Friday, May 28, 2010

High angle forward stroke

I am a low angle paddler. I am a low angle paddler because I paddle long distances. I am a touring kayaker. A low angle style works well for me because it is a slower, easier cadence that is easy on the body, and can be sustained for a long period of time. How long? Paddling in Alaska's Prince William Sound, on four separate occasions I have paddled 27.5 miles. The first time was a challenge, the last time was a zen experience - as an aside, the last time I did it was in a kayak that had a seat back supported by nylon webbing that tore on the first paddle stroke of the day. So I did 27.5 miles without a seat back - Another instructor on the trip asked me how I felt, and I told her I was ready, in fact wanted, to keep going. I wanted to break my personal record of 27.5 miles. I know other instructors from the same school who have done days that were much longer in terms of mileage. This is the beauty of low angle paddling.

But there is another paddling style, high angle style, which can be explosive in power, faster, but is a bit more jarring to the body. The video I linked to of the Olympic paddlers illustrated a high angle style. The paddlers are still rotating, but the paddle blade moves down the side of the boat, with the paddle shaft almost vertical.

To paddle high angle, plant the paddle blade as far forward as you can, close to the side of your kayak, near your feet. Draw the blade back along the side of your kayak, rotating your body as you do. Withdraw the paddle blade at your hip, while simultaneously planting the opposite blade as far forward as you can. Notice in the video, I still have my hands relaxed, and my posture upright and straight. The torso is still rotating. Only the angle of the paddle shaft has changed.

The negatives of the style are that I find it a bit more tiring. Also, it brings your elbow higher than your shoulder, which puts them in danger of injury. We always want our elbows below our shoulders. It requires a shorter paddling shaft, in the video you can see that my 220 cm paddle is a bit too long, but as I only paddle High Angle on occasion, it is acceptable. I mentioned in a previous post that high angle is the martial arts equivalent of the hard, external styles like Karate or Kung Fu, while low angle is the more internal, softer Tai Chi or Chi Gung style. I tend to lean toward the softer style. But when the situation demands it, I can slide into the harder style.

Which brings up a valuable point. When do I switch. I switch, like when I decide to feather my paddle, when the situation dictates it. Because the positives of a high angle style are simple, and singular.

Explosive power.

In the video you will see me paddle high angle, then briefly paddle low angle, then back to high angle, then back to low angle.

High Angle from Paddling Otaku on Vimeo.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

The low and high brace turn

This is a turn that I don't use that often, but it is actually a lot of fun. The low brace, and high brace turns are suitable for cutting into an eddy, or quickly stopping at someone in position to render aid as in an assisted rescue.

The biggest problem with this stroke is that it bleeds off a lot of energy, so they are really only appropriate for situations where you are carrying a lot of speed - but if your intention is to stop bleeding energy isn't a problem.

Starting with the low brace turn, roll your knuckles under, placing the non-power face of the paddle on the water. Edge into the paddle, pushing the paddle shaft away from you slightly, this is where the energy bleed comes from, as it is working against your momentum. At the same time bend forward at the waist. This bend forward at the waist, almost like doing a stomach crunch, will draw the nose of the boat around very quickly. You can also adjust the amount of resistance - and therefore effectiveness - by twisting the paddle shaft. When you twist the paddle shaft you either flatten the blade to the direction of travel, or angle the blade. The greater the angle the more effect it will have. I tend to start this stroke with the paddle blade behind the cockpit, about 45 degrees from the stern, Then when I am done with the stomach bend, the blade has moved forward parallel to the cockpit. Be ready to transform this turning stroke back into the bracing stroke it stems from, because as you run out of energy, the paddle will start to drop and so will you. This is one of those paddle strokes that can quickly lead to you being upside down in your kayak wondering what happened.

The high brace turn is exactly the same except it starts from a high brace, with the wrists rolled back and the power face down.

While not a particularly difficult stroke it does take some practice as it can, as I mentioned cause an unexpected roll. Braces are one of the more basic strokes, but they lead us to more advanced strokes. The high brace and the sculling brace both lead us into the roll. So it is important that they be practiced.

