Paddling a Kayak

Power in paddling does not come from the arms. It comes from trunk (torso) rotation matched with leg drive (or leg pressure), with the arms little more than linkage between the power source and the paddle. Control of the kayak does not come from brute force. It comes from the right stroke being applied in the right direction at the right time – it’s all done with coordination and balance.

The Kayak paddle

Kayak paddles have two blades, usually set at an angle to each other (called offset) between 60° and 85° apart. The following notes assume right handed paddlers and paddles.

The old method of determining the length is to stand the paddle vertically alongside you. If you can curl fingers over the top blade, the paddle is about the right length.  This method is not ideal and often results in paddles that are too long.

The correct length paddle for sea kayaks, flatwater competition boats, skis and similar (longer vessels with reasonable directional stability) will be such that the bottom blade is just fully submerged as it passes the paddlers” knee whilst the top hand is at around eye height.  This is a function of torso height and seat height and can be very different for two people of the same height with different body dimensions and different vessels.
Whitewater paddlers tend to use shorter paddles that fit in with their lower seating position and smaller boats.

The best starting point is to talk to your local AC National Training Provider or AC Instructor, Guide or Coach to get an approximate length to start with.

A paddle shaft that is too long creates too long a lever, excessively loading the muscles that are providing the force. The length of the paddle should be chosen carefully as a paddle that is too long can cause injuries and make it impossible for the paddler to perform the correct technique

Hand placement

Key points

With the paddle horizontally placed on the head and the elbows at right angles (the ‘surrender’ position), the hands will be at the correct spacing.

The hands must be symmetrically placed, with the same hand to blade distance on each side.

With the paddle held in front of the body, the right hand blade will be vertical, the left hand blade face up.

Keep the hands relaxed.

Hands tend to wander along and around the shaft, and the positions should be regularly checked.

Placing some electrical tape on the shaft just inside the hand positions can help to maintain your position.

Wrist Movement
Key points

The right hand remains fixed to the shaft: it should not be allowed to rotate (slip on the shaft) during normal strokes – however do not throttle the paddle, a light grip should be sufficient.

The right wrist is straight for a stroke on the right (i.e. when the hand is pulling).

The right wrist is rotated backwards (dropped) for a stroke on the left.

The paddle shaft rotates in the left hand.

  • Terminology 
    • The Bottom Hand is the one closest to the blade in the water
    • The Top Hand is the one closest to the blade out of the water
    • Often people put locators or indexes on the paddle shaft on the control side or on side of the shaft A locator (index) is a bulge on the front of the shaft, indicating the back of the blade.  The control side is the side which retains a firm grip on the shaft (does not rotate on the shaft) – in this case it is the right side.

Getting In and Out
You need to be able to board the kayak and launch, and also to land and exit the kayak safely and without damaging the boat. Particularly after a capsize you need to exit properly to avoid possible injury.

Key points

  • Put the boat into the water, close to shore, but afloat. If you want a stabiliser, put the paddle across the deck behind the cockpit with a blade on the bank.
  • Enter by sitting astride behind the cockpit, placing the feet in the cockpit, and sliding in, knees straight, weight on hands. Put as little weight as possible on the paddle.
  • Launch by pushing off with both hands.
  • Land as gently as possible to reduce stresses on the boat’s structure, and abrasion of gelcoat.
  • Exit with knees straight, weight on hands, sliding aft and out, using the paddle behind the cockpit if necessary for stability.

What do I do if I Capsize?
Capsizes are inevitable in kayaking, and you must be able to exit from the boat in a calm and controlled manner. Fear of capsizing often prevents people progressing to more advanced techniques, so developing confidence early is important.

People instinctively lift their heads when suddenly immersed into water. In a kayak that can lead to bruises and scratches as people twist in the cockpit. The reflex must be overcome so that you leave the cockpit correctly, and only then move to the surface. It is normally easier to leave the cockpit of an inverted boat because the body does not have to be lifted. Eventually you will want to stay in your boat to roll, rather than bail out immediately you find yourself upside down.

Key points

  • Keep the head close to the foredeck. Exhale slowly to keep water out of the nasal passages. (Hum a tune.)
  • Spraycover off, knees straight, push with the hands and roll forward.
  • Keep hold of the boat by decklines, toggles or end loops, and the paddle.
  • If anything drifts away, let it. Keep hold of the boat. In any breeze it can drift faster than you can swim.
  • Follow your rescuer’s instructions, or swim the boat to the bank.

