Words: Scott Warren
Photos: P3T Photography
For many paddlers, flatwater is home. The smooth, tranquil waters of inland lakes, sheltered estuaries and rivers may occasionally experience wind chop but rarely become what we can call rough water. Through this article, I hope to give inland and coastal paddlers some insight into paddling when things get rougher so you can extend your window of getting out and do more than just chasing the feeling of survival.
The cliche statement
Let’s start with the cliche statement that your paddle should be an extension of yourself. Holding your paddle should feel natural, with the paddle being balanced in your hands. All too often, especially now, I see paddlers getting into SUP with the most basic, heavy paddles. If one thing will hold your paddling back, it’s a heavy and dead paddle. So what do I mean by a dead paddle? It’s a paddle which offers you no feel and won’t give you any feedback through your hands. If you invest in one piece of kit, then a decent paddle should be it. It doesn’t have to be a top-end £500+ paddle, but a decent mid-range paddle that feels light, comfortable and, most importantly, natural in your hands.
The bottom hand
Firstly, let’s focus on our bottom hand. As paddlers, our bottom hand is where we pull the paddle and produce our momentum. The placement of your hand and how you grip the paddle shaft can vastly change how your paddle feels and the resulting motion from pulling.
Placement – where should my bottom hand be?
Take your paddle in your hands and hold it out in front of you to begin. Now we want to bend our top arm at the elbow to make it 90 degrees, and the bottom hand should match this and be bent 90 degrees at the elbow. This gives us a good base position to work from, and changing this position can increase or decrease the power as you need it.
For social or recreational paddling, bringing the bottom hand up one hand’s width will likely be more comfortable and take some of the power out of the stroke. This also works when cruising during a longer race to help conserve some energy.
If we need more power, such as paddling into the wind or against a strong flow, then dropping the hand down one hand’s width will help. This position can also help increase your cadence for paddling into waves or sprinting.
Your efficiency and ability to produce power can all go out the window if your bottom-hand grip isn’t correct. If a grip is too tight, you can get a forearm ‘pump’ or cramps and lactic acid buildup. Too light, and your top hand must compensate, causing fatigue in your upper arms. A nice balanced grip blending a relaxed hand with a firm connection is best.
You should avoid the death grip, where you are gripping so tightly it results in cramps and fatigue in your arms. On longer paddles, if you are suffering from cramps, a great tip is to move your bottom hand’s thumb to the outside of the paddle shaft, which can help reduce fatigue during longer paddles.
The top hand
With the bottom hand focused on pulling, the top hand has two important jobs. Firstly, your control comes from stabilising the paddle and allowing you to use the blade more effectively during manoeuvres. Secondly, your top hand is where your connection to the paddle initiates and where your body weight connects through the paddle. Unlocking the top hand can massively open up your paddling skills.
Your top hand can make or break your paddling technique from recreational to performance paddling, so getting this right is fundamental to building your skills. The top hand should be comfortable on your paddle handle, and you shouldn’t feel like you need to over-grip. Your hand should be relaxed and have your knuckles pointing slightly towards the sky with the paddle held vertically. This position means your body weight can go down and through the paddle helping with power and efficiency, and you’re not isolating your top arm to paddle. You want to avoid a ‘punch’ positioning where your top hand comes up over the top of the handle. In that position, it’s harder to stabilise the paddle and isolate the top arm and induces a push into the stoke.
Different handles offer different grip positions, but the hand should always be connected through the palm and lightly held by the fingers.
Think of your top hand as controlling a steering wheel in a car. You can turn the paddle left and right by bending your wrist to either side. If you follow with the bottom hand, you can suddenly open up additional skills like draw strokes to help keep you paddling straight. If you watch white water paddlers and surfers, for example, you will see that they use the top hand to control the paddle and the specific position their hands are in during manoeuvres.
Sizing your paddle
There are many methods to get it sized correctly, but I always return to this method as it works for any paddle regardless of the blade size or type. Start by turning the paddle upside down. This way, you’re measuring the paddle shaft and can then size your paddle depending on your board, type of paddling and personal preference. Hold your paddle at arm’s length out in front of you where the paddle blade blends into the shaft:
Another good way to check your paddle height is by seeing where your top hand is when paddling. During the stroke, when you are midway through pulling, your top hand should be around your eye to head height. Too short or long and could bring on lower back or shoulder issues with prolonged paddling.
- Keep your top hand connected through the palm, and don’t use a punch grip.
- Play with your paddle on land to become more comfortable with controlling your paddle.
- Add a paddle grip if you struggle with bottom arm cramps.
- Try paddles out before you buy, and spend plenty of time paddling each one.
- Watch other paddlers to see how they control their paddle.
Here at Haywood Sports, we are always happy to help. We cover all areas of SUP through our coaching, and our home is on the coast in Kent. We are also always happy to answer any questions on paddling from locations to conditions, kit and safety. Get in touch by phone, email or social media.