We have discussed a large variety of strokes, I think the bracing turns are one of the less frequently used - at least by me - but there are really five paddle strokes that are the basis for all that we do. The forward, the sweep, the low brace, the high brace, and the draw. Master these and you are setting yourself up for success.

In the video you will see me do a high brace turn, followed by three low brace turns. Again, please be careful as these strokes can surprise you.

brace turns from Paddling Otaku on Vimeo.

Monday, May 24, 2010


In martial arts we practice Kata. This is a memorized set of movements that simulate a fight against multiple attackers. It teaches us movement while staying on balance, it teaches us the linking of different movements - kicks and blocks and punches - also while in balance. It imposes a fluidity, if the Kata is performed well.

Tai Chi is very similar to this, a long series of movements performed exceptionally slow. These movements stress balance, and fluidity, and after much practice becomes a very viable and dangerous form of self defense. (In addition Tai Chi unblocks chi - or life energy - promote health and well being) If you can do the movements slowly, and in balance they will be more fluid, and then when you do them quickly they will be balanced and controlled -The reverse isn't true, you can cheat balance with speed, many Karate practitioners do and while this may have short term rewards, long term there is no replacement for good balance.

In the process of learning both Tai Chi, and Gensei Ryu Karate I have done my share of Kata, and the Tai Chi form. Kata is repeated constantly, and when I test at my dojo, one of the things I am judged on is my ability to do Kata.

Tai Chi is an internal art, meaning it helps build and utilize internal energy, whereas Karate is an external art. The power of the art is used as self defense. Tai Chi is sometimes reffered to as a soft art, whereas Karate or Jeet Kune Do, or Kung Fu is referred to as a hard art.

I find that my experience in both Tai Chi and Karate help me in terms of paddling a sea kayak which draws on both the hard and soft. Nothing exemplifies the combination of hard and soft like the forward stroke. Which can be performed with almost no muscular effort and still offer a tremendous amount of speed. Or can be muscled, to create explosive power. I tend to think of a high angle paddling style as 'hard' style and low angle paddling style as 'soft' style.

The reason we do Kata repeatedly is for two important reasons. First it teaches us muscle memory. We learn to perform the movements without thinking. They become natural. If we aren't thinking about our movements we are free to think about what is happening around us. Second, it teaches us to link individual movements into fluid chains of movements. One thing leads to another. In my dojo we say 'everything leads to something else' but on the water I say everything leads to the forward stroke, because the forward stroke is where we are most stable.

And this is why this is important. We have to learn to make our movements fluid and linked. It doesn't take long for the forward stroke to become fluid -however fluid and correct is another matter - but it takes a great deal of work to get the forward stroke, to the sweep, to the brace, to the forward stroke, to link fluidly from one to the other.

The only way to accomplish this is through massive repetition. And while we don't have a Kata for kayaking, it is easy enough to make your own. I have simple routines that I practice over and over so they become muscle memory. The simplest for me is the combination of forward stroke, to sweep, to cross bow rudder. The forward stroke gives momentum, the sweep starts a turning process, the cross bow rudder continues the turn.

The reason that we want that muscle memory and freedom to think when fighting is so that we can be aware of our surroundings and react to the movements of our opponents with no wasted movements. If I think about how to attack, the opportunity to attack is lost.

This translates directly into a sea kayak. I have to be able to react to the wind and water around me without thinking, So I am free to observe the changing conditions, and react accordingly. Fluidly. And smoothly.

The Zen archer may practice drawing the bow ten thousand times before he even places an arrow into his hand. drawing the bow must be fluid, and natural, and without thought.

