Wing Paddle Technique for AR

When I want to improve at an activity I typically observe the best at that particular activity and adopt their methods. In adventure racing I’ve learned about pacing, technique, transitions, and equipment by watching and racing against some of the best. Other adventure racers are no different. When they observe top teams paddling in Eco-Challenge or the Raid Galouise they see them paddling with wing paddles and do likewise. Unfortunately, it is often the equipment, and not the technique, that is copied-sometimes minimizing the effectiveness of a $200-400 paddle.Wing paddles were developed within the world of Olympic flat-water sprint kayaking in the 1980s to address the shortcomings of traditional kayak paddles.

First, traditional kayak paddles actually “slip” in the water-because water is a fluid, the blade does not stay exactly where it is planted. Consequently, when you try to pull your boat past the point in the water where you placed the blade, you are actually pulling your boat past a point that has moved in the wrong direction. Wing paddles are designed to minimize this “slippage” and give the paddle a better bite when the blade enters the water-translating into a more efficient stroke.

Second, traditional paddles make it more difficult to make use of the powerful core muscles that connect the upper and lower bodies. Have you ever complained about your arms being tired after using a conventional paddle? Typically it is because for the last part of the stroke you are pulling with your arms and your upper back. These are relatively small muscles that tire easily. The wing paddle is designed to allow you to take better advantage of rotating at the waist-using the muscles of the abdomen, hips, and lower back to propel the boat forward.

Once the technique of using the wing paddle is practiced, most paddlers will realize why this type of paddle is the choice of champions. Here are some simple explanations and tips to help you make your wing paddle stroke more efficient:

The Catch: While it is difficult to take any complex cyclic (repeated) motion and isolate its parts, for the sake of clear explanation it is a necessity. The “catch” is the part of the stroke where the paddle blade is put in the water and often what people think of as the “start” of the stroke. Setting yourself up for a good catch can make or break the efficiency of the stroke. The tricky part of the set-up takes place inside the boat. It is necessary to think of your body as a bit of a spring. At the catch you are winding up that spring and setting it to release all its energy. To do this you must sit upright and rotate low-at the hips. You should feel your bum rotate slightly on your seat. To set up for the catch, your waterside shoulder should be rotated forward. Some people will coach paddlers to set their blade in the water at their “full reach”; I council kayakers to set their blade in the water at their “full rotation”. Now, let’s talk about the work “outside the boat”. This involves the bottom arm (waterside arm) and the blade. Once the body is set up (“wound up”), the blade should be placed as close to the side of the boat as possible and the bottom arm should be fairly straight. Do not start to unwind the spring of your body until the blade is set in the water.

The Power Phase: Once the blade is in the water, your bottom arm should remain fairly straight (a comfortable flex at the elbow). Outside the boat, the blade should move diagonally away from the side-the wing paddle is designed to almost do this on its own. Don’t fight the paddle-let it “drift” away from the boat in the power phase. Inside the boat, your upper body should be rotating towards the side with the paddle in the water (“Come on baby, let’s do the Twist”); your leg on that side should straighten slightly; and your top hand should cross your face at eye level. Remember, your arms simply connect your body to the paddle. The power is coming from the rotation of your torso. You should feel the “connection” in your hands, shoulders, hips, and feet. Specifically, you should be pushing with the foot on the waterside of your stroke. Think of the kayak as an extension of your legs and the paddle as an extension of your upper body. You should not feel like you are pulling with your arms. Again, they are merely connectors.

The Release: You should take the blade out of the water just as your bottom arm naturally wants to bend at the elbow. Typically, this is when the blade reaches a point just opposite your hips-and just after your top hand crosses in front of your eyes. Keeping the blade in the water any longer is ineffective.

Finally, remember that the stroke is cyclic. The individual parts must be smoothly blended to create an efficient stroke. I always suggest that you start out paddling with minimal effort-learn the technique and then add the real power later. Now, get out and paddle.

The Broom Handle Drill

An easy way to practice visualizing the stroke is to sit in loose dirt or sand with a broom handle. Sit as you would in a kayak. Hold the broom handle like you would a paddle. Pretend the dirt or sand is the water. Plant one end of the broom handle in the sand, close to the side of your “kayak”.

1.Check the position of your body and hands. If you are putting the “blade” in on the left side, your left arm should be relatively straight, the left side of your body should be rotated forward, and your right hand should be about to cross your face at eye level. The set-up should be just the opposite if you are planting the “blade” on the right side.

2.Now, keeping the left arm (bottom arm) fairly straight, rotate your body to the left. Your right hand (top hand) should cross across your face at eye level. The end of the broom handle in the sand should trace a diagonal line out away from the side of the “kayak”.

3.The stroke should finish with the “blade” in the sand opposite your hip and about 1-2 feet from the side of the “kayak”.

This drill can also be done indoors with a mirror to provide feedback. I always recommend that beginners with the wing paddle do this drill for 10-15 minutes on land before heading out on the water. This will help you visualize and imprint the correct motions and make it easier for you to duplicate the proper stroke in the boat.

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