Part II - Paddling Efficiently
In my experience, there are four main factors that influence efficient
paddling. Some of them are again better known than others. I will discuss
the obvious ones first.
(Photo by Shawn O'Donnell)
1. Boat - Obviously, if you have long-distance ambitions, you should choose a reasonably efficient boat. Not all plastic sit-on-top kayaks are created equal in this regard. Generally, longer and narrower is more efficient than shorter and wider.
The boat should probably be at least 13 feet long, better 14-16 feet, and be no more than 28 inches wide. Examples, aside from my Scupper Pro, are the RTM Disco, Prowler 13 and 15, Wilderness Tarpon 140 and 160, Hurricane Phoenix 160, Cobra Expedition, and, if you like pedaling, the Hobie Adventure. (The latest reviews for these kayaks may be found in our TopKayaker.net Kayak Reviews)
Some of these boats, you may be interested to find out, have been used for rather long distances, sometimes in extreme conditions. My twin-hatch Scupper Pro was used in what is to date possibly the only documented continuous circumnavigation of the Big Island of Hawaii (See Outfitter Kelly Harrison's Story).
The Prowler 13 was recently used by adventurer Jon Turk on a multi-week expedition in Vanuatu, including a 50-mile open water crossing in huge seas (Read more about Jon Turk on the forum with links to details). In fact, I think he's out there as I write this, trying to paddle from Vanuatu to the Solomon Islands, which requires a 200-mile crossing at one point.
The RTM Disco was recently paddled for 30 miles in atrocious conditions by a Topkayaker forum member in the UK (Steven shares his story: Ten Years Of Sea Kayak To Learn This). And the Tarpon 160 was the boat used by another Topkayaker forum member for two of his three Catalina crossings. (See Calamari Chris - Santa Catalina Island Crossing)
2. Forward stroke - If you want to paddle 20 miles a day in relative comfort, learning proper forward stroke technique is a must. Precisely because a standard sit-on-top kayak is by design less efficient than a sit-inside kayak, it is critical that you don't compound the problem by using an inefficient paddle stroke.
This sounds easy enough in theory, but is no simple matter in practice. Despite what you may have read or heard, there isn't one proper paddle stroke that will work best for everyone alike. One problem is that forward stroke technique as explained by traditional sea kayakers often focuses on speed rather than efficiency (since their boats are more efficient than ours, they can perhaps afford to do so). Thus, the traditional school of thought on this topic advocates a high-angle paddle stroke and an entry point as far forward as possible to produce the greatest amount of forward momentum per stroke. It also prescribes very pronounced torso rotation, the idea being that our abdominal muscles and leg muscles are stronger than our arm muscles and are therefore able to move more water with each stroke, producing more power and thus greater speed.
While this makes perfect sense in a racing context, it makes little or no sense in a cruising context. Remember what we are trying to achieve: We are not interested in generating more power nor are we interested in increasing speed. Rather, we are trying to move the kayak at normal cruising speed, 2.5-3 mph, over a period of 7-8 hours using less power.
Does this mean that you shouldn't use a high angle stroke or torso rotation? Not necessarily. The "best" paddling angle and amount of torso rotation will vary from paddler to paddler.
Depending on your personal physique (especially, shoulder, back and hip flexibility), boat, and paddle (see below), a high angle stroke coupled with strong torso rotation may or may not feel comfortable to you. If you have a relatively narrow boat and a short paddle, plus good shoulder, hip and low back flexibility, it may feel just right to you. But if this paddling style feels uncomfortable or tiring, then no matter how powerful your stroke may be as a result, chances are you won't be able to maintain it for eight hours.
In my own experience, minimal amount of torso rotation, really more of an oblique abdominal crunch, light to moderate leg bracing (depending on conditions), pushing more with the upper hand than pulling with the lower hand, and alternating paddling angles between low and medium work well. This spreads the load evenly across all body parts without placing maximum stress on any one area.
More pronounced torso rotation simply feels tiring to me. This is not surprising, if you think about it. Even though our abdominal muscles and other core muscles may be stronger than our arm and shoulder muscles, they are not designed to perform 20,000+ rotations in one sitting. Instead, our core muscles are primarily stabilizers designed to support the spinal column. They excel at handling static loads, e.g., maintaining proper posture over an extended time period. This is exactly why knowledgeable athletes no longer do hundreds of sit-ups and crunches, but rather use Pilates-style core training. In other words, while using your core muscles for paddling is certainly sound advice, using pronounced rotation for long distances may not be.
