromises the paddle angles

– pushed across the face – stops rotation

– held in centre of canoe – too flat an angle of the paddle in the water

– too close to the face – too steep at the entry – difficult to make a strong frame

– moves from close to far away from the face – short levers, lack of power

Summary of the key points;

– keep both cheeks on the seat at all times

– drive from the front leg first, then the hip and the strong frame of the torso/arms/paddle

– recover easy

– no rocking back and forth or side to side

– no leaning out of the canoe

– top hand control is extremely vital!

Broad Paddling Description Part 2

“What is Paddling! PART TWO”

The angle of the dangle!

The paddle blade should be presented to the water at very specific angles. Anything outside of these angles causes drag at the worst, or at the very least, a loss of power, and somewhere in between drag and loss of power, is spending your energy trying to make the boat go where it can’t (an OC6 is too big for a single bad paddle stroke to lift, sink, or sweep sideways – however the number of paddlers that spend their energy trying – albeit unintentionally – to move the boat in these directions is pretty staggering!).

Of course if you are paddling something smaller than an OC6 it’s pretty easy to drive your canoe up, down, sideways (is there somewhere else to go? If there is then I’m sure someone can make their boat go in that direction too!). You don’t want to send your canoe in any direction except forward!

To make the idea simple, the paddle blade should be vertical in the water (from all directions you look) and presented “square” to the water.

So, what is “vertical” and “square”?

(pictures back in post soon – sorry….)

These pictures are, of course, an exaggeration – they are to demonstrate the concept of vertical and square! At the forward reach and entry point the paddle angle should be no less than 45 degrees to the water and it should come up to almost ninety degrees to the water very quickly (as the boat moves up to the paddle at the entry point).

Bury the blade to the point where the blade joins the shaft (NO DEEPER!), before “pulling back”. Since the boat moves up to the blade as it is going to and into the water, it is very important that you get the feeling of “forward to the water”, or grabbing the water an inch or two forward of where you first thought the paddle would go in, or never being satisfied with just letting the paddle drop (which allows the stroke to halve in potential length – because of the boat travelling forward).

The top hand has to come over to the stroking side to get the paddle close to vertical when viewed from behind or in front of the canoe. If you keep your top hand too far to the opposite side the paddle angle will be very flat (it will turn into a sweeping stroke that would turn the boat to the opposite side if it could – in an OC6 you might turn the boat from seat one and five a bit, but everywhere else you are just wasting your energy).

The paddle should be square and vertical and drawn in a straight line beside the hull of the boat. It should not go down, out, up, or tip first anywhere! (Much more on this later!). Technically the paddle does not move (or barely moves) in the water. So the idea is to draw yourself (and your part of the canoe) up to the paddle, in a straight line, with the paddle maintaining the same depth, angle, and distance from the hull and water feel throughout the stroke.

Of course, with the limitations of the human body, this vertical angle cannot be achieved as in the silly drawings, however, again, its best if you think of the principal as the simplified version. HOW to achieve these things with your body will come later – often just getting the concept of what REALLY happens is enough to help paddlers start to adapt a better technique quite naturally (more in future articles).

Water feel!

Since “water feel” is a feeling it is much more difficult to teach than the biomechanics of something! In the words of a very wise man I know “some people can train all their life and still not attain enlightenment”.  I think of water feel a little this way as well. Many people mechanically try to do whatever their coach tells them. This is fine, however, without an internalizing of understanding of the principals, a paddler is not able to adapt (to different crews, different water conditions, different wind conditions), blend (adjust the power phase of their stroke to match the person in front of them and the way the boat is moving), and paddle in any seat with the different seat roles required.

A person who has water feel can determine the amount of pressure they need to apply to each stroke to remain “locked onto the water”, and make adjustments to that pressure midway through the stroke so as to maintain the blade “fix”. They can do that without thinking it through, it happens on autopilot, and adapts in moments.

They can also notice the “quality” of their stroke. How well it has locked onto the water, if it successfully moved the boat up to the paddle with the smallest amount of effort, if there was any drag at the catch or exit. They tend to be more gentle with the water than a person who has less water feel. Perhaps they look like they aren’t doing much, but they seem to go fast or to make a boat move.

A paddler with water feel naturally “accelerates” the paddle in the water. In “What is Paddling Part 1” we discussed the fact that when you apply pressure to the body of water on the paddle face that body of water begins to move. To maintain the effective lock on the water the paddle must “accelerate”. If it doesn’t, it actually is just dragging!

