Paddle Efficiently

Six Tips for Efficient Travel by Canoe or Kayak

Even after you've mastered the art of a finely-tuned paddling stroke, there are many other ways to increase your paddling efficiency. Some depend on logistical factors, some depend on gear, some depend on navigational techniques. Here, in no particular order, are six simple ways to travel efficiently by canoe or kayak:

Thin Your Blades

I'm amazed how many paddlers still don't understand how profoundly their choice of paddle impacts their paddling performance. Where efficiency matters most, narrow-bladed paddles should be the rule. Although narrower paddle blades generate less power per stroke and require more strokes to accelerate a canoe or kayak to cruising speed, they also require less effort from the paddler to keep things moving once you're underway. That's why so-called "touring" paddles have noticeably narrower blades than those on "whitewater," "general purpose," or "standard" paddles. Over the course of a long trip the efficiency gains offered by a narrow-bladed "touring" paddle can amount to enormous differences in comfort, pace, and fatigue.

The ultimate in blade efficiency is the Greenland paddle, which shares more in common with the shape of a long, thin stick than it does with the common European paddle. That's because the blades on a Greenland paddle are typically just 2 to 3 inches wide (and several feet long). In spite of their narrowness, they deliver excellent propulsion with surprisingly little effort, allowing you to paddle further, for longer. More and more touring kayakers are switching to the Greenland paddle for exactly that reason. In fact, unless you typically paddle in very shallow areas (where the added length of the Greenland paddle may be detrimental to performance), you really ought to try out a Greenland paddle for yourself. You might love it.

Note: Narrow-bladed paddles may lack sufficient acceleration power for high-intensity situations which require quick maneuvering through swift currents, strong surf, fierce wind and waves, or dangerous obstructions. For this reason, many expeditioners carry a fatter-bladed paddle as a "spare"—a wise decision for those who intend to venture into unpredictable waters. For more information about paddle design and paddling performance, read choosing the right kayak paddle.

Work Smarter: Angle and Grip Adjustments

While there's not a lot you can do to reduce the actual amount of work you do during any given part of your stroke, you can vary which muscle groups are doing the work. By trading the effort back and forth between different muscle groups, you can give other muscles a partial rest—allowing you to squeeze more stamina out of your arms, shoulders, and torso. All you have to do is vary the angle of your stroke and the spacing between your hands: If you paddle a low-angle stroke, more of the effort will shift to your arms and torso. If you paddle a high-angle stroke, more of the effort will shift to your shoulders and obliques. If you bring your hands closer together, much of the paddling burden will shift to the shoulders and tricepts; if you spread your hands apart, more of the effort will shift to your bicepts and torso.

Experiment with different paddling angles and hand spacings to feel the difference in which muscles groups are doing most of the work, then vary these factors intentionally to relax the strain on fatigued muscle groups while you paddle. You should see an increase in overall stamina, and a reduction in your need for rest stops.

Note: Be careful not to vary your paddling angle or your hand spacing so extremely that it causes you physical discomfort or strain. If you do, you may do more harm than good by increasing the likelihood of tears, pulls, sprains, strains, or other injuries.

Stay Deep: The 4-Foot Rule

Water less than four feet deep exerts noticeably greater friction upon a kayak—enough to cut your speed by a full knot or more! Don't believe me? Try it yourself. Paddle through an area that is about three feet deep and pay attention to how much effort you exert. Then paddle toward a deeper area. As soon as the depth increases beyond four feet, you should feel your effort ease and your speed increase. The kayak will suddenly feel as thought it's gliding (instead of plowing) across the water and if you have a GPS handy, you'll see your speed jump. I've become so sensitive to the difference in the feeling of paddling in shallower or deeper waters that I can tell, by feeling alone, when a river or lake shallows out or a hidden sandbar or obstruction passes beneath my hull. On an expedition, I always seek out waters deeper than four feet, even if it means adjusting my course to go around a long, shallow section. The benefits to speed and efficiency are well worth it.

