Before you groan, no this is not a post on some awful 'management speak' phrase...
It's about speed. Actually, it's all about speed: paddling, that is. Don't believe me? Well, let's dive in...
Do you remember when you first learned to ride a bike? Perhaps you had stabilisers, or your dad's hand holding you upright. Or if you're younger, perhaps you even had a balance bike?
Think back... but either way, you probably started off with some serious wobbles. You went slowly, wobbled about a bit, watched the ground in front of your wheels, and maybe fell off a few times. But you picked yourself up, got back on the shiny new bike, and had another go. And with time (some more than others!) you gained confidence, and above all, you gained speed. The stabilisers came off, your dad's hand came off the back of the saddle, or the feet came off the floor, and all of a sudden you're riding! With speed, you stayed upright, and began to go places. You quickly learned that moving forwards on your bike meant you didn't fall off. Unless you're Danny Macaskill of course (although next time you watch one of his videos, check out how he uses forward momentum to make tricks work).
So why, in a sea kayak, should it be any different?
Let's think about the environment that most of us, as sea kayakers, spend most of our time in: wind & waves. You're paddling steadily along chatting to a friend, enjoying your day out. The sea is a little bit jabbly, and a wave side-swipes you, perhaps even breaking slightly over your deck. Do you....
Option 3? Well, that would involve pre-empting the challenge, and skilfully using speed to overcome it.
How about moving water? What causes us the 'wobble' there?
Well, let's think about the environment:
Boat in eddy: Stable
Boat crossing eddy line, half in flow, half in eddy: Wobbly!
Boat fully in flow: Stable (phew...)
So, if the wobbly bit is the eddy line, we want to get across it as quickly as possible, right? "But..." I hear you say "I've been taught to paddle up to the eddy line and lean on a low brace. Doesn't that slow me down?" Well, quite honestly, yes it does.
You paddle up to the eddy line, then as the front of the boat hits the line, you lean powerfully onto a low brace, edging downstream... What happens next? The boat turns, you might be across the eddy line, or if it's a wide, boily eddy line, such as those at the Falls of Lora or a multitude of other moving-water venues, you might be whirling your way down through those boils, having ceded control to the eddy line monsters. You finish facing downstream or thereabouts, with little control over your destination.
How about this alternative: You paddle up to the eddy line, and as it approaches you crank up the power in the last couple of metres, and drive that boat over the eddy line. Quick as a flash, you're over the line, your whole boat on a single piece of flow, with a choice as to what happens next...
Which do you prefer?
Ok then, so what about surf? Surely kayakers in surf use low brace/ low brace rudder/ negative strokes all the time?
Well, yes they absolutely do. However, lets think about the mechanics at work here...
As you catch a wave, the back of your boat lifts, and... all of a sudden you're propelled forward faster than you can paddle. The wave provides the speed, allowing you the option of giving up a little speed in order to steer, or turn, or maybe even deliberately slow yourself down in order to stay on the wave...
So how can you work on speed, and using it where it matters? There are no short-cuts here: practice. But first, you need to understand how to generate speed. Next time you're on the water, try changing gears. Do you have more than one?
Let's go back to our child cyclist analogy. When you got your first 'proper' bike, did it have gears? If you wanted to go fast, you changed gear, right? If you wanted to go up a hill, you'd make it easier for yourself and maybe spin those little legs as fast as you could.
Experiment with something similar in your kayak: try a few sprints, and then try slowing your cadence, the speed you turn that blade over, right down. Can you do that and keep your speed the same? Then try the same thing in some water with wind & waves... Can you feel the energy in the water? Can you match your cadence to that energy, changing gears as the water does?
Skilful paddling isn't about having one solution to a problem: it's about having many solutions, and choosing the best one. So go out and find some solutions, experiment with speed, and get creative!
Sea Kayak Coach & Personal Trainer based in the Scottish Highlands. I love paddling, running, lifting weights, cycling, and moving well- and I love helping other people to do the same. I have to work really hard to build and maintain my skills on the water and my fitness, and I hope that helps me to understand how hard my clients also have to work!