Friday, May 21, 2010


Several weeks ago I went to the East Coast Kayak Festival, and I took the time to watch a class taught by Ben Lowry. His class was a dryland rolling class, and I had observed it two years before and it gave me some insight into the roll I hadn't had before. Ben is a virtuoso - a highly skilled kayaker in many different venues. Surf ski, whitewater, and sea kayaks. But most importantly I think he is a wonderful teacher. I wanted to see the class again, primarily because I wanted to see him teach it. He talked about the phrase 'onside' roll, and 'offside' roll. He asked if people had onside rolls and offside rolls, and everyone said they did. He said that was wrong. That if you think about things as being onside or offside, they will be onside and offside. By giving them names that imply that one side will be more difficult than the other, guess what, it will be more difficult than the other. He says we should call them 'A' and '1', or something like that. I like Fred and Wilma. So now I have a Fred roll, and a Wilma roll, I like them both. I sat in the class that day wondering if Ben knew how zen that kind of thinking was.

Earlier this week I took the time to go to the US National Whitewater Center with a friend who is an avid whitewater paddler. I had never paddled a whitewater kayak and found the experience frustrating, infuriating, and finally eye opening. I found that most of the things I do instinctively in a sea kayak will instantly flip you over in a whitewater kayak. In five hours I spent more time unintentionally upside down in a kayak than in the past five years. I also learned that my bomber roll in a sea kayak, while fundamentally the same roll, is in such a different environment, that it made me think. It made me think things like if I don't hit this roll I will end up in the next set of rapids -upside down. When you think that way guess what happens to your roll? It doesn't work. With some work, and incredible patience by my friend - my roll started firing the way it should. But I definitely discovered that my offside - or Wilma - is much weaker. I will be working on that.

I had a similar experience in my dojo. I was asked to perform a spinning hook kick. I hate spinning kicks. particularly spinning to my right side. My Sensei - not to be confused with the paddling instructor I call Sifu, as they are two different people - made me do them to the right over and over again. Then he had me do one to my left, and he said 'you definitely have a stronger side with that kick' And he was right. It was also my creation. I was better at the left side kick, because it felt more natural, so I did it more, so it felt even more natural. While my right side stagnated.

Labels are just that, labels, nothing more. My attacker wont care that I can't do a spinning hook kick to the right, in fact, he may like it, and attack to that weakness. The waves wont care that it may be harder to roll on my right side, so from now on I will only roll on my Wilma side - or Fred if necessary.

The wind doesn't care that you may not be able to edge all day long on your right to keep heading where you want. This is the dance we do with the wind. Sometimes we lead, and sometimes the wind does. We have to be prepared to follow her lead. We get that ability with practice, and patience.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The Tenzing Norgay effect

Everyone wants to be Tenzing Norgay. This is why I like sea kayaking. Confused? Good. Tenzing Norgay, was one of the first two people to reach the summit of Mt. Everest. He got there with Sir Edmond Hillary. Everyone wants to be that guy. You can't put on a backpack and not think 'hey, I wonder...' You know every male that has ever driven a car is pretty sure they could win the Indy 500. Everyone who has gone climbing at the indoor gym has dreamed of El Capitain. People like the image of the explorer. The person who does something no one has done before. I call this the Tenzing Norgay effect. The problem with the TNE as I will call it, is the risk involved. To go from the rock gym to El Cap is a pretty big undertaking. To go from Backpacking in the Sierras to climbing Everest is an even bigger undertaking - I think, having never climbed Everest. And that is why I like Sea kayaking. The TNE is very easy. You can get into a kayak and think, I could carry all my camping gear in this pretty easily. From Camping to long distance touring isn't that big of a difference. The next thing you know you are planning to paddle the Inside Passage from Skagway to Ketchikan.

That isn't to say it's easy to make those jumps, there are definite skills required, and somethings will only be learned from experience, But it is easier than climbing mountains, and for the most part significantly safer.

That is the beauty of Sea kayaking. It isn't a great leap. It is very easy to go to a store and buy a kayak, paddle and pfd, and go paddling. I mentioned this in my first post. It is also the problem. People think that because they don't perceive the need to get instruction, they don't ever do it. That is sea kayakings biggest hurdle. The number of people that tell me that 'they know how to kayak' because they have paddled once or twice, I can't count. It is sort of like saying I can cook eggs, so I know how to make a souffle. And while you can follow a recipe to make a souffle, isn't it better to get someone to teach you? To learn the tricks from a master?

