Words and pics: Tony Bain
Novice SUP paddlers are an adventurous bunch, curious and always up for a challenge. But they do seem to worry about getting it right. Oh, and falling in… But that’s part of the sport and learning, isn’t it?
Of course getting it right, ultimately, is what it is about. ‘How’s this?’ That’s one of the usual questions I get asked during lessons. ‘How do I hold it?’ ‘Where does this go?’ All valid queries. But the truth is I’m not teaching you anything new. Your brain already knows how to paddle. It even knows how to keep you balanced when afloat. Just because you haven’t paddled a water craft before doesn’t mean you don’t hold the information required to pilot a SUP.
When it comes to paddling most newbies over think this action. Frankly, if you want to go forward, you put the paddle in the water in front of you, pull it back and your board slides forward. If you put it in the water at the side and move it square away from the nose, and then sweep in a big arc towards the tail, you will turn away from the direction of travel. But the question is: how effective, or how efficient, is the stroke you have used to control or manoeuvre your board?
This is not only ‘what you can do with it’ but also ‘how you use it’ – and that is what really matters. Your paddle is like a wand would be to a magician. It may be the lightest and most high tech paddle on the market but if you can’t use it correctly, or it is set inefficiently, you won’t get the results you desire.
The closer to vertical your paddle is when paddling, and straighter from front to back you can move it, then the straighter your direction of travel. When your paddle is horizontal, and pushed square away from direction of travel (from the nose of the board), then the easier it is when altering your direction with an active paddle stroke.
If you want any proof of this just think of the way your hand enters the water when you swim front crawl. You reach forward of the body and enter the water with fingers pointing down in a vertical manner. Your hand cups and catches the water as it plunges deeper. Your body slides forward, towards and over the point where your hand caught the water initially, and you start moving forward.
Once you arrive where you are going, and you wish to turn around to see how far you have swum, your hand reaches in front again. Naturally turning sideways your hand reaches out to cup and catch the water close to and just under the water’s surface in front. Then moving squarely away from direction of travel, with a wide circular sweeping action of the arm, your body rotates easily in the water. Hopefully that all makes sense?
Most instructors will have you lying on your board and using your hands in the same manner as swimming. You will have seen surfers paddling out through the waves in this way I’m sure. (If we could just convince them to use a paddle instead of their hands…)
It’s when you stop and think about how we swim and relate the actions of your hands to that of your blade that you truly understand how to use your paddle and control the direction and movements of your SUP.
Many swimming strokes are the basis of flat water paddling skills. Take for instance the sculling stroke used for staying afloat in deep water. Your hand is tilted at 45 degrees front side up as it travels front to back. The stroke is only 400-500mm long and conducted in a shallow C-shape just below the water’s surface. A continued action keeps your body lifted and avoids sinking.
Imagine, instead of lying on and swimming your board, sitting at the very front of your SUP cross legged. Reach forwards, put one hand in the water and do the same stroke pattern. Hey presto! You will move forward! Just as if you were sitting in a coracle.
This time picture standing on your board, in the centre of it. Place your top hand across your forehead, head turned and facing the side, and repeat the same stroke pattern with your blade in the water. Your board will move towards your paddle! If you weight the outside foot, raising the edge of the board nearest to the blade, then your board will move towards the paddle even quicker.
Once you have learnt to scull your SUP paddle technique will improve immensely – you will become the magician of your wand! As well as having a greater understanding of your paddle and how to use it!
Tony Bain is a qualified SUP coach, SUP tour guide and owner of Green Dragon Activities. He’s also a keen bathtub paddler!