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Paddling in Straight Line

We all know that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line, so the straighter you can track your board, the quicker you’ll be between two points.   While changing sides can help you track straight, even the top pros lose a little speed when they change sides so if you’re relying on this method to steer your board you’ll constantly be slowing your board down and then having to get it back up to speed again.  Furthermore, it’s difficult to paddle with really good technique when your paddling rhythm is constantly being broken by the need to change sides.  You’ll find that just as you’re really starting to get into it on one side you’ll need to switch to the other and that will have an impact on your ability to find and maintain a good paddling rhythm.  It’s frustrating and takes some of the fun out of paddling.  Fortunately, whether you are a racer, just use SUP for fitness or are new to SUP, there are a few easy to learn tricks you can use to track your board straight, and once you learn them they’ll allow you to steer your board effectively in almost every situation imaginable.   Let’s take a look at them and a few drills you can practice to master your steering in flat water.

Your “toolkit” for tracking your board straight

I’ve always been a firm believer that when paddling SUP, you should change sides when you want to change sides, because you’re getting tired or for a tactical advantage, not when you’re forced to in order to steer straight.  

There are three basic skills you can use to track your board straight and together they make up your steering “toolkit”.  You can use them individually, but I find they work most effectively when used together in different combinations.

Tracking your board straight skill #1 – paddling close to the rail (or side) of the board

When you take your first strokes on a SUP you’ll notice pretty quickly that the board tends to turn away from the paddling side.  This “turning effect" occurs because the stroke is pulled or taken a considerable distance from the center line of the board.  If we were able to somehow pull a stroke right down the center line or long axis of the board, there’d be no turning effect and all the work done with the paddle would result entirely in forward movement.  Unfortunately, the rail of even the narrowest 20 to 22-inch-wide boards is 10 to 11 inches from the board’s long axis.  The average race board ranging from 24 to 28 inches in width sees the rail anywhere from 12 to 14 inches from the axis, and if you’re just starting to paddle SUP you may well be on a board even wider than that.  The trend is clear: the wider the board, the further you’re pulling your stroke from the board’s long axis and the greater turning effect each stroke will have.

This effect is compounded by the fact that most novice paddlers don’t pull their strokes directly along the rail of their board.  Because of a reluctance to get their body weight outside the board and onto their paddle, and because they’ve likely never been told any different, they tend to paddle with their top hand “inside” the board.  This means that the paddle is not “square” or “vertical” when seen from in front of or behind the board but rather on an angle with the blade further from rail than when it is square.  Figure 1 shows a paddler with a square or vertical paddle.  Note how the blade is tucked up against the rail of the board.  In contrast, figure 4 shows a paddler making one of the most common errors – paddling with the top hand inside the board and the blade further from the rail as a result.  This unnecessary extra distance that the stroke is pulled from the board’s long axis adds greatly to the turning effect it creates.  

The key then, is to pull as close to the rail of whatever board you’re paddling as possible to minimize the turning effect of each stroke.  In future posts we’ll look in great detail at how to get “outside your board” with your body weight which makes it much easier to paddle along the rail, but for now you should be making a couple of simple adjustments which will help you pull along the rail and track your board straighter.

1.  Look to see where the blade enters the water each stroke

This is the most obvious thing you can do and introduces the concept of mindfulness that I’ll discuss in future posts when talking about establishing good technique.  Simply put, be mindful of where your blade enters the water each stroke.  If you’re seeing a gap between the rail of the board and the edge of your paddle blade as it is entering the water, that’s a problem.  Do your best to eliminate it and get the edge of your blade right up against the board’s side rail.  You don’t want to actually hit the rail, but you want to be mere millimeters from it.  Then, as you pull, bring the blade straight back so that when the blade is buried, you see the paddle shaft pass along just millimeters from the rail through the entire stroke.  

2.  Get your top hand over the water

If your top hand is somewhere over the middle of the board during the blade’s entry or during the pull, your blade is going to be away from the rail.  If you move your top hand away from the center line of the board and towards the rail, your blade will move closer to the rail.  Now that you’re mindful about where the blade is entering the water in relation to the board, you can experiment with this standing still on your board and see for yourself.  Try to find the top hand position necessary to get the blade tucked right up against the rail.  

Example: Top hand is outside of the board and over the board's rail.