Intentional Deviation: To Err is Human—and Wise

When you paddle directly toward a small, unfamiliar, and inconspicuous destination (like a campsite hidden by trees), it is surprisingly easy to "miss" your target. The problem is that when you do, you can't be certain whether you've missed it to the left or to the right. Worse, if you go off searching in exactly the wrong direction, you end up wasting time and effort. To avoid this hassle and establish control over the situation, err deliberately to one side of your destination by a few hundred yards. When you arrive near shore, you'll know exactly which direction to turn as you begin looking for your target.

Harness the Waves (part 1): Ride in Rhythm

Many paddlers fight the waves a lot more than they should. If the waves are rolling up from behind, for example, it does little good to paddle to your own rhthym. Often, you can maintain a much faster pace, for less effort, if you time your stroke to match the rhythm of the waves instead. If you can get your kayak on the forward face of a wave and hold it there, the effect is a lot like paddling downhill. The wave energy pushes you along, so all you need to do is maintain enough effort to stay slightly ahead of it. Eventually, the wave will collapse under you or wash by, but you can catch the next wave behind it and continue on.

If the waves are coming head-on, and they're large rollers, paddle up the face of the wave, but slow your stroke as you crest the top and begin to slide down the back. The kayak will often propel itself at that point, so there's no use wasting energy. When you approach the trough of the wave (the low point), start paddling again so you can maintain speed up the face of the next wave, and so on. Over a long distance, budgeting your energy in this fashion will make a huge difference in stamina.

Harness the Waves (part 2): Directional Geometry

Waves coming in at strange angles, like quartering waves, are often the most taxing for paddlers. Often, they can't be surfed, and normally they do a lot more to throw you off-course than head-on or following waves. Sometimes, you just have to deal with them and put up with sore shoulders (from tiresome corrective strokes). Other times, however, it may be much easier to increase the length of your journey by deliberately turning off course. If the wind is coming from the forward quarter (from ahead of you, off to one side), turn into the wind and waves just enough to reduce the need for corrective strokes and to let the waves break across the bow with less commotion (see the pink and blue courses in the diagram below). Hold this course for awhile until your destination gradually swings downwind of you (usually, at least halfway across the crossing), then turn straight toward your destination. If you're lucky and you've selected the right trajectory, you'll be able to surf the waves in the rest of the way!

If the wind is coming from the rearward quarter (from behind you, off to one side), reverse the technique: turn downwind just enough to surf the waves for at least the first half of the crossing, then turn and paddle back into the waves to reach your destination (see the yellow and orange courses in the diagram below). If the wind and waves are especially rough, you may even wish to surf past your destination a short distance, then paddle back to it head-on into the brunt of the weather.

Although technically you travel more distance this way (sometimes much more), it is often much easier than employing taxing sweep strokes to hold a straighter, shorter course. In large waves or very high winds, it can also be much safer and more fun. Try it out on short, choppy crossings first to see if it works for you. It won't save you mileage, it may not save you time, but it will help you conserve short-term energy and reduce the likelihood of sore shoulders.

Go with the Flow: Current Cues

This tip is especially helpful when paddling shallow, winding rivers. The shortest distance around any bend in the river may seem to be the inside path, but the outside of the bend often offers swifter currents and deeper waters. If you cut across the inside of the bend to save distance, you may very well find yourself bottoming out on sandbars or ploughing through thin water, costing you speed and effort. Instead, keep an eye on the current and stick to swifter, deeper water. Although you may technically travel more distance by following the prevailing current, the efficiency gains can be quite remarkable over a long distance, not only reducing fatigue, but allowing you to paddle further, for longer.

The same principle often holds true even through relatively straight sections of river. Although the river may look straight, the deepest, swiftest water typically follows a meandering course that veers back and forth from bank to bank. Pay attention to the tell-tale ripples caused by branches, sticks, reeds, and other debris to determine the prevailing direction of the current, then wind your way down the river in accordance with those signs. Once again, criss-crossing the river may technically lengthen your journey, but with fewer bottom-outs and less time ploughing through dead water (no current), you'll conserve energy over the long haul. You'll also cut down on the exasperation of having to get out and drag your boat through shallow areas.

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© 2006, Wesley Kisting


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