Kayak Canoe Skills


  Some basics you should learn and practice:

Wherever your mastery of paddling basics takes you, the three following sections will give you an overview of the skills and equipment necessary to safely move on to more advanced paddling adventures.




If you're just starting out, don't worry about having perfect strokes yet. But there are some basics you should learn and practice:

Know how to swim.

Make sure you can get in and out of a canoe without jeopardizing its stability or doing the "splits" as it drifts away from the dock or shore.

Get comfortable enough with your balance and braces to handle motorboat wakes and unexpected winds.

Learn how to hold the paddle properly, and practice taking strokes without banging the sides of the canoe.

Remember to paddle on opposite sides from your partner (on a few rare occasions, such as the presence of very strong cross winds, it may be advantageous to stay on the same side).

As you advance, you'll no doubt get into more adventurous paddling and want to develop other skills such as loading the canoe efficiently and safely for a weeklong trip and practicing the principles of low-impact camping. There are also moving water fundamentals: picking the best route through riffles, getting in and out of eddies, understanding river hydraulics.

Remember, though, if you find yourself determined to master river paddling and think you might want to do more whitewater, you'll probably want to look into a different type of canoe or kayak and develop more advanced river skills.

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Generally speaking, sea kayaks are designed to track well in a straight line. They come in a variety of configurations that range from beamier (wider) boats that are very stable and offer extra cargo room to the sleek, long, skinny boats that may move straighter and faster through the water but feel less stable initially. Many sea kayaks have foot-operated rudders that make it easier to paddle in a straight line.

You can buy touring kayaks for one person (singles) or for two people (doubles). Double kayaks are more stable than singles and are also a good choice if one paddler has much less power than the other, such as a child. That way, no one has to worry about "keeping up." If you are a couple with two different strength or skill levels, but you still want the flexibility and independence of single kayaks, consider getting two different designs. The stronger paddler can use a bigger boat to carry more gear, while the other paddler can keep up in a sleeker, faster boat.


Kayak tours can range from a relaxing paddle on a lake to a tense and exciting journey through the dynamic surf of the open ocean. The skills you need depend partly on how you plan to use your boat. Kayak touring is easy to learn and generally very safe. But, perhaps more than other types of paddling, it can expose you to some unforgiving natural forces. It may seem obvious, but you should know how to swim. You have to be prepared to get ashore with or without your PFD, and water can be fatally cold. Survival ought to be in the forefront of your mind before you ever venture into open water. You need to learn to brace and apply self-rescue techniques (seek out instruction from a local school or outfitter). Learn how to roll your boat. Remember, you may be a long way from shore: being able to roll or rescue yourself can be important.

Finally, there's a lot to learn about tides, current, navigation, weather, and charts. As you venture farther from sheltered or familiar waters, you'll want to master these skills. While you learn, head for protected waters where these factors are less important. And travel with "buddies" who can help you should you encounter the unexpected.


Whitewater. For many, the word conjures up images of brawny dudes (and dudettes) fighting their way through monstrous waves and over waterfalls. But whitewater can also mean a delicate dance down a rock garden, a friendly splash in a pretty canyon, or a smooth joyride on the green face of a wave. Whitewater can be exciting and terrifying, but that's only one aspect: you don't have to be a "macho" thrill-seeker to love it.

If you are a person who appreciates focus and precision, a flush of adrenaline, and the satisfaction of practicing until you get something right, then whitewater paddling is a good choice for you. Your enjoyment will be all the greater when you fall under a river's mystical spell and share exciting moments with friends.


As a whitewater paddler you've got your choice of boats. First, you'll want to pick between inflatables such as rafts and "hard" boats, including kayaks and canoes. For many people, a raft trip is their first exposure to whitewater. Rafts and other inflatable craft offer comfort and relative stability, but they have their limitations when it comes to maneuvering, surfing, and overall control. They are an accessible and relatively easy way to get down a river.

