Kayak Teaching Techniques


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By Dana Olson-Elle, Assistant Director 
Idaho State University Outdoor Program



Publication History: This paper was published in Proceedings of the 1991 International Conference on Outdoor Recreation and Education, Craig Radmacher and Ron Watters (eds.), Idaho State University Press, Pocatello, 1992.

This paper, presented in outline form, describes the kayak teaching progression used by the author. It covers equipment orientation, roll teaching, strokes, moving water instruction and suggested lecture topics.



Kayaking is a rapidly growing sport. Due to the high risk of this activity, it is essential that beginners have the opportunity to learn basic kayaking skills in a safe and progressive manner. The following outline provides information on topics and techniques that can be covered in a college level class. The actual teaching sequence used in my classes varies from year to year. You'll need to adapt it for facilities, length of class, and weather. Please feel free to use any part of this outline as well as giving me feedback to make it better. I can be reached at Box 8128, ISU, Pocatello, ID. 83209. Phone: (208) 2336-3912.

Pool or Flat Water Sequence

I. Orientation to Kayak Equipment

A. Categories of Kayaks (whitewater)
        1. Touring: 13 feet - large volume, wider, little or no rocker, some have a slight keel on bow and stern of boat
        2. Play-paddling: 13 feet - or shorter, extreme fore to aft rocker, sides (chines) are round
        3. General river running: 13 feet - with some rocker, typical kayak of the past except for race boats
        4. Racing:
          a. Slalom: low volume which turns quickly, hard chines (sharp edges), rocker--fore to aft
          b. Wildwater: downriver boat- 15 feet, large volume, keel on tip and tail \
        5. Squirt: very low volume with hard chines, use subsurface currents as well as surface currents to perform tricks
    B. Parts of Kayak
      1. Grab Loops
      2. Cock Pit - rim
      3. Support Walls
      4. Chine (side walls)
      5. Knee or Thigh brace
      6. Foot Pegs
      7. Seat
    C. Sprayskirt: neoprene or nylon
    D. Paddle
      1. Offset blades, 75-90 degree feather
      2. Flat vs. spoon, dihedral
      3. Right or left control hand
      4. Choosing the right length
        a. 5'3" 196 - 200 cm
        b. 5'5" 198 - 202 cm
        c. 5'7" 200 - 204 cm
        d. 5'9" 202 - 206 cm
        e. 5'11" 204 - 208 cm
        f. 6'1" 206 - 210 cm
        g. 6'3" 208 - 212 cm
      5. Paddle length variables
        a. Racing - short end
        b. Big water - longer end
        c. Depends on arm length
        d. Better grip - slightly sand grip area
    E. Lifejacket
      1. 15+ lbs. of flotation
      2. Type III or V
    F. Flotation
      1. Vinyl or ultralight
      2. Storage or non-storage
    G. Helmet
      1. Protects forehead and back of neck 2. Fits so it won't move freely on head
    H. Clothing (Remember the layering system)
      1. Wetsuit or pile and nylon
      2. Drysuit
      3. Booties
      4. Poogies or wet suit mittens
      5. Beannie
    I. Safety Equipment
      1. Throw rope
      2. Prussiks
      3. Carabiners
      4. Knife
      5. First aid kit with matches
      6. Dry bag for food, extra clothes etc.
      7. Water bottle
      8. Whistle
    J. Nose plugs--nice for pool sessions
II. Fitting the Kayak
    A. Adjust footpegs
      1. Ball of foot on peg - heels in
      2. Knees in knee brace
      3. Back into back of seat
      4. Adjust to snug fit so the boat becomes an extension of the body
      B. Padding hips and back
        1. Padding helps transfer action from body to the boat
III. Carrying the Kayak (remember to lift with your legs)
    A. On the shoulder
    B. Suitcase technique
    C. Buddy system 1 or 2 kayaks (carry by grab loops)
IV. Kayaking body positions: (on land)
    A. Forward: head tucked into cockpit (protected position)
    B. Sides:
      1. Ribs touching cockpit rim
      2. Head and shoulders limp with the head reaching for the ground
    C. Back: On the back deck with shoulders and head still facing to the side.
    (**Practice different body positions, exaggerating the limpness of the upper body and keeping the ribs as close to the cockpit as possible.)
V. Demonstrate how to put sprayskirt on (Accomplished easier if wet)

