By Bill Vonnegut
No matter the kind of paddling you do, whether it is SUP, kayaking, or canoeing, you can always benefit from taking a day here and there to work on your form. Good form will not only conserve energy; it will also be easier on your body and can help prevent injury.
Often, I see paddlers moving their boats inefficiently by using lots of short strokes, throwing in braking strokes while trying to make forward progress, or making lots of bubbles and splashing with the paddle. This usually means you’re working way too hard to make a move. Other times, I come upon someone who sets their boat on edge, does a nice clean stroke, and then moves on like it's no big deal. My first thought always is: "That is someone who has spent some time practicing their technique and form."
But simply learning about proper technique doesn’t always translate to good form when you get out on the water. Practice is required to build those concepts into your muscle memory so they come naturally. Flat water is the perfect place to work this. After you have practiced the various strokes–starting with forward stroke basics and good torso rotation–take it a bit further and practice them while under stress. Paddle between pilings and piers and keep challenging yourself to do them quickly, but with good form. This is a great way to prepare yourself for situations where you’ll need to react quickly and efficiently.
This concept is very true for rolling too. I’ve noticed people who attend regular practice sessions at the pool progress faster than I did when I started out. Going to the weekly sessions helps build confidence in their roll which translates into pushing their skills and having fun on the water. Soon enough, I see them out tearing it up in the surf, exploring rock gardens, tide rips, or rough water paddling.
Finally, don’t underestimate the value of a quality paddling class. I believe one of the best ways to progress into this sport is to take courses from a good instructor. Classes will push your paddling and give you new things to work on. But practicing afterwards is key to making those new skills stick. Unfortunately, I often see new paddlers taking class after class and not paddling on their own. There are no shortcuts; once you learn something new it takes time and repetition for the move to become part of your muscle memory. Building a solid foundation of proper technique will make things much easier when when you take the step up to the next level. The best instructor in the world can only give you advice and ways to improve your skills, but they can't make you get out and practice what you just learned. That's your job!
More fun and fluidity will come with practice. Work on your weaker points and turn them into your strong points. Before long, you may just notice your efficiency improving.
–Bill Vonnegut is a sea kayak instructor at California Canoe & Kayak and member of the Neptune’s Rangers paddling posse. Check out an awesome VIDEO of Bill and the Rangers tearing up the rock gardens around the Bay Area.