Easy Flatwater Drills to Improve Your Multisport Kayak Skills

Do you want to improve your boat handling skills? Want to ensure you have full control over your multisport kayak on your next river run?

In this article, you’ll learn essential boat-handling skills that you can practice during your next flatwater training session.

Why You Should Practice Your Boat-Handling Skills

When it comes to improving your kayaking skills, dedicating time to flatwater drills is key, especially in the early stages of your kayaking journey.

While fitness and endurance are important, focusing on boat handling skills during your flatwater sessions can make a significant difference in your performance on the river.

Firstly, mastering boat handling skills ensures that you have control over your kayak. When you encounter obstacles or tight braids (where the river splits into multiple channels), being able to maneuver your kayak efficiently and accurately is vital to avoid collisions and navigate the river safely.

Secondly, developing your boat handling skills allows you to conserve energy and time. By having control over your kayak, you can position yourself optimally in the flow and avoid unnecessary movements or energy expenditure.

Now, let's dive into the first set of drills you can do on flatwater, that will help improve your steering and turning abilities.

Developing a Feel For the Rudder

One of the first drills I would recommend you focus on during your flatwater sessions is developing a feel for the rudder. Here's how you can do it:

  1. Begin by getting your boat moving on the water. You don't need to go too fast—just a comfortable cruising speed will do.

  2. Practice steering to the left and right using only your rudder pedals. This simple exercise helps you understand how much pressure to apply to make your kayak turn.

  3. While performing this drill, maintain a steady rhythm with your paddling strokes. It's common for beginners to inadvertently change their paddling technique when using the rudder pedals.

Remember, in multisport kayaking, you want to maintain a smooth and efficient paddling rhythm.

Speed Makes Your Rudder Work Better

The faster your boat's speed, the more bite the rudder will have. Conversely, if you have no speed or are stationary, the rudder won't have much effect on your kayak's direction at all.

It's essential to grasp this concept for future river runs. Beginners often mistakenly assume they have enough speed when they're moving with the river's current.

However, if you're merely floating along with the same speed as the river, your boat speed or hull speed is essentially zero.

In such cases, the rudder won't be very effective. Understanding that more speed allows the rudder to work better is crucial.

To further enhance your rudder skills, it's time to add more speed and power to your strokes. Here's the drill:

  1. Increase your paddling intensity by digging in with stronger strokes on both sides. Put more effort into each stroke, generating more speed and momentum.

  2. Simultaneously, apply stronger pressure to the rudder pedals. Crank the rudder on with determination, feeling the increased effect it has on your kayak's maneuverability.

  3. By combining powerful paddling strokes with a firm application of the rudder, you'll experience a heightened sense of control and responsiveness.

Practising this drill on flatwater enables you to develop a stronger connection between your paddle strokes and the rudder, enhancing your overall boat handling abilities.

Mind-Bending Bilge Steering

Now, let's explore a technique called bilge steering, which can take your steering skills to the next level, and may simultaneously blow your mind.

Bilge steering allows you to create even tighter turns by lifting one side of your kayak. Here's how you can practice it:

  1. Begin by starting with no speed at all.

  2. Lift one edge of your kayak by using your hips and knees to shift your weight. Let's say we want to turn left, so raise the left side of your kayak. Use your left knee to pull that side up while keeping your weight on the right hip.

  3. Once you're stable on this edge, apply the rudder on the same side. In this case, use your left foot to apply some rudder input.

  4. Maintain the lifted edge and the rudder position as you slowly start paddling forward.

  5. This technique, also known as the off-edge turn, allows you to make the boat turn on a tighter radius.

  6. Once you feel comfortable with one side, switch sides and repeat the process. Practice this technique repeatedly until you become more confident and familiar with it.

It's important to note that bilge steering may feel challenging and slightly off-balance at first. However, with practice and commitment to leaning toward the outside of the turn, you'll be able to execute tight circles with ease.

Adding the Sweep Stroke

To further enhance your tight turns, add the sweep stroke.