VI. How to get out of Kayak: (on land & wet exit)

    A. Hands by hip - push hips out of boat
    B. Push boat away and forward
    C. Hang onto boat
VII. Kayak orientation: (on water)
    A. Getting into the Kayak
      1. Paddle as support on shore. Curve blade with power face up (to avoid paddle breakage)
      2. Slide in, seal launch
    B. Hand paddleHstraight and circles (do not let them use paddle at this point)
    C. Swivel the hips slightly (keep body quiet and tall)
VIII. Wet exit and initial stages of Eskimo Rescue
    A. Without sprayskirt on tip over
    B. Lean forward and grab bottom of boat with hands
    C. Pound on bottom 3 times
    D. Slide hands back and forth 3 times approximately 6 inches away from the boat
    E. Wet Exit (see VI)
    F. Swim to one end of the boat
    G. Swim boat to shore
    H. Empty boat
      1. Using shore
      2. Over your knee (*Easiest if boat is rolled on side; water will naturally run out)
    I. Eventually put spray skirt on and go through the same motions
IX. Eskimo Rescue: Hip Roll
    A. Rescue position
      1. Place hands and cheek on nose of the rescuers boat, trying to keep the boat flat on the water surface and emphasize the ribs touching the cockpit and keeping the boat underneath them with their knees
      2. Roll the boat over so the opposite ribs are touching the other side of the cockpit rim 3. Roll the boat back underneath them leaving their hands and cheek on the boat
      4. Motion _ Rib to Rib or C to C.

      *Emphasize pulling the boat underneath them with their knees and hips and keeping their upper body relaxed on their partner's boat

      *For Every Action there is an Equal and Opposite reaction "Newton's Law"

