Embracing the Enemy
Once you have learned the high brace and low brace, you are on the road to perpetual stability. You won’t always have time to do the textbook braces, especially when your paddle is buried under the boat on the side you are going over on. To get there, you will have to practice bringing your paddle back to the surface from any strange position you happen to find it in, providing support for yourself while protecting your shoulders and other body parts from undue stress. How does one accomplish this? More practice, obviously. This can be very entertaining and rewarding “work.” After all, not all the fun is had while just getting from point a to point b. You will find paddlers out performing all kinds of crazy-looking stunts, all in the name of “refining their skills.” The kind of drills we are talking about here are best performed in warm water, where you won’t mind getting very wet and spending some time upside down when necessary. Pool practice is great from fall through spring, but if you practice outside, be sure you are dressed for immersion.
First of all, practice turning your forward stroke into a sweeping high brace. This is done by rolling the blade back until the power face is facing down, almost flat on the water. In this position, you can lean on the paddle for support while you skim it across the surface to about three-fourths of the way to the stern. Remember to always rotate your torso with these strokes, so your shoulder does not get behind the plane of your torso (keep it parallel to the paddle shaft). Once you have brought it to the back, roll the blade over so the back side of the blade is facing down, and skim it back to the front of the boat. This is basically a reverse sweep turned into a sweeping low brace.
By now, you might have already found out what happens if you don’t leave the leading edge of your paddle slightly elevated–your paddle dives and drags you down with it! Begin by practicing with no weight on the blade, until you can easily skim it back and forth without burying it. If it does start to dive, you can do one of two things: change the angle of the blade from a diving to a climbing angle and continue, or move the paddle back in the direction it came from, which would be a climbing angle.
This practice should give you the idea that you can brace while your paddle is in any position during a forward or reverse stroke. You may find yourself using this exercise when you are in rough, windy conditions and need to lean your boat to carve a turn. You can do a sweeping forward high brace for the turn, and skim the paddle back to the front in the low-brace position for added insurance. This will allow you to maintain your tilt throughout the turn, which will make your boat turn much faster.
Another recovery to practice entails burying your blade under your boat on a draw stroke, and figuring out how to bring it back out to the side without flipping. Slicing it out quickly and performing a quick high or low brace is a start. As you play with these strokes, you will find more and more ways to save yourself from an untimely swim, and have a whole lot of fun at the same time.
John Meyer is a co-owner and head sea kayak instructor at Northwest Outdoor Center in Seattle.