Kayaking for Beginners: On Skills, and the Obtaining Thereof

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A white kayak.

I ache all over.

Despite having at least two days rest between sessions, the repeated trips along the river, together with loading and unloading the boat onto the car's roof-rack is taking its toll on what little muscle capacity that I have. Every rest-day finds a new point in the body to jib and ache. At one point after the last session I was having to take a pain killer just to keep on the move, although I suppose these aches are really no more than I should expect from exercising muscles that have not received much use in the last few years.

To cap it all, towards the end of August I was clearing up after a bout of gardening and I pushed down with my hand on a bunch of clippings in a disposal bag to make a bit more room... Fool! One of the stalks was a bit firmer and sharper than it should have been and it pierced through my palm between the first and second fingers. After a 'lot' of cursing I got the offending twig withdrawn from my hand and then went on to bleed a lot. Unfortunately the point of entry is fore-square between the knuckles, and right on the point which takes most of the pressure when pulling the paddle through its stroke. So there is now an almost permanent ache between those fingers and each session I seem to have managed to open up the puncture again despite thick plasters and a glove on that hand.

Kayaking has its own skill set, which I don't yet possess. Up to now I've been concentrating on staying afloat in a rather 'tippy' boat and I've been happy to finish the course I've planned for that day if I haven't spilled out of the boat. But up to now that hasn't left much time to concentrate on improving technique and ironing out faults. To say the least, my progress along the water is a bit haphazard and I imagine it takes on the appearance of a demented dragonfly.

Today I encountered a house-boat coming in my direction and one of the passengers in the prow was moved to start up his camcorder to record our convergence and passing, a feat which luckily I can now carry out with aplomb. If he was hoping for a £250 moment he would have been disappointed, but nevertheless I shall no doubt now feature in his holiday movies for evermore.

On the plus side I've now gained a modicum of confidence that permits a certain amount of experimentation. As far as paddling technique is concerned, what is supposed to happen is that when the paddle enters the water it is to be used as a 'lever' against the water to move the boat forward. In other words, the paddle is not supposed to move backwards, as any backward movement of the paddle is just wasting the effort being put into it. It should stay in the same position and the boat moves forward around it. I have a couple of things to concentrate on simultaneously, getting body movement correct, and getting the paddle stroke tied in with it and even side to side.

Body movement

It must be an obvious fact that the arms alone cannot store sufficient energy to complete a 125 mile race. In fact, they're limited to only a couple of miles' duration, which is why it's important to bring the upper body, torso and legs into play during the power stroke, thereby minimising the action of the arms. This is effected by swivelling the hips and whole upper body to drive the paddle through the stroke. This is also abetted by bracing the leg on the side of the stroke and extending the leg to push the hips through the start of that rotation. Once the stroke is completed it's then repeated on the other side of the body, and ad infinitum thereafter. It's rather like doing the 'Twist' in a sitting position.


At the same time the correct use of the paddle is crucial to the stroke's efficiency. The body rotation not only brings most of torso's muscles into play but it increases the length of the stroke quite effectively. The arms should barely be used to drive the paddle at all, but are used mainly to position and guide it through the cycle. The paddle is supposed to enter the water as near to your outstretched feet as possible, with a 'spearing' downward action into the water. This is referred to as the 'Catch' and the whole blade of the paddle has to enter the water during this phase of the stroke. From there it is then drawn in as straight a line as possible down the side of the boat and it exits the water when it's level with your waist.

Clearly it doesn't take a lot of imagination that all this oscillation of the body doesn't do much for the feeling of security in the boat. In fact it's downright scary as when it goes wrong or out of sync, it introduces a wobble that'’s hard to control. Couple that with the fact that if you make the stroke too long the back of the paddle blade catches against the water's flow and tries to duck in to the underside of the boat while trying to pull itself out of your hands and throwing you into a magnificent wobble for good measure.

My action as such bears little relationship to the ideal. I have practically no torso rotation as up till now I've been much more concerned with keeping my body rigidly upright for fear of overbalancing. Also, I don't hold the paddle high enough which causes the Catch to be haphazard and it forces the power stroke to be more of a sweeping arc away from the side of the boat. This is another factor that plays havoc with the directional stability of the boat, as the further the blade is from the side of the boat, the more effect it has to turn the boat away from the straight and narrow.

So that's where I am at the moment. The last couple of sessions have been conducted with the intention of improving those elements. And it has paid off to some extent. I've come to the conclusion that my stroke rate is too high and there isn't enough time spent in each stroke to get it correct. Really I'm just hitting the water with the paddles and not getting the full benefit of each stroke. I deliberately slowed it up, concentrating on the elements of the stroke, the catch, the pull through and the exit. Surprisingly, by completing a longer, slower stroke it was carrying me just as far as previously. But, it didn't feel natural and I haven't yet got any real body rotation. It requires a lot more practice to have to become second nature.

Today's excursion saw my knees contacting the coaming of the boat's cockpit only occasionally, which also helped alleviate knee problems, in fact they were the only thing not to ache afterwards. I also described a fairly straight course in the couple of miles I completed, without any serious deviations. As of mid August I've visited the Wey on six occasions. Each time I've been able to extend the duration of the trip and the last couple of sessions have seen the distance covered to about two miles without stops. This probably doesn't seem like a lot, but it does feel like something concrete to be building on.

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