Recently I had a conversation with my wife, and she told me that she spoke to someone who had seen this blog, and was at first very excited - as she had always wanted to try kayaking. But as she read she got very intimidated. This made me very sad, as it is the exact opposite of what I hope to accomplish. Kayaking is an easy sport to start, with a learning curve that isn't very steep. You can learn as much or as little as you want, but the important thing is that you get into a kayak. Once you get into a kayak, and experience the world from that perspective, fairly quickly you too will experience the Tenzing Norgay Effect.

On a side note, I planned a trip to do the inside passage as stated above in 2001, immediately after 9/11, at the time I lived in Lower Manhattan. I am still trying to make that trip happen, with my biggest problem being finding someone to paddle it with.

The wind going round and round.


It seems the kayaking blogging world is having some trouble with wind lately. It is keeping some ashore, and some are venturing out, to explore, and play with the unseen partner we paddle with, but rarely think about. The only exception being if there is too much of it when we want to be on the water. Today I joined the club - though it had kept my trip from happening two weeks ago- as I got to my little lake where I paddle when I am alone, it was blowing at a good 20 to 25 knots. I knew this because the Beaufort scale states that 'Larger tree branches are moving, Umbrellas are problematic' which I was observing. I also had consistent whitecaps, but the waves were pretty small, and that's because I was in a narrow V shaped lake, which didn't give the wind much 'fetch' to effect the water. (Fetch is defined as The distance over which the wind can blow unobstructed by land before reaching the observer.) The longer the fetch, the bigger the wind, as well as the bigger the effects of those winds on the water. I decided to again play with the wind to study how my boat reacts, I cut across the wind, so it came to my left (or port) side, at about a 45º angle. Sure enough my kayak acted as I expected. It wanted to turn into the wind, or weathercock to the left. I corrected this first by putting a bit of edge into my boat, I leaned to the left, which 'unlocked the bow' and induced a slight turn keeping me on course. But I wanted to experiment with other ways to do this. My next method was to add a bit of a sweep on the end of my forward stroke on my left side. This worked as well, and as I expected. The next method I tried was to slide the paddle shaft in my hands just slightly to the left, and continue with a forward stroke. I moved the paddle about 3 inches off center, this provided stronger force on the left side than the right, which added just a bit of turn. This method is simple and effective. It doesn't require any particular skill or balance. Yet I rarely see people employ it. If you paddle all day in a wind pushing your kayak in a particular direction it is highly effective.

I turned my kayak 90º to the left, thereby putting the wind on my right side at a 45º angle, and tried all three of these fixes for a wind creating a weathercock. I was pleased to see that all of them worked as expected, and I was comfortable doing all three on both sides.

It's important to understand that the weathercock was happening, because the bow of my kayak was locked into the water with it's deep V shape. The stern doesn't lock in quite as much, and so the wind is able to push the stern, when the stern is pushed, it swings the nose into the wind.

I rounded a small island, paddling through the lee of the island where the land blocked the wind, I circled to the windy side, and noticed that leaves had collected in a small recirculating section of water near the other end of the island. I knew I could stop there with no fear of being blown out of the spot. When leaves, or kelp, or foam collect in an area, this is a spot that is protected from wind and current. A good spot to rest or observe. I chose to observe. I pulled into the spot, and with one quick reverse stroke, stopped my forward momentum. I sat and watched the water, and the way the wind was effecting it. I realized I was just a few feet from a very noticeable wind line. I knew that if I was just a few feet to the right I would feel the effects of the wind. So I did a sculling draw, and when I hit the wind line I felt the immediate push of the wind, now behind me. I quickly unfeathered my paddle, and continued on, This time with the following sea. I noticed, this time to my surprise that the wind and water behind me made my kayak want to Lee cock. Lee cocking is the reverse of weather cocking. Instead of my kayak turning into the wind, it wanted to push the rear out to the side, forcing the kayak flat to the wind. Because, again, the stern isn't as locked to the water as the bow. The simple fix for this is to lower my rudder - or a skeg if you have one. I chose not to do this, for two reasons, first, I wanted the experience of paddling in the following sea without it. I wanted to be forced to make the corrections with my paddle and body. This practice will make me a stronger paddler. The second, I had failed to remove the little bungee that locks the rudder in place, making it almost impossible to lower the rudder. I could have reached back, and unlocked it with the tip of my paddle were I in dire straights, but as I said I chose to paddle with it up anyway. Add this to the list of reasons why people prefer a skeg over a rudder! I continued back to my put in, this time aided by the wind, it was a very short trip. I toyed with doing a couple of rolls, but decided against it for various reasons. perhaps next time.

