How To Paddle: Basic Paddling Strokes Kayaking

If you’re off kayaking and want to make sure you've got the basics down, there are a few basic paddling strokes that will give you the start you need. One of the first items kayakers upgrade is their paddle and this is all great once you’ve mastered the basic strokes.

From learning to move forward to turning and controlling the boat, there’s a stroke for everything. Here’s how to master the basic paddling strokes:


How To Hold The Paddle

First things first, you need to know how to hold the paddle if you want to successfully master the basic paddling strokes. Here’s how it should be held:

     The paddle should be held by both hands and the space between the two should be roughly the same amount of space that’s between your shoulders. If you space your hands too far apart, you’ll find yourself tired easily and you’ll need a lot more upper body strength. If you space your hands too close to one another, you’ll suffer with lack of strength in each stroke.

     Avoid holding the paddle too tightly and instead use a relaxed grip; a tight grip is likely to cause tiredness. By holding the shaft of the paddle loosely, you’ll reduce the level of tiredness in your arms and the power will instead come when you push forward with each stroke.

     Your knuckles should always be pointed up and one of the paddle blades should always be vertical.


There are a few different types of blades, each with different uses. Matched blades are those with their blades fixed in a parallel position. They are most commonly used by kayaking beginners. However, they do not work as well in windy conditions as the flat blade cause catch the wind and cause resistance. This is avoided with feathered blades as they have an angled blade; with its smaller surface area there is less resistance when it is windy.

Most modern blades have a button that allows you to feather it when necessary, usually by 30°, 45° or 60°. There is no ideal angle for paddling and a lot of it is to do with personal opinion and preferences; this is something that is learned through experience. A lot of paddlers prefer a high angle as it reduces wind resistance, but few ventures further than 60°.

How to Forward Stroke

A forward stroke is the first stroke you’ll learn, and usually the one you will lose the most. Simply, it’s the stroke that will help you to move forward. A good forward stroke is achieved when you engage your upper arms and core muscles, as this combination provides a great deal of power and control. By doing this, you will be able to move the boat forward with the least amount of effort, reducing the amount of work you need to do and ensuring you’re able to paddle for as long as possible. Here are a few top tips to help you become a pro at the forward stroke:

     Think of yourself as moving past the blade, rather than the blade moving through the water. This is often described as being a motion of winding up and catching; this involves winding with the torso into the forward stroke, catching the water with the blade and moving past it.

     Always try to drip the paddle in an area that is parallel to your feet.

     The motion should be continuous, as a sort of push and pull motion; you push with the upper hand, pull with the lower and the boat will glide on through the water.

In order to move efficiently through the water and to minimise the amount of work that you need to be, it’s important to add power to your forward stroke. This is because a good technique is much more beneficial than the amount of upper body strength you have. This can be done by:

     Thinking of your hands as extensions of your body; they should all work together.

     Imagine punching with one hand; this is the sort of swift and smooth motion you’re after.

     Positioning one hand at shoulder height on the paddle for extra power and control.

     Using a strong torso rotation when you need an extra boost of power.

     Using the power from your shoulder to punch your hand forward.


How to Sweep Stroke

Sweep strokes are used for turning and therefore it’s an important stroke to master. After all, paddling around is no good if you can only go in one direction. Turning can be done by placing a blade into the water on one side of the boat, it will then turn in that direction. However, you will lose velocity when you turn and therefore paddling is required soon after. In order to keep as much forward movement as possible when you turn, the sweep stroke motion is preferred. This is done by:

     Lean the boat towards one side, whilst ensuring you keep your balance. Then extend your arms forward and place the blade into the water next to your feet. This is where the sweep stroke will begin.

     Next, drag the blade in a wide arch towards the back of the boat. The more power you use, the better the stroke will be.

     To finish the sweep stroke, lift the paddle out of the water when it gets near to the back of the boat.

A sweep stroke should result in a smooth and gradual turning motion, without the loss of forward power or velocity.


How to Draw Stroke

Draw strokes are used when you want to pull your boat in close to something else, such as another boat or a river bank. They are relatively simple to do. Start by extending the paddle away from you using your arms, around 2 feet works well, and make sure the shaft of the paddle is on a slight angle with the blade tilted away from you. Next, lower your hand and pull the blade towards you. Keep repeating this draw stroke - twisting the blade each time so it can move through the water with ease - and this will move the boat sideways and towards the object you want to be closer to.

It’s important to note that at times the blade may get stuck under the boat, but prying it out could cause your boat to tip. Instead, let go and start again.

Another type of draw stroke is called sculling and though similar, there are differences. Start by extending the paddle away from you in the same way as you would with a standard draw stroke, but instead of pulling the blade towards you rotate your wrists as if you were buttering a piece of bread. This back and forth motion will help the boat to gently move through the water.


How to Reverse Forward Stroke and Stop

Stopping the boat is something that everyone needs to know how to do, especially if you find yourself in a situation where you need to stop suddenly. To stop the boat simply do the reverse of a forward stroke.

Rather than starting at the front of the boat and pulling the blade towards the end of the boat, start at the end and push it towards the front. Repeat a few times and the boat will stop in no time.


How to Manage Wind and Paddle Accordingly

Wind has a huge impact on any kind of boat, but kayaks tend to suffer a lot more due to their lightweight build. In fact, any gust of wind over 11 miles per hour can affect the way your boat moves on the water. When you’re using a kayak, your body acts as a sail for the wind and this can catch the wind in the same way a sail does; this will have an affect on your speed and direction.

A direct headwind will be the most difficult for you to overcome when you're on the water paddling and kayakers often find themselves in a situation where the wind hits them on an angle. If this happens, your boat is likely to steer slightly off path even if you are paddling in a specific direction. For example, if you are paddling straight ahead and there’s a wind coming from the left you are likely to find that the back of the boat comes forward; think of the kayak as a weather vane. This is corrected with paddle strokes on the opposite side.

Rather than trying to paddle in the same way and acting as though the wind isn’t there, counteract its effects with sweep strokes on the opposite side. You can also drop a rudder if the boat you are using has one, as this will prevent the boat being blown around on the water too much. After all, a rudder’s job is to minimise the effects of wind.

Other boats have a skeg and these act in the a similar way to a rudder, though they cannot be rotated. A skeg will allow you to stay on track in a straight line, with minimal impact from the wind. Skegs can be partially deployed or deployed completely, so play with its positioning and see what works best for the exact situation you are dealing with. Eventually, you’ll find its ideal positioning and your paddling will be a lot easier.