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SUP Drafting 101

Drafting is a skill that is essential in SUP racing and useful if you’re a person using SUP for fitness training and frequently paddle with others.  It can save you a tremendous amount of energy and, if you’re paddling close to other boards, is preferable to not drafting and instead wallowing around in their wake. It’s a skill that is quite easy with practice.  Unfortunately, new paddlers don’t always have an opportunity to practice it and more experienced paddlers often don’t do it as well as they perhaps could, simply because of small mistakes they make in how they position their board on the wash of the board they are riding.  If you’re going to add drafting to your arsenal of racing skills you might as well do it well, so let’s take a look at drafting – both in text and in video.

Drafting in a paddled watercraft is something that comes from marathon canoe racing and, to a lesser extent, sprint canoe-kayak.  People that cycle or have watched an event like the Tour de France on television are familiar with drafting in that sport.  While the physics involved on the water and on a bicycle are very different, the concept is basically the same.  Drafting is also known as wash riding, wake riding or wave hanging.  However, as most people who paddle SUP know it as ‘drafting’, that is the term I’ll use here.

What is drafting?

Drafting can be defined as riding the small wave that comes off of either the side or the tail of the leading water craft.  Positioning your craft correctly on either wave essentially allows you to “surf” that tiny wave to your benefit, saving you energy in the process.  The purpose of drafting is either:

  1. To paddle with less effort by riding the wave generated by another water craft or,
  2. To paddle faster than you would normally be able to by riding the wave generated by another water craft or,
  3. Some combination of the above (i.e. paddling faster and with less effort) by riding the wave generated by another water craft

Despite the fact that some people say they can feel themselves being slowed down when someone is riding their wash, there is no proof that this slowing down effect actually occurs.  In all likelihood it is a psychological effect that the lead paddler feels and there is no real physical detriment to having someone on your wave.  However, when racing there is a detriment to giving another paddler a free ride while you do most of the work.  So, wash riding introduces a wide range of strategy and tactics to racing.

Positioning yourself on the wave when drafting from behind

From this point forward, let’s consider drafting on a SUP.  The concept and the technique are the same for other paddle craft but it is easier for me to type “SUP” than “paddle craft”.  

The most common position to draft from in SUP is directly behind the board you’re drafting, riding the wave that comes off the tail of the board.  In contrast, in canoes and kayaks the most common position is at the side of the lead boat, riding the wave that comes off the bow.  

When you’re practicing drafting, get the lead board to start paddling at a reasonable speed but not so fast that you are really challenged to stay on the wave.  Slip in behind the lead board so that your nose is almost directly behind the tail of the lead board.  If the board has a squared tail, the wave you’re riding will be bigger and wider and easier to ride. If it has a pintail, you’ll find the wave will be smaller, narrower and a little more erratic.  Again, make sure the lead board isn’t going too fast, as you want to be able to focus on feeling the wave you’re trying to ride.  If you are in the right spot you’ll feel like your nose is down and you’ll see water run up the sides of your board at the nose and maybe even onto the top of your board.  This “nose down” feeling is the same feeling, but of course less dramatic, that you get when you are riding a bump while downwinding or dropping onto a wave in the surf.  The difference is just a matter of scale.

Let your board move a little forward or back and try to find the “sweet spot” where it feels easiest and you’re able to match the speed of the lead board with the least amount of work.  When you’ve done that, you’re on the wash.  You’re drafting.  Communicate with the lead board you’re working with and get that person to paddle a just little harder.  Try to stay in the sweet spot.  You’ll likely find that as the speed of the lead board increases you have to drop a little further back from the tail of the lead board as the wave off the back of the board will be getting bigger and longer the faster that board goes.  When I am drafting some of the top guys I have to be a surprising distance back from the tail of their board to get in that sweet spot.  Lots of paddlers make the mistake of being too close to the board they are trying to draft.

Troubleshooting suggestions

If you are having a hard time staying directly behind the lead board and your nose keeps drifting outside the “cone” of the wave you’re trying to ride, then you need to work on your steering.  It’s a lot easier if you’ve mastered steering without changing sides (see “Skill Set: Tracking your Board Straight” from the June issue of The Catch  ).  If you have to, you can change sides to keep your nose in the cone but as you shouldn’t be paddling very hard while on the wash, in most cases you should be able to fine-tune your placement on the wave without having to change sides.

One trick you can use when the nose of your board slides out to the outside of the cone of the wave you’re riding is to simply slow down for a stroke or two and let the lead board get just a little further ahead.  You’ll find as you get a little further back, the cone widens and suddenly you’re back inside the cone without having to steer.  This can be a lot easier than constantly making steering corrections.  You’ll just have to make sure that once back in the cone you’re able to reacquire your position on the sweet spot.  

Another trick that can help staying in the cone is to change sides when the paddler on the lead board changes sides.  This is especially useful if the board you are riding tends to drift a lot from one side to the other depending on which side that person is paddling.

