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Kayak Basics - Kayaking for Beginners

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by Andrew Burton (subscribe)
I am a Freelance Writer-Photographer and Novelist. I travel to find inspiration, wherever the distant horizons lead.
Published April 26th 2016
Don't 'Titanic' Your First Kayak
Kayak Basics - Learn How to Kayak
Kayaking Victoria's Gippsland Lakes with a touring kayak, a fairly stable versatile boat with fair cruising speed
Kayaking Victoria's Gippsland Lakes with a touring kayak, a fairly stable versatile boat with fair cruising speed

Paddling a kayak can be taken for granted as a simple thing, beyond a bit of fun at the beach with an entry level boat, there is a whole world of skillful techniques. Great skills will help keep you safer, and help you make the most of your kayak.

How to Paddle in a Straight Line

Kayaking paradise - Gippsland Lakes, Victoria
Kayaking paradise - Gippsland Lakes, Victoria

The emphasis here is on sea kayaks and touring kayaks with double paddles, as they seem to be the most popular. When you first start, you will paddle with most of the effort from your arms, but the professionals will tell you to use your core. All strength and technique comes from using the whole body. The whole of your torso will have a superb workout when you paddle correctly, and even your legs will be taught from tensing to brace your body - applying all that energy from the torso. You will need to wind your body up and release the force through your 'abdominals', done correctly you will feel it in these muscles when you have covered 20 or more kilometres. It just takes time and repetition over a few months. Read about long distance achievement here.

To illustrate a left paddle stroke, as your left arm reaches forward rotate your body several degrees to the right. Twist your shoulders left as the paddle is moved through the water, use equal pulling with the left arm and pushing simultaneously with the right - but most of the power is from the abdomen and triceps without solely pulling the paddle with the arms. The effect will be a stronger slightly slower paddle rates with more speed, which is what you need for sea kayaking. You arms will be less tired and you will go much further. To help clarify the technique, try the Frankenstein method. Imagine how he paddles twisting from the torso with arms near straight.

Tense your arms and do the same 'slowlyeeee', and feel the power come from your abdominal muscles. When you can do it smoothly, relax your arms slightly and you will have better technique. The key point is to remember to pull the paddle less and bend your arms a little less - moving the paddle through the water more by twisting your body. The technique makes for more power to tackle wind and currents. The upper hand during a paddle stroke should pass close to the top front of your helmet. For distance and energy conservation (over a number of hours), lower the top hand during a stroke to shoulder height. Do the same for the righthand stroke without a rotation first. If the want to rotate on the right, reverse the rotation technique instructions.

Keeping Double Paddle Blades Perpendicular to the Kayak

The mighy Murray River and many kayak-camping opportunities
The mighy Murray River and many kayak-camping opportunities

To complicate things, you will have to rotate the paddle on one side if the blades are offset. I have fixed a hand grip to the right side and rotate the left side of the paddle. Just before the left blade hits the water, I rotate my right hand to make the left paddle blade perpendicular to the boat and this is required every time the left paddle hits the water. The hand grip can be bought from a good kayak supplier such as Canoes Plus in Kew, Victoria. It creates a ridge that gives you more control over the paddle for rotation and acts as a position locator, your blades will always be perpendicular to the side of the kayak as they move though the water. The paddle grip will refine your technique.

Just like riding a bike, it will be awkward at first and just paddle a few hours a week and you will soon do it without a thought. The right paddle will always be in the correct position. Reverse the above instructions if you are lefthanded. Here is a great video to help clarify the whole technique, but note the paddle used does not have offset blades and the rotation before the blades hit the water on one side is not required. Offset paddles create an advantage to eliminate work overcoming paddle resistance in the wind. Learn more from the video clip here.

Turning

A sea kayak cockpit and the pedals used to operate the skeg
A sea kayak cockpit interior and the pedals used to operate the skeg

For double paddles, with two people in the boat, paddle on opposite sides with opposing strokes, with a single boat, particularly a sea kayak, you will need to paddle on one side then the other to make a tighter turn, and only one side for a wider, slower turn assisting the rudder. When you paddle on opposing sides, paddle in opposing directions - that means to turn, clockwise paddle on the left forwards and the right in reverse and for an anticlockwise turn, paddle in reverse on the left and forward on the right for a clockwise turn.

There are different methods to achieve this. A sweep stroke - meaning you lean slightly out from the boat, without falling in - move the paddle in a wide arc. For a pull stroke - lean out from the boat and reach perpendicular to the boat and draw the paddle slowly back toward the side of the boat. The blade should be parallel to the boat or nothing will happen. I have come across some advanced turns that I have tried once, click here, and try them yourself. I think the hull shape on top-shelf boats dictate how useful these turns are, for my boats it did not help much, they are lower-middle price range.

Recovery:

How to set up a kayak after capsizing for re-entry using the paddle as an outrigger with an inflatable bag - an ocean recovery technique
How to set up a kayak after capsizing for re-entry using the paddle as an outrigger with an inflatable bag - an ocean recovery technique

A second boat to help steady your over turned kayak using a paddle across boat is helpful. A sea kayak has foam inserts to keep it from being totally under water. Turn the boat right-way-up. If paddling solo, make an outrigger to brace the boat as you face the rear and swing your left leg back in with arm and shoulder partly over the back of boat, and weight between bag and kayak.

Watch the man in the video, the he does it so easily. Purchase an inflatable bag like the one in the picture, try an Anaconda store. If you lean your weight over the side without the paddle, you will be back in the drink. Practice in shallow water until you perform this action well. Imagine you are in the ocean in North Queensland and the 'crocs' and sharks are reading the ocean 'kayaker' restaurant menu - you might learn faster. Spare a thought for Queensland 'kayakers'. A decent hand pump will help empty the boat of water quickly once you are back in the cockpit. Time to practice - make a list, pack the car and go find that lake, river or beach.
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Why? Kayaking is a fun and healthy form of exercise you can combine with experiencing the greatout doors, and a new perspective to camping.
When: With the right equipment and weather it can be an all year round activity.
Where: Australia has some great waterways such as the Murray-Darling basin, the Gippsland Lakes, and endless pristine coastlines and lakes and rivers.
Cost: Kayak tours are usually about $100 for a short run. Tuiton is usually about $70 up to about $300 for 2 days.
Your Comment
Great guide, Andrew. It is helpful for those who have never gone kayaking before and want to know more before trying it.
by Bryony Harrison (score: 4|12056) 908 days ago
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