The Forward stroke
Good technique and injury prevention start with a correct seating position.  As with all seating, whether eating dinner, working at your desk or paddling, the back should be straight do not slouch.  A slight forward lean with the shoulders slightly in front of the pelvis is ideal.  Knees should be slightly bent (never straight) and there should be support for the feet.

Many boats have backrests, these are ideal for breaks but should not be used whilst paddling.

The starting point to a good stroke is this – all power should come from torso or trunk rotation.

The Catch

  • A stroke begins with the shoulders rotated to bring the bottom arm forward.
  • Bottom arm is extended but not straight
  • Top hand is around eye height, elbow bent, arm relaxed
  • The blade should enter the water at around the level of the feet and be quickly buried in a spearing motion

Catch or entry

The Drive Phase

The stroke is driven by torso rotation with both arms staying relatively fixed in place compared to a rotating torso.  The following photo shows the mid stroke position, note the following

  • Top hand is still at around eye height, elbow still bent, in the same relative position to the shoulders as at the catch.
  • Bottom arm is still extended but not straight, there is no attempt to drive the stroke through the biceps.

mid stroke

Leg Drive is a term most often used in relation to flatwater competition paddling, however all paddlers should have a good understanding of its principles.

Kayak paddling is often considered an upper body sport. However, paddlers should use their whole body, especially incorporating the strong muscles of their legs, hips and torso. The main task of the arms is to put the paddle in the water and take it out, not for providing the propulsive force.

Many boats (especially flatwater competition) have seat/footrest combinations that are designed to allow the paddler to rotate their pelvis/bottom on the seat as part of each stroke.

At the catch, the leg on the side of the next stroke, draws the hip forward so that the whole pulling side from pelvis to shoulder is fully rotated forward at the catch.

During the power phase, the stroke side leg straightens (the off-side leg drawing up) so that it drives the stroke through rotation of the whole trunk.  The power produced is applied to the boat through the feet.

This “leg drive” and torso coordination provides the most powerful dynamic movement that can move the boat forward.

NOTE: For boats that do not have ‘slippery seats’ or where you are tightly fitted into your seat, it is important to match pressure on the stroke side foot with the pressure on the bottom hand.  This matching of power through the whole body is important for the stabilisation of the trunk/lumbar spine/pelvis system and helps to prevent lower back injuries.

The Exit

The exit occurs just before the torso is fully rotated, when the blade is between mid thigh and pelvis.

  • Note (as shown in the picture below) at the end of the stroke the blade is off to the side of the boat.  The path of the blade in the water during the power phase of the stroke follows the wash line and is not parallel to the line of the boat.  Any attempt to pull the blade down the side of the boat results in the bottom arm bending this in turn results in a loss of available power.

  • Exit is take to the side – not under your arm.

  • The bottom elbow bends and the hand leads up to the side.

  • Top hand remains relatively fixed and the paddle pivots on this hand – a dropping top hand reduces power significantly during the stroke

beginning of the exit

Recovery Phase

The recovery phase is the name for the section of the paddle cycle between the exit and the next catch

  • The torso keeps rotating the same direction as the just finished stroke – this brings the new ‘drive side’ shoulder to its maximum forward position

  • the front hand (old top hand) stays high until the bottom hand is at the same height

  • Good rotation will result in the blade being almost parallel with the boat just prior to its descent for the next catch.

  • The paddle is then brought forward and down into the water in a spearing motion for the catch of the next stroke

near the beginning of the recovery phase

Beginning of the recovery phase

near the end of the recovery phase

End of the recovery phase

When paddling in side wind conditions, stability can be improved by lowering the height of the top hand HOWEVER the drive should still come entirely from trunk rotation and not from the arms.

Points to avoid (Bad technique)

Note the following points in the picture below

  • Paddler is leaning back – bad stress on lower back
  • Hands are low – blade inefficient in the water
  • Little or no rotation – stroke driven by arms

Bad technique 

Sweep Stroke
Sweep Strokes are used to turn the boat. The effectiveness of sweep strokes is governed by leverage and power. For the greatest leverage the blade must describe a wide arc, while power must come from body twist (trunk rotation as described above). To protect the shoulder joint when making reverse strokes, keep the elbow in front of the line of the shoulders (never reach behind you).