How you get your top hand over the water actually matters.  If you’re just moving your top arm in front of your face to get your hand over the water, you’ll be putting your top shoulder in a disadvantageous position - from both the perspective of producing power and preventing injury. So, as you move your top hand toward the rail and over the water try to do the following:

  • Rotate your paddling side shoulder forward a little.  Not only is this going to help you reach a little more and make your stroke a little longer, it’s going to help you get into a position where your top arm doesn’t have to cross your body to get your hand over the water.  
  • As you rotate, try to drop your paddling side shoulder a little while raising your top shoulder.  You don’t want your shoulders to be in the same horizontal plane when you rotate.  Since you’re reaching to the water to pull a stroke, you want your paddling side shoulder to drop lower a little as you rotate so it is closer to the water.  At the same time, your other shoulder will raise a little and, in the process, move from a position that is beside your paddling side shoulder to one that is approaching being “on top” of it.  We call this “stacking the shoulders”.  
  • As you rotate and stack your shoulders, “crunch” your paddling side obliques a little.  Our external oblique muscles are the ones found at the side of our abdominal area that we train whenever we do any “side crunch” exercises.  To assist with getting your top hand over the water and your blade tucked up against the rail, try to lean over the water slightly as you rotate by “crunching” your paddling side obliques slightly.  You’ll notice that the obliques on the other side lengthen.  Not only will this help you stack your shoulders and get your blade closer to the rail, it will help you as you begin to put more weight on your blade when we discuss more advanced technique in future posts.

Getting your top hand over the water is imperative if you’re going to pull along the rail of your board.  Experiment with each of the tips above to see how they help you cozy your blade up to the board and make it easier to pull along the rail.

As you get better at pulling as close to the rail of the board as possible, you should notice the board isn’t turning to the opposite side quite as much.  This should be especially true if you observed a real gap between your blade and your board when you started your experimenting with this skill.  However, while pulling close to the rail should reduce the turning effect of each stroke it’s unlikely that this alone is going to allow you to track straight enough to paddle on one side indefinitely.  You’re likely going to have to combine this skill with one or both of the next skills we’ll look at.

Tip:  If you can get your top hand further outside the board than your bottom hand your blade won’t just be close to the board but actually under the board as you pull.  This gets your blade even closer to the center line or long axis of the board and further reduces the turning effect of each stroke.  While it’s not practical to paddle like this all the time, when you need to make a steering correction towards the paddling side, paddling under the board is very helpful.

Check out the video of paddling close to the rail.

Tracking your board straight skill #2 – leaning your board (also known as “foot steering” or “weighting the rail”)

If you come from another paddle sport you’re probably familiar with how leaning your paddle craft can affect steering. In general, craft with displacement hulls (as opposed to planing hulls seen in recreational SUPs or your typical surf boards) tend to track away from the side to which they are leaning.  Displacement paddleboards are no different.  If you lean them away from the paddling side (i.e. weight the opposite rail) they will track towards the paddling side, reducing the stroke’s turning effect on the board and helping the board track straighter.  Let’s take a closer look at how to use this steering tool.

1.  Make sure your board has some speed

The only way this steering method works is if your board has some speed.  The greater the speed, the greater the rate of turning will be when you lean the board.  

2.  Make sure the nose of your board is in the water

For this steering method to work you need to have the nose of your board in the water. This way, the nose of the board will “bite” the water when leaned, assisting in the turning process.  Getting a little further forward on your board helps the nose sit a little deeper in the water and allows it to get a bit more bite.  As long as your board has adequate speed you should notice this assist the turning effect. In contrast, if you’re too far back on your board and the nose is out of the water or isn’t buried as much, you’ll find this method doesn’t work nearly as well.  

3.  Lean your board away from the direction you want to go (weight the opposite rail)

If you want to track a little to the left then you should lean your board to the right.  If you want to track a little to the right you should lean your board to the left.  So, if you’re paddling on the right and weight the opposite rail by leaning your board to the left it’s going to turn your board a little towards the right, thus reducing the leftward turning effect that paddling on the right creates.  If you lean your board enough you can greatly reduce the turning effect created by each forward stroke.  This begs the question; exactly how do you lean your board?