A kayak is generally the lightest and most maneuverable boat on a river: it's the "motorcycle" of the whitewater world. Overall, kayaks give a paddler maximum control and speed, and they are the statistical favorite of whitewater paddlers in "hard" boats. Kayaks are the easiest boats to handle off the water, too, averaging between 30 and 40 pounds. Ask your outfitter about boat designs that aren't too "edgy," have enough rocker to turn easily, and will be fun and forgiving for a beginning paddler.

Many newcomers to the sport are surprised when they see an open canoe heading down a difficult rapid. But today's whitewater canoes, solo or tandem, are a far cry from your grandfather's elegant lake boat: they are short and highly rockered for maneuverability and are equipped with air bags for flotation and thigh straps for control. Since you sit higher in a canoe, you've got a better vantage point than in a kayak, and some paddlers prefer the relative roominess of a whitewater canoe to the confines of a kayak.

No matter what type of boat you decide on, you'll of course want to acquire a PFD and a good paddle (look for sturdy paddles and, for canoes, ones with T-grip handles). You will also need a helmet, a wet suit or a dry suit, float bags, and a spray skirt if you're kayaking. Whistles, throw bags, and a first-aid kit are safety essentials.


To get beyond the basics in whitewater, take a class! It's by far the fastest and safest way to pick up the skills you'll need to get started. Before you begin, make sure you're a comfortable swimmer and won't panic when your head gets wet. You'll soon find out that whitewater paddling really consists of three sets of skills:

1. Learning to identify where you want to be on a river (reading water)

2. Getting your boat there (technical skills)

3. Surviving whether or not you are successful at #1 and #2 (bracing and rolling)

Once you begin instruction, you'll learn how to "wet exit," or swim out of an upside-down boat without feeling trapped or panicky. Then will come basic strokes and river moves like ferrying and eddy turns, river-reading skills, and, of course, the Eskimo roll in case you tip over. Eventually you'll move on to more advanced skills such as surfing and "playing."

With proper training and equipment, whitewater is safer than you might think: more than 90 percent of people who drown in whitewater weren't wearing PFDs and had no formal instruction. Your common sense and judgment are the keys to safe paddling and will help you get the most enjoyment from your time on the river.


As a beginning paddler, you can expect to enjoy years of discovery and accomplishment well out of harm's way as long as you wear your PFD, get good instruction, and always use your best accessory, common sense.

But paddling is, after all, something you do in a natural environment, where the unexpected - good or bad - might be part of your experience. A tide-rip catches you off guard in your sea kayak. A sudden wind pins you at the wrong end of a lake with no overnight gear. Maybe you've tipped over in a rapid and now you're swimming, breathless from the cold water and not even sure where your fellow paddlers are. Were these surprises, these risks, part of the package deal when you bought your boat?

The answer is yes. Maybe the small element of risk is part of what attracted you to paddling in the first place. But how much risk you accept is up to you. For many of us it's fear, tempered by common sense, that sets the limits of the risks we are willing to take: fear of pain, fear of death, fear of fear. The limits are different for everybody.

Consider three types of fear associated with paddling and how to respond to them. The first is a forceful fear so absolute and unnerving that you know without a doubt that you're in over your head. If you feel this, you'll know it. Portage the rapid. Don't even try that big crossing. Your instincts are telling you all you need to know about your own limits.

The second type of fear is like a warning bell: you know you're gambling but can clarify your thoughts rationally. Ask yourself: what skills will I need to face this? Do I have them? What's the worst that can happen? Am I willing to face that? The hardest part of dealing with this type of fear is being honest with yourself and responsible to the others in your party.

The third type of fear shows up as what we call "butterflies." Everybody has experienced this, especially in whitewater, and in fact it's healthy. It shows that you have the judgment to recognize a challenge and will have respect for the potential danger.

