Friday, April 2, 2010


The brace - low and high

The brace stroke is a recovery stroke. designed for unexpected moments of instability. A wave comes from behind you, at an angle. You are focusing on your forward stroke. It hits you from behind, without you seeing it, until you feel the push, like amassive hand. The boats stern pushes out, your head and torso start to go forward and to the left over the water. If you do nothing, the boat will roll, sending you face first into the water. The correction is very simple. A low brace. It will smack against the water, reversing the momentum - because everything we do is action and reaction - and at the same time set you up for your next forward stroke, because forward strokes are where you are most stable. Everything (almost) leads to the forward stroke.

You start in the neutral position, hands just more than shoulder width apart and relaxed, paddle parallel to your body. When it is time to initiate the low brace, roll your knuckles forward and draw the shaft of the paddle to your belly button. This will force your elbows out into right angles above the paddle shaft. then, assuming you want to brace on the left side, slide your hands, and the paddle to the left, so your right hand is in front of your belly button. Slap the non power face of the paddle onto the surface of the water, it will make a good slap noise. That will stop your forward momentum, but it wont correct the lean of your body that the wave may have created. To do that we need a hip snap.

At the same time that the blade slaps the water, arch your back to the left and push down with the left side of your bottom, and push with your left leg as well. When you are back, upright and stable, straighten your spine back to your neutral position, and commence a forward stroke. This is the low brace.

There is another version of the brace stroke, called the high brace. and it works exactly the same as the low brace with the exception being instead of rolling your knuckles over and pulling the paddle back to your stomach, roll your knuckles up, and pull your hands back towards your neck. Then when you slap the water it will be with the power face of the paddle. This is most effective bracing against a wave that is crashing into your boat. A wave that is high enough that there is water at shoulder height.

As important as the high brace is, it is most often used as a training tool. The high brace and hip snap, when understood, are the foundation for the eskimo roll. Probably the single most mystical, and awe inspiring move in all of kayaking. We will talk about 'the roll' much later. But we will talk about it.

Earlier in this post I presented a situation where a wave came unseen from behind, and forced us to use a low brace to prevent our kayak from rolling. I want to touch on an even more important subject than the low brace, and that is preventing a situation like that from happening. Awareness. When we are paddling our kayaks, and sitting practically at the water line, we don't have great visibilty, and more importantly we aren't particularly visible. For this reason I tend to choose bright colored boats and clothing. To counteract this inherent invisibility we must at all times be aware of our sorroundings. Fighter pilots call it situational awareness.

I had a martial arts instructor who would make us do the majority of a particular class with our eyes closed. He would then call out our name, and we would have to point to where we thought he was. It tought us to be aware of our sorroundings when we couldn't see them, with sight being our most trusted asset, it would force us to use our other senses to be aware of what was happening around us. I would encourage paddling with your eyes closed when the conditions are safe enough. this will do two things. First, it will tell you how even your forward stroke is. without your eyes to help you make minute corrections, you will almost invariable end up off course. this is good as it will illustrate how even your stroke is in terms of power and rotation. But secondly it will force you to listen to your environment. Listen to the sound of the water as your paddle is pulled out. Listen to the sound your kayak makes. Listen to the wind. Feel the wind on your face. Which direction is it coming from? Be attuned to your environment.

When you have your eyes open - which should really be most of the time - are you watching the weather? boat traffic? Your paddling partners? I like the concept of keeping 'your head on a swivel' to see all around you. Dangers don't just come from the front. Weather approaches from behind, as do large yachts that should, but rarely do, yield the right of way.

In addition, when setting your boat up to paddle, things should always be stowed in the same places. So when something does happen, instinct will drive you to them. For myself, a paddle float, and a bilge pump are on the deck in front of my cockpit, under deck bungies on the left side. Always. I set up this way despite the fact that I have a solid roll. I shouldn't need them, but if I do, I know where they are without having to think about it. In fact they are on the left side because that is where my mentor told me to put them. I am left handed and tend to roll in that direction. But if I miss my roll, and end up in the water, it puts the paddle float on the far side of the cockpit from where I will most likely end up. But I don't move them, because for ten years that is where they have been. I can reach slightly further for them when I need them, because that is better that reaching for them where they wont be. And on some unspoken level, I know they are on the left side.

Be consistant, in your paddling, and your gear.

bracing from Paddling Otaku on Vimeo.

In the video above you are seeing both high and low bracing followed by integrating the low brace into a forward stroke. What you don't see is a good right angle in my elbows, because I have done a few hundred thousand of these, and your strokes will start to morph into your own form. All the essentials are still there. knuckles are rolled under. paddle is slapping nicely. But notice my head position, it is always centered over the boat. This will become important when we talk about edging.


  1. Awareness... I like that a lot. Head should be on a swivel, like the WWI aces taught.

  2. Exactly - and I believe they still teach 'the swivel' concept to fighter pilots.