Upper James River Water Trail

Reflections from the Cockpit

Who's right?

By Wayne Horodowich

I heard a joke many years ago. When the judge came home his wife confronted him with her dilemma. She told him she watched him in court earlier in the day and was confused when he told party number one they were right and then told the opposing party they were also right. She looked at her husband and said, "they both can’t be right." He looked at her, paused for a moment and then said, "you’re right."

I am often reminded of this joke at symposiums when one of the participants comes to me in a confused state when they tell me they listened to two different presenters who seemed to contradict each other in what equipment to use or how to choose it. I also hear this same question when I teach a class and I am told "my other instructor told me to do it this way." Well, like the judge’s wife asked, "who’s right?"

Some of the typical contradictions are:

  • Should I paddle feathered or unfeathered?
  • What feather angle should I get if I paddle feathered?
  • Where do I put my recovery equipment?
  • How long should my paddle be?
  • Which way should I edge my kayak when doing a draw stroke?
  • What do I do with my paddle during a recovery as the swimmer?
  • Where does the swimmer stay when doing an assisted recovery?
  • How high should my hands be when I paddle forward?

The list goes on. I am sure some of you have experienced this confusion, especially when you started kayaking. How do we know who’s right? I would like to say they are all right? Unfortunately I have met instructors who actually present incorrect information so I cannot make a blanket statement. However, when I am posed with these dilemmas by my students, I do say they are both right, depending on one’s point of view and desired goals.

I enjoy these apparent contradictions because it makes people think. One of my goals when teaching is to encourage and create the thinking paddler. The motto of USK is "do what works best for you." Since we are all different, and we use different equipment, and paddle for different reasons, we may need different answers. The challenge is who do we listen to and how do we know we are getting correct information? I wish I could give you the guaranteed B.S. detector. I grew up in New York City. When I would travel to Times Square on a Saturday evening there were all kinds of characters there pitching all kinds of cons. I got pretty good with my own personal B.S. detector. However, it is far from foolproof.

When it comes to choosing who’s right, we are all in the same boat (or should I say kayak.) The advice I give to those who want the definitive answer is "rarely is there a definitive answer." I encourage the paddler to ask, "why should it be done that way." It is also great to directly ask the instructor or presenter "I was told it should be this way and you are telling me to do it the other way. What are the benefits of using your technique vs the others?"

Due to the differences I mentioned above regarding size, equipment and paddling goals, there will be different points of view. I think it is very important to know the reasons behind the techniques, methods and recommendations. If an "expert" is in front of the audience and they give their point of view, it is important to understand how they arrived at that point of view. It is also important to know what they are trying to achieve.

When I teach a capsize recovery class I show my students where I keep my pump, paddle float and stirrup. I could very easily tell them "this is where you have to keep your recovery equipment." Instead, I tell them how and why I keep it there and then tell them where other paddlers keep their equipment. I also tell them they will eventually choose their own location, but they need to start somewhere. As they practice their recoveries they will find the location that "works best for them."

The joy in listening to different presenters and taking classes from different instructors is to get different points of view. Sometimes it can get overwhelming. Just go down the beach at a symposium and speak with ten different kayak vendors. Your brain will be full and you may have more questions than answers. However, the differing viewpoints will get you thinking. You will find that the more experience you have, the easier it will be to sift through the different opinions and options.

I have recently been working with a very enthusiastic paddler who wants to excel and eventually become an instructor or guide. He is very inquisitive and thinks about what I teach him. He wants to buy a particular piece of equipment. While I would love to sell him the equipment, I told him I wouldn’t do so until he had a chance to try other brands. I told him he didn’t have enough experience to make a well-informed decision. My advice to him was to go to the symposium, try other pieces of equipment, take other classes, listen to other instructors and talk to the different equipment reps. After you have digested all the info from the symposium, we can then talk about what piece of equipment will work best for you. He is still digesting all of the info.

It is important to hear different views and opinions. If you ask the right questions and can focus on your goals you will soon find what works best for you. There will be some trial and error. Part of the learning process is making mistakes because we learn so much when we do make mistakes. Your challenge (as it is for all of us) is to make informed decisions and make the best choices you can. No one can really tell you who’s right. If they insist on telling you I would be suspicious. As the proverbial guru on the mountain often states "the answer lies within."


Wayne Horodowich, founder of The University of Sea Kayaking (USK), writes monthly articles for the USK web site. In addition Wayne has produced the popular "In Depth" Instructional Video Series for Sea Kayaking.

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