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Visual and Auditory Cues 

Paddling is a very sensory experience.  There’s a lot happening out on the water, particularly if conditions are challenging.  It can be overwhelming and intimidating in rough conditions, even for experienced paddlers, and if you’re new to paddling even when you’re on flat water it can feel like there is a lot going on.  

Much of what we do on our boards is by feel, and if you’ve read any of my other posts you’ve heard me talk about what it “feels like” when you’re paddling well.  Fortunately, we’ve got more senses we can use to make our paddling better as there are lots of things we can look and listen for when we’re paddling that can help us paddle better. 

As mentioned, it can be sensory overload for beginners when they first step on a board and then are asked to look for and listen to different things while they’re paddling.  So, the thing to do is simplify what to look and listen for and focus on just a few important things.

What your paddle tells you

One of the most important things to watch and listen to is your catch.  When discussing the catch in previous posts, we’ve talked a lot about the importance of it being clean, with the blade buried quickly and taking body weight.  From a visual standpoint a clean catch should be a “dry” catch.  There should be minimal or no splashing created by the blade entering the water.  

If there is no splashing then the catch should also be “quiet”.   In fact, sound provides one of the most important cues you can use to determine the effectiveness of your catch and pull.  When I’m coaching canoeing I often tell the kids that I want to see “deep, quiet, connected strokes”.  The fact of the matter is, the quieter the stroke the more likely it is to be well connected, allowing you to do a better job of pulling yourself to and then pushing yourself past the paddle.  

Most of you will have heard the term “air catching”.  This is where you’re bringing your paddle back towards you while in the process of catching the water.  You’ve actually reached farther in the air than when the blade contacts the water, and the result of this isn’t just lost effective reach but a loud, splashy entry into the water.  In fact, the presence of a splash can be a clue to the fact that you’re missing your catch.  You’ll want take some corrective measures to make sure you’re doing a better job of gathering water on your blade as you catch.  These measures were discussed at length in the July issue of The Catch (SUP Technique: Errors and Fixes Part 1 – The Catch )

Now consider what happens if the stroke you pull after the catch is only half buried.  You’ll see a lot of water coming off the face of your blade and filling in the “empty” space behind your blade, making a lot of splashy noises while doing so.  This represents an unconnected stroke.  In contrast, if you take a stroke in which you not only bury the blade but also a little bit of the shaft through your pull you’ll find that it is a much quieter stroke and much more connected.  Rather than hearing splashy noises, if you hear any noise at all it will probably be a bit if a deep “suction” like sound as the blade goes deeper into the water.  You’ll find this stroke is much more powerful.  

Whether you’re hearing splashing, that suction like sound, or nothing at all the noises of the catch/pull can be real clues as to the effectiveness of this part of your stroke.  When you’re paddling in glassy flat water, listen to the sound of the paddle in the water.  It will help you better understand and assess how well you execute your catch and pull.

Similarly, your exit should also be clean and quiet.  In the case of the exit it means that you’re very likely connected till the last moment in your stroke and then taking the blade out of the water quickly, without any dragging effect which will slow the board down.  It’s hard to see what your paddle is doing at the exit as your paddle blade is probably a little behind you so you’ll have to have your head looking straight down to even see with your peripheral vision.  On the other hand you can hear your paddle at the exit easily and what you hear can tell you a lot.  

If your exit is loud and splashy, you’re probably lifting or shoveling water with your blade.  This is indicative of misdirected forces that are not pushing the board forward but instead are changing the pitch of the board by pulling the tail down.  It’s also probably a sign that you’ve pulled through too far and are getting diminishing returns for the effort you’re making with an ineffective blade angle.  One way to help avoid these mistakes is by listening to your blade at the exit and trying to keep it as quiet as possible, while still working dynamically with it against the water.  In coming issues of The Catch will be looking at technique errors and fixes related to the exit, which will help you ensure you’re not pulling the blade too far back and are pushing your board forward maximally off of the exit.

What your board tells you

Like your paddle, your board tells you a lot about how you’re paddling.  If you’re connected, dynamic and loading your blade, your board will climb in the water as you start to pull and continue to climb through the stroke as it keeps gaining speed.  

