How to Paddle a Kayak – Basic Strokes

Kayak fishing is slowly winning his fans all over the world. Not only that it presents so many advantages over the traditional boats mounted with motors, but it can also be practiced by anyone, big guys and gals included (and now that we’re here, take a look at this selection of reliable options for big guys out there ).

If you know your way around when it comes to fishing and kayaking, but you’re not that sure about your kayak fishing skills, scrolling down for the bits and bobs is going to help you get better at it sooner than expected.

How to launch and land your kayak

One of the best things about flatwater kayaking is the freedom you get for exploring all sorts of body of water. The ability to control your kayak is the key for a successful experience, nevertheless. Sure, you may get it easier on salt water (here’s a nice selection of kayaks for inshore-salt water, but mastering the basic strokes is going to help you become better at kayak fishing.

Here’s what you need to know:

  • You need to learn how to grip the paddle for obtaining the most efficient stroke
  • You should know very well the forward stroke (yes, it’s the one getting you forward)
  • You need to know how to slow down and back up with the reverse stroke
  • You must turn at some point and the sweep stroke is going to help you do it
  • You need to scoot your boat sideways, in which case a draw stroke is fundamental

You can get a kayak with a skeg or a rudder, in which case the water is going to help you. When you’re kayak fishing or kayaking, it’s fundamental that you know how to track straight and turn only by using the stroke technique.

In order to get it right, you should practice the strokes in a safe and calm environment, without adding more stressful aspects (wind or cold weather). Even if some are going to try learning on their own, it’s wiser to learn the right technique from an instructor or an experienced guide. They have the skills and the eye for the mistakes so they can help you get the right skills right from the start as it’s going to be a lot more difficult to correct a poorly developed skill later on.

How to hold your paddle the right way

It may seem an easy thing to do, but you should hold the paddle without getting your arms tired too soon. In addition, your paddle has to match the length of your arms, which is why you need to do due diligence about it when buying your paddle.

Here are the main aspects to keep in mind when holding your paddle:

  1. Know the blades of the paddle-

    there are some aspects to consider about the blades:

    • Do you use matched(parallel) or feathered (at an angle)? – it’s always easier to learn when using matched blades. If you’re going with feathered blades, you should check the center of the shaft for a push-button and the holes around the shaft. Press the button and rotate the halves of the shaft until the blades are parallel.
    • Do you use asymmetrical blades? If one side of each blade is shorter than the other, the answer is a definite “yes”. You may not see it clearly, so pay attention to it. This specific shape is going to make the paddle track straight, when you’re pulling it through the water. Your blades are “symmetrical” if you notice a uniform oval. As long as you know which type of blade you have, you should be able to learn how to paddle with either of them.
    • Are the blades a bit curved (concave)? Most of the time, blades tend to be a bit curved, but you should notice where is the concave side facing as you’re gripping the shaft. The “curve” is going to allow you get more water, which results into a stronger stroke.
  2. How to orient the blades

There are 3 things to check after you picked up the paddle, holding it in front of you:

  • Your large knuckles should point up, whereas the blades have to be perpendicular to the surface of the ground
  • The concave side of the blade has to face you (this doesn’t apply to the flat blades)
  • The shorter side of every blade has to be on the bottom (no problem when you have symmetrical blades)

No worries if you didn’t grab your paddle the right way the first time; you simply need to flip it around until blades and hands are oriented the right way.

  1. Hold the shaft in a good way

    • Place the center point of your paddle’s shaft on your head
    • Adjust the grip along the shaft, making sure that your elbows create a 90-degree angle.

As you’re putting the paddle down in front of you, you should be able to create the “paddler’s box” which is made of your arms, chest and the shaft. When you’re holding to this box, you’re going to rotate your torso the right way all the time.

  1. Don’t forget to relax the grip

If your grip is relaxed, the risk for tiring your arms, hands and wrists is a lot lower. It’s important that you rely on your torso when paddling:

  • Create an “o” with your thumb and index finger around the shaft
  • Have your fingers rest nicely on the shaft.

How to do the forward stroke?

The forward stroke is the fundamental stroke when paddling and you need some arm strength for it. You also need to use your torso muscles (core and back), as they’re going to do most of the effort.

Check the way you’re holding the paddle once again. Here are the three phases of the forward stroke:

  1. The catch phase- you turn your torso, while you plunge the blade entirely on one side of the kayak, close to your feet
  2. The power phase- as the blade moves behind you, you need to rotate your torso. It’s a natural move, as your eyes are going to follow the in-water blade and your torso is going to follow too. You need to concentrate so that you push against the shaft with your upper hand
  3. The release phase- “slice” the blade out of the water when your hand gets behind your hip.

Immerse the out-of-water blade next to your feet for doing it once again.

Here are some extra tips for getting it right:

  • Make sure you hold the blade in a near-vertical orientation; the level of immersion has to be consistent as well. This is going to give you speed and straight direction.
  • Try to use your powerful core muscles for powering the stroke and not the weaker muscles of your arms. You’re going to get tired pretty fast when you’re using the wrong method and pose a higher risk for injuring too.
  • You’re going to get a better balance and more efficiency when you’re keeping it as upright as you can
  • Always have in mind the “paddler’s box” when streaking for a proper body alignment for every phase.

Is the reverse stroke more difficult?

You’re going to use the reverse stroke for braking your moving kayak or for backing up the kayak when you’re stopped. This stroke is the opposite of the forward stroke.

  1. The drop phase- you plunge the blade entirely on the side of the kayak, turning your torso
  2. The power phase- the blade is moving in front of you and you rotate your torso
  3. The release phase- “slice” the blade out of the water the moment the blade is even with your feet

When to use the sweep stroke?

If you’re only using the forward stroke on the same side of the boat, your kayak is going to turn in the opposite direction. It’s easier to turn your boat when using the sweep stroke on the side of the boat.

Here are the steps to take:

  1. The catch phase- you need to expand your arms forward, plunging the blade close to your feet. Start sweeping on the opposite side of the boat from the direction you’re planning to turn
  2. The turn phase- sweep the blade and try to create a wide arc, toward the stern of your kayak. In order to get it right, you should use a strong move, right after the paddle has passed the cockpit.
  3. The release phase- as the blade gets closer to the hull behind the cockpit, you may end the stroke and slice the blade out of the water.

If you’re doing it right, you should be able to obtain a gradual arcing turn, without even losing the momentum. Do the sweep stroke as often as you need or use only the forward stroke. As the wide sweep is really important when paddling, you should picture the hands of a clock in the water, trying your best to touch every single number of the clock.

How often will you use the draw stroke?

You’re going to use the draw stroke for moving your kayak sideways. You’re definitely going to use it when paddling on a river, for instance (by the way, here are some of the best kayaks for river

You use the draw stroke when you need to pull close to another boat or dock:

  1. Make sure that your blade is horizontal (you may need to rotate it)
  2. Touch the water 2ft away with the tip of the blade, right on the side of your boat
  3. Pull the blade toward you with your lower hand. Make sure that the tip of the blade remains immersed in the water throughout the stroke
  4. When the blade hits the side of your boat, it’s best that you stop

You may have to do it several times until you get the kayak moving sideways. Should the paddle hit the side of the boat, it’s best not to pry the blade out the water as you’re only increasing the risk for tipping the kayak and capsize. Do you feel a hit? It’s best that you let go of the top hand, relaxing your body and preparing for doing it all once again. It’s best that you re-try and not pry.