One of the most valuable strokes for any boater is the low brace. Here are two ways to use it: to maintain stability in a rapid, and to move around in a hole. Because the low brace is seldom practiced, it may not feel “normal” or reliable. All it takes is repetition to build your confidence. You want the low brace to become your instinctive choice when balance is a concern because it is easier on the shoulders than the high brace. Let’s review good form on flatwater.
Sit upright and forward. Arch your back while pushing your navel toward the front of the cockpit. Feel your pelvis roll forward, your knees and thighs press up under the deck, and your spine grow taller. Now, hold your paddle shaft horizontally in front of your body, and bring it closer to your navel by rolling your blade forward and down. With your elbows directly over your hands, the backside of the blade rests flat on the surface of the water out from the area of your thigh. The higher the elbows, the more the shoulders move forward and over the shaft. This safe and strong position provides our greatest degree of stability. Now, tilt your boat a few degrees by shifting your ribs toward your bracing side and putting pressure on the opposite knee. Don’t overedge. The low brace encourages the paddler not to lean on the paddle, but to control the degree of boat lean with the body.
The higher the elbows, the flatter the bracing blade sits on the surface, and the more pure support is achieved. Conversely, the lower the elbows, the more vertical the blade becomes relative to the surface. This can be used to push the boat backward or turn it. The advantage of a beveled blade is that it can provide both support and movement. When you’re playing in a hole, the degree of “elbows up” depends on whether you want to move around or need to brace. When you’re using the low brace to maintain balance in a rapid, the “elbows-up” position is the ticket. Say, for example, the strategy of running the rapid has you riding a pillow around a rock. As you encounter the pillow, place this flat blade on it. The blade slides freely, giving you support while helping to maintain your balanced posture.
If you feel unbalanced as you practice the brace (and you aren’t over-edging), check to see if your elbows are directly over the hands. A functional low brace requires getting the elbows high enough so that the blade is flat. Looking at it helps.
Here are some drills. The idea is to ingrain this position in a stable environment, then proceed to more challenging places on the river. First, practice while peeling into and out of eddies. Be sure you get the boat fully into the new current before you stop paddling forward and use the low brace to glide through a turn.
Next, go to a small, friendly hole, and with exaggerated elbows up, practice peeling out of the hole using this same gliding low brace. Keep the brace in front of the body and keep the blade in close to the boat to prevent over-edging. Once this feels balanced, enter the hole and stop the peel-out using the low brace with a beveled blade. As the blade anchors, push your butt backward from it. It takes some abdominal effort to stop the speed of the boat. If successful, you will be sidesurfing with a low brace.
Next, enter the hole from downstream so that you must use the low brace to turn the boat into a sidesurf. First practice turning the boat into a sidesurf on your right, and then on your left. Be sure to get your posture forward as the boat turns sideways. When running rapids, look for waves and pillows. Approach these diagonally or sideways, and use your low brace as you encounter them. With all this practice to back you up, you’ll find yourself using your reliable and safe low brace instinctively on the river.
Mary DeRiemer is an ACA-certified ITE. Her Web site features useful information about trips and lessons. Log on to adventure kayaking.com.