Sweep strokes incorporated into forward or reverse paddling are used to keep the kayak running straight.

Some Instructors prefer to start with sweep strokes so that students can develop some confidence in controlling their direction before moving to other strokes.

Forward Sweep
Key points

  • Rotate the torso fully for the set up
  • Blade is fully buried
  • Bottom arm is extended but NOT straight
    • Reaching right forward with a straight arm exposes the shoulder joint to potential damage
  • Top hand is in close to the body, low so that the paddle shaft just clears the deck.
  • Blade starts at bow, and is swept in a wide arc by the unwinding of the torso rotation 
  • The stroke finishes when rotation finishes – DO NOT try and pull the paddle right back with your arms, this can result in hyper-extension of the shoulder joint with possible damage resulting.  A long sweep is ideal, BUT this should come from torso rotation and not from arm movement.
  • Push on the footrest with the foot on the same side as the submerged blade.
  • Note it was traditional to teach this stroke with the person watching the blade to encourage torso rotation, this method is no longer recommended for two reasons 
    1. paddlers should be looking where they are going when they paddle
    2. It is much harder to unlearn techniques than to learn them

Reverse Sweep
Key points

  • Rotate the torso fully for the set up
  • Blade is fully buried, stroke uses the back of the blade
  • Bottom arm is extended but NOT straight
    • Reaching behind you with a straight arm exposes the shoulder joint to potential damage
    • DO NOT reach back turn back
  • Top hand is in close to the body, low so that the paddle shaft just clears the deck.
  • Blade starts near the stern, and is swept in a wide arc by the unwinding of the torso rotation 
  • The stroke finishes when rotation finishes – DO NOT try and push the paddle forward with your arms it is ineffective and bad technique.  A long sweep is ideal, BUT this should come from torso rotation and not from arm movement.
  • Push on the footrest with the foot on the opposite side to the submerged blade.
  • Note it was traditional to teach this stroke with the person watching the blade to encourage torso rotation, this method is no longer recommended for two reasons 
    1. paddlers should be looking where they are going when they paddle
    2. It is much harder to unlearn techniques than to learn them

Reverse Paddling
There will be times when you will need to paddle in reverse under full control.

Key points

  • Do not lean back for this stroke
  • Rotate the body so that the shoulder on the side of the stroke is right back
  • Paddle is parallel to the boat with the blade flat on the water, back down
  • Initially set the blade by pushing down with the bottom hand and raising the top hand to about eye height – this will set the blade at about 45 degrees and fully buried
  • Now unwind the torso, driving the stroke in close to the boat
    • Blade stays close to the line of the boat
    • Shaft is kept close to vertical
    • Arms maintain the position of the blade rather than driving it
  • The stroke finishes and the blade begins its exit when the paddle shaft is vertical, the exit transfers neatly into the setup for the next stroke.
  • Look behind you on the same side every second stroke to avoid disorientation.

Emergency Stops
You need to be able to stop the kayak in a controlled manner, whether paddling forward or reverse.

Key points


  • Short reverse strokes, blade close to hull, shaft vertical.
  • Strokes on alternate sides to keep straight.


  • Short forward strokes, on alternate sides.

Stern Rudder
Stern rudder strokes allow you to guide a kayak through obstacles, can be used whilst surfing or sailing, or as an aid to controlling the kayak downwind, with the ruddering incorporated into the forward paddle cycle.

Key points

  • Rotate the torso fully for the set up
  • Paddle is parallel to the boat
  • Blade is buried and vertical
  • Bottom arm is extended but NOT straight
    • Reaching behind you with a straight arm exposes the shoulder joint to potential damage
    • DO NOT reach back turn back
  • Top hand is low and over the side of the boat
  • Do not lean back as this puts bad stress on your lower back and reduces your ability to stabilise the boat.
  • Two ways (often combined) to control direction:
    • push the blade away from the stern to turn towards the paddle side or pull it towards the stern to turn the other way
    • roll the wrist outwards to turn to the paddle side, inwards to turn away.
  • If you start to lose control in a broach, do not try and fight it by extending your shoulders or leaning back, tuck forward and prepare for a capsize or Support stroke (brace) as required

Body rotated towards paddle Paddle alongside hull. blade well aft Control with wrist roll or tillering with shaft Left Straight Right

Draw Stroke
Draw strokes are used to move the kayak sideways in a controlled manner for rafting and approaching jetties and other landings.