Whether you are a recreational canoeist, a sea kayaker, or a whitewater paddler, fear and risk are natural aspects of your chosen sport. But for a beginner it's sometimes hard to recognize your own limits and to know when your fears are justified. To help build your confidence and reduce your risk, remember these tips:

Be realistic in your expectations. Your goal should be to master the sport and improve your skills. The best boaters spend a lot of time on easy rivers to better concentrate on technique. Don't try to advance too quickly.

Choose your paddling partners carefully. Paddle with people who understand your skills and won't push you beyond your limits. You should be confident that they can help if you get into trouble.

Know your destination. Take responsibility for learning about the place where you are heading, even though someone else may lead the trip. Consult guidebooks and local outfitters before you head out.

Scout anything that makes you nervous. It helps to know what is around the next bend. Be observant each time you go out. It will help you make good, independent decisions later.

Try to pick sunny days and warm water. Fair weather can boost your confidence and your paddling pleasure.

A lapse of judgment, big or small, can take a toll. On rare occasions, the toll could be a fatality. But more than 50 percent of drowning deaths on American rivers involve alcohol or drugs, and more than 90 percent of drowning victims had no formal training. Cautious, well-informed paddlers have a low risk of death or serious injury. Knowledge and experience are your best allies in limiting risk. The more you know about weather and water conditions, the better you'll be at gauging hazards.

To a beginning paddler, moving water can look like a book written in a foreign language: confusing and illegible. But an experienced paddler can read the water. A slight change in texture indicates where a rock lies two feet below the surface. A few bubbles might be the convergence of two currents. The shape of a wave reveals a whole chapter about what is forming it.

Reading water is just one part of water sense, the most elusive and perhaps most important aspect of becoming a good paddler. How does an expert whitewater kayaker stay so balanced in a huge, surging hole? Or a sea kayaker on an expedition understand when to stay close to shore and when to start that long crossing? How will you know when it's time to back out of a situation?


Water sense is an indistinct blend of the training and common sense that create an experienced and competent paddler who can make well-informed decisions and handle emergencies. It includes, among other things:

Ability to read water (whitewater, lakes, or open water)

Balance and "feel" of the boat on the water

First-aid training

Technical paddling skills

Understanding of critical elements such as weather and tides

Carefully honed instinct

In sea kayaking, water sense might mean recognizing how kelp beds indicate the direction and strength of tidal current, predicting how big the waves will be halfway out on a two-mile crossing, or sensing when a big storm is on the way.

For recreational canoeists, water sense could include tracking the wind direction by watching trees and ripples on a lake surface, or recognizing moving water hazards such as horizon lines and "strainers" in time to avoid them.

Whitewater paddlers spend a lot of time developing water sense. Exactly where is the eddy line? How can you tell from the shore if a midstream obstacle is undercut? And how will changes in flow levels affect a particular stretch of river?

One way to start developing your own water sense is to ask a lot of questions when you go out with more experienced paddlers. How did they pick the clearest route through a rapid? What information did they use to predict the weather on a three-day outing? What were the clues to indicate that your group was nearing the inlet or outlet of a lake?

No matter where you paddle, gaining an understanding of how even calm water feels beneath you is one step toward water sense. Here's one exercise to get you started. First, sit in your boat, preferably on a lake, and get comfortable. Now, with your paddle out of the water, close your eyes. Keep them closed for at least a minute or two. Can you feel the boat gently rocking? Focus on using your hips and knees to feel how the boat reacts to the water and to a bit of gentle leaning. Can you tell when a small wave is approaching? Where's the wind coming from?

Here's how some experts develop and make use of water sense:


"The ideal expedition builds gradually from the moment of conception on through the preparations and proceeds to a preliminary climax at the time of departure. The actual wilderness journey repeats the pattern with a methodical, straightforward start into territories unknown, a crescendo of discovery as the new land unfolds, and finally the unexpected quirk, or accident which puts to the test both physical stamina and inner fiber." ( James Davidson and John Rugge, The Complete Wilderness Paddler, 1st ed., p. 79. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 1975.)