The sweep stroke is a wider stroke that follows a semi-circular path. Here's how it works:

  1. Unlike the forward stroke, which starts near your feet and pulls straight back, the sweep stroke begins near your pedals and moves out and away on a big wide semi-circle.

  2. Extend your stroke all the way to the tail of your kayak. Turn your torso with the paddle and create a sweeping C-shape.

The sweep stroke generates more turning force through your paddle, allowing you to physically pull your kayak around. By incorporating this stroke, you can achieve even faster and tighter turns.

For the quickest turn, combine a pedal input and some speed to engage the rudder. Then, lift the inside edge of your kayak to add bilge steering and execute a sweep stroke on the outside.

During your flatwater practice, try to exaggerate these movements if you feel comfortable doing so. This will help you develop a strong sense of lifting the inside edge, using the rudder, and executing a sweep stroke.

While on the river, you may not feel comfortable lifting the maximum edge or leaning fully over to one side, but the exaggerated practice on flatwater will help you build confidence in your technique.

Soon, you'll be confidently executing tight turns and maneuvers with precision and control.

The Importance of Speed Control

In your next flatwater session, I also want you to focus on developing the crucial skill of accelerating and slowing down.

You may wonder why this is important. Can't we simply maintain a steady pace from the top of the river all the way to the finish line?

Well, let me paint a clearer picture for you. 

When you begin at Mount White Bridge on the Waimakariri River, you start with no speed and need to accelerate to get going.

Soon after, the river splits into two channels, requiring you to make a quick braid choice—left or right. Sometimes visibility might be limited, and you may need to slow down to ensure you make the right decision.

Once you've chosen the correct braid, you'll have to execute a swift turn using the maneuvering skills we discussed above. Then, you'll need to sprint into position before it's too late. Cruising at a steady pace may not be sufficient to reach the correct braid in time.

Furthermore, when encountering a turbulent “bluff corner”, you'll need to accelerate to get through that feature successfully. River paddling is a dynamic experience that requires skilful speed management.

Having the ability to accelerate into position is a significant advantage for paddlers who possess this ability.

Endurance is important, but river paddling is more of a stop-start, interval-like activity where you exert effort in bursts.

It's crucial to work on your acceleration ability.

How to Accelerate Effectively

Start by positioning yourself on the water without any initial speed, completely still.

Engaging in a sprinting exercise with a buddy can make it fun. Count down together and then race off the mark, aiming to accelerate as quickly as possible from a standing start to full speed.

Accelerating can be more challenging than it seems. Many paddlers initially struggle with maintaining their balance when attempting to paddle faster.

When sprinting, the only adjustment to your forward stroke technique should be in the length of your stroke.

Rather than taking a long stroke, focus on creating a shorter stroke. Avoid extending the paddle all the way to the seat. Shorten your stroke to go from your feet, to inline with your knees.

To increase your speed, you need to increase your stroke rate. Aim for shorter, faster strokes near the front of your boat. By halving the length of your stroke, you can potentially double your stroke rate, allowing for more strokes within the same timeframe and leading to better acceleration.

Keep your catch and other aspects of your technique consistent, such as torso rotation and keeping the pushing hand high.

Try a drill where you accelerate off the line, let the kayak slow down without coming to a complete stop, and then accelerate again with determination. Repeat this sequence several times, and you'll notice an increase in your heart rate, making it a great workout for strength and aerobic capacity.

Remember, by working on your fitness and skills simultaneously, you can make progress in both areas. So enjoy accelerating, keeping your kayak in motion, and building confidence for your next river trip.

How to Stop in a Hurry

Knowing how to stop quickly is an essential skill in kayaking. Here's how you can wipe off some speed efficiently and safely.

Imagine scenarios where you need to slow down urgently, like avoiding a collision with another paddler who has spun out ahead of you.

To hit the brakes effectively, you'll want to use the back of the paddle blade. Alternate sides quickly, using the back of the blade on both sides of the kayak.