Sometimes you just can’t seem to find the sweet spot very well and despite the fact that your paddling should feel easier, it doesn’t.  In this case you should try moving forward on your board a little to help get the nose of your board down a bit more.  This can help make it feel more like your board is running downhill and make the sweet spot both easier to find and stay on.  You’ll have to experiment a bit as you practice your drafting to find out just how much you need to move forward and be aware that that can change depending on the size of the wash you are drafting.  I have actually been standing with both feet half off the deck pad of an older flat decked Starboard All Star to be in the ideal spot while drafting.

You should be prepared to do a lot less work when you are drafting.  This means that your stroke rate will likely need to be slower or the power applied to each stroke a lot less.  You want to avoid constantly getting ahead of the sweet spot and then having to slow down again.  This is just wasting energy.  The idea is to expend as little energy as possible while riding.  

You will need to be prepared to increase both power and rate instantly if required.  One of the biggest things to get used to when drafting is that your stroke will be much less consistent from stroke to stroke than if you are paddling on your own.  You need to be flexible and prepared at times to put more effort into steering than moving your board forward.  You’ll also need to be prepared, if necessary, to go as hard as you possibly can to stay in touch with the wash.  When drafting your priority is to stay on the wash.  If you lose it you’ll either be paddling hard uphill to try to reacquire it (and wasting a ton of energy while doing so), or you will have lost your ride and have to paddle on your own.  For this reason, I often choose to paddle with a bit higher stroke rate but a lot less power when on the wash.  This faster stroke means that I am much readier to make any change to my stroke that is required to maintain ideal position on the wash.

In summary:

  1. Master steering without changing sides
  2. Recognize that the “sweet spot” is further back from the tail of a faster board and closer to the tail of a slower board.  Be prepared to draft either further back when drafting a fast board or closer when drafting a slower board
  3. Change sides when the person you are drafting changes sides (matching the side he/she is paddling on) if the lead board drifts from one side to the other
  4. Move forward on your board to find the right board trim to get your board running “downhill”.  Recognize that wash from a bigger rider is going to be bigger.  It should be easier to find the feeling of going downhill but it will be harder to get over that wave to feel like you’re going downhill if you get too far back. You’ll actually feel like you’re going uphill for a moment in the process.
  5. Be prepared to vary your power and stroke rate from stroke to stroke and make steering and staying in the sweet spot your priority
  6. Hang onto your ride at all costs.  If you lose it, you’ll be forced to paddle uphill to reacquire it (thus wasting energy) or paddle the rest of the race or workout on your own

Drafting on the side of the lead board

Advanced paddlers may find that riding on the side of the lead board is even more effective.  It is a bigger and cleaner wave, especially if the lead board is a pintail (which will have a comparatively small tail wave), and you won’t be paddling in the swirls coming off the paddle of the lead paddler like when you draft from behind.

The problem with drafting here is that you have to maintain the correct distance from the lead board or you will be hitting the lead paddler’s paddle with your board or worse still, be getting your paddle tangled with his/hers.  Steering here is harder and you are more likely to find your board getting sucked into the lead board or, if you get a little too far away, being shot off the wash to the outside.  You’ll really need to pay attention.

To learn to ride here, find a stretch of flat, glassy water.  Watch the board you’re going to ride and identify the bow wave that comes off the nose.  That is the wave you’re going to ride.  You’ll want to be far enough back on it so that you won’t be interfering in anyway with the lead paddler’s paddle.  Try to estimate where that means you’ll need to have your nose positioned along the leader’s board.  It is usually somewhere near his/her feet.

Now, line up beside the paddler you’ll be riding with your nose approximately in the position you identified.  Get the paddler to start paddling slowly, gradually increasing speed.  Try to position your nose on the bow wave of the lead board in the approximate spot you’ve targeted and look for that nose-down, paddling downhill, feeling that you felt when you were drafting from behind.  I strongly suggest paddling on the side the lead board is on with your paddle between your board and the lead board.  You’ll have to pay attention to prevent your paddle from interfering with the lead paddler’s, but it will help prevent you from getting sucked into the lead board and should make it easier for you to maintain appropriate distance between boards.  Use all of your steering without changing sides tricks, including leaning your board (foot steering).  When you suddenly find yourself paddling much more easily than normal then you’ve found the sweet spot and are now drafting.  Hang there for a bit and then ask the lead board to gradually accelerate a little.  Observe how the wave off the lead board changes and how that affects where you need to position your board relative to the lead board.  With practice you should be able to find and stay on this wave quite easily and be able to benefit from it in increasingly rougher water.

Troubleshooting suggestions

  1. Like drafting from behind, the most important skill required is being able to steer capably (i.e. make necessary steering corrections) without changing sides
  2. Play with your positioning until you find the sweet spot
  3. Be prepared to move forward on your board to help get the board running downhill
  4. Be prepared to vary power and stroke rate as necessary
  5. Master drafting on one side first.  Almost everyone has one side that they draft better on than the other, determined largely by which side they are able to steer their board better on

Whether you are riding behind or on the side, practice makes perfect.  The more you can play on the wash, the better you will be at drafting.  Don’t look at it as taking the easy route in training.  Find a training partner who is your speed and is willing to take turns leading, trading leads every 2, 3 or 4 minutes.  You’ll find your training pace increases and you’ll each be working really hard when leading.  When riding you’ll get to a point where you are paddling ridiculously easy, resting, yet still going fast.  Together you and your training partner will be covering distance at paces faster than you can customarily go alone.

