How to Kayak for Beginners – Kayak Paddle Strokes

Welcome back for the second installment in my series of How to Kayak for Beginners.

In this article we are going to dive into the mechanics of paddling your kayak.

When I got started I just jumped in and wore my arms plumb out. So, let me save you, if I can, and show you some basic strokes needed to get you going.

Proper Holding of the Paddle

Lets start with holding the paddle. I hope you have decided on the right paddle for you and are ready to roll. If you haven’t head over to my post “Choose the Right Kayak Paddle” for some helpful information.

Before we can start stroking, we have to hold the paddle properly and in the right position. Sit-up straight, yes, posture is important! Check out the first post in this series for this information.

There are basically four things we want to consider when preparing to start paddling.

  1. The type of paddle blades you have
  2. The orientation of those blades
  3. Where you grip the shaft of your paddle
  4. And relaxing your grip on the shaft

Are the blades matched (parallel) or feathered? It will be easier to learn with matched blades. You should be able to adjust the to be so on most paddles.

Do you have Asymmetrical (one side is shorter than the other) or Symmetrical blades? You can learn with either style, it is just good to know what you have.

Are the blades concave (curved)? This is typically yes, so make sure to pay attention to where the curve is when you grab the shaft of your paddle. They should be curved towards you.

For proper orientation or position of your blades, pick up your paddle and hold it out in front of you. Look for a couple of things.

First, your knuckles should be up and the edge of the blades should be perpendicular to the ground.

Second, the shorter side of your blade should be on the bottom. If you have symmetrical blades, not a concern.

Third, you want the concave side of both blades facing you.

The Paddler’s Box

Now we are going to adjust where we grab the paddle along the shaft.

Take the paddle and place it on the top of your head, holding it on both sides. Adjust your hands along the shaft so that your elbows are at a 90 degree angle and the paddle is equal on both sides.

Now, without losing that 90 degree angle in your elbow, bring the paddle back out in front of you. This forms the space referred to as the Paddler’s Box.

Lastly, Relax your grip. Make a loop around the shaft with your thumb and first finger. Loosen the rest of your fingers and breath. If you keep a death grip on the paddle you will strain your hands, wrists and arms. We definitely do not want that to happen.

Before We Can Stroke

We have to get our groove right!

We are going to call this Kayak aerobics or the love handle twist, LOL

Meaning, we have to learn to use our torso or core and our legs to help power our stroke. If you depend solely on your arms, you will be exhausted and in pain by the time to return to the car.

Take a seat on the floor or in your kayak. We are going to practice our proper position and posture, and we are going to twist our upper body from the left to the right. Focus on twisting from your core (belly button).

Now with your arms out-stretched in front of you with the paddle, maintaining our Paddler’s Box, twist from your belly button to the left and hold. Do not drop your elbow. Now to the right, again, maintaining our box.

When, first starting to use this technique we can feel like we are rotating correctly when we are not. Pay attention to where your rotation is coming from. Do not just rotate your shoulders. You want to focus on rotating from your belly button.

Set Up For Forward Motion

Now we are ready to move into the most fundamental stroke and mostly used stroke.

The Forward Stroke is just that. It is the stroke that moves us forward, hopefully in a straight line through the water.

I say hopefully straight, because until you get the hang of it, you will find yourself zig-zagging across the lake. Yes, I know this from experience, LOL.

The Forward Stroke starts at the front of your kayak. Using your torso rotation technique, place the paddle into the water just above your feet. Keeping your paddler’s box, rotate your torso the other direction pulling the paddle through the water parallel to the kayak.

When your hand reaches about your hip, slice the paddle up out of the water. This will set you up for the next stroke on the other side.

Maintain the upright sitting position and focus on the energy from your torso. The upper hand should stay at about eye level throughout the 3 phases of the stroke.

The first phase or Catch Phase is when the paddle first enters the water at the front of the kayak.

