Staying Upright in Rapids: Blade in the Water!
One of the principals that all whitewater canoe paddlers – those on their knees with single-bladed paddles – must learn is the value of keeping the paddle blade in the water as much as possible. With each plateau in a paddler’s development – as water difficulty intensifies and boat stability decreases – it seems like the “blade down” principle must be learned again and again. As I’ve explored whitewater SUP this principal has been slow to take hold in my habits. Too often I catch myself “air-bracing” or using the paddle as a balance pole. I can confidently report that air bracing and paddle waving in general are ineffective on dynamic currents, waves and hydraulics. At best the “air brace” offers a dramatic flourish to your ensuing plunge.
Training the body and mind to keep the paddle blade in the water at critical moments is similar to teaching the mind to relax when learning to roll a kayak. You may have to drag those un-useful instincts away kicking and screaming before new and improved instinct can take hold.
Fortunately you can teach your lizard brain a new way of responding to instability. Simple exercises on flat or mild moving water at first – and then on increasingly more challenging water – will help your intuition prefer a blade-in-water default stance.
The exercises described below are offered with a “your mileage may vary” disclaimer but are occasionally part of our local whitewater club’s weekly practice session where our kayak and canoe brethren practice their eskimo rolls and wet exits. Dedicating a little time once a week to a fundamental skills practice on flat water will help you through the whitewater SUP learning curve with more confidence – so find a local club that holds weekly “practice sessions” on a lake or at a pool. If you don’t currently paddle with a club I can’t emphasize how much you need to find one just for the purpose of practicing fundamental skills and learning from peers. In addition, there are often really nice people to meet in paddling clubs.
Slicing and Underwater Recovery
The standard forward stroke for single-bladed paddlers (canoe and SUP) is typically broken down into 3 parts.
Catch – in which the paddle blade is set into the water at the beginning of a forward stroke.
Power – in which pressure is applied to the paddle blade to draw the paddler forward.
Release/recovery – in which water pressure is released and the paddle blade returned to the forward position and ready to Catch again.
As you advance into harder whitewater it is important to learn how to perform the “Recovery” phase of the stroke by slicing the blade forward in the water. Examining just the Recovery Phase:
At the end of the Power Phase where the paddle blade is no further back than your heels (preferably still at your toes), “Release” water pressure from the blade by twisting the paddle such that the thumb on your Grip Hand twists the paddle blade into a position parallel to the board and slicing the water with minimal resistance.
Once Released, push the paddle blade forward taking care to drive from your onside shoulder by twisting at the waist.
At the furthest point forward turn the blade back to begin the next catch.
When Releasing it is generally easier to twist the blade toward the board although the proven performance in canoes is to twist the power face of the paddle away from the boat … and this is the preferred method by experienced single-blade paddlers. But don’t let challenging advanced skills get in the way of trying new things and having sensible fun.
The nice thing about the Slice Recovery is that you can refine it with a slight twist of the grip into a draw, pry, or brace for maintaining stability as your board bucks and lurches on the turbulent surface of the water.
To burn the movements of a Slice Recovery:
Choose a straight-line course at least 100 meters long.
Paddle one length of the course on your strong side using short Power Phase strokes with a Slice Recovery Phase.
Maintain your direction using a slight draw during the Recovery Phase.
Sacrifice speed and focus on maintaining a straight line with a slow, steady pace.
Pivot at the end of the course and return with the same Slice Recovery but on your weak side without switching.
Do at least 4 laps over the course of a practice session.
The goal is to develop and refine your use of the paddle to respond more smoothly to subtle and gross forces in moving water.
I’ve taken to thinking of my paddle blade as an auxiliary fin. An outrigger attached to the board through my body. With this image in mind I find it much easier to establish an intuitive need to keep the paddle blade in the water where it can do some good.
High Brace Correction
Oops! You dropped your concentration for a moment in a rapid and your paddle is waving in the air like an drunken high wire walker’s balance pole. Simply recognizing in the moment that your paddle is waving around will be the first, hardest, and most wet part of your learning curve.
To practice the High Brace Correction:
Squat 1/4 down with your paddle across your knees; the grip hand’s knuckles should be on or near your knee.
Holding this position, tip precariously to your off-side (away from the paddle blade).
At the last possible moment, twist at the waist to your on-side (toward the paddle blade) and shift from a bent-forward squat to a more upright squat focusing on keeping the shoulders stacked above the kips.
Stab the paddle blade into the water near your on-side foot as a drawing brace.
Switch sides and repeat.
Switch from falling off-side to falling on-side (toward the paddle blade).
Repeat at least 5 times on each side per practice session.
The anxiety of maintaining balance while on very unstable moving water causes many beginners to assume a hunched-over body position with a pronounced bend forward at the waist; butt back and shoulders forward. This does not put the shoulders in a useful position for anything but a low brace. Instead, focus on keeping the back a bit more erect with shoulders only slightly forward of your hips. Stand with your feet in a staggered, off-set position and knees slightly bent with weight more or less evenly distributed. In this position it is possible to easily shift your weight in any direction and get the paddle blade into virtually any position along the board in response to the swiftly moving water under the board.
This position not only allows but encourages you to keep the paddle blade down and active in the water.
Making effective posture more automatic is probably best done through other disciplines like martial arts and dance, The following super simple exercise is offered as something I’ve tried and use with students. Remember – we are trying to put an end to the “auto-hunch” that will make you fall in rapids:
On flat ground with a standard canoe paddle (or something similar) begin with feet in the neutral position, knees slightly bent, and paddle shaft held vertically straight out from the chest with hands stacked; on-side/shaft hand about 24 inches directly below the off-side grip hand. Grip hand should be about eye level.
Squat down to about a 1/4 knee bend – not far. Through this motion keep your back, arms, and paddle in continual alignment; upright and erect.
Press back up slowly while twisting the body to the on-side keeping the paddle shaft vertical. All movement should be driven from the core – hips and shoulders moving together – while the arms simply form a bracket for the paddle shaft.
From the upright and twisted position turn and squat back into the starting position.
Repeat 10 times focusing not on speed or strength but on exaggerated perfect movement, balance, and general energy. Very slow “perfect” practice is more beneficial than fast, imperfect practice … because only perfect practice will make perfect. Mix it up with twists in different directions and alternating sides with your hands.
As you gain in comfort on the board take this exercise to the water as part of your warm-up … to remind your body what you expect. Shoulders over hips and hips over feet – that’s how you root and center a strong base on the board.
[Video tutorial is in the works … bug me about it if this interests you!]