Many people think of acceleration as pulling harder through the stroke. Without water feel this will result in the blade slipping, or being forceful with the water (doesn’t necessarily result in moving the boat!), and usually using more energy than is required.

I like to think of it as simply as applying just 1% more pressure on the blade.

Remember, the paddle IS NOT MOVING! (Well, it is but ever so slightly!), so the pressure increase on the paddle should be ever so slight and incremental as the stroke progresses. Don’t think too hard, just think 1% pressure right to the exit!

Boat Run

The boat (any boat) travels the very fastest just after a well done and cleanly exited stroke. (The moment the paddle is not in the water).

From this peak of speed the drag forces of the water begin to slow the boat (hull design, displacement, etc., all determine the rate of deceleration after the exit of the blade).

The next bit of slow down occurs when the paddle is put into the water at the catch.

Unfortunately, for many people, the stroke itself creates as much drag as the force they are applying to make the boat move forward! So they work hard but don’t move the boat as well as they could with that much effort!

The idea of developing good technique is to get the boat to run freely as much as it can. The effort put on the blade should be relative to the speed of the boat, and with water feel, will accelerate the boat at the exit and then be allowed to drive freely for that moment.

From acceleration, through to the exit, and on to the recovery, comes “separation”. Separation IS NOT a pause at the exit or before the catch (I have heard schools of thought as to where there “should” be a pause). There is no pause!

Separation comes from a combination of water feel, acceleration and relaxation on recovery – not a slow recovery, just a swinging, free, easy, relaxed getting the paddle back to the fully extended position ready for the next stroke. Separation comes from the rhythm of the stroke – going forward to the catch, burying the blade, accelerating a vertical blade, exit at the hips, relax back to the full extension, reach for the catch……..

This rhythm is like drawing an oblong box in the air, with different colours for each part of the oblong. It sounds like the whirring of a rowing ergo, varroommm – mmmm – varroommm….. It is two toned – one tone for the ON of the stroke, and another for the RELAX of the recovery. It is two speed, again, feeling faster on the stroke and feeling slower on the recovery (note the use of the word “feeling”, rather than “being”!). And this oblong box with many colours has colours available for all water conditions!!!

The opposite (lack of rhythm, and a lack of boat run) feels more like drawing a circle and all in one colour! It is often described as a wheel, or “spinning the wheels”. This lack of rhythm and separation makes the boat heavy, makes every stroke hard work, and doesn’t have any options for adapting to different water conditions.

Summary – What is Paddling!

What is Paddling Part One and Part Two is a conceptual look at the basic principals of paddling (anything). Just understanding these principals, alone, will help in the execution of your paddling stroke.

If you focus on these guiding principals you will naturally begin to do the right things with your body (and with your body’s strengths and weaknesses) to perform a more effective stroke.

As we develop this site more there will be more and more detail on all aspects of paddling and paddlers can take the parts that are appropriate for them and discard the parts they don’t need.

Here are the main ideas:

– Move the boat not the paddle.

– The stroke is ALL in front, never behind – you pull yourself UP TO the blade in the water, not push off it!

– The blade should be vertical in the water (body limitations aside!) from all directions.

– Water feel is developed, not learned!

– Acceleration is an essential part of water feel, but it must be done gently – 1% at a time.

– Separation is a facet of boat run, water feel and good technique rather than having a pause anywhere!

– Rhythm comes from reaching for the catch, a vertical paddle, acceleration, and a clean exit in front of the hips, with a relaxed, easy recovery!

Broad Paddling Description Part 1

“What is Paddling! PART ONE”

“Paddling” can be defined as using a “paddle”, that is powered by a body (usually human), to propel a “boat” through the water!

Your body is attached to the boat (board, canoe, kayak, ski, etc.), usually at the bum and the feet (just the feet if it’s a SUP).  Then, using a system of leverage between body/boat and the paddle/water, you move the boat forward.

To be clear, the goal is to move the boat forward! This sounds obvious, however most people get caught up on what the hands should do, what the body should do, what the paddle should do, what the legs should do, etc., when our primary consideration should be about moving the boat!

And not just moving the boat, but moving it in a relatively straight line (since that is the quickest and most efficient way from point A to point B – water conditions put aside for the moment), using the least amount of physical energy from the motor (the body), and without causing any interruption to the “boat run” (efficiency).

A clearer focus on moving the boat (and the biomechanics of doing that), will keep all aspects of developing paddling technique, in any craft, much simpler!

To move the boat the paddle must not (move, that is)!