X. Eskimo Rescue Full Sequence
    A. Tip over- lean forward with paddle under armpit
    B. Pound three times, slide hands back and forth until you feel the rescuers boat
    C. Once rescuers boat is felt move into rescue position with hands and cheek on the boat and say "thank you" (saying thank you encourages students to take a second before they do the rest of the sequence.)
    D. Rib to Rib motion, then sit up. Keep the head and shoulders facing towards the water
XI. Paddling
    A. Hand paddle to help find balance
    B. Introduction to paddle
      1. Elbow's bent approximately 85-90 degrees when paddle is held horizontally across top of head
      2. Establish control hand
        a. Control hand maintains grip and rotates the shaft
        b. Do to let students shift control hands 3. Wrist roll to compensate for feather of blade
    C. Propulsion strokes (Condensed from Performance Kayaking, by Stephen U'ren)
      1. Forward stroke key points
        a. Sit up straight
        b. Set up:
          -- Wrists on a horizontal plane with shoulders A Extend pulling arm by rotating torso and shoulders (Extend arm over boat's midline)
        c. Catch A Pulling arm moves downward in the water
          -- Pushing arm - will thrust forward putting paddle in vertical position. (Thrust, pushing arm to forehead level)
          -- Keep blade close to boat
        d. Power
          -- Power comes from untwisting torso
          -- Pulling arm also contributes
        e. As the paddle pulls:
          -- keep shaft perpendicular to wrist
          -- keep lower arm parallel to water
          -- keep paddle fairly vertical
          -- Pushing arm contributes the least because it should already be extended
          -- Emphasize it is the boat and not the paddle that moves
        f. Exit
        Pull blade out when lower hand is even with hip
      2. Reverse Stroke
        a. Insert blade a foot or so behind your hip
        b. Exit 2 feet in front of body
        c. Keep paddle vertical and close to boat
        d. Look back over one's shoulder
        e. Use reverse sweep to correct
      3. Turning sweep strokes
        a. Paddle shaft horizontal to water
        b. Blade vertical in water
        c. Insert blade close to bow
        d. Straighten pulling arm (keeping elbow slightly bent)
        e. Twist torso sweeping paddle 180 degrees from bow to stern
        f. As paddle travels the upper or pushing arm will travel slightly across chest for extra power
        g. Lift up knee on side you are sweeping to keep water from stacking on edge h. Watch paddle while learning motion
        i. The last 6" of the sweep is the most important when using correction strokes or during the ferry. Emphasize finishing the sweep
      4. Drawstroke
        a. Paddle position vertical - upper hand across forehead and directly over lower hand
        b. Twist torso to face blade
        c. Place blade parallel to boat
        d. Draw paddle in towards the hip e. Before paddle hits boat - rotate blade 90 degree and feather blade out.
        f. Corrections: change blade angles
          -- Bowdraw: power face angle and draw towards bow will pull bow around
          -- Stern draw: power face angle and draw towards stern will pull stern around
      5. Combination strokes - correction
        a. Forward stroke - sweep
          -- Sweep but not out as far
          --Can take blade out at hip or use up to the full 180 degrees
        b. Bow draw--forward stroke
          First execute a bow draw and then turn paddle into a forward stroke
        c. Rudder
          -- Horizontal shaft position with blade vertical in water
          -- Keep back hand close to hip (this help protect shoulder)
          -- Turn the boat by:
            --stern draw - pulling blade towards boat
            -- reverse sweep - pushing blade away from boat
            --start by encouraging students to use forward correction strokes to help
            --keep forward momentum. Introduce rudder strokes with surfing.
XII. Turning Strokes
    A. Circle turns
      1. Edge the boat with the knees (*Remember to counter with other knee so person won't flip)
      2. Turn right: sweep on left, regular stroke on right - boat should turn to right
      3. Always look into the turn
    B. Outrigger (Support Eddy Turn) Simulate turns in pool to get them ready for the river
      1. Exit eddy at 45 degree angle
      2. Before entering eddy lean into the direction of the turn
        a. Put your back and side into the right back corner of the cockpit rim
        b. Lean boat with pressure on the knees, but maintain pressure with both to maintain balance
      3. Take a last sweep stroke on the opposite side of the turn once the eddy line is crossed. Still lean to the inside of the turn
      4. Place the paddle across the shoulders, flat on the surface of the water with the right elbow in the water
      5. Eyes and shoulders should be facing in the direction of the turn
      6. Stay in this position until the boat is facing downstream
    C. Duffek: The duffek is a very quick turn and can be very unstable form. (From Performance Kayaking Stephen U'ren)
      1. Static Duffek
        a. Place paddle in drawstroke position about 1 foot from bow of boat
        b. Blade is at a 45 degree angle
        c. Lower arm almost completely extended
        d. To do the turn
          -- Forward momentum started
          -- Sweep to initiate turn
          -- Place paddle in duffek position
          -- More angle will cause quicker turn
      2. Dynamic Duffek (bow draw)
        a. Drawstroke position with blade out to side
        b. Slide blade forward with a slightly open blade
        c. Pull it towards bow as you move it forward
        d. For more graceful turns, keep the paddle parallel to the boat
XIII. Eskimo Roll: Sequence for Sweep Roll
    A. Hip rolls (Goal - to work towards minimal pressure on the hands. All the effort is in the hips and body motion) (Start the hip roll sequence the same as the Eskimo rescue, but use partner's hand as a platform instead of the nose of a kayak. Stress body extension along with points already mentioned)
    B. Hip roll with body sweep
      1. Set up in roll position (example right side roll)
        a. Hands on left side of boat
        b. Head in bend of right arm at the elbow
        c. Lean forward and slightly to the left
      2. Tip over and leave hands on side of boat
      3. With partner's help sweep arms and body out to the side and roll up with the right hip roll
      4. Finish body position
        a. Body leaning slightly back with shoulders rotated toward water
        b. The shoulders and eyes will be looking toward the right arm
        c. Pressure will still be on the right knee. Head is the last thing to come up *Emphasize rolling the boat all the way underneath before starting to come up into sitting position
    C. Shoulder roll and Eskimo Roll sequence (shoulder roll allows instructor to talk to student while practicing the roll progression
      1. Guaranteed Set-up
        a. Roll wrist forward so paddle will be set up in a slight climbing angle
        b. Paddle placed parallel to boat with both blades out of the water
        c. Hands spaced on paddle so one hand is at the knee and other at the hip
        d. Body positioned forward with the head in the bend of the elbow
      2. Sweep and Hip Roll (Shoulder Roll)
        a. Body and paddle sweeps out to the side
        b. Wrists roll back to keep the paddle afloat on water surface
        c. Left hand moves into the left shoulder and is the pivot point for the sweep
        d. The paddle and the body move together in a twisting unwinding motion
        e. The eyes and shoulders follow the paddle throughout the motion
        f. The hip initiation starts after the paddle sweep initiation
      3. Roll finish position
        a. Body leaning slightly back and turned to the side with paddle parallel to the shoulders
        b. Right knee pulls up to keep boat stable
        c. The eyes are looking down the blade
        d. The back is leaning into the back right hand side of the cockpit
XIV. Bracing Sequence
    A. Knees are used to keep the boat in balance or upright at all times
    B. To keep the body in low center of gravity, lean back and dip head and body towards the water
    C. The paddle will be placed flat on the water with both elbows rolled under as in the end of the roll
    D. Lean with the body and not the boat. Once the body hits the water, place the paddle out of the side on the surface of the water and hip up
    E. Emphasize the hip snap and work on keeping the pressure off the paddle
XV. Scull for support.
    A. Paddle and body position same as for the brace
    B. The paddle sweeps back and forth with a slight climbing angle in both directions
    C. In order to keep the pressure off the paddle the knee and body position must be working to keep the body in balance. (Knees pulling up with the body relaxed and center of gravity in the water)
XVI. Head Games to improve technique and hang time.
    A. Tag: to improve paddling skills
      1. The person who is "IT" must touch the first 4" or the back 4" of their preys boat. Anywhere else doesn't count
    B. Tug of War
      1. Carabiner two boats together tail to tail
      2. Have them paddle against each other
      3. At any give time have them both roll. The first one to roll back up gets to start paddling
      4. Have them roll several times until someone reaches the side
    C. Hang-Time
      1. First have the hold their breath above water and time them
      2. Have them roll over and hang out as long as possible then roll up. Time them and see how their hang-time compares
    D. Self Rescue
      1. Roll over and come out of the boat
      2. After they get a breath, have them crawl back in the upside down boat, put on their sprayskirt and roll back up
XVII. Other skills that can be taught in the pool
    A. Rolls: Pawlata, forward roll, C to C, reverse sweep roll
    B. Hand Roll
      1. Have them practice hip rolls with two one gallon milk jugs
      2. Eventually they can go from 2 jugs to 1 jug to no jugs
      3. Emphasize
        a. Body extension
        b. Let water support body
        c. Keeping low center of gravity by finishing on back of boat or rolling forward into a low body position
      4. Hand paddles can also be used to work on hand roll
    C. Cross-bow draw
      1. While paddling hard swing the blade across over the bow and place it on the opposite side
      2. Twist the body
      3. The blade enters the water at almost a vertical position way forward at about 1 1/ 2 feet away from the boat
      4. The high hand will slightly be above the ear and the elbow will be bent at 45 degrees
      5. Once the boat has turned lift the paddle back across and forward stroke
    D. Gate Sequences
      1. Hang gates in the pool and make up different sequences
      2. English gate sequence is described in Evans/Anderson book on kayaking
Lecture Topics