So, experiment with different strokes and angles to see what works for you over a course of at least 3 hours, bearing in mind that you are trying to achieve greater efficiency and comfort, not greater power and speed. Ideally, paddling will feel like child's play, each stroke as joyful as the previous one. The paddle should enter and exit the water fluidly without any conscious thought on your part. It should feel like you could keep paddling forever.
Now to the not so obvious factors:
3. Paddle - I cannot overstate the importance of the "right"
paddle for long-distance paddling. Again, remember that our goal is
efficiency and comfort, not power and speed. Just like a powerful paddle
stroke is not what we are after, a powerful paddle is not what we are
after. We want a paddle that allows us to keep the boat moving at cruising
speed with minimal effort.
Think of a sit-on-top kayak as a heavy beach cruiser and a sea kayak as a ultra-light road bike. The beach cruiser will need much lower gearing than the road bike to cover the same distance with the same amount of effort, especially uphill. It will take the beach cruiser much longer to get there, of course, but with proper gearing it eventually will, and in more comfort. Likewise, a standard sit-on-top will require lower "gearing" than a sea kayak.
The "gearing" of a paddle is mostly a function of blade design and overall paddle length. Let's talk about blade design first.
The larger the paddle blade, the more powerful the paddle, and vice versa. If we wanted to produce the greatest amount of thrust per stroke, we should opt for the paddle with the largest blade. But we don't. In fact, we want the opposite. We want a blade that produces just enough thrust to keep the boat moving at cruising speed. Any extra blade area just adds needless weight (so-called swing weight, to be precise, i.e., weight in the blades wich you feel the most when paddling), and also drag.
The Inuit amazingly figured this out thousands of years ago, preferring paddles barely over 3 inches wide at the ends. They weren't interested in racing each other around the ice floes, but rather in being able to keep paddling and hunting seals all day along. These paddles, known as Greenland paddles, are still used by some paddlers today and are now available in super-lightweight carbon fiber from just a handful of sources.
Unfortunately, the wisdom of the Inuits has been largely forgotten by most modern paddle makers. You'll be hard-pressed to find a commercially available (non-Greenland, so-called "Euro") paddle less than 5 inches wide (length is not an issue, as most blades are about 19-20 inches long). Even blades billed as "small" or "for relaxed paddling" are usually close to 6 inches wide, often more. While these paddles may be better suited for long-distance paddling than your run-of-the-mill paddle with blades 6-7 inches wide, they come not even close to maximum efficiency, in my experience. This is not just a function of blade width, put also blade shape. Paddles available on the market almost universally have blunt rather than streamlined blade tips. This provides for a powerful catch (when the blade first enters the water), but at the price of greater effort, more strain, and less efficiency.
Stop by & compare, Tom's TopKayaker Shop Carries The Spirit Evening Tourer, width 5.75" & Tailwind Twilight Touring width 5.5" both paddles by Bending Branches. See all in our Kayak Paddle Department.
In other words, long-distance paddle options are extremely limited. I feel truly lucky to have found a paddle (a Nimbus Chinook, max. blade width 4.75") that is ideally suited to my personal needs. When I first tried the Chinook, paddling felt so easy, I felt certain the boat wasn't moving nearly as fast as it usually does. But the clock told a different story. It showed that I had covered a distance of about 5 miles in about the same time this trip usually take me, 2 hours. I had simply expended much less effort doing so, tricking my brain into thinking that I wasn't going as fast.
The next time I went out, I paddled almost twice the distance, with the same result. I covered 9 miles in about the same time as always, only with much less effort. Because I needed less breaks, my average speed was actually a bid faster than before. Since then, I have worked my way up to about 17 miles of paddling only, and 25 miles of paddle-sailing. Sooner or later, on of my crossings to Catalina, the wind won't be there to bail me out, and I will have to paddle the entire 22 miles. It will be a long day on the water and I will probably curse the weather gods all the way to the island, but with my now perfectly sized Chinook, I feel that I will be all right.
Note that this does not mean that my Chinook will also be best for you. The right blade size and shape will vary from paddler to paddler, just as the right paddle stroke. But by keeping in mind what you are trying to achieve - efficiency -- you will hopefully be able to ferret out the paddle that works best for you. And if no Euro paddle seems quite right, you may want to consider a Greenland paddle. It does require a different paddle stroke because the blades are not feathered and you grip the shaft on the shoulder, where the shaft is no longer round. But many who have tried a Greenland paddle have become hooked on them. So don't discount them just because they seem odd.