4.  Use your feet to lean the board  

While it is possible to get the board lean you’re looking for by moving your feet closer to the rail you want to be deeper in the water, it isn’t always necessary.  Moving your feet takes time which, if you need to make a steering correction in a hurry, you may not have.  Instead, think about directing your body weight through one foot more than the other to get your board to lean to the desired side.

Weighting one side of the race board to help keep it going straight.

Even subtle changes in body weight distribution from one foot to the other can have an effect on steering and board tracking, especially if the board is moving quickly enough.  The easiest way to change that distribution of body weight enough to assist with large steering corrections is through your hips.  Consider what you do when standing on land to put more weight on one foot than the other.  Rather than lean your entire body over one foot and effectively lean from your foot up, you almost reflexively let your hip sort of thrust to one side and lock out over the foot you want to put more weight on.  It’s helpful to experiment with this on land first so when you get on your board you’ll know what you’re trying to do.  When you get on your board you’ll find that pushing your hip to the side opposite the one you’re paddling on not only puts much more weight over the non-paddling side foot but also helps you get your upper body over the paddle and the board’s paddling side rail a little more.  This in turn makes it much easier to execute the first tool we’ve discussed for tracking your board straight – pulling close to the rail.

Tip: When you weight the opposite rail as described above, it raises the paddling side rail.  If you weight the opposite rail enough it brings the paddling side up to the point where it comes close to exposing the underside of your board, making it even easier to paddle under the board. This combination of weighting the opposite rail and paddling under the board is much more effective in tracking the board straight than either tool is on its own.

If you come from a snowboarding or skateboarding background this idea of leaning away from the direction you want to go will be counter-intuitive, since you are likely used to steering towards the side you are leaning to.  Similarly, surf and SUP surf boards steer towards the weighted side as well.  This has to do with the fact that these boards do not have displacement shapes and thus do not behave like other paddled craft.  Instead of their noses biting, their much sharper rails bite when weighted, causing them to turn to the weighted side.  

However - and here’s where it can get confusing - if a displacement board’s nose is entirely out of the water because you are standing at the back of the board, it will behave like a SUP surf board and steer to the weighted side.  This is necessary when surfing a displacement board.  In this case, with the nose and rounded rails towards the front of the board out of the water, only the sharp rails near the tail are in the water and the board adopts the characteristics of a surf board shape and turns to the weighted side. 

Check out the video of weighting the opposite rail.

Tracking your board straight skill #3 – drawing the nose of the board with your paddle

The last skill in your steering toolkit is using the paddle blade to draw the nose of the board to the paddling side at the beginning of each stroke.  It’s extremely effective, particularly when combined with one or both of skills 1 and 2.  

In theory, as far as generating forward movement in the water is concerned, the most effective orientation of the paddle blade in the water is perpendicular to the center line or long axis of the board.  In this case, all of the forces directed against water gathered on the blade are opposite to the straight-ahead direction you want to go.  Unfortunately, as we’ve already identified, if you’re pulling any distance from the long axis of the board, you’re creating a turning effect that causes the board to track away from the paddling side.  Of course, this requires correcting or you’re not going to be traveling faster between two given points; you’ll be zig zagging because of the turning effect.

It turns out one of the easiest ways to prevent this turning effect is to change the orientation of your paddle blade as it enters the water so that the blade face is slightly “open” to, or facing, the board.  This has the effect of pulling the nose of the board towards the paddle at the entry and greatly reduces the turning effect of the entire stroke.  Let’s take a look in greater detail at how to use this skill.

1.  Use your hands to open the blade face as it enters the water

It’s not necessary to change your grip at all to open the blade face to the board at the entry.  All that’s required is a slight adjustment of the paddle face through your hand movements.  The slightest extension of your paddling side hand at the wrist and corresponding bend of the top hand towards the paddling side can open the blade face quite a bit.  You don’t need to do much with your hands to achieve the desired orientation of the blade face.  In fact, if you try to do too much you’re going to open the blade face more than required, affecting your ability to pull the board forward while at the same time placing unnecessary strain on the tendons in your wrist and the forearm muscles responsible for these hand movements.

I strongly suggest grabbing your paddle and experimenting on land to fully explore the relationship between your hand positions and the orientation of the blade face.  You’ll find it really only requires subtle movements of your hands (and mostly your top hand) to change the orientation of the blade face.