If you’re riding a displacement board with a piercing nose, his board movement causes the nose wave of your board to change through the stroke.  Initially at the catch, which is when your board is moving slowest, you’ll very likely see the nose wave look smaller, coming off the very front of your board.  It will be the color of the surrounding water.  It won’t have a sound to it either.  

As your board accelerates, it will climb in the water.  The effect on your nose wave will be quite apparent.  You’ll see it move farther back so it no longer appears to come off of the very tip of the nose but a few inches or more further back off each side of the board.  You’ll also likely see the wave change color, from that of the surrounding water to a foamy white similar to what you see on a cresting wave.  Like a cresting wave which makes a unique sound as the top begins to crumble, the nose wave will make a similar sound sort of sound in scale to its size.  

These characteristic changes in the nose wave of the board through the stroke can provide you with real insight into the effectiveness of your catch and pull, as well as how well loaded your stroke is.  The sound is often loudest at the exit of the stroke when the board should be moving fastest.  Similarly, you should see the wave appear to be the “whitest” and start furthest back along the board off of a good exit.  

If you’re using a displacement board with a more rounded, less piercing nose, the ride will be noisier and splashier.  But you’ll still see the same effect.  As your speed increases, the nose wave moves further back along your board, changes to a white color and makes the noise that you’d expect from a miniature breaking wave.  Even on planing boards you’ll see this effect if you can get the board moving fast enough.  

In flat water

If you’re going to get quality information from the paddle and board as described above, you’re going to need to be paddling in flat, calm water.  The more wind and waves you’re paddling in, the more background noise there will be and the more it will be difficult to discern exactly what your paddle or board is doing using visual and auditory cues.  Anyone who has spent time paddling in the ocean knows that waves are always slapping loudly off the board and the catch is often more splashy because the water surface is uneven.  However with some experience using sight and sound to monitor what your board and paddle are doing, you’ll find that you can get similar information on the ocean.  It’s just a case of what you’re looking for being slightly different. 

In rough water

In the ocean what you see from your nose wave can tell you a ton about where you are, or need to be, to catch a bump or link a wave.  It can help you decide when to go for a wave and when to wait for the next one.  

For most of us our senses are a little overwhelmed our first few times in the ocean.  There’s so much going on it is often a case of sensory overload.  We’re getting bounced around, the wind is howling, waves are cresting, crumbling and slapping against our board.  We’re often more concerned with staying on our board than how we’re paddling.  

One of the signs that we’re getting more comfortable in rough water is that certain useful visual cues and sounds become inherently familiar.  They’re similar to those that we’ve become familiar with in flat water and can be picked out easily from all of the other noises.  They can give us information not only on how we’re paddling but also about the conditions of the water we’re paddling in and how to use those conditions.

If you see your nose “down”, with the nose wave coming right off the front of the board and fairly close to the top of it, accompanied by the feeling of the tail lifting you’ll know that there’s a wave coming underneath you that you can try to grab.  As you drop onto the wave or catch it, you’ll likely see the nose wave turn white, get louder and move a little further back along the board.  If the wave is big and/or steep enough, you’ll then pretty quickly see your nose begin to dig into the water.  This is your cue to shift weight to towards the tail, either by leaning or stepping back.  These are the same cues you’d be using in the flats.  You’re now just seeing them in a much more dynamic environment and they are telling you what you need to fairly quickly do, rather than providing you feedback on how well you’re paddling.  

You need to get to know your board

Just like a certain piano might have a particular, distinct, sound to an accomplished player with a finely tuned ear, so too each model of board differs a little from the others.  

Nose waves off boards with real piercing noses, for example, are going to look and sound a lot different than the waves off of boards with more rounded, higher volume noses.  It takes a little time to get used to exactly what you’re listening and looking at when you change from one board model or shape to another and try to interpret what the nose wave is telling you.  With a little practice you’ll become familiar with the characteristics of your new board’s nose wave, and any other unique sounds or visual cues the board provides you.  

I know a lot of people like to paddle while listening to music through ear buds, particularly in long workouts or races.  While I’m not necessarily against it if that is what helps keep you going, I strongly suggest that you leave your music on shore when you’re doing technical work, speed work or are downwinding in big water.  There is far too much you can learn about your paddling from sounds your paddle and board make in that type of work or in those conditions.

If you haven’t spent time watching or listening to your paddle and board give it a try.  You’ll be surprised what they can tell you about your stroke.

Happy paddling!

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