"Take your time when weather forecasting. Don't hurry the process of standing, watching, waiting, and evaluating. When in doubt, don't go. Understanding topography and how wind and waves react in relation to the land is an important part of handling turbulent water. Experience makes the paddler expert in avoiding wind and waves and cautious enough to seek shore when conditions change." (Valerie Fons Kruger, "How to Handle Wind and Waves," Canoe & Kayak, October 1990)

"If you want to get good at the sea kayaking game the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Chart No. 1 is invaluable. Familiarize yourself with navigational danger symbols like rocks and rocky areas, tide rips, breakers, and kelp or seaweed beds, and tidal symbols." (David Harrison, "In Search of Dolphins," Canoe & Kayak, March 1994)

"By incorporating a subtle combination of asymmetric paddling, the sweep stroke, leaning the hull, and timing your turn with the waves, you gain very effective control of your kayak with little effort while you appear to do nothing but paddle straight ahead. The secret is to not overcorrect." (Lee Moyer, "Turn the Other Cheek and Other Tips for Turning," Canoe & Kayak, October 1991)

"Usually it's the intermediate sea kayakers who get into trouble: they take greater risks than beginners and tend to overestimate their abilities. Most sea kayakers don't really understand the consequences of tipping over. On a three-mile crossing, if the wind comes up and I don't have a wet suit on, I'll get concerned - and I have a good roll." (Bill Stewart, co-owner, Northwest Outdoor Center, Seattle, Washington)

"After you've developed your float plan and plotted your course, it's time to play a game of "What If." Ask yourself, what if the wind turns and blows hard out of the northwest instead of the expected southwest breeze? What if the fog rolls in? Already knowing your options and having reviewed them prior to launching can buy you some real peace of mind." (Shelley Johnson, "Trip Planning," Canoe & Kayak, March 1995)


"We have learned to observe closely the texture of the rock. In softer strata we have a quiet river, in harder we find rapids and falls. Where the strata are horizontal the river is often quiet. . . but where the rocks dip upstream. . . harder strata above and softer below, we have rapids and falls." ( John Wesley Powell, The Exploration of the Colorado River and Its Canyons, p. 234. New York: Dover Publications, Inc. 1961.)

"Hot river runners tune into a rapid by observing every sublety and calling on years of experience to read water on the fly and exploit minor currents, waves, or eddies to make a run through Class V water look like a walk in the park. By observing the fluctuations of a wave, or the current coming off a pillow, you can often find a calm line through what appears to be chaotic water." (Bruce Lessels, "Focus on the Details to Make Time Slow Down on Whitewater," Canoe & Kayak, October 1993)

"Spend at least half an hour early in the trip concentrating on smooth, precise execution of basic moves in one spot . . . if you practice in this manner you'll be calmer, your boat will go where you want it, and even in unfamiliar rapids you'll feel you've come home." (Gordon Grant, "Patterns of Grace for Moments of Stress," Canoe & Kayak, July 1994)

"Practice paddling backwards down rapids so that when the inevitable happens it doesn't feel as strange. By keeping your thinking flexible you'll be ready for anything a rapid throws at you." (Bruce Lessels, "Whitewater Decision Making," Canoe & Kayak, October 1994)

"An acute 'river vision' is an ability to scan for and recognize suspicious flow patterns. This vision is relative to your skill level: Beginners tend to look only at the bow and slightly ahead. Intermediates can recognize eddies along the shore and can look well down the rapid. Expert paddlers can catch an eddy while scanning downstream for hazards and for other boaters. Developing your vision patterns will actually improve your skill level." (Kent Ford, "Conquer Your Whitewater Fears," Canoe & Kayak, May 1992)

Bill Mason reverse draw

Look for much more in:
The 1999 Beginner's Guide To
Canoeing and Kayaking 

THE famous Canadian Bill Mason PATH OF THE PADDLE  - Calm Water

the 1 hour “live The Teaching movie” 

Bill Mason White Water

And the Path of the Paddle WHITE WATER 

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