Different strokes may work for different folks, but only the right technique is going to effortlessly propel you and your kayak forward. Gauteng’s Chad Andrews from Canoe Concepts shows us the basic paddle strokes kayakers use to efficiently move through the water, conserve energy and keep their craft on track. Even better, he throws in some practical advice to help make your next paddling experience that much safer.

Kayaking is fun. It also provides a great workout and connects you with nature. Just as importantly, as far as water activities go, it’s about as safe a sport as you can get. That said, even a little bit of training before heading out on your first mini-adventure goes a long way. Learning how to hold your paddle correctly, how to use your body to power each stroke and where to put your paddle when, helps put you in control – making you that much safer on the water. Throw in a little practice, not to mention a healthy dollop of common sense, and you’re good to go.

Upping your game

Statistically, it’s recreational water users who are most likely to get into trouble. Those taking part in competitive paddling activities have a much cleaner safety record – mainly because they tend to have undergone in-house training at their clubs.

Fortunately, learning how to handle your kayak correctly and stay safe isn’t rocket science. To find out more and pick up some tips, I spoke to Chad Andrews, owner of Canoe Concepts – one of South Africa’s oldest paddling establishments. Strongly influenced by his father, a hardcore paddler. Andrews cut his paddling teeth early, competing in his first Fish River Canoe Marathon when he was just 12 years old. Since then, his passion for canoe polo has seen him represent South Africa internationally three times. More importantly, he has a good-natured, hands-on approach and is very familiar with teaching newbies the ropes.

According to him, just three short, fun sessions on the water are enough for most people to grasp the basic techniques and learn how to recover from a dunking. Andrews elaborates: “Learning the basic paddle strokes and how to get back onto your kayak after falling off is easy, once you’re shown how. It can typically be covered in one 30-minute session, but I prefer beginners to have at least three, spread out over different days. That way, the techniques have a better chance of sinking in and becoming ingrained.”

The news for aspirant racers is just as good. Says Andrews: “You can go from a complete novice to competing in the Dusi Canoe Marathon after just a few month’s training… if you’re dedicated enough.”

Getting aboard

Creating a splash before you’ve even left the bank is one way to elicit a laugh and some good-natured ribbing from your mates. Here’s how you get into a sit-inside kayak while keeping your stability, not to mention your dignity, intact.

STEP 1: First place your paddle perpendicularly across the bank and kayak, then hold both in place by gripping the shaft and front of the cockpit together in one hand.

STEP 2: Lean all your weight onto your other hand on the bank.

STEP 3: Put your outside foot into the cockpit, ideally just a little off-centre to make the kayak lean slightly towards the bank.

Bring your other foot onboard in a way that it crosses closely behind the first.

Still keeping your hand on the bank to carry your weight, finally lower yourself slowly into the seat.

Pro Tip

  • Make sure you’re sitting comfortably before letting go of the bank. A common newbie mistake is to push off from the bank, then press down on the opposite side of the kayak to quickly adjust their posture. That’s when they invariably tip themselves into the drink.

Holding the paddle

Essentially, kayaking is a balance sport. As such, it relies much more on equilibrium and finesse than mere muscle – and it all starts with understanding how to correctly hold your paddle.

When holding the paddle above your head, both arms should be at right angles.

When holding the paddle normally in front of you, the knuckles on both hands should be pointing up and your hold loose and relaxed.

Pro Tip

  • Never tense up and firmly grip the shaft – all this does is cause unnecessary fatigue.

The forward stroke

Like a boxer delivering a knockout punch, the correct paddling technique requires you use your entire body. Relying solely on your arms not only causes you to tire quickly, but also gets you nowhere fast. The trick is to rely on your legs and torso, using your core muscles to rotate your upper body and provide driving power to each stroke.

STEP 1: First step is to set the kayak’s foot supports (or choose one of your moulded-into-the-hull options) so that both legs are slightly bent.

STEP 2: Sit up straight, or lean slightly forward.

STEP 3: To take a stroke on the right side, twist your torso anticlockwise so that the paddle’s right blade is facing forward.

STEP 4: Place the blade in the water close to the kayak near your feet, you want it to slice into the water with minimal disturbance.

STEP 5: The moment the blade fully penetrates the water, press against the foot support on the same side to transfer power up your leg and into your core.

  • Simultaneously unwind your upper body and pull the blade towards you, keeping the paddle as vertical as possible.
  • During the stroke your top hand should be at about eye height.
  • When your lower elbow lines up with your chest remove the paddle from the water.
  • With your left shoulder now facing forward, your body’s automatically set up for the next stroke on the opposite side.
  • This rhythmic motion continues indefinitely as you paddle forward – your waist acting like a massive hinge as it continuously flexes forward and back and from side to side.

Other Tips

  • In reality it’s the kayak that moves, not the paddle. What you’re actually doing is “planting” the paddle into the water, then using the resistance created to pull the boat forward.
  • Everyone has a natural left or right physical bias. Rookies often make the mistake of paddling unevenly (powerful stroke one side, weak on the other) as they unconsciously favour their dominant sides.
  • Don’t extend the stroke further back than where your elbow lines up with your chest. Apart from causing unnecessary drag, there’s also a chance you scoop water and pull yourself overboard.

 The backstroke

Kayaks don’t come with brakes. The forward momentum paddling generates guarantees they’ll keep gliding through the water for some distance until you, or an obstruction, intervenes to stop them. The backstroke not only stops you in a hurry but, when executed properly, lets you to hit reverse – giving you the ability to avoid collisions as well as manoeuvre yourself backwards out of tight situations.

As with the forward stroke, make sure you’re sitting up straight and holding the paddle correctly.

