How to Paddle a Kayak

From a distance, paddling a kayak may seem simple. Although it cannot be considered difficult, every beginner has a lot to learn.

There is a specific way to position yourself and hold your kayak paddle. This helps you use the right paddling technique.

Besides, you need to know how to get into the craft when starting your trip and what to do if it capsizes.

These skills will save you from hurting yourself with the wrong technique. They could also save your life if it comes to it.

This guide will get you started on the basics; from holding a kayak to paddling strokes.

Before you begin, you should have all the essentials. To be sure, here is a basic list of what you should have.

Kayaking Essentials

How to Get into the Kayak

This is the first thing you need to learn. You don’t just hop on your kayak and set off.

a. From the Dock

While seated on the dock, place the paddle across the kayak—such that it will be in front of you when you sit. Lower your legs into the kayak. With your hands on the dock for support, turn your hips and sit in the kayak. Do this quickly but carefully. Let go of the dock and pick up your paddle. If the dock is very high, this process will be more difficult. It helps to have someone else hold the craft for you as you get in.

b. From the Shore

Slide the kayak into the water—the stern should still be out on the sand. Stand on the side of the craft facing the bow. Hold the kayak down with one hand while holding your paddle with the other. Put one foot in and sit down. Put the other foot in. Place the paddle in front of you, across the kayak. Put your hands on the ground (either side) and propel yourself forward.

If you have a composite kayak, dragging it across the sand may damage it. So, slide it into the water completely— about three inches depth is okay. Place your legs on either side of the kayak. Sit down first then put in your feet

The Right Posture

Knowing how to sit well will position you to paddle correctly.

Try to relax. Place your feet on the foot pedals. Your knees should be slightly bent. Adjust the pedals if they are not well placed. Keep your legs together and your knees spread. This way, you can easily twist your torso. Additionally, you will be able to have your knees against the kayak if need arises—for balance.

No matter how tempting it is, don’t lean back on the seat. Keep your back straight. Avoid slouching too. You should be able to breathe freely and not strain.

Holding the Paddle

How you hold your paddle depends on its design because kayak paddles are different. But there is a simple way to learn if you have a normal paddle.

Place your paddle in front of you across the kayak. Hold it with both hands. Lift it up so its midpoint is directly above the top of your head and the edges are aligned with your knuckles. Point your knuckles upwards. Adjust your hands to make sure that the distance from the blades is the same on the two sides. The recommended distance between your two hands is roughly 16 inches. Bend your elbows at a 90-degree angle. This allows you to use energy efficiently while maintaining control.

In some cases, the paddle is feathered. The blades on a feathered paddle are on different planes or at an angle. The paddle can be feathered for either left- or right-handed people. The left-handed one is difficult to get and you may have to adapt to a right-handed one.

In a feathered paddle situation, the right hand should have a fixed grip on the shaft. When making a stroke, the wrist should move with the paddle. Be careful not to hold on too tight. The left hand should have a lose grip on the shaft. Because the right hand is in control, it should be able to twist the shaft when paddling.

Note: For asymmetrical blades, the shorter side should be facing down when you hold the paddle over your head. For concave blades, the smooth/concave side should be facing you.

Making a Paddle Stroke

Without changing the 90-degree angle of your elbows, bring the paddle in front of you. The shaft, your arms and chest will form a box—known as the “paddler’s box”. Throughout your paddling, try to maintain this box. Another thing, use your thumb and index finger to grip the shaft. Place the other fingers loosely.

Take a look at the different kayak paddling strokes. It is important to understand that most of the power should come from your legs and torso; not arms.

a. The Forward Stroke

This is the simplest and most basic stroke. Immerse the blade into the water near your foot. Pull the shaft back with your lower hand and twist your torso to follow. Press your foot against the foot pedal. At the same time, push the shaft forward with the upper hand. When the blade is at your hips, slice it out of the water and get started on the other side.

If you want your kayak to follow a straighter line, paddle close to the kayak. This may not be easy for a beginner but you will learn. Focus on your destination if you are having a hard time staying upright. As you paddle, don’t forget the paddler’s box.

b. The Reverse/Backward Stroke

Kayaks can travel backwards too. You may get stuck somewhere with no way to turn around. Sometimes it is also good to try a different stroke and work the less used muscles.

The secret here is doing the opposite of what you do with the forward stroke. Rotate your torso and immerse the blade in water, near your hip. Push the blade towards your foot and slice it out of the water. Do the same on the other side. All this while, ensure that the torso is moving respectively to avoid fatigue in your arms and shoulders.

If you cannot seem to be paddling straight, try shorter strokes as you learn. Also, be sure not to lean on the seat because you will hurt your back.

c. The Sweep Stroke

Some people prefer to do the forward stroke on one side repeatedly for the kayak to turn. However, there is a specific stroke for that and it is more efficient.

To turn to the right, immerse the blade into the water near your feet on the left side. From there, sweep to form a wide arc or draw a big “C” moving the blade to the stern of your kayak. Lift the blade from the water as with the other strokes.

The lower arm (in this case the left), should be as straight as possible. For a sharp turn, make a bigger arc.

To perform a sweep stroke while going on reverse, do the complete opposite. Start from the back and sweep towards the front. Sweep on the side you want to go to.

d. The Draw Stroke

This stroke is used to travel sideways.

Rotate your torso and face wherever you want to go. Hold your paddle vertically on that side of the kayak. Immerse the lower blade into the water about a foot away from the craft. Pull in the blade towards you and stop a few inches from the boat. Slice it out of the water.

When the blade hits your kayak, it may flip. If by any chance this happens, relax and release the shaft with the top hand and then retry the stroke.

Paddling a Tandem Kayak

A tandem kayak has two paddlers. Usually, one is more experienced than the other. It is a great way of introducing someone to kayaking.

Paddling a tandem kayak is much like paddling a “normal” kayak. But since there are two people paddling, there are general tips to adhere to.

Paddle uniformly: the kayak seats are close together. It is very easy, for the paddlers to hit each other’s paddles. To avoid confusion and chaos, paddle in unison.

Let the paddler at the front set the pace: paddling in uniform is a requirement. But the paddler at the front cannot see what the one at the back is doing. They should set the pace and the rear kayaker will follow because they are able to see everything.

Have the stronger paddler at the back: the back seat is where the real influence is. When the kayak is not going in the right direction, the stronger paddler at the back can paddle as required to get it right. They can then go back to paddling in unison.

What If You Capsize?

You cannot ignore this possibility. It is likely to happen at one point or another in the life of a kayaker.

First of all:

  • Always wear a life jacket.
  • Learn how to swim properly—with your equipment.
  • Dress for immersion.

When the kayak capsizes, relax and hold on to it and the paddle. Flip the craft if it upside down. Swim with your equipment to the shore.

Learning how to paddle a kayak is fun. Get the right kayak and paddle then head out. Make sure you are appropriately dressed and have a PFD. Take your time and master the proper way of holding a paddle. Try out the different strokes outlined above. You are lucky if you have a tandem kayak because you will have someone else to help you. Be gentle with yourself and learn from your mistakes. Lastly, don’t panic if you capsize. Follow the simple instructions and get to the shore. The most important thing is to have fun and live it up.