The subtle art of balance

Words: Corran Addison
Even if you do all of those things right, you’re going to swim. Sometimes the board is going to take a hit, or get bucked, harder than your ability to absorb and compensate. But, for the most part, if you apply these basic ideas, and practice them a thousand times, you’ll find that your success rate will sky rocket.

Of all the things that are likely to contribute to a failed run on a SUP, loss of balance is going to be at the top of the list. The reason is of course that standing on a bucking, bouncing plank, that is moving in all directions at the same time, is incredibly difficult. The board is simultaneously moving up and down, forward and back, side to side, with pitch and yaw. And this is assuming the board is a hard shell, and you have not added in the complication of the board itself bending and twisting, as happens with even the most ridged inflatable boards.

Corran Addison - the subtle art of balance

Bending forwards at the waist throws your centre of gravity off the centreline

Balance, is that elusive skill that betrays even the best paddleboarders.

There is no ‘catch all’ solution to every situational event that calls for ninja like balance skills to save you. But there are a few things, that you can learn to combine, that will contribute to an elevated level of success.

All of these skills apply equally to all kinds of boards – be they composite, plastic or inflatable, but they are infinitely more difficult to master on an inflatable board. Just be aware of that if this is what you’re using, and you feel like your paddling buddy on a hard shell is having an easier time learning – your buddy is having an easier time. But that does not mean you can’t learn them. It’s just going to be a bit more work.
The main contributing factors to balance and stability come from stance width, stance stagger, knees and waist bend, and a powered up paddle, in combinations of some or all.

Corran Addison - the subtle art of balance

The moment before the fall- bending at the waist throws your centre of gravity out from both the centreline of the board, and out from an imaginary line going through your entire body that’s centred between your feet

Board design
Before getting into these elements, let’s just address board design briefly, as this can contribute in a large way to the degree that you require combinations of the above elements.

Firstly, wider boards are not more stable, despite rumors to the contrary. They may initially feel more stable when standing on them on a nice flat lake (and in many ways are more stable on a flat lake), but as soon as you get into whitewater, the very features that make the board seem stable, take away stability.

The further a rail is from the centreline, the harder it is to lift that rail out of the water so it doesn’t catch. The more likely water rushing from the side will catch it, and the more force (moment arm) the water will have on the rail, and thus on you.

Balance comes from subtle movements, and adjustments. Wide boards require more defined, forceful movements to get them to respond, and this is a primary destabilizing factor. Any exaggerated, powerful movement on the board (required to edge a wide board) is gong to destabilize you.

If you’re crossing a lot of eddies, doing ferries, or eddy turns, a wide board makes it harder to lift the outer edge so it doesn’t catch, and you quickly begin to appreciate the control and forgiveness that comes from paddling a narrower one.

Thicker rails are going to be more forgiving than thinner rails. For the water to push down on the deck and destabilize you, first it has to get onto the deck. Any SUP paddler that comes from kayaking will tell you that a round creek boat shaped kayak is more forgiving than a flattish hard railed playboat style kayak. The same physics apply to SUP.

An eight-inch thick rail requires the water to travel that much higher to get onto the deck than a five-inch thick rail. And a rounded deck is going to force the water to apply the pressure gradually, rather than the switch like on/off of a flat deck.

Simply put, a narrower (within reason) thick-railed board with a rounded deck rail is going to be more forgiving than a wider, thinner, flat deck rail.

That said, stance height above the water is a major contributor to stability. For every 1cm lower you stand, its about the equivalent ‘flat water stability increase’ of a 2cm wider board, all other design elements being equal. This is not an absolute, but it’s a nice little rule of thumb. Therefore standing on a six-inch think board that’s 34 inches wide has the same ‘flat water’ stability as standing on a five-inch thick board that’s 32 inches wide.

Corran Addison - the subtle art of balance

The karate-like stance, Hangetsu Dachi , with feet close to the cenrerline of the board, gives you a wide stance end to end for longitudinal stability, without the width side to side that can throw you off balance

Corran Addison - the subtle art of balance

Corran Addison - the subtle art of balance

Corran Addison - the subtle art of balance

Bending the knees, especially the back knee, is critical for balance and absorbing board movement. Notice that while my waist bends naturally, my upper body remains as upright as possible. Also note my front foot toes cross the centreline of the board (and my back foot heel crosses the centreline as well)

Clearly, a low standing area conflicts with a high sidewall rail if the board is essentially planar in its design (parallel deck and hull), which all inflatable boards are. Composite and plastic boards allow you to recess the standing area as the design is not dictated by the construction method, so that you’re at waterline (or below) and have a thick rail – letting you eat your cake and have it.

