Good Paddling Skills Take Time by Jay Babina

Whenever I teach someone to roll, scull or other skill related techniques, I always notice a sense of impatience. I was the same way when I first learned. The unfortunate truth about learning more advanced paddling techniques is that it takes time - simply because the techniques involve more than learning specific moves. They involve learning to adapt the moves to your total body - it’s size, weight, flexibility as well as the way you fit in your boat. The general characteristics of your boat also greatly affect how you will adapt the techniques to your own style.
   This may be an unpopular view, but I think it’s a waste of time spending hours and hours of instruction trying to develop the perfect paddling stroke. It’s even worse if you’re paying someone to do this to you! Why? Because the perfect paddling stroke doesn’t exist and your efficiency and ease of paddling will automatically come after you paddle for a while ...maybe on your second or third season. Besides, the person teaching you, did no better than you when they first started and went through the same learning curve. Corrective and analytical advice will help the process, however, only you can train your body to paddle smoothly.
Just like a baby learning to walk, you can’t speed up the process. Fortunately, babys have no command of language at that point in their development, because it’s often said if they had to take instructions, they would never walk.
   While on a recent paddle, I had a discussion with a woman who was having trouble keeping her boat going straight. I remember when I had my first plastic kayak, I used to turn it upside down and sight down it with one eye. I was totally convinced the hull was distorted since it was always pulling to the right. It couldn’t be me! I only paddled at one speed - full tilt - totally out of control and had to correct the kayak back in line about every 6 strokes. I had a Werner paddle that was about a foot too long with those huge San Juan blades. People watching used to tell me “that kayak seems pretty fast”. I was only good for about 2 hours, then I would crawl back to my car on all fours. About a month later I calmed down and magically I could go where I wanted with no problem. I started to develop a normal paddling stroke.
Maybe some lessons might have helped, but I doubt it. What I really needed was a tranquilizer. Kayaking to me was how fast can I get from here to there or how fast could I learn the next technique. The following year I was just like everyone else who paddled for a year - a little smoother and a little more confident.
   If your paddling diet consist of going out 5 times a year, your progress is obviously going to proceed at that pace. There are really no goals in kayaking other than your personal sense of satisfaction - we learn skills for a feeling of security and safety. Just realize that paddlers who paddle regularly and practice a few sweep strokes and turns while they’re out paddling are going to develop these skills much sooner. The aggressive paddlers who really go all out learning rolls etc. get their basic knowledge very much up front, yet I always notice that the smoothness of style and ease of making the boat do what you want it to still comes after a few years no matter how much learning you try to cram in. What’s really happening is a blending of techniques and a blending of the coordination and balance that your body has developed.
   Remember when someone showed you the high and low brace? In my 9 years of paddling I don’t think I ever saw a paddler robatically bring the paddle up to their chest, slap the water and put it down and continue paddling. You have to learn the bracing moves that way but bracing and paddle strokes actually become one. There’s a melting of all the paddle strokes, sweeps, sculling strokes and braces into one continuous smooth movement. Just like the baby learning to walk, you develop confidence with every step. You build on this confidence going on to a new skill or incorporating two moves in to one - as minute as it may be. Nobody can really teach that to someone else. After you paddle for a while it will just start to happen.
   A while back, a friend wrote an excellent article in the a newsletter “The Precursor to Rolling” where he describes how your basic aptitude has a major bearing on learning to roll. The ex-Navy Seal v.s. the life-long couch potato. The points he made are significant. We all fit in there somewhere and our experiences and personality will have a huge bearing on how we go about learning things in kayaking. One thing for sure, the ex-Navy Seal and couch potato will never be paddling smoothly until they paddle for a while. They will both have to be patient and allow their bodies to develop a style and rhythm that is part of themselves.
   It’s common to hear “What am I doing wrong” from people learning to scull as they struggle to keep afloat. “You’re not doing anything wrong”. Learning to roll and scull take a long time. You can roll on your first lesson, but it’s a long transition to the point where you’re totally smooth and comfortable and can roll up from any position you find yourself in. You’re always refining your body movement ...and just when you’re kind of satisfied, you start changing it again. Any paddler who has some experience will tell you that it’s a journey refining these techniques and everybody goes through the struggles and awkwardness that you experience at first.
   The most important thing is to be patient and enjoy the process! The winner is the one who gets total personal satisfaction from being in their kayak no matter what they’re doing or where they are. There’s no substitute for time - which is really based on an accumulation of our experiences.