In this article we take a deep dive approach to the components of the outrigger paddle stroke. Initially the article takes more of a procedural route in explaining the various phases of the stroke. As you continue to read, however, you will find near the end as that the article becomes more anecdotal.
The purpose of this is to highlight the more tangible elements of the stroke initially and then attempt to identify the more intangible elements. Paddling physiology is not an exact science considering that no one paddler has the same body makeup. The goal of this information is to give you a fundamental understanding of the stroke and help initiate an inner dialogue. From this place of understanding you can establish the stroke technique that works best for you.
1. Initial Phase – Forward body movement and arm placement
The initial phase of the stroke is when the paddle blade is out of the water behind the paddlers torso with the bottom hand close to the hip. The paddler should already be seated upright and ready to execute the next movement which is the setup.
Keep the head up throughout this phase with both shoulders relaxed and squared (below and away from the ears). From this position both arms/hands are quickly thrown out in front (not upward) initiating a forward and downward motion towards the water.
As both arms are moving forward the bottom shoulder should begin to drop downward toward the water, much like if you were falling and using your bottom arm and hand to brace your fall. The shoulder associated with the top hand should continue to stay below and away from the ear to ensure proper blade angle is established at water entry. This will initiate the torso to follow the your arms, but only as much as one’s natural reach (comfort level) allows.
This simultaneous movement of arms being thrown out and torso moving forward should then place the entire paddle blade into the water. Ensure no breakage of movement during this forward and downward motion. Mechanical movements break your rhythm and add to the amount of time the paddle is out of the water. This, therefore, creates an adverse affect to the canoe’s hull speed.
The paddle shaft should be completely vertical with both arms/hands now extended and stacked on top of each other and in front of the paddler. The torso should also be forward with the top hand ideally directly in front of the paddlers view and the bottom hand close to touching the water.
In this instance the paddler has created forward moving energy by the use of his/her own weight and is intending to transfer that same energy back into the canoe by stabilizing themselves using their entire upper body. The goal is to transfer this forward energy into the canoe and prepare the paddler to help lift their weight out of the canoe. This is important as they will then drive their weight back into the canoe/water during both the next two phases.
2. Stability Phase – Catch
The stability phase is when the paddle blade is completely submerged into the water, with the shaft of the paddle vertical and both hands stacked on top of each other in front of the paddler. The pressure (catch) felt at this point should be equal from the blade all the way through the top of the paddle’s T-handle.
Having equal pressure on both hands should also engage both left and right lateral muscles and thus be an indication that the paddler has established proper stability. Now that stability has been achieved the paddler will then be able to apply power to help lift their weight up and out of the canoe.
Visualize that the paddle is now locked in concrete and the paddler cannot pull the blade to them but must bring their body to where they placed the blade. Prior to the next phase the top hand should be in front of the paddler no higher than the paddler’s forehead.
3. Power Lift Phase – Hip-up/Sit-up
The powerlift phase is all about lifting one’s weight out of the canoe by using the lats, obliques, abs, and eventually glutes while maintaining forward momentum and pressure established during the aforementioned phases.
Pressure on the blade and T-handle from the stabilization phase should continue to be maintained throughout the length of the stroke, to the point in which the paddler is bringing the water pressure to their hips. As the lateral muscles engage, the paddler should feel their body starting to right itself (i.e. sit up). At this point the paddler’s top hand will start to drive down to maintain the same amount of pressure to keep the paddle in the same plane where it was initially set.
The paddler should feel the engagement of muscles being transferred downward from the lats to the obliques, lower abdominal muscles and eventually to the glutes during this phase. What the paddler is trying to accomplish is to leverage that pressure from the stabilization phase and bring their hip up towards the vertical paddle shaft from where they initially placed the blade into the water.
The goal is to continue to keep the paddle shaft vertical as the body passes the spot of blade entry. The hands should be stacked with the bottom hand running alongside/parallel to the gunwales of the canoe, while the top hand (maintaining the same pressure from the catch) follows the bottom hand and essentially finishes right next to, or slightly above the outside knee.
The top hand needs to be over the water throughout the entire length of the stroke, only during the exit phase should the top hand ever cross the torso (if at all). The shaft of the paddle should remain vertical throughout the length of the stroke to ensure the most direct way forward. At the point of lift the shaft should be relatively close to parallel to the canoe. At the same time the torso should be upright with both hands stacked on top of each other and ready to bring the paddle out of the water.
Common mistakes during this phase:
- Instead of allowing the blade to set, the paddler immediately slams down onto the T-handle of the blade, thus plowing the nose of the canoe into the water.
- As the paddler establishes their catch, they feel compelled to add more “umph” to their stroke by ripping through the water with their bottom hand.
In both cases the paddler is essentially muscling the stroke. This usually adds weight load back into the canoe instead of lifting weight out of the canoe and causes an inefficient ripping through the water.
This also minimizes the ability to use lateral and hip muscles in the stroke and essentially puts added stress and weight onto smaller muscles i.e. shoulders, triceps, and forearms. The end result causes the nose of the canoe to drive down into the water, creating more resistance and slower speeds.
