How do you paddle stroke a kayak to advance as many meters as possible with as little energy as possible?
If you’re not quite sure about your paddling technique, here are some details on how to paddle stroke a kayak, both forward and backward.
Table of Contents
How do you paddle stroke a kayak? Paddling forward
The forward kayak stroke is subtle.
Kayak VS Canoe strokes
You don’t need the restorative moves that keep a canoe heading straight because you have a blade on each side.
Every canoe paddle stroke is a couple of feet out from the centerline of the canoe and so tends to slew the canoe away from the power of the paddle.
In a kayak, the twisting motion to one side is quickly countered by power on the other.
Kayakers aren’t worried about the recovery stage of a forward stroke.
Pulling the quality paddle blade through the power portion of a paddle stroke on one side of the kayak lifts and moves the blade on the other end of the paddle during its recovery stage.
When the power portion of the stroke on one side is complete, the blade at the other end of the paddle is poised to plunge into the water to start the power part of the stroke on that side.
On the surface, this means that a kayak is more straightforward to manage than a canoe, at least while going ahead in a straight line.
It also means that a kayak needs more subtle nudges and corrections than a canoe.
How to steer your kayak forward
What beginners need to know about kayaking? Definitely how to navigate a kayak forward in the most efficient way possible!
Start by sitting up in your kayak, possibly leaning forward just a bit.
Turn your upper body far from the side you want to start your first paddle stroke, and extend forward your arm (without bending) and shoulder on the paddle side.
The opposite hand (known as the offside) should be up around eye level; your arm on that side needs to be a little bent and possibly in a more forward position.
Stick your paddle blade in the water, nearly to the throat, and you can feel it grab. Unwind your upper body.
You’ll feel a pull through your lower arm on the paddle side, and you’ll be pushing on the top-hand (paddle blade out of the water) side.
The power part of your stroke starts as the shaft passes the front of you and ends as the shaft passes your thigh.
As you stop turning your upper body, lower your offside hand. Then, flex your onside arm to raise the blade from the water.
Extend your offside hand (the hand at the opposite side of your kayak from a paddle stroke) at about shoulder level.
As the paddle blade comes entirely forward, you’ll find yourself in the appropriate position to start a stroke on the opposite side.
2 terrific extra tips
You’ll have difficulty turning if you have tight hamstrings because you’ll slump down in your cockpit and therefore lose power.
So before getting in, touch your toes to loosen up.
Force your kayak forward with your feet. As you drive a stroke on the left side, press against your right foot brace.
As you go on the right, press ahead with your left foot.
Stalling the kayak with a back stroke
Kayaks don’t include brakes. Your alternatives are to run into something (a bad idea) or to learn how to paddle backward.
Paddling backward is the more manageable and less expensive of the two options.
Paddling backward is called a back-ferry: Paddling in reverse into a current.
Why you should learn this paddling technique
You’ll be doing this to cross a current without being taken downstream or maintain your position in a stream while checking your surroundings.
It’s a strategy you need in both river and flatwater paddling and is as vital for tidal flows, waves, or wind as it is in the flow of a river.
If paddling bow-first into the current strikes you as more effective, you’re right.
There are times when you do not have the time or the space to swing about, and you absolutely must look down-current.
So let’s face it: It’s easier to paddle backward than to try to sneak a peek over your shoulder.
Backing up is like moving forward, only the other way around.
How to stall your kayak
Turn your upper body to your onside so that you deal with that side for the very first paddle stroke.
Bend your onside arm a bit so that you can place the paddle blade in the water at your hip.
Your upper, offside arm must be bent at the elbow with that hand at about eye level.
The top of your paddle will be canted (leaning) slightly towards the bow.
When seen from the back, your hands will seem almost directly one above the other (although from the side, they will be closer to the bow).
Now loosen up, letting the rotation of your torso power the shaft with your bottom hand.
You’ll feel as if you’re pressing the paddle forward. You’re actually steering your kayak backward in order to slow it down.
Continue the rotation until your onside shoulder points toward the bow with the same arm fully extended.
You’re not going to rotate that far as to have a line drawn in between your shoulders be parallel to the centerline of your kayak, but press it around as far as you can.
At that complete extension, lower your offside hand and raise your onside hand.
This lifts one blade out of the water and puts the other in the catch position to start the next stroke.
You’ll be back in a straight line if you’re paddling precisely the same on both sides.
If you’re not, you’re going to turn, which is the way to check your paddling technique.
How do you paddle stroke a kayak? Final tip
Beware when stopping. You’re slowing a heavy boat (maybe even a heavy-duty 500 lb capacity kayak) with a great deal of inertia.
Place the paddle blade at right angles to the keel line and hold it vertical in the water to slow or stop.
Tip: Read our related article Kayak gear repair tips for beginners if you wish to prepare for less pleasant moments and inevitable moments of damage and defects.