2.  Use the open blade face to pull the nose of the board to the paddle as you gather water on your blade at the entry

Get on your board and stand stationary in calm water.   Practice entering the water with an open blade face and note the response of the board.  You’ll immediately notice that the board nose rotates towards the paddle as you are gathering water and burying your blade.  You should not be pulling a full stroke here, just entering the water, burying the blade and taking note of the board’s response.   Try to determine the relationship between how open the blade face is and how much the board’s nose is drawn to the paddle.  You’ll also note that if your blade face is too open to the board it actually won’t grab any water and instead will slice through the water towards you, not supporting any of your body weight and making it likely you will fall in the water. 

Note how the paddle blade is "opened" as it is about to enter the water.

3.  Once you’ve buried your blade and begin to pull, orient your blade face so that it is perpendicular to the long axis of the board

In most cases, once you’ve drawn your nose while burying your blade you’ll have done enough to counter the turning effect of your forward stroke. You should be able to pull the rest of the stroke with the blade oriented perpendicular to the long axis of the board, thus maximizing the forward producing forces the paddle can produce.  

Tip: If you find that you’re hitting the board with your paddle a lot as you enter the water take a look at the orientation of your blade as it enters.  You’ll find that orienting the blade face so that it is a little open to the board not only helps the board track straight by drawing the nose to the paddle but it pushes a little water against your board, effectively creating a cushion between your board and the paddle which prevents your blade from hitting the board as it enters.

Check out the video of weighting the opposite rail.

Practice all three skills and get comfortable with them.  You’ll likely find that one works more effectively for you than the others.  You may also find that the particular skill that works best for you on one side may be different on the other.

Which steering tool to use and when

My rule for tracking the board straight is to paddle as close to the rail as possible at all times.  This minimizes the turning effect of each stroke and means you won’t have to make steering corrections as often as you otherwise might. Then it is a question of using the other skills as required to maintain a straight course.   

The key is to select the skill, or more accurately the combination of skills, that work best for you to make the steering corrections required.  With practice you’ll get to know just how much of each skill to use in combination with the others to create the adjustment you’re looking for.  

As far as when to use these skills is concerned, the first rule of tracking any paddle craft straight is to make your steering corrections as soon as possible.  The longer you wait to make your steering inputs, the harder it is going to be to correct your course. 

When paddle craft start to drift away from tracking straight (we call this “running to one side” or just “running”) they tend to start slow and then gain speed in the rate at which they’re straying from course.  If you recognize that your board is running early enough a few moderate steering inputs should bring your board back on track quickly.  However, the longer you wait, the more work it’s going to be to bring your board back on track.  If you wait too long you’re eventually going to reach a point where changing sides may be your only option for keeping your board tracking straight.   

Generally, I find if I paddle close to the rail all the time and then add a little lean or draw the nose slightly the moment I catch my board running away to the opposite side, it only takes one or two strokes to make a correction that can last for another 10 to 15 strokes or more.  In this manner I can paddle indefinitely on one side.  With practice I’m certain that you’ll be able to do the same.  Let’s look at a couple of drills that put these skills to use.

Steering Drill #1 – The Slalom Drill

This drill involves extended paddling on one side and making steering corrections so that you’re tracking first to one side and then the other as you go.  Here’s how to do it, step-by-step:

  1. Start paddling on the side you that you have better control of your board on.  For me that’s the right so I will use the right side as the example.  Get your board up to your traveling speed and then let it run to the left by making no steering corrections.  You can even take a couple of wide strokes away from the rail of your board to accelerate the rate at which it begins to wander to the left.  
  1. When your board is very clearly tracking to the left use your steering skills to try to bring it back to the right as quickly as you can.  You’ll likely need to use a combination of all three skills so lean the board to the left, paddle under the rail and draw the nose as you’re gathering water on your blade each stroke.  You should see your board stop running to the left and begin to track back to the right.
  1. Keep doing your steering until the board is very definitely tracking to the right and then stop your steering corrections, take a couple of wide strokes and get it to start running back to the left again.  Then repeat the process, using your steering without changing sides skills to bring it back to the right.  The path of your board should follow a “slalom” through imaginary gates as you do this drill.
  1. Do this a number of times while paddling only on your stronger side, then switch sides and do the same on the other side.