Power Lift Phase Front View
Visualize a wieghtlifter executing a deadlift. If the goal is to do a 400 pound deadlift lift they wouldn’t attempt to move the weight before establish a strong base of connection with the barbell. They would first ensure they had a good basis of stability/support with both feet securely planted. The lifter would then ensure they had a nice hold of the bar with both hands and finally begin their lift via the legs, core, lats and hips.
The same is true when executing a paddling stroke. Establish a strong and solid connection base before and during the power phase.
4. Connection – Putting it all together
Once the paddle is in the water and the paddler feel’s the catch, establishing stability and executing their powerlift, the goal is now to maintain that same amount pressure from the beginning of the stroke through end of the sit up.
What can happen to a lot of paddlers is that they get a good solid catch but as they initiate their stroke the pressure from the catch starts to dissipate. This can be categorized as slippage or a leak in the stroke.
Again, slippage tends to happens when a paddler muscles through the stroke by not incorporating their bigger muscles. The concept is to maximize the time the paddle is in the water instead of ripping through the water quickly. Now during the powerlift phase the paddler needs to maintain constant pressure with the top hand.
The more time the paddle is in the water, the more time a paddler has to control the direction of the canoe and maintain hull speed. This is also the time the paddler should be exhaling and releasing air from their lungs to prepare for the next stroke. This of course is situational, there is a difference in how long one can keep their blade in the water depending on the condition or environment they find themselves in.
However, regardless of water conditions, the idea is still to set the blade first and keep the blade in the water for as long as possible. This can mean as soon as you place the blade in the water you’re immediately taking it out due to doing a sprint or chasing ocean bumps. My point is that regardless if the stroke is only half a foot long, or four feet long, the feeling of pressure should be exactly the same as it was at the beginning through the end of the stroke. I will get into the specifics of this in another article that describes which gears you should use based on certain conditions.
5. Exit – Big Bang Theory
For sometime outrigger paddlers were told that the recovery should be slow to allow paddlers to set up for the next stroke. I always thought, “what is the canoe doing while I don’t have the blade in the water?” Now of course if you’re paddling a 400 pound canoe that 400 pounds can actually benefit you to a certain extent.
We get a little bit of a reprieve with physics playing a hand on heavier boats however, regardless if whether you are paddling a malia, bradley, mirage, Unlimited or OC-1, the moment you take your blade out of the water the canoe starts to lose hull speed.
For the longest time we used to think Shell Va’a had a really fast stroke rate (they actually do). In reality they have a very fast “recovery”. I have quotations around the word recovery for a reason.
The word recovery has been for the longest time associated with the exit, but in my humble opinion the recovery is part of the powerlift phase. Imagine that during the power phase you have already established a good catch. With that catch you are now maintaining pressure throughout the length of your stroke, this is where ideally you would be exhaling, much like as a person would do if they were lifting something heavy.
As one maintains pressure, there has to be at some point a release and what typically happens the paddle hits a wall of water/pressure and the paddle bounces off that wall thus launching it out of the water. This is where we then need to capture that energy (release) with our bodies at the end of our sit up and then move forward quickly back towards the water.
The exit is a critical portion of the stroke since it is in fact the one time the canoe and water are not connected. Ideally we want to take our time in the water and have a quick release/exit/recovery. This is also the time you should be breathing in or as I like to say, “smell the flowers”, keeping your head and nose up to get that nice air as you once again begin the initial phase of the stroke.
A good exercise to practice this is to try to keep the paddle in the water for 2-3 seconds. and out of the water for only 1 second, before placing the blade back in.
Subsequently, as the powerlift phase comes to an end and the paddle begins to exit out of the water, the paddler should consider how that blade is going to travel while in the air. Paddlers have been told to flare out and skim the face of their blades along the water as a means to contend with air resistance and initiate rotation.
I personally don’t dispute this method, however, I do feel that there are others ways to get the blade from point A to point B faster and more efficiently. A great exercise to practice is during the exit bring your elbow from your bottom hand as high as you can.
You will find the time spent while the blade is in the air to when the blade is back into the water is minimized by a great deal. As you continue to work this into your stroke, find ways to not have to lift the bottom elbow so high by simply creating a ‘J’ with your bottom hand as you lift the blade out of the water.
Instead of flaring the paddle out to the side, we are aiming to bring it up and out of the water as if drawing a sword out of a sheath. This can create a faster recovery by eliminating the extra movement of bringing the blade wide to the outside.
I really hope you found this article helpful in your journey to improve in the sport of outrigger. Everything that was conveyed in this article is information that has been passed down by many others. Much like this water we paddle on, the stroke is never static.
Should there be something that you may not necessarily agree with, I would challenge then to give the content a chance and try it out for yourself on the water at least twice. I say this because I have been that guy who says, “man this guy who told me to do that one thing is a kook…this doesn’t work!”, only to try it a few weeks later and realize the information did in fact directly or indirectly help me improve.
What we know today may not apply tomorrow, and what we apply tomorrow may end up being what were applying 15 years ago. As the great, late Bruce Lee once said, “be like water.”
Technique is a nuanced and never ending process of improvement. What works for one paddler does not always work for another. Join the conversation and let us know what you are struggling with in your technique on the Paddle Society forum.