A common mistake I see beginners making when asked to slow down is flipping their paddle upside down, changing their grip, and using the power face of the paddle to hit the brakes. This technique is unstable, and slow, and I do not recommend it for river paddling. Instead, keep your grip the same, and simply use the back of the blade to slow down or stop.

Practice hitting the brakes by using the back of your blade to bring your kayak to a quick stop. Focus on maintaining balance and control throughout the maneuver.

By mastering the skill of stopping in a hurry, you'll be better equipped to navigate the river safely and avoid collisions.

The Importance of Edging & Carving

Mastering edging and carving is crucial for staying upright and maintaining balance on the river.

It's important to understand that in river kayaking, water flows from various directions and at different speeds. Not all flows move downstream, and some currents may even come straight back up towards you.

Carving refers to edging (tilting) your kayak towards the direction of your turn (the opposite of bilge steering). By doing so, you enable the water flow hitting your kayak's side to pass underneath smoothly while keeping yourself balanced. If you do not edge and carve when you should, the river flow will catch your kayak's edge, pulling it down, which can flip you over.

By developing the ability to edge and carve effectively, you enhance your stability, control, and ultimately, your enjoyment of river kayaking.

Getting a Feel For Your Edges

To develop a sense of your kayak's edges, we can start with static edging exercises on flat water. Static edging involves tilting the kayak while remaining still.

Here's how you can practice it:

  1. Find a safe spot on flat water to begin.

  2. Start by lifting one edge of your kayak. If you're lifting the right edge, pull your right knee up, drop your left hip down, and engage your abdominal muscles to maintain the lean. You can shift your weight towards the left side to help maintain the tilt.

  3. Aim to hold the kayak on the edge enough that you feel a sense of challenge, almost as if you might tip over. This will indicate that you are pushing your limits and practising effectively.

By focusing on static edging exercises without any speed, you'll gradually develop a better understanding and control of your kayak's edges.

Edging While Paddling

Once you feel comfortable with static edging, it's time to practice edging while paddling. Here's how you can do it:

  1. While cruising along, start by paddling in a straight line. This will help you focus on the edging technique without the added complexity of turns.

  2. Tilt your kayak by lifting one edge, just as you did during the static edging exercise.

  3. As you tilt, make an effort to maintain the same rhythm in your paddling strokes. Try to keep your paddle strokes consistent and unaffected by the kayak's tilt.

This drill will help you develop the coordination required to edge your kayak while maintaining your paddling technique.

Start with gentle edges and gradually increase the tilt as you become more comfortable and confident.

Remember to focus on maintaining your paddling rhythm while tilting the kayak, as this will improve your overall paddling efficiency.

Creating the Carve Turn

Now that you have practised edging and paddling, let's move on to the carving turn. The carving turn is a technique used to execute wide and controlled turns while maintaining forward speed.

Here's how you can create a carving turn:

  1. While cruising straight, initiate a gentle turn by applying a slight amount of rudder.

  2. As the turn begins, lean your body and edge the kayak into the turn, similar to how aeroplane banks or mountain bikers lean into a turn.

  3. Maintain your forward speed and keep paddling on both sides to support the turn.

  4. Focus on lifting and holding your outside edge up throughout the turn.

  5. Avoid using too much rudder, as a slight amount will be sufficient to create a wide arc for the turn.

Remember to start with gentle turns and gradually increase the amount of edge as you gain confidence and control. With practice, you'll be able to execute smooth and precise carving turns on your next river trip.

This Article Is Step 9 of My First Timer’s Guide to Kayaking in the Coast to Coast

  1. Book Your Grade 2 Course

  2. Buy a Kayak

  3. Buy a Paddle

  4. Buy a PFD (lifejacket)

  5. Set up Your Equipment

  6. Learn the Basics

  7. Join a Kayak Club

  8. Learn the Forward Stroke Technique

  9. Develop Your Boat Handling Skills

  10. Spend Time on the River

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