Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Rethinking our thinking

There are two phrases in kayaking that make me cringe every time I hear them. The first is: “Always lean downstream”. The second is, “Just paddle hard”. While there is an element of truth in both these phrases, I can’t help but wonder if this advice often does more harm than good.

“Always lean downstream”
The reasoning behind the phrase: When sideways in a rapid (especially one with big waves) if the paddler is not edging the boat downstream their upstream edge can catch and they’ll flip upstream. This is also an applicable adage for peelouts or if you're about to broadside a rock or strainer.

“Kayaking” and “always” are not two words that go together very often. Paddlers can often lean upstream in a rapid, even when they’re completely sideways. There are many times where leaning upstream in a rapid is even desirable, ie. center line at Oceana, at least until you reach the pillow. The point of the matter is that you only need to edge the boat when there is a change of speed or a change in direction. Catching eddies is a good example of both – you’re changing direction (making a turn) and changing speed (faster water to slower water). If you’re moving at the same speed as the current though and not trying to make any turns then it often doesn’t matter which way you’re leaning. In fact, I’d guess that the majority of the time you’re in a rapid floating sideways, you’re not leaning upstream or downstream – the boat is probably flat. You can experiment with this and see if it’s true for you. The next time you’re in the middle of a rapid and have turned your boat sideways in preparation to accelerate towards an eddy, see which way you’re leaning as you’re paddling towards the eddy. I bet your boat is flat, at least until you reach the eddyline.

“Just paddle hard”
The reasoning behind the phrase: By paddling aggressively you one, get good purchase on the water which acts as a brace, and two, gain speed to punch through holes and/or waves.

Imagine you are on a bike on the top of a mountain about to descend down. When you get to the steepest part of the descent, do you peddle more to increase your speed? No, most people would probably reach for the brakes. In kayaking though, we tell so many beginners to “peddle” faster when they reach the steep parts. Very seldom do we need a lot of speed to punch holes or make it through big rapids. We would be better off paddling slowly, waiting on that one well-timed stroke to carry us through. Most of us aren’t running the Zambezi or White Nile; we don’t need the speed – we need the control and placement. When we’re paddling fast we build up speed which makes corrections and turns difficult to execute. Think about Broken Nose on the Ocoee. You could take slow controlled strokes, and give yourself the option to either run left or wait on the final boof stroke. Or you could “just paddle hard” as soon as you enter the rapid, kung-foo fighting your way through the ledges and holes. Next time you’re watching a paddling video pay close attention to the pros. Very seldom are they paddling furiously – most of the time they look to be floating on a bow draw, or waiting for one good stroke at the crux – and they’re encountering holes and waves much bigger than the ones we usually see.

Secondly, when we paddle fast we often don’t bury the blades completely in the water. Thus, we’re expending energy on strokes that aren’t doing a whole lot for us. Also, when we paddle hard our muscles tense, our hips lock-up, and our knees (and feet) engage the thighhooks. The boat now loses the ability to rock in the water and we flip.

Photos courtesy of Jon Clark

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