Going in Circles Is a Good Thing???

Did you ever marvel at someone just nailing an eddy turn? You can do that, too! There are ways to practice such things, but one of the prerequisites is getting comfortable on edge. So here we’ll talk briefly about paddling in circles to improve our skills! Remember that when kayaking you are a floating physics experiment. Whether you call it carving or circle paddling, you’ll need to combine simple physics and the shape of your boat to turn effectively.

First, remember that your boat has rocker; the bow to stern curvature of the hull. Stand the boat a little on edge, and you can see that it is possible to use this shape to accentuate your turns. The more edge you give it, the snappier your turn.

Second, you have to practice in order to get more comfortable on edge. Remember the “C to C” position common in the Eskimo Roll of the same name? Your body is bent in what is supposed to be a “C” shape. The same “C” will be used to center your weight over the boat.

A quick little physics lesson… you have three things to think about 1) your Center of Gravity, 2) your Base of Support, and 3) your Line of Gravity.

1) Center of Gravity is fairly well known, and moves around as you move around. It is the very center of your body weight. Stand on your feet, both feet on the ground, and lean as far as you can to one side. What does your body want to do? Instinctively, you will throw out an arm or a leg to counterbalance – unconsciously shifting your center of gravity. In a kayak, if you start to lean the boat, your body will arc so that your head is away from the low edge of the boat, making that “C”.
2) Consider Base of Support to be your footprint, whether you are standing on a floor in shoes or sitting in a kayak. If you now stand on just one foot, what do you do? You’ve minimized your Base of Support, so you shift your weight slightly OVER the foot that remains on the ground. It is similar in a kayak – except we have only one foot. If our boat offers X amount of square feet of Base of Support when flat, it will offer less than X when on edge. If you tilt your boat left or right, the angle causes you to lose some of your Base of Support.

3) The Line of Gravity is the lesser known of the three. A string with a weight on it is called a plumb line, meaning that it always points straight down. Think of it like an arrow pointing straight down through the middle of your Center of Gravity. Got it? Now – when you can stand without falling, or can sit in a kayak without tipping over, your Line of Gravity is pointing within your Base of Support – your “footprint.” If you tilt over, and your Line of Gravity moves so that it points to a place outside your Base of Support, you tip over. It works in bare feet, on skis, in a canoe, kayak, tractor-trailer, whatever – its the physics of balance in its most basic form.

Now to practice paddling in a circle! Pick out a nice piece of flat water or a pool, and paddle with both blades. Push the boat into a turn, and lean like you were riding a bicycle in that turn – turn left – lean left, turn right – lean right. Concentrate on looking into your turn – look AWAY from the boat, far into your turn. If you look at your boat, your brain is trying to verify how far it is from a disaster and will make your life more interesting than it should be! Looking away allows your natural instincts to take hold. Try zooming around a turn on your bicycle and looking directly at your front wheel – things get shaky, eh? Same thing happens when you look at your boat in a turn. Teach yourself to look away and trust your instincts.

So for this drill, constantly re-orient your look into the very center of the circle you are paddling. Now tilt the boat. Sink your lower butt-bone into the boat – shift your weight onto that lower butt-bone. You will feel a little more stable. Lock the higher knee into the thighbrace, and lock that lean. Now, while looking into the center of your circle, maintain the lean on the boat. Don’t lean too much – if you’re shaky, back off a bit. This isn’t about tempting a flip; it’s about the maintenance of that lean.

Practice going in circles with two blades, then work your way to only paddling on the INSIDE of the turn. Your paddle stroke should be very close to the boat, held as vertically as possible, should go in quietly at your toenails and come out by your belly – no further. Pretend you’re tiptoeing through the water! Practice this and you will be surprised how comfortable you can be on edge! Once you can paddle on the inside of your turns, you will be able to maintain The Carve, conserve momentum, and balance your way into your favorite eddy!

Jerry McAward, ACA Instructor Trainer for Whitewater Kayaking