Kayak skills: Don’t flip out, brace yourself!

Elbow up, flat (not power) side of paddle up -- that's the way to start a strong brace and stay inside your kayak. Photo Jeff Little
Elbow up, flat (not power) side of paddle on same plane as water — that’s the way to start a strong brace and stay inside your kayak. Photo Jeff Little

By Jeff Little

The most common question I hear about a kayak from customers attending paddle shop demo days is “How stable is it?” The fear of flipping drives many kayak anglers to buy a boat that is much wider than it needs to be. There’s nothing wrong with wide kayaks. They are great for standing up and sight fishing. But buying a wide load kayak because you are fearful of flipping is counterproductive. Width for the sake of stability sacrifices speed. Dispense with the fear by boosting your kayak skills and learning how to brace.

A brace is simply a downward thrust of the paddle with the blade on the same plane of the water’s surface. This whitewater skill brings your center of gravity back over the kayak’s seat. Practice it on calm water, so when you find yourself feeling tippy in turbulent water, the reflex to brace will be automatic.

The following steps are for practicing a high brace. There is a low brace, but for most kayak fishing applications, a high brace is preferred.

  1. Place your paddle blade flat along the surface, non-power face down. Your elbow should be at a 90 degree bend, and your elbow should be positioned directly over your outer hand gripping the paddle shaft. It’s a little bit of an awkward position, but you should be purposeful in sticking your elbow upward, directly over your hand.
  2. Lean your kayak such that your center of gravity is over the rail instead of your seat. Punch crisply downward with the flat paddle blade. This will counter the effect of your lean, centering your torso’s weight over your seat again.
  3. At the most downward part of the motion, rotate your paddle blade 90 degrees so that it can slice upward out of the water effortlessly.
second_brace
Push hard on the flat of the paddle blade to brace against the outward lead and return your center of gravity to the middle of the seat.

Make sure to remove all your fishing gear, and find water deep enough to not hit bottom before you start bracing practice. Progressively lean further on each attempt. Practice your brace on either side until failure. You’ll be surprised how far into a lean you can save yourself from flipping. Note: if you don’t take this exercise all the way to a flip, you’ll never fully understand the range of leaning that your kayak skills can save yourself from.

When you reach the extent of the brace, turn the paddle 90 degrees so it can slice back to the surface without resistance.
When you reach the extent of the brace, turn the paddle 90 degrees so it can slice back to the surface without resistance.

Once you do flip, you’ll have the opportunity to practice another important skill: reboarding. If you’ve never done it, you won’t be prepared to do it when you really need it. Put your paddle somewhere that it won’t be in the way of your reboarding, but close enough to reach once you’re back on the kayak. Center yourself on the side of the kayak near the seat. While kicking forcefully to launch your body onto the seat belly down, reach across the seat to the far side. Grasp whatever you can on the far side, and shove the boat underneath your torso while continuing to kick. Once your belly button is on the seat, you can roll over in the direction of the back rest of the seat and put your butt where it belongs.

Having practiced both of these skills, you’ll no longer fear the flip. Reading this article and understanding it conceptually isn’t enough. Certain skills need to be put into action in order to kick in as a reflex when you need them. Do it while the water is still warm and you might save yourself a dunking in cold water later this year. Happy turtling!

You will go in the water someday no matter your kayak skills, so best add the skill of reboarding to your bag of tricks ASAP!
You will go in the water someday no matter your kayak skills, so best add the skill of reboarding to your bag of tricks ASAP!

Jeff Little is co-authoring a book with Juan Veruete called River Kayak Fishing. It covers all of the paddling and angling skills needed by river kayak anglers, and features all of the topics covered in the newly formed American Canoe Association class for river kayak anglers. It will be released in early 2017.