In the video, watch the tops of the trees in the back of parking lot. the constant moving grass, and the branches near the car. Then You will see me shifting the paddle first left, then right. to maintain a course.

NOTE: I just noticed that I never attached the video for this post, so I am updating it here. I was thinking that it was interesting the posts that get the most comments, and the most video views are edging and wind related. I think I am recognizing a trend. Do you - Yes, I am talking to YOU! - think this is an area of general confusion, or concern? What are your thoughts?

wind 2 from Paddling Otaku on Vimeo.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Sculling brace

One of my favorite strokes is the sculling brace. Similar to the low brace which we discussed very early on, the sculling brace can be used as a traditional static brace, or it can be employed in what I like to call 'station keeping' and by that I mean, when I am sitting in one place, and have to stay in one place I will scull. I generally perform it with an edge, though you don't have to, and it is really quite simple.

With the paddle turned power face down, slide the paddle back and forth in an arc like you were spreading peanut butter. You need to angle the blade so that it is angled up against the flow of water. If it is angled down, it - and you - will submerge. So at the end of each arc the blade switches position. You can do this with as little or as much edge as you like. It will hold your boat in position when subjected to wind. It is also a good way to get comfortable with how high you can edge your boat. Make sure you keep it moving, as the moment you stop, if on edge, you will drop.

Greenland paddlers - which I am not - will use this with their torso in the water, using the brace to hold their head right at water level. You can use it as a pause in your roll, or to hold yourself in a good position waiting to roll.

I control the majority of the movement with my hand closest to the boat, as it feels most comfortable to me, though a fair amount of the literature on the subject states to use the hand closest to the water. That just doesn't feel natural to me. Proof that there is room for interpretation in everything we do.

In the video I do a sculling brace, then a sculling brace transitioning into a sculling draw and back, then a sculling brace while I talk to another paddler - the station keeping method. Play with this, practice this, it will give you a good feel for the stability of your boat, as well as the stability of your edge.

skulling brace from Paddling Otaku on Vimeo.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

To Feather or not to feather.

Another item on the great kayak debate list is the feathered paddle. Feathered paddles come from whitewater, and I wish I could tell you the exact history, but I am unable to locate something that sounds authentic. I remember once an associate explaining to students that it was to help whitewater paddlers transition from side to side faster, but I may be remembering that incorrectly, and if I am remembering it correctly, it may simply be wrong. The important thing is that it is not a traditional - historically speaking - part of sea kayaking. If anything it probably emerged in the late 1970's.

Greenland paddles are flat, and I think that is a good place to start for most paddlers for a few reasons. First it gives new paddlers one less thing to think about. It's easy. It makes learning the basic strokes like the draw and the brace and the forward stroke easier, as the paddle blades are behaving the same way.

I paddle with my blades flat with one exception. When I paddle into the wind, I will switch to a 60º feather, controlled by my right hand. It allows the blade in the air to slice through the wind, instead of being pushed by the wind. The headwind scenario is the only time I paddle feathered. The argument against doing this is that it makes you susceptible to a cross wind.

Though this is the reason I paddle feathered, there is also a reason I don't paddle feathered. If you paddle for four hours you will do about fourteen thousand paddle strokes. that means on just a four hour paddle you are doing fourteen thousand twists of your wrist, to control that feathered blade. I choose not to do this. That's not to say that there isn't wrist movement if you paddle a flat paddle, but it is significantly less than paddling feathered.

