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Bending Branches

Staying Upright in a Kayak

By Wayne Horodowich

This article was inspired by the DVD, "USK's Bracing Clinic -The Art Of Staying Upright." The focus of the video is wrapped around one of the core teaching philosophies here at the University of Sea Kayaking, which is: "It is easier to stay upright, than to get upright."

I am a big proponent of learning how to roll. I think rolling, like many other skills, should be an essential part of a paddler's skill set. However, the ability to roll a kayak is not the end all. Everyone misses a roll sooner or later, so it is important to have other capsize recovery techniques at your disposal aside from a roll. If you develop reliable bracing techniques and awareness of capsize environments, you may never need your roll. One of Derek Hutchinson's quotes that made an impression on me is, "Performing a roll is a sign of success. Having to roll is a sign of failure." I spent so much time working on my rolls I didn't care much about my braces, because I knew I would pop up if I went over. However, when one is upside down in their kayak they are not really paddling. They are in capsize recovery mode. If I had spent more time on my bracing skills I wouldn't have gone over so often. As my body has gotten older and unfortunately slower, I freely admit I am glad I changed my attitude about rolling and bracing years ago. Now I feel very confident in my bracing skills and only seem to need my roll when practicing. Don, one of my paddling partners here in Washington says, "Why roll when you can brace?"

Even though a well-executed roll looks effortless, it take a lot more energy to get your body and your kayak upright when performing a roll, compared to just getting your body back over you kayak when you do a brace. One of the frustrations that students face is the process of learning how to brace. Since most people really don't like to capsize it makes it difficult to practice bracing. When students are anxious about capsizing they seem to stiffen up. When one stiffens up the chance of a capsize increases. It becomes a vicious cycle. In my 25+ years of teaching kayaking, I have observed that most paddlers who capsize do not have a problem getting their paddle into the correct brace position. They do however have difficulty manipulating their body and moving their kayak properly to get back over their balance point.

Knowing the concerns and difficulties that face the average paddler is what we used to develop our bracing clinic. Over the years I have assembled a highly successful, user friendly sequence of drills and techniques to help the paddler develop their body recovery techniques along with proper blade and boat movements in order to learn reliable bracing skills. Rather than starting in the kayak we focus on the blade and body movements without the kayak. When you can perform your skills without the kayak then we add the kayak. At the end of our one-day bracing clinic the participants all feel more comfortable with their bracing skills.

Part of the art of staying upright is being a smart and aware paddler. Even though a slap brace works, why use a brace that has momentary support as compared to a sweep or sculling brace that have longer support times? Your kayak edges farther before your high brace hits water as compared to the amount of edge when you use a low brace. Yet the low brace is under utilized in the paddling community. The sooner you can stop your kayak from going over the less energy you need to get your body balanced over your kayak. Therefore, paddlers should try to become experts with their low braces.

Another consideration for staying upright is the length of your lever. The longer the lever the greater the support you can get from it. The Greenland paddlers know this and utilize extended paddle techniques all the time in their bracing, rolling and paddling. In recent years the trend has been toward shorter paddles with a high stroke angle when paddling forward. The need for extended paddle techniques becomes greater as paddle get shorter. There are times when one needs greater support and greater power that can only be gotten from a longer paddle.

Changing your paddling style can be a benefit as water conditions change. While a high stroke angle may yield more power, is it the best choice for a forward stroke on a rough and windy day? Would a lower angled, supportive stroke be a better choice for the rougher conditions? One has to wonder why the Greenland paddlers developed low angle stroke techniques? I am sure the harsh conditions and strong winds in their environment was a major factor in the evolution in their techniques. Knowing how and when to use different paddling styles is another aspect of the art of staying upright.

As a new paddler matures there are certain lessons they learn. One category of those lessons is what I call "non-thinking capsizes." There are just some things we have to learn the hard way. However, as an instructor I have included some of my favorite "non-thinking capsize" moments in the video for the novice paddle with the hopes they heed my advice and start thinking. If not, then they can practice their capsize recovery skills. It is also important to know there are different environments that increase your chance of capsizing. Knowing those environments and how to handle yourself in those conditions is another component of staying upright.

As you can see the "Art of staying upright" is more than just learning a brace. The list of subjects involves the following:

  • Understanding boat stability and capsizing
  • Knowing the different braces available
  • Learning how to control your paddle
  • Moving your body correctly
  • Coordinating the boat, body and blade movements involved in bracing
  • Developing supportive strokes
  • Adding extended paddle techniques to your repertoire
  • Being aware of bracing environments
  • Having drills and exercises to develop and maintain your bracing skills
Part of paddling is developing your own styles and philosophies. I love listening to different instructors; manufacturers, designers and paddlers tell me how they think things should be done. Some of their opinions are similar and some are different. Rather than worrying about who is right, I try to put their opinions into my own sense of order. As you develop your own paddling philosophies I want you to think about how you wish to spend your energy? Do you want to be paddling or climbing back onto your kayak? Do you want to stay upright and or do you want to be capsizing? Would you rather be underwater with the fish or stay kayaking on the surface? Would you like to feel comfortable on rough days because your strokes are providing support? If your desire is to stay upright then you need to start putting work into the art of staying upright, which is more than just learning a brace. As always the choice is yours. I have learned over the years that it is much easier for me to stay upright than to get upright, which is why I have spent so much time working on bracing skills.

In closing, I would like to say that if you are interested in embracing the "Art of staying upright" we have incorporated the above list as the topics in our "Bracing Clinic" video. In usual USK fashion we have packed a lot of information into the video. The video is 1 hour and 51 minutes long and it fits nicely into our "In-Depth Instructional Video Series." Since the video is only available on DVD, we included 52 different chapter stops and a written menu insert in the DVD box to make navigating through the video easier than just using the on screen menus. The practice lists mentioned on the video can also be found on the USK web site for easy download when you go off to practice. You can find the video available at the Paddling.net Store. Our students have found our Bracing Clinic very valuable, I trust you will too.



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.

DVD's Available from Paddling.net

- Bracing Clinic
- Capsize Recoveries & Rescue Procedures
- Essential Kayaking Strokes
- ABCs Of The Surf Zone
- Beyond the Cockpit - featuring Derek Hutchinson

From the University of Sea Kayaking
Directed by Wayne Horodowich




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