Slickrock logo

How to paddle a kayak

By Slickrock Adventures on May 21, 2013

The Mechanics of paddling forward

Adapted from a lecture by David Blacoe at the 1998 West Coast Sea Kayak Symposium (


Visualize planting the paddle and moving yourself past it.


Picture yourself on a cart; you are reaching for a pole and pulling yourself to it. The paddle does not move much relative to a stationary object, it is the boat that is moving.




The Four Phases of Paddling:

  1. The Catch: Putting the paddle into the water
  2. The Pull: Bring the paddle back parallel to the boat
  3. The Exit: Bring the balad out of the water using a slicing action. Do no take the hand past the hips.
  4. Recovery (bringing the paddle back to set up for the next catch.)

Safety Issues:

  1. Keep the wrist straight. If you extend your fingers the wrist will stay straight. If you clinch the paddle your wrist bends.
  2. The top hand never crosses the center line of the kayak, because if you do you get a scooping action on the bottom blade which tears out the shoulder.

There are 2 methods of paddling:

  1. The Push-pull technique: pushing on the upper paddle while pulling on the lower
  2. Torso rotation: twisting and untwisting of the body moves the boat. This technique is used by racers, and is good for high winds.

Performance Considerations:

You are the engine; a novice takes more strokes to get to the same destination. Factors that inhibit or improve your performance:

1. The food you eat (better fuel). Recommended: 50% cabohydrates, 25-30% proteins, 20-25% fats
2. Choice of Paddle: symmetrical vs. asymmetrical. The Asymmetrical paddle allows you to pull back in a more fluid motion.


3. Use of the paddle in the water, 2 factors, paddle angle and depth of paddle:


4. Holding paddle properly: A good way to tell if your  hands are in the correct place on the paddle: move your hands very close together on the paddle and try to paddle, then move them very far apart when trying to paddle. You  will soon see that there is a proper place in-between the two.


5. Boat design: Choosing the best boat for you improves your performance.
Seat design: if your leg falls asleep, this is because the seat is pressing on your cyatic nerve. Your heels should be a little lower than your seat.
Wide vs. narrow boat: if the boat is too wide your knees are too far apart which restrict twisting (torse rotation)

6. Body Posture:
Slouching is to your disadvantage…it restricts torso rotation.
Traingle of stability: you need 3 body contact points with the boat, which increases your control. The more body contacts you have, the more efficiently you can move yourself through the water. Imagine the cart from the very top of this lecture, if you are seat-belted into your cart with foot rests you would go much faster.


7. Stability of the boat:

– Directional: how well the boat tracks, the more rocker there is the more it compromises directional stability

– Longitudinal: this is the trim. Is it nose or stern heavy?

– Lateral: this is ‘tippiness’. The skinnier the kayak, the more weight-sensitive they are. If you lean to one side you turn that way.

8. Use of legs: There is a lot of power in your legs. If not using the rudder you can pump with your legs. To do this you press on the same side as the paddle at the beginning of the stroke. You don’t have to do this all the time, this is the kind of technique that racers use. If you need to up your power it helps.

9. Rudder up or rudder down? This is a very controversial issue among all sea kayakers. With respect to this discussion, when the footrests are not stable you lose the triangle of stability and the power of the pumping action in the legs.