Surf paddlers don't like flat blades because the risk of the paddle being pushed into the paddler is too great, when breaking through the wave, though I was taught go head down with the paddle on the side of the boat when breaking through waves - essentially in the set up position for a roll.

I think the important thing in this situation, as well as the rudder or skeg situation is to do what feels right for you.

Follow your instinct. If your vision of a great paddler is paddling feathered then by all means pursue it. Just like the ruddered versus skeg question, a lot of this is personal choice

In Buddhism we describe intuition as 'insight that transcends explainable cognition' which translates to - trusting your gut. It is as simple as that. In Feng Shui we give all sorts of examples of how if something 'feels' right, it probably is for all sorts of reasons. Intuition is very important, be it choosing which set of waves will bring you safely to shore and which will thrash you about, or whether to listen to your gut about which paddle, or paddling style is right for you. You must learn to trust your instincts. At the same time, be flexible. If you have always paddled ruddered, maybe when you are seeking a new boat, or a bump in skill level it's time to try a skegged kayak.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Forward with rotation

The single most important aspect of our forward stroke is torso rotation. When we rotate our body it is engaging core muscles which are much larger and stronger than our arm muscles. This rotation also allows us to incorporate our legs which are braced in the kayak attaining even more power. If we fail to rotate our torso we instinctively engage our arms, pulling the paddle through the water. I have often thought about ways to illustrate this, and make it easier for new paddlers to understand what I am trying to explain. Here are some visuals to help you understand.

First, imagine sitting in your cockpit, with the face of a clock around your waist. Your spine is the center of the face where the hands of the clock are joined. 12 o'clock is the very center of the front of your cockpit. Now imagine a pencil stuck in your belly button. With each paddle stroke the point of that pencil should move from 10 o'clock on the left, through midnight to 2 o'clock on the right, and then back again to 10 o'clock.

10 to 2 and back to 10 on each pair of strokes.

Another useful visual is your hands. With the top hand, the one pushing on each stroke, try reaching to 10 and two on each stroke. If you keep your hands closed around the paddle, imagine punching to your left and right. I try and keep my hands open - thus relaxed - and so I think about reaching for 10 and 2 on each stroke.

Another visual cue is this. Your top hand should move across your face - I like chin height - this will emphasize the rotation and help you have good posture. With your hands low we will tend to slouch, and this will decrease the amount of power we transfer from our core to the water.

When I get tired, my hands tend to drop, which in turn lowers the amount of power coming from my core and legs. Which in turn increases the amount of work I am doing with my arms, which will then make me more tired.

On my first trip to Alaska as a student, We had a particularly long day, that involved paddling to a massive waterfall. We had trouble finding a campsite that was big enough for the size of our group without having a negative impact on the surroundings. We searched many potential locations and many hours later (14 I think) We finally found a site, and as everyone was setting up camp my Sifu came around and said to each of us 'if your arms are tired, your paddling wrong'. This stuck with me, and whenever I feel tired, I analyze what I am doing. Is my posture correct? Am I rotating? Are my hands relaxed?

There is another check I still use on occasion that I call the Frankenstein. The next time you are paddling, lock your arms straight. And then paddle. With your elbows locked straight the only way to propel a kayak forward is by rotating your body. While this may look silly, it emphasizes what the body rotation feels like. When you can feel your body rotating, go back to your normal stroke, are you still rotating? On long days I will throw in a couple of 'Frankenstein' strokes just to check.

Speed doesn't come from big powerful arms, it comes from good rotation and using your legs. Watch the video linked to below, and you will see these Olympic paddlers rotating furiously, and in some of the shots you can even see their legs pushing up onto the skirt attached to their very narrow boats. Around the 40 second mark is a great example of rotation in slow motion.

Friday, May 7, 2010

To Rudder or Skeg

There is great debate in the paddling world about whether you should have a rudder or skeg on your boat. I recently read a post by a blogger that I respect greatly, that said if you want to learn to paddle well, and learn advanced paddle strokes, you should use a skegged boat. I strongly disagree with this, and will explain why. But first here are the differences between the two.