The second phase or Power Phase is when the paddle slides through the water along the side of the boat. Lastly, the Release Phase is the point at which you pull the paddle out of the water.

Mastering this stroke will have you cruising through the water and on your way to adventure.

Wait a Minute

What if I need to slow down, stop or back off the beach?

Then we are going to use the Reverse Stroke. This stroke is virtually the same as the forward stroke, only you are going to start with putting the blade of your paddle into the water behind you. So, do the same thing as when you went forward, but start the stroke from behind your hip.

Keeping the submerged blade parallel to the boat, rotate your torso pushing the paddle forward to your feet. Remove the blade from the water at this point.

We are going to use the same torso rotation technique and always keep your paddler’s box intact. Proper position and posture will help to keep you balanced and centered.

The Sweep Stroke

This stroke is meant to help you change direction or turn your kayak.

Same fundamentally as the Forward stroke. Except instead of keeping the blade next to the kayak and vertical to the water, we are going to keep it low and horizontal.

Imagine the paddle is coming out of your chest. Rotate towards the front of the kayak, place the blade in the water up by your feet and sweep it in a wide arc back towards the stern of the boat.

The result should be a gradual turning of the kayak. If you need to turn more, then repeat on the same side of the kayak till you are where you need to be.

Last but not Least

Is the Draw Stroke. This stroke is used to move the kayak sideways, like up to a dock or another kayak.

You start this stroke by placing the blade in the water off to your side and draw towards the kayak.

The key to this stroke is to stop about 2-3 inches away from the boat. To recover the blade from the water turn your wrist enough to slice the blade back and out of the water.

If you don’t, it could result in an unwanted swim. If the blade gets to close to the boat under water, the momentum of your stroke could drag it under the boat, throwing you off balance. If this happens, Let Go with your upper hand and release the pressure.

We Are Stroking Now

So, today we learned about the Paddler’s Box, our Love Handle Twist or Torso Rotation, The Forward Stroke, The Reverse Stroke, The Sweep Stroke and finally the Draw Stroke. I know it’s a lot to take in. The most important part is to relax and breath and have fun. The rest will come with practice.

Thank you for joining me on the second installment of How to Kayak for Beginners. If you have any questions, comments or input, please leave it below.

Until next time!

6 thoughts on “How to Kayak for Beginners – Kayak Paddle Strokes”

  1. OMG! This is awesome! I really like this, I didn’t know how to paddle the kayak before now , it always seem to be a difficult task but not until I come across your site I learned a lot from the kayak review phase one and now with this phase two review, I have grab a whole lot of ideas and this makes me feel like I should jump in for kayak experience right now! All thanks to you for this great lesson, the review has impacted me a lot, at least I am happy to see that I can now do:  Paddler’s Box, our Love Handle Twist or Torso Rotation, The Forward Stroke, The Reverse Stroke, The Sweep Stroke and finally the Draw Stroke….I look forward to seeing more of your review on this kayak.

    1. Thank you for coming back and hanging out with me again. I am so glad this post helped you. I cannot wait to hear all about your kayak adventures. Stay tuned as I start reviewing different kayaks and accessories in the future. Have a wonderful day.

  2. Hey dear, thanks for sharing this concise information with us, I actually been doing some research online when I saw your post online, I believe your article has been of help to me alot, I really enjoyed reading it, I believe knowing the basic is very good, kayak isnt easy to learn but, seeing your article has helped me over come that fear, thanks alot

    1. I am so glad that my article was some help to you. My hope is that folks can come to my sight and find relevant information to help them make good informed decisions. Thank you for sharing some of your time here.

  3. A did kayaking one time a very long time ago with my dad and I do not even remember the feel that it gave me anymore. But I think trying it again with some of my family will give a real family blast for me. I think that reading about how it works online before actually getting involved in paddling will help me. You actually know so much about kayaks. Great

    1. Well, thank you for your kindness. I hope I have convinced you to take your family out and enjoy the great outdoors. Give it a try, I am sure you would love it. 

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