If you’re on an inflatable, then you have to make decisions between the extra volume and forgiveness of six-inch versus the lower standing height of a five-inch. There is no correct answer: this is simply information for you to use.

Construction method is a contributor as well. The most stable boards are composite as they are the stiffest. They have no flex at all, either directly under foot as both plastic and inflatable boards have, nor longitudinal and torsional flex like inflatable boards have. Flex in a board amounts to something much like trying to do yoga while standing on a waterbed: you might develop the skills to do it, but it’s a lot harder than standing on a solid floor.

Centre of gravity
The most stable position on the board is when your centre of gravity is lined up with the centreline of the board. Your centre of gravity is close to an imaginary vertical pole running down through the center of the top of your head, down through your chest following a straight back, out the centre of your crotch and down to the board, landing directly on the centreline of the board (stringer).

No matter what your knees, ankles and legs are doing, the goal is for this imaginary pole to always remain vertical (even if the board is not horizontal) and pointing at the centreline of the board.

Balance techniques

Stance width
Let’s start with stance width, and the urban legend that wider is more stable. It’s not. A wide stance gives you the impression of being more stable, more planted, but this is a false impression. While in fact you ARE more planted, this very fact leads to a rapid downward spiral in stability once the board starts to buck about.

Corran Addison - the subtle art of balance

If you’re standing close to the outer edge of a board (regardless of it’s width), and the board is tilted 20 degrees, your foot travels a long way upwards as the rail lifts (several inches). Along with this instability caused by this rising high foot trying to shift your ‘centreline pole’ off the centreline of the board that comes from raising your foot a half dozen inches upwards, comes the added instability (further travel away from centreline) of your lower foot going downwards by as many inches.

This has a tendency to move your entire body out of position with the centreline of the board, and your centre of gravity shifts to one side.

This shift of your centre of gravity will then apply force to the lower foot. The wider your stance, the more leverage you have. Less force is required to drive that low foot lower than with a narrower stance. So the shift of 20 or 30 pounds of body weight applies a large force on the lower foot, and the board tilts even further, moving your centre of gravity even further off the centreline… by now you get the picture.

Screen Shot 2015-11-10 at 9.10.42 AM copy

I tend to transform my stance into a Neko Ashi Dachi from Sanchin Dachi when edging. Being on the ball of my foot creates one extra articulation in the shock absorption leg system, and is the most fine tuned of all, allowing for micro adjustments to edging

Corran Addison - the subtle art of balance

At the peak moment of needing maximum stability, both feet are along the centreline (front foot toes and rear foot heel on or crossing the centreline). Contrary to common belief, this gives you the maximum stability and recovery

Corran Addison - the subtle art of balance

With bent knees, and a vertical upright upper body, you can absorb the largest of hits and come through it.

Corran Addison - the subtle art of balance

Each successive design of mine gets narrower than the one before, and my ability to run harder things increases along with it. While it feels odd initially, when you’re used to wide boards, it is in fact ultimately better.

Usually it’s all over, and you fall in. But as frequently, you valiantly try to save it, arching your upper body over your raised foot, shifting your imaginary vertical pole off vertical, or possibly bending it (by bending your waist). More often than not this results in the board making a violent correction and you end up in the same precarious position you were just in, but on the other side. This compounds as you rock from side to side before falling in.

The closer your feet are to the centreline, the less initial ‘planted’ stability you feel like you have, but this translates to the board having a hard time adversely moving your body around and off the centreline. Your feet do not lift (or drop) as far, and as such your body shift off centre is reduced, applying less force to the lower foot, and this force having less power due to a smaller moment arm.

People can walk on slacklines because their core rarely gets off centre (relative to their feet or the line itself).

Stance stagger
I call this the ‘Kung Fu’ stance (because it sounds cool). I studied karate for years, and quickly adopted three basic karate stances into my SUP paddling.

Standing with your feet parallel makes it near to impossible to regain balance if the nose or tail of the board is suddenly lifted or lowered (pitch), or you suddenly accelerate or decelerate.

Shifting one foot back so the toes of the back foot align with the heel of the front foot, right at about shoulder width, gives you the best ‘all around’ standing position (in karate it’s called Sanchin Dachi).