The paddle does not move in, or through, the water! Regardless of whether you are talking about the so-called lift properties of a kayak type propeller paddle, the plank of an old-fashioned canoe paddle, or even the traditional flat stick used by native paddlers long ago. Regardless of design, the whole idea is for the paddle blade to “lock onto the water” so that it can, by means of leverage from the human driving it, MOVE THE BOAT.

All movement of the paddle in the water has the direct effect of failing to move the boat to some degree, depending on the type of paddle movement.

Having said that, yes, there will be some paddle “slippage” – even with the best paddlers with the best water feel – when you put pressure on the “body of water” on the face of the paddle, the body of water begins to move.  So, with a good stroke, you will see whirlpools, and a patch of water that “bubbles”, and a small body of moving water inside all of that! The size, shape and dramatic effect of these whirlpools depends on the length, power and effectiveness of the paddle stoke that made it (and the speed of the boat that the paddle stroke was trying to propel).

Even though this “slippage” does occur, it is best not to think of the paddle moving through the water – the more you can “hold” the water, the better a paddler you will be!

All in front, never behind!

No matter what kind of craft you are paddling the basic principal is that you stick the paddle in the water somewhere forward of your current position and pull yourself, and the boat, up to that point.

It’s virtually impossible (because of lever angles, effective surfaces of paddle blades, the nature of fluid dynamics, and the limitations of the human body) to push yourself off from behind your body! All of the factors in the brackets result in drag, drag, and more drag when you have the paddle in the water anywhere behind you!

This means that the “stroke” is ALL in front of your body, never behind it!

If you watch the very best paddlers in the world (sprint and marathon kayak paddlers, sprint high kneeling canoe paddlers, ocean kayak racers, surf ski paddlers, etc) you will see the dynamic rotation of their shoulders, waists and hips, their leg drive, the control of their top hand, and the recovery of their bottom hand IN FRONT OF THEIR BODY!

If the people the most concerned with going the fastest in a canoe (Olympic sprint kayak and canoe paddlers) don’t paddle behind their bodies, why would an outrigger canoe paddler in a slower and heavier boat???

Paddling Phase Summary – Separation

Between strokes, boat run, rhythm, timing of the stroke, etc.!!!

It’s NOT a pause, folks! However, you may need to practice a pause to get control of your separation!

The timing of the strokes, the space in between strokes and the acceleration of the stroke is going to change due to conditions and even from moment to moment – this is water feel!

Phase  Coaching Points  Negative  Correction & Drills
  •  separation is a “boat run” consideration
  • the boat goes the fastest just after the exit
  • one aspect of “water feel” is knowing when to put the paddle in for the next stroke
  • recovery is slower than the stroke feels and very relaxed
  • swing through the recovery
  • relax the catch
  • rushing the recovery and catch = killing the boat run
  • also, rushing the recovery = tight muscles and stiff paddling
  • trying too hard
  • all of the silly drills above!
  • especially 1,2,3, exit and stop, exit and count to three for the recovery
  • dry land practice for rotation and tempo
  • “var – room, 2, 3, 4” drill – var = entry/catch, room = acceleration and exit, 2,3,4 = recovery – done to a steady beat!

Paddling Phase Summary – Recovery

The recovery is the bit where you take the blade through the air back to the set up!

Your rhythm comes from this bit! The rhythm is a bit like a waltz – 1, 2, 3… 1, 2, 3 – with the 1, being the stroke, the 2 being the acceleration to exit pop and the 3 being the recovery. (A feeling of being a little faster in the water than in the air!).

Phase  Coaching Points    Negative  Correction & Drills
  • relaxed and slower than the stroke felt
  • recover torso, hips and legs on paddling side – they all come forward
  • the other side of the body turns backward
  • paddle with hip/torso = recover with hips/torso
  • keep blade low to water and just swing it forward
  •  rushing the recovery = destroys boat run
  • if the paddler isn’t rotating they will have to use the small muscles of their arms to paddle and recover!
  • don’t forget both sides of the body do the paddling, not just the paddling side!
  • no need to feather the blade at the exit – too many people feather while in the water still (many reasons) – get the exit right and the paddle just pops out!
  • exit and count to 3 without moving drill (important – don’t go to the set up position – just stay at the exit – check top hand hieght and position, bottom hand in front of the hip, and rotation)
  • from the above position count to three to move back into the set up position
  • 1,2,3 drill
  • on dry land move forward and backward through a stroke from entry to exit = recovery

Paddling Phase Summary – Exit

Throughout the power phase (last post) your blade “accelerates” in order to keep hold of the water. If you do this well, the paddle will pop at just the right time! No need to do much! No need to stick those elbows out into space (sure sign the paddler has pulled the paddle, too far back).

