Paddle Forward, Faster Kayak Technique

This kayak technique article on how to paddle forward, faster was originally published inAdventure Kayakmagazine.

Ninety-nine percent of the time you spend in your sea kayak is devoted to paddling forward. It is fair to say that this is the most important skill that we learn. It is also the skill in which you will see the greatest amount of variance between paddlers and the greatest need for improvement.

The high angle forward stroke described here is one of the most recognised forms of forward paddling technique used on the sea. I do, however, encourage every paddler to develop a variety of forward paddling styles; this enables adaptations to be made for environmental conditions.

High angle is the most efficient forward paddling style. It gives you maximum speed in your sea kayak and, when done well, maximizes the use of your larger body muscle groups. However, it requires good posture, balance, body rotation and appropriately conditioned muscle groups for comfortable paddling day in, day out.


Catch Phase

  • Body posture upright with no forward bobbing.
  • Arm extended for maximum reach.
  • Relaxed top hand prevents wrist strain, 
improves circulation and reach.
  • Maximum reach gained through good 
torso rotation.
  • Paddle entering water cleanly and near 
vertical, like spearing a fish.
  • Power put on paddle immediately.


Power Phase

  • Unwind rotation of body for power.

  • Push foot peg on the same side as paddle blade for power transfer through core muscles.

  • Knees/thighs relaxed in kayak to allow power transfer.
  • Paddle stays at a high angle so the blade tracks near vertically alongside the kayak.
  • Paddle is held away from body throughout to maximize rotation.

  • Top hand guides and pushes paddle to prepare for next catch phase and stays about level with eyes.


Blade Exit

  • Blade exits at or just before hip.

  • As blade exits it is sliced out with no scooping of water.

  • Top hand is high and body is in position for final rotation for the next catch.


Final Tip

Many kayakers hold their paddles too close to their bodies when performing strokes, preventing full rotation and control. Pretend you have a beach ball between you and your paddle to avoid your paddle coming too close.

DOUG COOPER is the author of Sea Kayak Handling (Pesda Press, 2009), a manual for beginner and intermediate paddlers. A BCU Level 5 Sea and Whitewater Coach, Cooper is based in Aviemore, Scotland, where he is the Head of Paddlesports at the Scottish National Outdoor Training Centre.



Think of torso rotation in three parts: an active phase, a passive phase and a pause. Thinking in these terms will help you avoid carrying the blade in the water beyond your hip, and help you plant the blade far enough forward. » Nigel Foster, BCU level 5 coach, St. Petersburg, FL

Rotation starts at the sit bones. Most paddlers lock their pelvis into a forward-only position during the for- ward stroke, rotating from just the belly button up. This doesn’t engage all of the core muscles. Use a slippery seat pan that allows your hips to slide when rotating. » Shawna Franklin, BCU level 4 coach, Orcas Island, WA

Doug stresses relaxed knees/thighs to allow power transfer. If you rotate left, your right knee bends to give that hip room to move forward. This creates a strong position to drive the unwinding of the body with your leg. If your legs are jammed into the thigh braces, you can’t use them for rotation. Don’t worry about staying upright without being wedged into the thigh braces—except for recovery situations or supporting an extreme edge, balance comes from the core and hips, not the knees. »Ginni Callahan, ACA level 5 instructor and BCU level 4 coach, Cathlamet, WA

During the catch phase, emphasize forward stroke expert and sprint coach Dan Henderson’s advice: Save the rotation. Make sure the blade is fully submerged before any body rotation begins. Too many paddlers rotate as they stab the paddle into the water, creating an air pocket that reduces power and efficiency. » Leon Sommé, BCU level 4 coach, Orcas Island, WA

Check your rotation by watching your top hand during the power phase. This hand should maintain a consistent height across your kayak, as opposed to dropping down toward your deck. » Meaghan Hennessy, BCU level 3 coach and Paddle Canada level 2 instructor trainer, Vancouver, BC

This article originally appeared in Adventure Kayak, Early Summer 2011. Download our freeiPad/iPhone/iPod Touch App or Android App or read it here. 


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