Aside from blade design, proper sizing is key to efficient paddling. If your paddle is too long, you will have excess leverage, meaning more power, but less efficiency. If your paddle is too short, you will have to twist your upper body and shoulders to avoid hitting the rails of the kayak, also a waste of energy.
In my experience, paddlers, especially sit-on-top paddlers, tend to buy paddles that are too long for them. This is exactly what I did - four times in a row over a period of 17 years. It wasn't until this year that I finally figured out by trial and (lots of) error that the most efficient paddle length for me on my Scupper Pro is 220cm, not 230cm or even 225 cm as I had been led to believe.
Part of the problem seems to be that paddle sizing calculators (e.g., the one used by Werner Paddles) tend to spit out longer than ideal paddle lengths if you are short, paddle a boat 26" or wider, and use a low or medium angle paddle stroke, all of which happen to be true for me. Another part of the problem is that these sizing calculators or charts probably assume a blade width of 6 inches or more to make sure that paddles of standard blade width clear the rails of the kayak. If you have a paddle with a much narrower blade as I do (not to mention a Greenland paddle), clearance is however much less of a problem allowing for a shorter paddle and you needlessly end up adding weight and decreasing efficiency by following the manufacturer's recommendations.
So, when you shop for the "right" paddle, do your research and try to test before you buy (which is unfortunately not an option when you have to buy online). Just light weight and a well-known brand name simply aren't enough to comfortably cover 20 miles on a run-of-the-mill sit-on-top kayak, just as state-of-the-art bicycle gearing designed for road bikes won't work on a beach cruiser. (For an over-view of kayak paddles see How To Choose & Shop For A Kayak Paddle)
4. Rudder - Contrary to popular belief, a rudder is not a crutch for paddlers who don't know how to turn their kayaks. Rather, it is an extremely effective tool to prevent your kayak from turning.
Let me explain. A sit-on-top kayak of the sort we are talking about here, like my Scupper Pro, doesn't track nearly as well as a sea kayak and thus experiences more lateral movement with each stroke and, due to its higher profile, also more windage. This causes the boat to turn a bit to the side opposite to the paddle stroke and, if there is a cross-wind, into the wind. To prevent these unwanted directional deviations, a paddler without a rudder must continously apply corrective strokes. This works all right for shorter distances and in low wind conditions, but is virtually impossible to maintain over longer distances and/or in windy conditions. Even in the most benign conditions, doing corrective strokes for 20 miles is out of the question. (See Paddling Straight as well as When To Get A Rudder & How To Use It)
Enter the rudder. A rudder will prevent those unwanted turns without any additional effort on the part of the paddler. The power applied through the paddle is now translated into maximum forward momentum with minimum effort. In other words, a rudder will significantly boost efficiency thereby dramatically increasing your range of travel.
Just how dramatic this increase can be is poignantly demonstrated by some of the average daily mileages recorded by Paul Caffyn during his famous solo circumnavigation of Australia. On the leg from Melbourne to Sydney, he averaged just over 30 miles a day without a rudder. Later, on the leg from Brisbane to Cape York, he averaged almost 40 miles a day, this time having the benefit of a rudder. He himself unequivocally attributed the difference in mileage - a 30% gain! -- to the new rudder.
If a simple rudder can make such a difference in efficiency for a world class long-distance paddler on an already highly efficient sea kayak, just imagine what kind of a difference it will make for the average SOT paddler. After my first outing with a rudder (after 15 years of not having a rudder), I was stunned when I realized that I had just about doubled my range overnight.
Ever since then, I consider my rudder the most important piece of equipment on my kayak, closely followed by my beloved paddle. Yes, I'd probably trade my Chinook paddle before I'd go without a rudder. That's how big a difference a rudder makes. If you haven't used a rudder for long-distance paddling before, you should give it a try. You are in for a pleasant surprise.
This, then, is the case for sticking with your sit-on-top kayak for
long-distance paddling. You may not set any speed records, and may not
be able to keep up with a group of sea kayakers. But if you capitalize
on the benefits of comfort and safety and put efficiency before speed,
you will be able to paddle those 20 miles a day before you know it.
And once you can paddle 20 miles in a run-of-the-mill sit-on-top kayak,
just imagine how far you could paddle in a high-performance sit-on-top
Keep Australia on your left.
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