Your hand should come up totally in front of your body – hand NEVER goes behind the body!!! If your top hand is under control and you are taking the bottom hand out in the right place your blade will be just past your bum!

Phase  Coaching Points   Negative  Correction & Drills
  • acceleration to exit
  • boat “runs over” vertical paddle in water and it pops out
  • hand out at hip
  • keep top hand at eye height
  • poor acceleration = blade drops and brakes on water = difficult to get blade out
  • if blade is not vertical it has to be lifted out with effort = using effort to force canoe down into water
  • hand too far past hip
  • top hand drops or pushes top handle down and forward = poor paddle angle, braking/dragging, difficult to exit
  • leave paddle in water at end of stroke drill
  • after doing the drill above for a while, exit and count to 3 before moving!
  • top hand in cord around neck drill – top hand control and bottom hand in front of hips
  • dry land practice of simply lifting the bottom hand

Paddling Phases Summary – Power Phase

If you have made a good catch (water, not mate),  way out in front of you feet, you will have plenty of length, plenty of smooth power and plenty of drive in your stroke.

Conversely, if the entry slips, and the catch gets too close to the end of your stroke, you end up jabbing at the water, rather than making the canoe move forward – big difference in concepts!

Phase  Coaching Points   Negative  Correction & Drills
Power Phase
  • acceleration
  • smooth application of power
  • use body not arms
  • top hand control
  • blade vertical and alongside the canoe
  • leg and hip drive
  • all effort on catch then allowing the blade to “brake” on the water
  • short and jerky application of too much power
  • arms only = weak stroke
  • top hand pushing forward = blade not vertical, shortening of the leaver, poor exit
  •  standing up drills
  • Canadian C1 paddler drill – high kneeling position
  • chest on gunnel drill
  • 1,2,3 drill
  • paddling over gently
  • top hand in cord around neck drill
  • top hand off paddle srill
  • top hand only paddling
  • “show off chest and back” drill for rotation
  • lift ama drill for hip relaxation
  • dry land drills for rotation and hip drive

Paddling Phase Summary – Catch

Super simply – the catch is the moment that the blade is fully in the water and you are about to pull!

It should be in front of your feet! Unfortunately most people make their “catch” at the moment just before the exit at their hips!!!!!

Phase   Coaching Points   Negative  Correction & Drills
  • clean, quiet, no splash
  • from a good entry, with a vertical blade, begin to pull yourself up to the blade – GENTLY!
  • vertical blade from all angles
  • top hand over the shaft with pressure down the shaft
  • minimal unwinding of the body rotation
  • begin pressure from the hip/leg
  •  poor entry = splash, noise and pulling air down into the water
  • too shallow an angle = effort going into lifting the canoe
  • too aggressive = moves the water, not the canoe
  • too aggressive = short stroke without length in the water and good boat drive
  •  knee deep in water drills as above
  • standing up in the canoe drills
  • Canadian Olympic C1 paddler drill – high kneeling in canoe
  • chest on gunnel drill


Paddling Phase Summary – Entry

A lot of people think directly from the “set up” to the catch, and they miss a very important part of the stroke – the moment that the paddle enters the water – this moment can make or break the rest of the stroke!

The most common error is to rush this bit (which, if people have forgotten that this phase exists, makes sense that they miss it!).

What we are looking for is a clean entry that is in time with the canoe, slipping into the water without disturbing it, and executed so that there is minimal loss of length before starting the stroke.

Punching the water, grabbing it aggressively, and other dramatic effort do something else too – apart from disrupting the water!

At the moment of the full entry, just at the catch, your muscles should be super relaxed, ready for a full force contraction. If your muscles are event he slightest bit tense, you will lose a great deal of your contractive power!  Just let the blade drop into the water without doing much of anything else!

 Phase  Coaching Points   Negative  Correction & Drills 
  • “place” the paddle in the water
  • “forward” to water
  • bury blade to the top of the blade where it joins the shaft
  • bury without pulling back
  • allow the boat to travel up to the hole the tip of the blade makes in the water – like putting a letter in a letter box slot
  •  too aggressive entry – disturbs water
  • pulling back before fully burying the blade
  • “unwinding” the body set up before putting the paddle in
  • rushing the entry
  • knee deep in water drill with a stick or leaf in the water – practice walking up to the point where the blade tip enters the water without pulling back
  • visualizing a piece of water in front of your current position and “waiting” for that piece of water to come to you
  • think of the water having a letter box slot that you have to get your whole blade through