Have you ever stopped to consider what the phrase ‘keep your paddle in the water’ actually means? If you did you wouldn’t ever recommend it to a beginner whitewater paddler. The paddlers and instructors who give this advice are well intended and what they are really expressing is: “Keep paddling to maintain your stability through rapids.” When beginners hear ‘keep your paddle in the water,’ they end up doing a bad version of a rudder dragging their paddle in the water back by their stern while using their blade to steer. This is a really bad position to be in for the following reasons:
1. When you steer from the back quadrant of your kayak you loose your ‘paddlers box’ which in turn creates instability. This body position is essentially the set up for a roll. Why would you put your body in that position if your goal is to stay upright?
2. To enhance stability in rapids it’s important to move as fast or faster than the current. Every time you rudder or drag your paddle in the water to steer you lose momentum and that makes you more vulnerable to flipping over.
3. Paddlers who keep their paddles in the water in a rudder position also tend to lean back when coming up to waves instead of sitting up tall with a slight forward tilt so that they are ready to paddle through the waves with energy and commitment. The rudder position is a defensive body position while forward strokes and stern draws require an offensive body position. It’s more fun when you feel like you’re charging into the rapids rather than leaning away in fear.
4. Keeping your paddle in the water in a rudder position for steering does nothing to strengthen your core. Using forward strokes in combination with corrective strokes like the stern draw help make you strong. When you feel strong you have more confidence.
If you give this advice to beginners you’re actually setting your students and friends up to be unstable and making it more difficult for them to progress into harder whitewater in the future. If beginners look up to you as a mentor then what you say and how you say it is very important for their success as paddlers and your effectiveness as a leader. I have heard ‘keep your paddle in the water’ for years and I’m sure I’ve given that advice in the past too because it’s a common phrase that we hear in whitewater kayak instruction. Unfortunately we’ve taken it’s true meaning for granted.
In the past couple of years especially, I’ve noticed that when I encourage my students to paddle forward instead of steering from the back, they often say: “But I was taught always keep your paddle in the water!” They become confused and I clarify that it is important for them to keep paddling through waves and rapids, and when they feel nervous, but that doesn’t mean actually keeping your blade in the water at all times without ever taking it out. When they discover active forward paddling and corrective strokes they tend to be more successful in maneuvering through rapids and they also feel more confident. Unfortunately steering from the stern is a difficult habit to break. That’s why I encourage all of you who are instructors/mentors to use clear language, and I encourage those of you who steer from the back to start breaking the habit now! Take your paddle out of the water and start using it in an effective, powerful way and you’ll be more successful and feel more confident.
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