First, a skeg. A skeg is a fin, housed in the rear of the kayak, that when deployed with a lever near the cockpit, drops down into the water. The skeg only goes up and down. It does not turn. Its purpose is to help the kayak go straight, or track, when the kayak is subjected to wind.

A rudder, housed on the top of the stern of the boat, is deployed by a cable near the cockpit, which lowers it into the water. Once it is in the water it can be turned left or right using pedals inside the cockpit. Its purpose is to help the kayak go straight, or track, when the kayak is subjected to wind.

Did you notice that the last sentence in each of those descriptions was the same? It wasn't an accident. Many people believe that a rudder is used to turn a kayak. This is reinforced by the fact that rudders start appearing on kayaks as they hit the 14 or 15 foot length, a length that is also where kayaks start to have difficulty turning. And while a rudder may be used to turn, particularly for newer paddlers, its real goal is to help us go straight.

When a kayak is paddled it may weathercock slightly, that is turn into the wind. That is all well and good if you want to go into the wind, but what if you don't? What if you want to paddle in a direction that puts the wind at an angle to your path of intended motion? You deploy a rudder or skeg to keep the boat tracking the direction you want it to go. The advantage of the rudder is it allows you to not only make the boat go straight, but also in high winds, where just the straight skeg might not be enough, you can add a little more. The skeg can also be adjusted, don't think of it as just up and down, think of it in degrees of down, the more it is lowered down, the more it can counter a strong wind. But if it's all the way down, and your boat is still being turned by the wind, there is nothing more you can do but correct with paddle strokes. Whereas with a rudder, you can add a little or a lot more.

The skeg has fewer moving parts, but does take up space in the rear compartment.

The rudder has more moving parts, but is stored on top of your stern where it doesn't interfere with loading your kayak.

Perhaps they are yin and yang, the rudder and skeg?

Another complaint about the rudder is that you can't get a good push off the rudder pedals, the way you can off of the fixed foot pegs in a skegged kayak. While it may take a bit of practice - like anything in a kayak - you can certainly push off the rudder pedals when you do a forward stroke, or any paddling technique for that matter.

There is a bit of a 'purist' thing going on with the skeg. I don't understand why. Nothing prevents you from learning advanced paddle strokes in a ruddered boat, unless you never put your rudder away. And that is the key. A rudder is a tool like anything else. If you rely on it, you will rely on it, and not your skill with a paddle. So put your rudder away when you don't need it. I have one, and it spends the vast majority of its time stowed on top of my kayak. Honestly I think the choice will be made for you, as very few boats are available with both rudder and skegged versions. Normally a boat will come with one or the other. But I wouldn't rule out a boat because it has one or the other. Make your choice by the way the boat paddles, and how well it fits you. The important thing is to get in a kayak in the first place.

Next week I will conquer the equally contentious topic of 'feathered paddles vs non-feathered paddles. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010


The gear was packed and in duffle bags, waiting to be picked up for the 4 plus hour drive to the coast early the next morning. I emailed off my final gear list in case the guys - we had since picked up a third - had any final question as this was their first overnight in a kayak. I downloaded the tide chart for where we were going, and the last thing I did was pull up the weather from a couple of different online sources.

That was when the bottom fell out. All three days of the trip the weatherman called for 15 to 20 mph winds gusting to 25 out of the SW. These would not be conditions conducive to a first overnight paddle trip.

I sent off a pair of emails, and waited for the conversation to start. Having paddled the location before I knew that we had two open water crossings of around 2 miles each. This is where the wind would be problematic.

I knew I was comfortable for the short amount of time the crossing called for, but I didn't want to put people in conditions they were uncomfortable with. So I put the ball in their court. I gave them several options.
A) we drive down, and look at the water. If they aren't comfortable we find a campsite, and make our move early the following morning when there will be less wind (In theory)
B) We drive down, and look at the water, if they aren't comfortable we continue our drive to another location that is more protected, but that I haven't paddled. And it was sure to have more visitors.
C) we cancel.

