Beginner Whitewater Kayaking Tips 1 – Forward Stroke

My friend Jake and I took a new paddler (Tom the Pilot) down part of the Skykomish River the other day, and it reminded me of all the great kayaking tutorial videos I always tell myself I should put on here.  So Tom, this post is for you and all the other newer paddlers who are looking for some kind of road map for good foundational whitewater kayaking skills.

The Forward Stroke

This may sound boring, but pretty much any really good kayaker will tell you that the forward stroke is THE most important kayaking stroke and the basis for everything else you’ll do, including the boof stroke if you’re getting the forward stroke body mechanics correct.  You need to get where you want to go on the water, and the harder the water gets, the more you’ll need good technique in order to actually arrive there while also not exhausting or injuring yourself in the process.  Teach yourself good basics early on so you don’t have to unlearn a bunch of mistakes later.  I love this forward stroke video tutorial by Michele Ramazza, which I’ve posted before:

There’s a lot there, so if you’re new to this, here are the main things I would start by focusing on:  Paddling with your torso, pelvis and legs, like he talks about in the video.  I think the shots from above where you can see his torso alignment parallel to his paddle are really helpful.  And notice at around 4:50 when the view is from the front looking back, how much he is clearly using his legs.  This allows you to put more power into your forward stroke and really drive the boat.  If you’re doing what he’s doing you should feel your feet pushing off of your footblocks (foot pushes on the same side on which the paddle is being drawn backwards) and you can also feel your pelvis rotating back and forth.

Anna Levesque talks about imagining your head being fixed in alignment with your belly button and initiating your rotation from the belly button.  She also talks about sitting up straight in this kayaking tips article, which is another good point because a lot of beginners slouch, which can just kill your ability to edge, balance, and paddle proactively.  If you ski, think about it this way:  Stand with your knees slightly bent like you’re skiing, but hunch forward and lean back on your heels, which is the defensive position a lot of beginner skiers take.  Then try moving your hips from side to side like you’re making turns and notice how unstable that feels.  Then straighten your back, lean slightly forward from the pelvis and stand more over your feet, and notice how much more stable and able to react you feel.  It’s the same in kayaking – the goal is generally to sit up straight or slightly forward (with exceptions obviously, depending on what water feature you’re dealing with) and for the forward lean to initiate from the pelvis, not the mid-back or shoulders.  This may sound very basic but it’s super important.

A good example of slouching and paddling with just your arms is at around 3:35 in this whitewater kayaking troubleshooting video from Whitewater Dreams:

I always feel bad calling someone out on a video as an example of doing something wrong, so full disclosure is that while I don’t think I’ve been a major sloucher for a while, when I started six years ago I had no idea what a back band was even for and all of this torso rotation and leg power stuff I’ve mostly learned about in the last year and half.

Anyway, the Whitewater Dreams Youtube channel has some really good stuff on there, including a series of troubleshooting videos that I think are very well done.

Which brings us to the next ultra-important beginner kayaking topic: The Kayak Eskimo Roll.

(Tom, I hope you don’t mind being the inspiration for getting me to actually post on this blog after a ridiculously long hiatus, I needed a kick in the pants. 🙂  Also I should mention that seeing as you a) had a great attitude on the Skykomish and b) had the foresight to bring both donuts and beer for all, you clearly have all the makings of a great whitewater kayaker.  The rolling and paddling technique stuff is important, but a good attitude (and sometimes donuts) are crucial to the success of any whitewater mission.

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