Tip:  Remember, it’s easier to make steering corrections if you catch the board running early.  The longer you wait, the harder it is to bring the board back to tracking straight.  Accordingly, the first few times you try this drill make sure you don’t let the board run too far off course before making your steering corrections.  Once you’re able to successfully complete a number of these smaller course corrections in this drill, try letting the board run a little more to the non-paddling side before starting to make your corrections.  You’ll find it a little more difficult to bring your board back on course and will likely need to a) lean your board, draw the nose and paddle under the rail a bit more while b) taking a few more strokes to complete your corrections.

Check out the video of the slalom drill.  

When you’re comfortable with the Slalom Drill and can complete it successfully, even when letting the board wander well off course before starting your steering corrections, it is time for the next drill.

Steering Drill #2 – The Inside Circle

This is a much more advanced drill and will require you to feel pretty competent with all three of the steering skills we’ve introduced here.   Make sure you have a fairly wide patch of sheltered water.  Your task is to steer your board in a complete circle while paddling only on one side on the inside of the circle.  

  1. Using the example of paddling on the right again, start near the left side of the body of water you’ve chosen for the drill.  You’ll want to make sure there is lots of water available on your right.
  1. Get your board up to traveling speed and begin to make strong steering corrections to bring your board to the right.  You’ll need to lean your board considerably, paddle well under the rail and really draw the nose.  You should see your board begin to track quickly and noticeably to the right or paddling side.  
  1. Continue with your steering corrections while you start to track in the path of a circle. If you’re successful, as you work your way around the circle you should see that you’re going to end up close to where you started the drill from, having completed a full circle.
  1. Once you’ve been able to complete the drill a few times paddling on your stronger side, try to complete it paddling on the other side.

Tip:  You’ll find that leaning your more than you normally might will really help.  Not only will it create a bigger turning effect, it will also really help you paddle under the board.  You will likely find that you’ll need to paddle with your blade face open to the board for much more of the stroke than in the slalom drill.  Try keeping the blade face open to the board through most of the pull and note the added turning effect.  When you can comfortably complete this drill successfully, challenge yourself to complete it in ever smaller circles.  

The Inside Circle is fantastic for teaching you how to make dramatic steering corrections to the paddling side.  If you can successfully complete this drill in a fairly tight circle, you’ll be able to paddle indefinitely on one side without having to change sides to steer in almost any conditions.  You’ll also be well equipped to paddle in strong cross winds.

Check out the video on the inside circle.

The effect of wind on your steering

If you’re paddling in calm, sheltered water and have mastered the steering drills we’ve introduced you’ll be able to paddle indefinitely on one side without needing to change sides to steer.  Where things begin to get difficult is in crosswinds.

Wind from the side affects the front of your board and will push it downwind.  In contrast, the back of your board is relatively unaffected by a sidewind as it is basically pinned in place by the fin.  The result is that in a sidewind the board turns around the fin in a downwind direction.  If the wind is light it won’t make much difference, but if the wind is strong it will cause your board to track downwind quite dramatically and that effect can be compounded by the accompanying chop a strong sidewind can kick up.  This can play havoc with your steering.

Most paddlers will end up taking more strokes on the downwind side of their board when paddling in a sidewind, using the turning effect generated by each forward stroke to counter the opposite turning effect of the sidewind.  In strong winds you’ll see paddlers paddling almost exclusively on the downwind side.  This can be problematic as fatigue eventually becomes an issue if you can’t paddle on the upwind side every once in a while in order to give muscles of the downwind paddling side a rest.

Of course, if you have strong board steering skills you’ll be better equipped to paddle in strong sidewinds.  If you can complete a fairly tight inside circle you should be able to paddle on the upwind side in a sidewind of considerable strength and keep your board tracking straight.  You may still not be able to paddle equally on each side, but you should at least be able to take enough strokes on the upwind side to give muscles used on your downwind side frequent rests.  This can provide you with a huge advantage whether racing, touring or paddling for fitness.

Being able to track your board straight is a basic skill that makes paddling more efficient and enjoyable.  The individual skills you use, often in combination, to track straight without changing sides give you a degree of control over your board that you’ll find useful in almost every scenario and type of water conditions you’ll be exposed to.  They also give you the control of your board necessary to learn more advanced paddling techniques that we’ll examine in future posts.

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