What, me paddle?

NOTE: this article first appeared in Adventure Racing Magazine in 2001.

My first exposure to adventure racing, and thus adventure race paddling, was as a participant in the Miami, FL, Hi-Tech race in 1999. One of my teammates, who had done the race the previous year, recommended that we spend time practicing in the Sevylor inflatables. Just the thought of sitting in one of those “toy” boats was enough to make me cringe. I had been racing kayaks for a little over two years and had successfully progressed from seakayaks, to surf skis, to Olympic-style flatwater racing kayaks. Not surprisingly, I had developed into a bit of a boat snob.

At first, practicing in these “beachtoys” was frustrating. They were short, fat, slow, uncomfortable. What else could I think of as an excuse for why these boats were going in circles for an accomplished paddler like me? It was humbling to see other teams going straight, while my teammate and I slid in one direction then the other. Determined to make the paddling a strong point of our race, we sat and relaxed for a minute to gather our thoughts and really think about the boats in which we were sitting. We rearranged our seats to sit us up a bit higher so we could get a better reach and use more torso rotation and less arms. We took shorter, quicker strokes so as not to overpower the boat from one side to the other. We made small, subtle adjustments when needed. We went straight.

During the race we jumped in the Sevylor ready to move up on the field–only to find ourselves floundering in circles that eventually got us to the first portage in a position well back of where we had imagined. After a barrage of special tests, we headed back to the jumble of boats on the beach. Unable to distinguish our boat from the masses, we grabbed one, adjusted our seats, and headed off. Zoom! No problems with steering. Our technique, and what we determined was probably a slightly better-inflated boat, moved us past team after team on the second paddling leg.

That first race was a great motivating and learning experience. Finishing a respectable 11th in the Coed Division fired us up for more racing. Dealing with the inflatable boat, cured me of being a boat snob and nudged me along a well-worn adventure racing path–that of adaptability. But, I also came away with a feeling that most of the other racers were just not very strong paddlers.

As my experience in adventure racing (and paddling) has grown, I have continued to be disappointed by adventure racers as paddlers. And, while I know there really are good paddlers amongst our growing community, I’m sure most racers would agree that paddling is the discipline that typically receives the least attention.

Honestly, I can understand why. For many people it is a matter of relative convenience. What effort does it take to put on running shoes and head out the door? Or, to climb on a bike and spin off down the road? In contrast, how many of us can pick up a boat, go out our back door and start paddling? For some, training for paddling requires shlepping the boat a few blocks–portaging or wheeling. For others it means cartopping and driving. Finally, there are those who don’t even own a boat–renting or borrowing for an ocassional training session. All of these situations conspire to make paddling less convenient and less frequent.

Running and biking typically encompass the most AR training time. These disciplines are motions that most of us have been doing for years–natural extensions of common childhood activities. Paddling is different, less of a natural extension–less comfortable. For many people, paddling is a distant summer camp memory, an image of squabbling spouses careening endlessly from bushes to riverbank, or a fear of capsizing and encountering whatever lurks beneath the surface.

Inconvenience and discomfort only work together to make paddling even more difficult. Comfort only comes from spending time in the boat. Speed–the efficient application of power–only comes when you are comfortable. As adventure racers, speed, efficiency, and comfort should be priorities. We do not want to waste precious time and energy because we are not comfortable with the equipment and consequently using inefficient technique. Comfort and efficient technique are also what allow you to finally start to work hard and feel like you are getting a good workout while paddling.

So what is the answer? Do the hard things. Earlier I mentioned how easy it is to put on running shoes and head out the door. I’m sure some of you moaned and said, “Not really.” To be honest, I’d be joining you in that comment. While running doesn’t require me to lug a lot of gear to a special site, running does require me to overcome certain psychological inconveniences. Running, is my weakest AR discipline. It may always be. But I also know that by improving my running I can make myself and my team more competitive. So, I do what is hard for me–I put on the shoes and go. When I started working on my running, I felt awkward, plodding, heavy. Sometimes I still do. But, the more consistently I run the more consistently comfortable I get–the more efficient I feel. The increased comfort allows me to continue to go a little farther and faster. The same result can come from getting out and paddling.

So, the first step to becoming a better paddler is to do what is hardest–overcoming the inconvenience and the discomfort it breeds. Paddle consistently. Ideally, to make progress in any sport requires practicing at least three times per week. Considering the amount of time most adventure racers put into running and biking, getting in a boat two times per week would be a good start. At the beginning, the type of boat won’t matter–canoe, kayak, fat, or skinny. Just paddle and observe. Don’t get hung up on trying different strokes or remembering their names. Don’t paddle hard (another obstacle to overcome). Feel how the boat responds–how it turns, glides, lurches, balances.

Once you’ve paddled easy a couple of times and gotten a little more comfortable, try some of these “drills” to push the limits of your comfort level.

1. Wet Exit. I recommend doing this as close to shore as you can while still being in water at least four feet deep. Of course, wear clothing (e.g. wet suits) appropriate for the water and air temperatures. When you are ready, do what it takes to flip your boat over. Canoes are relatively easy to get out of; in kayaks try it without a sprayskirt and make sure you bend at the waist to make getting out of the cockpit a bit easier. After you’ve tipped, try different methods for emptying your boat and getting back in (I’ll cover “traditional” re-entry methods in another column).
2. Leaning limits. Lean as far as you can to one side. See how far you can go before you tip over. Try it on both sides a few times to learn just how far you can go before you go swimming. If you don’t get wet a few times, you are not doing this correctly.
3. No paddle paddling. The paddle not only propels the boat forward, it also assists with balance–especially in a kayak. Take the paddle away and things get a little more wobbly. Try paddling using only your hands. Paddle forward and backward. Try some turns.
4. Eyes closed paddling. We are visual creatures. It is much easier to balance when we can focus on something. Take that away and we get a bit uncomfortable. Try alternating paddling eyes open with a few strokes of eyes closed. For a real challenge, paddle eyes closed with your hands only.

5. Advanced balance drills. To really test and continually improve your balance and comfort in the boat you need to get comfortable with increasingly more advanced drills. These advanced drills are simply different variations on the same theme–raising your center of gravity. Simply placing a one inch cushion on your seat can raise your center of gravity enough to decrease your comfort level again. Start with that, then try these variations:
— Canoe: sit on the bow or stern and paddle
— Kayak: sit on the deck just behind the cockpit
— Canoe: Stand up and paddle
— Kayak: Stand on the seat and paddle
— Canoe: Stand on the gunnels (sides) and paddle

Try these drills and you’ll spend a lot of time in the water. But when you do get back in the boat, the extreme discomfort of doing these drills, will make simple paddling seem that much more comfortable. And, whether you’re paddling your aluminum canoe, a sleak sea kayak, or one of those Sevylor inflatables, you’ll be ready to take the next step to paddling faster and more efficiently.

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