Corran Addison - the subtle art of balance

Powering Up, using the paddle like the third leg of a tripod, not only adds to stability, but combines this with speed and drive.

The advantage of this is that it allows you to shift your crotch forward or back, as needed, to keep your centre of gravity over the centreline, without bending at the waist (a big no no). This stance is effectively the same as a flat stance when it comes to comfort over long periods of paddling, while giving you this fine-tune stability adjustment.

It also allows you to step back into a longer more ‘defensive’ stance (in karate called Hangetsu Dachi), that I use when boofing drops and holes, without that momentary instability that comes from stepping back out of a sideways flat stance.

The lower the volume of my board, and narrower the board, so the closer my feet get. On my tiny 25-inch wide, 88-litre surf SUP, I stand almost on the centreline, toes to heel, shifting the Sanchi Dachi (kung fu) to a stance called Neko Ashi Dachi.

As soon as you master these stances, you suddenly realize that excessive board width is not only unnecessary, but a hindrance.

Corran Addison - the subtle art of balance

You cannot even begin to tackle multiple drop rapids until you have mastered stability. If you fall on the first drop, you’re swimming the second one and that’s no fun at all

Knees, ankle and waist bend
A large part of stability comes from absorbing the board’s movement. Think of a motocross rider firing across a series of Whoops (a series of smaller moguls or hills in succession), standing on the pegs. The wheels are hammering up and down, but the riders upper body barely moves, absorbing everything with the suspension and legs. Skiers use the same technique in moguls.

In an ideal world, no matter what the board is doing underneath you, no matter how much its bucking and weaving, everything from the waist up should be completely still.

Corran Addison - the subtle art of balance

Once you begin to stand on the board with your feet close to the centreline, staggered, it no longer makes any difference how wide your board is. I raced a 17’ x 26 inch wide board down 140km of class 3-4 and only swam a half dozen times. It’s all about training your mind along with your body

This is accomplished by combining the staggered stances, with a very liberal amount of knee and ankle bending, each leg moving independently, so that it’s moving up and down just enough to absorb the boards movement, while keeping your upper body still.

What you don’t want to do is attempt to absorb these board movements through waist bending. First of all, it’s too slow. You just cannot lower and raise your chest by bending at the waist, moving it about, left and right, up and down, side to side, fast enough, to absorb what the board is doing.

Corran Addison - the subtle art of balance

Once you have balance dialled in, you can really start to play on the river

Secondly, even if you could move it fast enough, now you’re throwing the heaviest part of your body (torso and head) all over the place. Put a weight onto the side of a top, and try to spin it. You can’t. The same applies for you. Bending at the waist throws your entire centre of gravity out of whack with the centreline of the board.

We’ve all done it, but usually (unless you’re really lucky) this terminates in a swim.

Corran Addison - the subtle art of balance

Chant to yourself – it’s all in the knees, it’s all in the knees, as you drop into the rapid

Power up
If you read the Paddler summer edition of 2017, you will see my article on paddling ‘power up’. This essentially goes into detail of how to use a forward stroke (or turning stroke) as a brace, rather than an actual brace.

To summarize the article, a low brace almost always forces you to bend at the waist, and we don’t want that. The support of a low brace comes from the water pushing back against the surface of your paddle. But a forward stroke puts just as much force into the paddle, and you can use it just as effectively as a brace.

In addition to a forward stroke being a positive stroke (while a brace is a negative stroke, robbing you of speed and drive), a forward stroke also acts as the third leg in a tripod. Adding a third ‘offset’ leg to your kung fu stance more than doubles stability, and this ‘leg’ is mobile: you can move it to wherever it’s needed.

Corran Addison - the subtle art of balance

Whitewater SUP is accessible to all – it’s all about getting a few basic skills down, the most important of which is balance

If you get bumped forward, instead of stepping forward to keep your centre of gravity on the centreline (or as is often done, bending forward at the waist into a low brace), you can simply do a bow draw or C stroke, which puts force on the paddle and gives you that same stability without ‘stepping out’.

In summary
Even if you do all of those things right, you’re going to swim. Sometimes the board is going to take a hit, or get bucked, harder than your ability to absorb and compensate. But, for the most part, if you apply these basic ideas, and practice them a thousand times, you’ll find that your success rate will sky rocket.

And nothing breeds confidence like success.

Corran Addison - the subtle art of balance

No matter how good you are, everyone falls

Huge thanks to our advertisers

Leave a Reply