Drafting in races – tactics and ethics

Every race I paddle in, I know that at some point in the race I’ll be drafting. It may be a case of hanging on to the wash for dear life, or it may be a case of working cooperatively with someone else and resting in between taking turns at leading.    

Generally, I’d say there are two different types of draft trains in races – cooperative and competitive.  Let’s take a look at each.

Drafting cooperatively

This is likely to occur in smaller draft trains of 2 to 3 or 4 paddlers that are fairly secure in their position with regards to the rest of the racing field.  They are sufficiently far enough ahead to not feel their positions threatened from behind and are either leading or realize it is to their advantage to, at least temporarily, cooperate to chase down the lead group.  

As each paddler in the train recognizes that they are able to go faster with less effort by cooperating with the others, they will actively endeavor to keep the train together.  There’s a lot of communication and teamwork as long as the train is cooperative.  Paddlers take equal turns leading, lead changes are passive rather than competitive, everyone will stop at the same time to get food or water, and paddlers will even wait for each other, slowing down or stopping if someone falls off the train.  

I have been fortunate to race six Chattajacks in cooperative trains of 2 or 3 paddlers and it has made the race both faster and easier.  I have waited for others and been waited for, as part of the understanding that paddling with others in the train makes 50 km both easier and faster.  In this sense, it is a case of needing each other, and is far less risky than trying to do the majority of the race on your own.  

In each one of those Chattajack races, eventually the race went from cooperative to competitive – usually in the last kilometer or so but on at least a couple of occasions in the last few hundred meters.  

When working with other paddlers in a cooperative train you need to communicate.  Ideally the speeds of the paddlers in the train are pretty evenly matched and the leads are shared equally.  Agree as a group on the length of the leads and when you’ve done your lead and it is time to switch just call out, “I’m out”, and pull off to the agreed side and stop.  You can take a little rest or grab a drink while the train passes by and then just jump on the back of it for your turn to rest. The new leader should make sure the new drafter is on the tail of the train before really hammering.  Once comfortably drafting, it is easy days for the duration of the other guy’s lead.  While riding you’re resting and recharging for your next lead.  You can really bump up the pace by doing these lead change intervals.  It is a great way to chew up distance in a race.  At Chattajack, we’ve generally used 10-minute leads.  In shorter races leads can be much shorter but should at least be a few minutes long to provide meaningful rest.  

If you are drafting in a workout rather than a race, your drafting should be cooperative.  

Drafting competitively 

In contrast, competitive draft trains are harder work and less collegial.  These usually occur in larger groups where the individual members of the train don’t feel as secure about their position, or in trains where one or more paddlers, for inexplicable reasons, don’t want to cooperative and think it is better to just battle it out.  

In these trains you’ll find that the pace is always changing as the leaders try to pressure those further back in the train, hoping someone will get caught off guard and fall off.  You’re more likely to have another paddler bump into you, sometimes repeatedly and it is very competitive finding space on washes closer to the front of the train as they are highly valued.  You’ll find that the further back in the train you are, the messier the wave you’ll be trying to ride is and the harder it is to consistently find, and stay on, the sweet spot.  It is not unusual for the back of a long train to swing from side to side as each steering mistake further up the train is magnified the further back in the train you get.  This makes everything much more difficult for those further back, and of course, if you make a mistake at the back of the train you’re likely to lose the train whereas if you make a mistake toward the front you may lose your position but not the train entirely.  

Nobody waits for anyone in a competitive train and, in fact, it is not uncommon for paddlers to actually try to shake someone off the train.  You’ll need to stay on your toes and really maintain focus the entire time in a competitive train and you’ll really need to be able to use all your steering skills well.  You’ll also find that the rest you get on the wash is not nearly the same as there may be moments where you feel like you are sprinting just to stay in contact with the train.  

The last thing about a competitive train that can be challenging is that there will always be a paddler or paddlers that never lead.  They lurk in the train saving as much energy as possible hoping that will give them an advantage in the late stages on the race or the sprint to the finish.  You’ll need to judge whether they are not leading because they can’t, and are doing all they can do just to hang onto the wash, or they are capable of leading but just resting and letting everyone else tire themselves out.  

The benefit of being in the train is the same regardless of whether it is cooperative or competitive.  In both you end up traveling faster over time with less effort, but the cooperative train is much more enjoyable.  

Drafting can make races way more interesting for athletes and exciting for spectators.  Personally, I love close finishes whether I’m watching the race or in it myself.  Drafting keeps things close.  It is extremely hard to lead and blow apart a draft train of paddlers who are similar in speed to you.  When there are good paddlers in a race the ones in the draft train will almost always finish close together.  It can make long races much easier and more interesting, and if you’re serious about racing, it is unlikely you’ll get a top result if you can’t draft and those you’re racing can.  Play around with drafting in practice and if you race, give it a try in races.  In future posts we’ll talk more about drafting strategy.  In the meantime, check out this “paddler’s eye” video of drafting and happy paddling!

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