This is the only stoke that uses the paddle backwards, so keep it orientated the same way you would for a forward stroke.

To take a backstroke on the right, rotate your torso clockwise so that your shoulders are parallel with the kayak.

Looking over your shoulder, aim the paddle blade close to the rear of the kayak. With the blade submerged, unwind your torso to push the blade forward.

The moment the stroke is over snap the blade out of the water. Continue the rotation of your torso to the left and repeat if necessary.

  • Try keep your top hand level with your eyes throughout the stroke.


  • Combine a backstroke with a forward stroke on the opposite side a few times while stationary, and you can spin your kayak 360 degrees on the spot.
  • When paddling backwards always look where your going. The best way is to rotate your head in conjunction with your torso and take a peek over your shoulder with every stroke.

Sweep stroke (turning)

Turning can be accomplished in a number of ways. The simplest is to just drop a blade into the water on either side of the kayak – the drag created will immediately turn your boat in that direction. The down side of this method is a loss of speed. To maintain forward momentum during a turn, you need to master the sweep stroke.

To execute a stroke on the right, twist your torso anticlockwise.

  • While still maintaining your hand spacing, shift their position along the paddle’s shaft so its longer side extends in the direction of the stroke.

Unwind your torso to pull the blade through the water in an arc, first away from the bow of the kayak then all the way back towards stern.

Put some power into your body’s rotation to optimize the stroke.

Finish the stroke by lifting the paddle when it gets near the stern.

  • Your paddle should now be set up for a normal forward stroke on the left.

Pro Tip

  • Use your hips to balance, keeping your upper body vertical and weight inside the kayak.
  • A common mistake is to reach too far over the kayak’s side when arching the paddle away from the bow (front), causing the paddler to become unbalanced and sometimes topple over.

 Draw stroke (going sideways)

Having the ability to move your kayak sideways is important – whether you’re wanting to get out at a jetty or simply bum an energy bar from a paddle buddy while on the water. Here’s how the basic draw stroke, sometimes called the T-stroke, works.

Rotate your upper body sideways, facing the direction you want to go.

Reach the paddle out from the hip and place it into the water as far away from the kayak as possible.

Use your lower hand to pull the paddle towards you, making sure the face of the blade remains parallel to the hull.

Your upper hand should be positioned just above eye level.

  • Just before the blade reaches the side of the kayak twist it 90 degrees, allowing it to slice through the water and away from the hull.
  • Remove blade from water and repeat.

Pro Tip

  • If the blade starts to get sucked beneath your kayak never apply force, you could cause the hull to flip over. Instead, simply let go and start over.


Falling into the drink is as much a part of kayaking as paddling is – so it’s not a matter of “if”, but “when” it’s going to happen to you. The self-recovery process for sit-inside and sit-on-top kayaks is pretty similar. That said, because sit-on-tops are wider (making them inherently more stable) and have open decks, they are by far the easiest to get back onto.

Here’s how you get back into a sit-inside kayak after falling out:

STEP 1: Make sure your paddle gets pushed against the kayak by the current or wind and not swept away out of reach.

STEP 3: Flip the kayak back the right way up.

STEP 4: Floating on your stomach and kicking with your legs, pull yourself onto the hull behind the cockpit.

  • Try and keep your weight as low as possible throughout the entire process.

STEP 4: With your legs dangling down on either side, pull yourself forward towards the cockpit, keeping your weight along the kayak’s centreline.

STEP 5: When you can grip the cockpit, edge yourself towards the seat. Drop your behind into the cockpit, keeping your legs dangling outside.

STEP 6: Bring your legs in one by one, using your paddle to balance while doing so.

Pro Tip

  • Wearing a proper paddling life jacket during a self-recovery helps conserve much-needed energy, making the process much easier and safer.
  • If deciding to swim to the bank instead, quickly flip the kayak over and drag it behind you.

When in doubt get out

Common sense should dictate how much training you require. Andrews explains: “If all you want to do is mess about on a dam on a perfect summer’s day, as long as you’re wearing a proper paddling life jacket, chances are you’ll be fine. That’s because, if the worst happens, there’s a better chance someone can get to you before you get into serious difficulty.”

However, his laid-back attitude changes radically when it comes to rivers. “Fast flowing seasonal rivers can be deadly. It would be extremely irresponsible to paddle down one unsupervised without first completing a River Proficiency Course and learning how to properly read the river.”

His rationale makes perfect sense. As summer rains swell a river, all manner of debris gets pulled downstream into the flow – only to congregate around man-made structures such as weirs and bridges. Says Andrews: “All it takes is a tree to get caught sideways across a bridge, then a plastic bag, then another branch… Before you know it, the blockage can become 300 metres deep. Get sucked into that and you’re in serious trouble.” As a consequence, he’s always on the lookout for suspicious eddies that indicate disruptions in the river’s natural flow.

Whenever the way ahead looks dicey, Andrews sticks faithfully to the golden paddling rule: “When in doubt get out”. He parks his kayak securely on the bank, then takes a walk to check out the obstruction up close. Only when he knows exactly what he’s dealing with does he plan his next move.

This established paddling approach to tackling obstacles is just as relevant when encountering rapids, which can change their characteristics dramatically depending on water levels. – (c) 2017 NavWorld

  • For more information contact Chad Andrews at Canoe Concepts on 011-477 0785 or visit canoeconcepts.co.za

About The Author

Sean Woods

Originally a photographer for the Star newspaper in the bad old days, Sean Woods turned to writing after the first democratic elections in '94. The career shift paid serious dividends, culminating in him becoming associate editor for Popular Mechanics magazine with a number of technology writing awards under his belt. His interests include anything to do with boats, motorcycles and all those fancy tech gadgets that help the modern world go around.

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