I told them I was comfortable with whatever they decided. That Their comfort was my utmost concern. In the end they chose to cancel. As they didn't want to drive 8 hours for no reason. I think they went Mountain Biking instead. I went paddling with a friend, on a local lake I had never paddled, and had a wonderful time.

These decisions are very difficult in a 'go for it' kind of world. I was never a 'go for it' kind of guy. When I was 19 and rock climbing two weeks out of the month, I rarely took stupid risks. Not because of some amazing self awareness, but because I was a chicken.

The samurai trained themselves to not fear death. This allowed them to attack with no fear of the repercussions, dying. They had no hesitation, and therefore were less likely to suffer the repercussions of battle. While I extol the virtues of the Martial artist and the Zen/Buddhist philosophy, this is not an area I agree with (the Samurai were actually Shinto, but I digress). My goal is to get every one who journeys onto the water with me home safely. And if that means that we never get on the water so be it. I applaud these two gentleman for making the right decision, the tough decision. The decision that I came to as soon as I saw the weather report. I thought about how best to handle the situation if they chose to hit the water in 25 mph winds with white caps, and what I decided was if they wanted to 'go for it' I would put them in boats and we would play in the wind to see their reaction to the power. Some place close to our put in. If they were still comfortable, I would have done the crossing.

Monday, May 3, 2010

bow rudder strokes

The Cross bow rudder

This is a powerful turning stroke that I truly love. It puts the power of the turn in front of you instead of behind you, as most turning strokes do. While I don't use it on open water very often it is very nice in small channels or rivers. Particularly useful for a quick cut behind a rock.

From the end of your forward stroke as you pull the left paddle blade out of the water, instead of planting the right blade in the water - as you would for your next forward stroke - rotate your body further and plant the right blade by your left foot. Your left hand should come up by your ear. You should also brace with your left foot. This can generate a great deal of power if your moving quickly enough, and so the brace with your foot is important or the paddle will get pulled further out, away from your left foot, twisting you more. It is called the Cross Bow rudder because your entire body is crossing over the boat. Your shoulders should really end up Parallel to the boat when you are performing this stroke. You will need to experiment with how vertical the paddle shaft is. More is better, but the blade still needs to be at a workable angle - If the shaft gets too vertical it has the potential to become a hanging draw stroke which is a different lesson - then you can control how powerful it is by twisting the blade. You can really fine tune how much control you have by how much angle you put into the blade. Softening, or sharpening the turn without moving the paddle shaft, just by twisting the blade in the water. When you are finished with the turn it is also very natural to lift the blade out of the water, unwind your torso, replant the blade at your right foot, and continue with a forward stroke on the other side. This is important because static turning strokes always rob you of forward momentum. Remember that everything should begin and end with a forward stroke because that is where we are most stable. You can do this stroke - the cross bow rudder - with the boat flat, but it is particularly effective with a bit of edge. By unlocking the bow, we can very quickly turn the boat. In the video I am using edge, and you can see how much the boat is turning by watching the change in speed of the trees behind me once I plant the paddle in the water.

The cross bow rudder is an off shot of the bow rudder, which accomplishes the same thing, turning your boat from the front, but in a manner that I don't like, and am not very good at - as you will see in the video. The bow rudder starts at the end of the forward stroke, like the cross bow. When your left paddle blade comes out of the water, Your left hand will go over your head and end up by your right ear, with your right hand you will plant the right paddle blade in the water by your right foot, turning the boat to the right.

I don't like this stroke for a few reasons: First, it tends to get your head wet as the paddle blade moves over your head. Second, it raises your elbow to the height of your shoulder which puts it in jeopardy of an injury. And Finally, I think it is overly complicated. Remember the story about Bruce Lee and Jeet Kun Do. Keep it simple. Remove anything that is overly complicated. Break something down to its simplest form.

The cross bow rudder is much simpler, and when done by me, much more effective. If you have a great bow rudder stroke, link to a video in the comments, I would love to see one well executed.

bow rudder from Paddling Otaku on Vimeo.