Paddling a kayak can be condensed down very easily. While there are dozens of different paddle strokes for special purposes, you really only need to learn four, at first, anyway. Just keep in mind what you will need the kayak to do. First, you’ll want it to go forward in a straight line. Next, you will occasionally want to slow down rapidly, and/or go in reverse. Being able to make lazy turns without slowing down your forward momentum is another maneuver you will use often. Lastly, at times you may need to skid the yak sideways to position it next to another boat, dock, etc….
Before learning the strokes, you must learn to grip the paddle correctly. There is a Low-Hold and a High Hold. Low holds are what you will be using for propulsion and underway maneuvers. High Holds are mostly used to prevent capsizes, do rolls, positioning, and other advanced techniques. To use the Low Hold, you make a ‘box’ with your body, your arms, and the paddle by holding the shaft parallel to the water, perpendicular to the deck, a few inches above it , with your arms comfortably outstretched,and forming right angles so from above, it resembles a box. The High Hold is the same, except you hold the paddle above your head, usually with a wider grip.
The Forward Stroke
This is the stroke you will be using most of the time, and you should practice it a lot until you become very proficient with it. You want the nose of the boat to wander very minimally, if at all. Some boats will be impossible to paddle perfectly straight, but you can hold the nose wandering to an absolute minimum on any yak with good technique and form. There are three phases to this stroke.
Phase 1, the Reach – With the blade perpendicular to the water, use your torso, not your arms, to twist and reach the paddle forward to the approximate distance of your feet, keeping the shaft level with the water. Then dip the blade in the water on your stroke side about ¾ of the blade deep. Don’t dig in too deep. It will not benefit you any more than this and will waste a lot of power.
Phase 2, Power – Using your back, not your arms, twist your body back keeping the shaft parallel to your body. Continue twisting and drawing the power blade straight, and smoothly through the water towards the bow, without splashing, until the non-power blade is at the level of your feet.
Phase 3, Alternating Side – Smoothly lift the power blade from the water and dip in the opposite blade on the other side. Repeat for that side trying to match the same power you used on the alternate side. You can judge it by the nose of the yak. When done correctly, there will be minimal nose drift.
At the end of this stroke, simply repeat the process, alternating the left and right blades. You will build up speed quickly. Work on being smooth, pulling straight, and applying even power to both sides. Use your power to control speed. Your arms shouldn’t move much at all. Use your body to pull the blades. When done well, you can comfortably do this stroke all day. To make wide-sweeping, graceful turns, just do the Forward Stroke only on the opposite side of the direction you want to turn. The bow will drift to that direction without losing any forward momentum, excellent for changing headings while keeping up your speed. When the bow reaches your desired heading, just return to the full Forward Stroke.
The Reverse Stroke
This also has three phases:
Phase 1, the Dip – Holding the shaft perpendicular to the beam, dip your blade in the water on the power side in the water at the level of your hip. Do not submerge the paddle much more than ¾ deep.
Phase 2, Power – Using your back, not your arms, rotate your upper body forward, keeping the paddle parallel to it, pulling the paddle straight, until the blade is at the level of your feet.
Phase 3, the Release – smoothly lift the power blade from the water. Without moving your body very much, insert the opposite blade into the water near your hip, and repeat the process on that side.
Do not over-reach beyond your hip. It will just cause more wandering off the stern from side to side. Try to keep the power stroke even on each side. When the yak’s forward motion stops, lift the paddle to the amidships position with both blades out of the water. If you want to go in reverse, just keep repeating the phases and your boat will accelerate to the rear. Be mindful of what is behind you when going in reverse.
The Sweep Stroke
This stroke is used to make a tighter turn than simply doing the Forward Stroke only on the opposite side you want to turn to. Depending on your forward speed, you can make a 180⁰ turn and reverse course in not much more than the length of the yak. Great for rapidly avoiding obstacles, for a sudden, fast change of heading, or urgent course corrections. The Sweep also has three phases:
Phase 1, the Catch Phase – Extend your arm forward on the opposite side of the yak that you wish to turn to while pivoting your body. This is one of the few times you will use your arms to work the paddles. Dip the blade in the water near your feet, as close to the hull as you can, keeping your lead arm outstretched completely and stiff.
Phase 2, the Turn Phase – Using you back mostly, and a little arm power, pull the blade rearward in an arc (sweep) towards the stern. Apply the most power after the blade passes amidships. Make the widest arc you can make with the paddle without leaning your body.
Phase 3, Release – Continue the sweep until you get as close to the stern hull as possible without hitting it. Smoothly lift the blade and repeat the phases on that same side until you are on the heading you desire. Return to the Forward Stroke when ready.
The Draw Stroke
This stroke is used to skid the yak sideways. The boat must not be underway. Useful for pulling your yak close to a dock or another boat, someone in the water, positioning the boat next to structure when fishing, etc…This stroke has 4 phases:
Phase 1, Set-up – rotate your blade on the side that you want to move to until it is parallel to the beam of the yak. Raise the paddle above your head (High Hold). Move your hands on the paddle shaft to a wide grip, as close to both blade bases as possible for your arm length, while keeping the paddle above your head.
Phase 2, Insertion – reach out with the paddle on the side you want to move to as far as you can. It’s OK to lean into it, but not to the point that you capsize. This will be different for each yak. Dip the blade into the water, as close to amidships as possible so the yak will skid evenly and not try to turn. It’s OK to go deeper with this stroke as all the power will be to the side anyway.
Phase 3, Power – Pulling with your low arm, and simultaneously pushing with your high arm, draw the blade towards the yak, as close to the hull as you can get without hitting it. Allow enough room to rotate the blade at the end of the stroke. This will skid the boat to that side without imparting any motion to the stern or bow.
Phase 4, Disengage – Rotate the blade 90⁰, perpendicular to the hull, and quickly pull straight up until it is clear of the water. If you messed up and hit the hull with the blade, the water pressure will pin it to the hull, and stop the sideways motion. It will be very difficult to lift. If this happens, never try to pry it up. It can capsize you, causing much embarrassment, and comments you will hear for quite some time to come. Just release your upper grip, relax and let the water pressure move the end of the blade under the hull, pivoting the upper blade out at an angle. Then you can slide the paddle up, and start over.
It may take several strokes to position the yak, so just keep repeating the phases until you are where you want to be.
Practice all of these strokes in calm, shallow water until you can do them automatically, and smoothly before engaging in any serious paddling trips.