Ironically, the stroke used most often in kayaking can take the longest to perfect. Watch, learn, and practice your forward stroke--you'll be tracking straight and sleek, rather than spinning in circles, in no time. The photos and instructions below describe a stroke on the paddler's right side.
Grip your paddle firmly but not so your knuckles turn white. The top, in this case left, hand is open with the palm against the paddle shaft. This allows the shaft to pivot naturally in your hands, preventing wrist and forearm discomfort or injury that can be caused by a tight grip.
1. Keeping the paddle close to the side of the boat, put the right blade in the water by rotating your right shoulder forward and extending your right arm. "Spear" the water with both hands. Your top hand should stay at least a foot from your head.
2. With good torso rotation, your top hand will cross the center line of the kayak.
3. At the blade's point of entry, your right shoulder is rotated forward and your bottom (right) arm is extended fully. The paddle is then "speared" into the water with both arms.
4. The paddle is buried to the top of the blade, then pulled with your body while your bottom (right) arm is kept straight. Push against the foot brace with your right leg as you pull.
5. Continue rotating your torso to pull yourself toward the paddle. The bottom arm begins to bend, but most of your power is still coming from torso rotation.
6. Exit near your hip. The height of your top (left) hand should remain fairly level throughout the stroke and only begin dropping once the paddle has exited the water.
7. The paddle is lifted straight up with the right arm, while it is feathered (if using a feathered paddle) and preparation is made for the next stroke. Your elbow should never bend past 90 degrees during any portion of the stroke.
8. The catch begins on the left side and the stroke repeats.
For more information, see two-time Olympic Gold medalist Greg Barton's DVD "The Forward Stroke."