Key points

  • Rotate the torso to ‘face’ the direction you want to go.
  • Keep the shaft vertical with top hand at forehead height and ahead of the face.
    • Think of it as framing the face
    • If you can look up and read your watch it is about right
  • Bottom hand extends (out but not straight) at right angles to kayak level with the hips, blade immersed, parallel to hull.
  • Pull the blade towards the hips, top hand remains relatively fixed.
  • Keep the boat level – do not lean toward the blade.
  • Before the blade touches the hull, rotate the blade 90° then slice it back out to the start position.


draw stroke

The sculling draw as shown below is usually taught after the basic draw is mastered.  It is applicable to sea conditions, where the traditional slalom draw (above) can make the paddler unstable due to the effects of wind and waves from the side.

  • Torso is  rotated to face the direction of travel

  • Top hand is lowered to around chin height

  • Bottom arm is extended but not straight

  • The blade is moved in a  figure of 8 with the forward face (as the blade moves) turned slightly away from parallel to the boat

  • Do not lean on the blade at this stage


    • Bottom arm should always be slightly bend

    • Bottom arm elbow should be in front of the line of the shoulders

    • Top hand should never be higher than the head – NEVER reach behind your head

    • Top arm should be bent with the top hand in close to the body

    • Sculls should be small and controlled

sculling draw

Low Support (or low brace) Stroke
Support strokes are used to prevent capsizes. Although the paddle is used, the righting action comes from the hips. The description here is for the Low Support (or low brace) stroke.

This stroke is normally taught from a stationary position with the paddler producing the lean themselves and then correcting the lean.  People are also often taught to practice this using a J lean where the body remains vertical and the boat is ‘edged’ or tipped under the person – in this way your body becomes a J – hence the name. Using a J lean rarely commits the person to the support and is not consistent with a ‘real’ capsizing situation.

Paddlers should have two different (but interacting skills)

  1. The ability to ‘sit their boats up’.  This is the ability to maintain a vertical torso above a moving boat and use slight movement of the hips to maintain stability

  2. Bracing or support strokes being the ability to use a combination of paddle and body movements to bring the boat back upright after it has passed the point where stability can be maintained simply with 1. above.

Number 1 is best learned in an area of chop let the boat sit side on to the waves and use your hips to maintain your torso above the boat and maintain stability.  The focus is on allowing the boat to move under you rather than pushing the boat around.  The less stable the boat, the easier and better the skill will be learned.

In the real world you will most probably be moving at the time that you need a low support and the stroke will be a response to the actions of wind, waves or a ‘friendly’ paddler.  To learn a reliable brace, allow the boat to tip enough that it is unstable and then bring it back upright as follows.

Key points of the Low Support

  • The paddle is most efficient when held at right angles to the boat
  • Protection of the elbow, wrist and shoulder should be paramount
    • Paddle shaft should be kept in close to the body
    • The arm on the stroke side should rise up from the shaft in the monkey position wrist, elbow and shoulder in the same plane as the paddle shaft
  • The back of the blade is used, shaft horizontal
  • As the boat begins to tip, the back of the paddle blade is brought to bear at the surface of the water – do not practice slapping the water.  This action should momentarily arrest the tipping motion
  • Now draw your hip in toward the paddle blade (in other words bring your boat in under your head.
  • Use the blade for support rather than driving down on it.
  • Once stable, drop (rotate down) the control wrist and slice the blade out.

AC acknowledge the advice and resources of the following people

  • AC Flatwater Level 1 Coaching Manual, Lynda Lehmann
  • CKEA Flatwater Instructor (level 1) training resources
  • BCU Canoe and Kayak Handbook
  • Every Crushing Stroke, Scott Shipley
  • Reference has been made to the resources produced by Eric Jackson, Kent Ford and Nigel Foster
  • Chad Meek
  • Therese Powell
  • Peter Carter
  • Jade South