Canoeing and Kayaking are fairly accessible sports for beginners. The boats themselves are the simplest of vessels – they consist of a lightweight symmetrical hull, pointed at both ends, with an open space for the crew. There are no sails to master, engines to operate or rudders to steer. You simply need to get in the water and paddle.
Of course, there’s no upper ceiling on canoe and kayak skills – you can keep improving for years if you wish. If you’ve seen professional kayaking, you’ll know exactly what we’re talking about – the real pros twist and turn their boats through horrendous rapids and vicious waters. They make it look like a master’s skillset – and at that level, it truly is.
That said – it’s relatively easy for you to learn the basics in a short period of time. Here’s a quick overview of the first essential one-man canoe and kayak skills.
As you’d expect, it’s fairly straightforward to get moving in a straight line. In a canoe, you’ll have a double paddle with blades at 45 degrees to each other. (The angle might seem odd, but once you get in the water, all will become clear, and your wrists will thank you.)
To paddle forward, pull the blade backwards through the water alternately on the left and right hand sides. The blade should enter the water roughly in line with the position of your toes, and should come out roughly in line with your knees.
The aim is not to “dig” in to the water, unless you want to exhaust yourself as quickly as possible. Try and paddle so the blade is only just fully submerged.
Finally, try to keep your head up. It helps if you can see where you’re going!
If you’ve chosen a kayak to take to the water, the same paddling principles apply. The only difference is, in a kayak with a single bladed paddle, you’ll need to switch your grip as you paddle with alternate strokes.
It’s all well and good heading out onto the water, but at some point you’ll need to change direction.
At least, you will if you plan on coming home in time for tea.
Once you’re moving, turning is fairly easy. Each stroke pushes your boat somewhat towards the opposite side, which is why alternate strokes move you in a straight line. To turn the canoe or kayak as you move, simply paddle more on the side opposite to the direction you want to head in.
It takes some practice, and at first you’ll end up overshooting and turning too far. Stick with it though, and you’ll soon be able to guide your boat steadily along the course you want.
To make sharp turns in canoes and kayaks, try holding one oar in the water. This will actually turn you towards the side of the oar, and quickly too. The downside of this technique is that it rapidly kills your speed. Use it sparingly, and save it for the times you want to make particularly sharp changes of direction.
No guide to canoeing skills would be complete without an overview of the daunting possibility that your canoe might flip over and submerge you in the water.
Don’t worry, it’s not as bad as it sounds. (Actually once you get used to it, it’s kind of enjoyable… believe it or not.)
Whether due to waves, rapids or simply over-enthusiastic paddling, at some point you’ll inevitably find yourself rolling sideways and heading for the drink. It can be a pretty frightening prospect, but luckily, canoes and kayaks are designed to roll back into the proper position with minimal effort.
The technique is known as an “Eskimo Roll”. Yes, you’ll be underwater for a few seconds, and yes, you should hold your breath – but do it right and you’ll be out again in no time at all. The Eskimo roll is a little involved, so it’s best to learn it with a qualified instructor. However, you can get the basic technique down in half an hour or so – at least for calm waters – and then you’ll be able to right yourself when you go under again in future.
Hopefully that’s given you a solid overview of the basics. As we mentioned at the top, canoe and kayak skills go as deep as you want to take them. If that’s whet your appetite to grab a paddle and hit the water, check out the various boating clubs around the UK, and see where you can get started.