I. Water Hydraulics (Handout)

    A. Rocks
    B. Eddy, Eddy lines
    C. "V's", upstream and downstream
    D. Holes
    E. Bends in River
    F. Weirs, dams
    G. Pillows, cushions
    H. Undercuts
    I. Strainers
    J. Classifications of water I-VI
II. River Tactics (Handouts)
    A. Route Selection
    B. Scouting -- from boat or land
    C. Lean downstream or into the turn
    D. Paddle forward when in doubt or startled
III. River Safety (Handouts)
    A. Broaching
    B. Entrapment
    C. Self rescue
      1. Swimming
      2. Rocks
      3. Log jams
      D. Rope Rescue
      E. Boat based rescue
IV. River Etiquette

V. Kayak Equipment and Repair

    A. Kayak Design
    B. Kayak equipment and their pro's and con's
    C. Repair
      1. Plastic and fiberglass bowls
      2. Neoprene
      3. Float bags
VI. Immersion Hypothermia
    A. Body's response to cold
    B. Sign's and Symptoms
    C. Treatment
VII. Consideration for extended and day river trips
    A. Transportation
    B. Safety
    C. Camping - minimizing impact
    D. Equipment
Beginning Kayak River Sequence

I. Class I and II Water

    A. Float a slow moving section or paddle in a large eddy
    B. Practice Eskimo rescues and swimming through rapids
    C. Current techniques
      1. Ferry:
        a. Look and lean in direction of travel
        b. Enter current at a 10-15 degree angle
        c. Sweep on downstream side when crossing eddy line to keep from falling downstream
        d. Once the nose is down stream, sit tall and paddle with the current
        **Sweep must be all the way to the back of the boat to be effective
      2. Eddy turn (Outrigger)
        a. Paddle out as in 45 degree angle and let the nose fall downstream
        b. Use the outrigger eddy turn position (see pool sequence)
        c. Keep leaning until the nose of boat is downstream
        d. Once the nose is downstream, sit tall and paddle with the current
        e. To turn back into the eddy
          -- turn the boat with paddle to set the angle coming into the eddy
          (*keep a flat boat while turning the boat in the current. One needs to lean only when they are changing currents)
          -- head into eddy at a 45 degree angle
          -- as the current starts to turn the boat, lean into the turn
          -- an outrigger turn can be used but most of the time it is more effective for beginners to paddle in and keep the nose heading towards shore
      3. Other river tactics
        a. Route selection-scouting
        b. Control of boat in current
          -- lean
          -- sweep
          -- rudder
        c. Surfing
        d. Hole playing
        e. Duffek
        f. Back ferry
        g. Zoom-ferry (use only one sweep to cross current)
        h. Combine sequences in a follow the leader situation.
        i. Paddle back up a rapid -- eddy hopping
        j. Set up a gate sequence in the river
          l. Practice Eskimo rescue and rolls often
        m. Practice ferries and eddy turn's with eyes closed
        n. Self rescue to shore
Information on the Author
Dana Olson has supervised the kayaking program at Idaho State University since 1978. She is an ACA Kayak Instructor Trainer. In 1989, she managed and instructed in the Snake River Kayak and Canoe School in Jackson, Wyoming. She has worked as an guide and kayak instructor for a commercial outfitter on the Main Salmon River and has kayaked extensively in North America with trips to Europe and Costa Rica.