Leaned Kayak Turns
When you walk down a sidewalk and navigate your way around a puddle and get back on course, you’re actually doing the same thing you do in a kayak - you’re correcting. As subtle as it seems, you’re able to steer your body with gentle and almost subconscious moves. In the kayak we also correct our course with constant subtle leans of the hull. Most beginners don’t have an understanding of how boat leaning works and usually have not developed it into a subconscious correcting mechanism. Even paddlers who have been paddling for years still sometimes wait until they’re falling far off course or colliding into another paddler to finally make some kind of course correction. It’s usually a plowing stern rudder which halts their forward progress and angles the kayak one way or another. It’s not only extreme and crude but totally inefficient and unnecessary.
Basically, you want to train yourself to correct your course with the gentle leaning of the hull. It’s the most efficient, easy to do method, requires the least amount of energy and doesn’t stop your forward motion. As sea kayakers we’re forced to constantly correct since there’s always small currents, tidal movement and some wind even on the calmest of days. Most experienced kayakers do it subconsciously and are able to paddle along without the use of rudders or extreme paddle moves. You certainly can enhance your correcting moves with paddle sweeps and rudders but for the most part, the leaning of the hull is an effective steering device that’s easy to learn yet often misunderstood.
Part of this misunderstanding is from the fact that books and most instruction often refer to “raising you knee” to tilt the boat. First of all: You can’t tilt your boat by raising your knee. Try it! Sit there in you kayak and raise your knee as hard as you can. You can’t budge the kayak with your knee. It’s the pelvis that tilts the kayak. In doing so, the knee goes up and accentuates the whole process and locks your body into the kayak. This confusion of words has left many paddlers not only frustrated but defeated with the entire process. I came to this realization when I tried to teach a woman to raise her knee to tilt the boat. It was all wrong and only confused her and set her back.
If you look at the drawing above, the concept of leaning and steering should start to become clear. If the paddler leans the boat towards the left, the left edge of the kayak digs into the water and causes the kayak to travel along the curved path that is actually the left side of the kayak. The kayak starts to turn to the right. As it’s leaned to the left, the raised right side actually gives up or looses some of it’s “hold” or “grip” on the water which also aids in the turning process.
And... if the kayaker leans to the right, the boat starts to go to the left.
Just like in my drawing, short wide kayaks respond more to leans than long narrow kayaks since the curve that digs into the water or becomes the traveling path is more extreme on the short wide kayak. Hard chine kayaks or kayaks with a strong angle on the bottom sides will correct or steer stronger with leans than totally round smooth ones. However we’re only looking for subtle course correcting here and nothing extreme - so, all kayaks will respond to course correcting with even the gentlest of leaning, and this is what you’re trying to achieve.
Give it a try! As you paddle along, gently lean your boat to one side and another and watch the kayak change course toward the opposite side of the lean. The whole idea of this kind of course correcting is something that is constantly going on while you paddle. With these subtle moves, you can effortlessly paddle along and control you boat with no energy expended and eventually it will become a subconscious act.
There’s really no need to get overly analytical about leaning your kayak with all that confusing “knee lifting” stuff. Your body will actually do it correctly on it’s own. As a paddler, you know if you lean too far one way or another, you may capsize. The ideal way to lean your boat is to do it with your hips and not tilt your body too far to the right or left, keeping your head centered over the kayak. (below right)
As you tilt the kayak, your hips will go up on one side forcing your knee up on the same side which will not only add to the effectiveness of the total body movement but will also stabilize your body position by locking it under the deck. Your knee or thighs pressing into the bracing actually allows your hips to do the work and keeps you locked in for a more effective use of all your muscles in unison. Here’s truly a time when having a nice fit in your boat with good thigh braces make leaning the boat an effortless motion. In actuality, your lean will be a bit of a combination between a strict boat lean and a bit of body lean as well. When I’m tired or lazy, I often lean my body slightly to correct whereas a strict boat lean with your body centered over the kayak takes more torso muscle and energy. If I need more correction, I’ll tilt the kayak more extremely with my torso keeping my head centered over the center line of the kayak as shown in the drawing. You can tilt the kayak to extremes this way and never have fear of going over.
Once you learn to roll and have confidence in your bracing, the whole idea of steering with these methods will become a less fearful event. If you tilt as you use a paddle stroke on the same side of the lean, it feels very secure because the paddle stroke acts as a brace. Usually a bit of a lean during one stroke is all that’s needed to correct your course. You’ll also develop an understanding of how much secondary stability your kayak has or how far it can be leaned without going over. However, for the normal correction that’s needed in everyday paddling, the slightest boat lean will do the job. Once you learn to adapt this into your paddling style, you’re actually be making minute corrections rather than waiting for a drastic correction to be needed where you may be forced to help it along with a sweep stroke or a rudder.
I can’t overemphasize how little boat tilt is needed for course correction. You obviously don’t see kayaks constantly tilting one way and another during a paddle. But what you may notice is that some paddlers have no trouble going where they want with no apparent effort. This is the freedom that you’re trying for. It’s the freedom to correct without even thinking about your paddle stroke and putting out no extra energy in the process. It’s a method that’s always in use and you’ll adapt it to the subtle course corrections you need as you paddle along. You’ll see that this effortless course correction mechanism has been there all along only waiting for you to discover it and use it!
Jay Babina, Designer • Email