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If you’re doing any kind of SUP racing, eventually you’re going to have to do a pivot turn.  It’s pretty much unavoidable.  Even distance races often involve turning around a buoy in an “out and back” type of race.  If you end up racing technical events, pivot turns are an absolutely huge component.  You’ll be doing both left-shoulder and right-shoulder turns repeatedly during races that last anywhere from six minutes to half an hour or more.  

If you aren’t a racer, pivot turns are still a useful and fun skill to have.  You’ll find you don’t have to stop your workout to turn when you run out of water if you can turn quickly with a pivot.  And, the footwork and board skills required to pivot turn really help you gain a level of confidence on your board that transfers into other areas, like downwind paddling, for example.  

Most paddlers, including the very top pros, usually have one side that is “stronger” than the other.  They feel more stable, have more control, and can turn more quickly going one way than they can the other.  While the top pros, even if they have a weaker side, are really, really good turning in both directions, most of us have much more difficulty turning to one side than the other.  

“Strong side” pivot turns

Turning on our strong side is comparatively easy.  For starters, we’re usually paddling on the side that we feel stronger on and have better control of our blade face on.  Better control of the blade face equates with a better ability to brace for balance and find support with the blade in a wide variety of positions in the water.  

We’re also generally in our preferred stance – either regular (right foot back) or goofy (left foot back) – when we’re turning on our strong side.  That provides us with more stability than we’d have if we were in the opposite stance and it also allows us to pull our sweep stroke further towards the tail of the board and even around the back of the board.  This helps to get the nose of the board around much more quickly.  

Generally, your strong side turn unfolds like this:

  • Getting to the back of the board in your preferred stance, with your back foot on the kick pad and the nose of your board well out of the water.  Weight on your back foot facilitates this.  You can use your front foot to make sure you don’t get too much weight on your back foot and your nose doesn’t get uncomfortably high.
  • Taking a sweep stroke, starting near the rail of the board and pushing water away from the board and then sweeping in a big half circle back towards, or even around, the tail of the board.  This gets your board turned around a full 180 degrees really quickly.
  • Pulling yourself forward up the board (cross stepping back to your paddling stance while pulling a stroke) out of the turn to get your forward speed back as quickly as possible.
  • Accelerating out of the turn to top traveling speed.  

I don’t want to understate how hard this is.  It isn’t something that you’ll be able to do well without considerable practice.  First, you’ll need to establish some comfort moving around on your board so you can get to the tail of the board quickly.  Most people start by sort of scooching or shuffling to the back of the board, then graduate to a series of little hops or even a big hop.  With time, they establish comfort cross-stepping to the tail.  Like most things in this sport, just the footwork alone is a skill that takes time to master.  

Next, you have to feel comfortable standing and balancing on the tail of the board, while controlling the nose and not letting it get too high.  Lastly, you need to feel the same type of connection that you feel while paddling, as you pull your sweep strokes.  Remember, connection provides balance as it allows you to lean on your paddle to some degree for support.  

You may need to take a few strokes to get your nose around the buoy at first, but in time you’ll be able to get it around taking fewer and fewer strokes until you can do it in just one.  Lastly, you’ll need to quickly get back up your board to your normal stance and reacquire your normal paddling rhythm as you accelerate back to speed.  

A pivot turn to your strong side is a complex skill and one that we’ll explore in greater depth with video examples in a future post.  

“Weak side” pivot turns

For most people, weak side pivot turns are much less comfortable and slower to perfect.  For starters, you’re likely paddling on your weaker side.  For most people, the “weaker” side isn’t necessarily about strength but rather their ability to use the blade face to connect with the water and control the board, particularly at slower speeds and in rougher water.  

Then, you need to decide whether or not you’re going to stay in your preferred stance or switch stances, for example, from regular to goofy.  There’s advantages and disadvantages to both approaches.  

Staying in your preferred stance is going to leave you feeling more comfortable and likely more stable, even though your paddle is on the opposite, weaker, side.  Unfortunately, you’ll find it is impossible to get the blade into the water to pull your sweep in the same spot relative to the board’s length as it is on your strong side.  When you’re paddling on your weaker side in your preferred stance, you end up putting the paddle in the water and pulling your sweep more in the middle of the board rather than at, or around, the tail.  This results in a much smaller turning effect created by the stroke, meaning that your turn will require more strokes and take longer to complete.  

Switching stances from, say, regular to goofy, allows you to take the same type of stroke on your weak side turn as you do on your strong side.  However, you’re likely going to feel much less stable and comfortable and, in buoy turns in choppy water and in heavy traffic, this can be a recipe for disaster.

Standing in your preferred stance and starting with a “cross bow sweep” (canoe paddlers will be quite familiar with this stroke) on your strong side before crossing the blade over your board and continuing the sweep stroke on your weaker side can speed up your turn, but it is still likely to be slower, more challenging, and feel less stable than a strong side turn. 

I grew up paddling canoe on the right side only.  Clearly as a result, I control my blade face much better on the right side than the left.  Also, I am regular footed which is perfect for my strong side turns but that, coupled with controlling the blade face better paddling on my right than my left, makes my right-shoulder turns an adventure.  I never do them as well in a race as I can in training and I still, after all these years, find them really challenging in rougher water or in the heavy traffic you see in a race.  

Wouldn’t it be great if there was a way to do a weak side turn that didn’t require you to change your stance, paddle on your weaker side, and yet still got your board around quickly?  Guess what?  There is.

Weak side pivot turns paddling on your strong side

For me, I’d feel much better doing right-shoulder turns (i.e. turns to the right) if I were able to paddle on the right the whole time and remain in my regular stance.  A couple of years ago, I saw a video that Bruno Hasulyo posted on Instagram, where he’s doing left-shoulder turns while paddling on the left in a goofy stance.  It was amazing to me how incredibly quickly he was able to get his board around.  

I hadn’t thought of that video much until this spring when I started working on my pivot turns in preparation for perhaps racing in the technical race at the ICF World Championships in Thailand.  While my left-shoulder turns (my stronger side) are pretty solid, by right-shoulder turns (my weaker side) are a mess.  I needed to try something different as paddling through turns on my weaker side just wasn’t progressing as quickly as I wanted it to.   It was then than I remembered Bruno’s video.

I scrolled through his IG and found the post, then took a screen shot of the video and examined it closely.  What he was doing looked so much easier than what I was doing so I thought I would give it a try.  What did I have to lose?   Since then, I’ve found it much easier to turn this way.  I am much more stable (although there is still a tricky spot in the turn) and can get around much more quickly.  Additionally, I have the advantage of being on my stronger side when I start to accelerate out of the turn, and the value of that cannot be overstated.  

So, let’s take a look at Bruno’s turn.  I’ve broken his video down into three sections and added some narration to each.  

Step 1 – Getting to the tail of the board

You’ll see in video 1 that Bruno gets to the tail of his board with first a hop and then a step.  His hop gets him from where he stands while forward paddling to a point where all he has to do is take a step back with his left foot to get in his goofy stance with his left foot on the tail of the board.  He gets back really quickly so he loses very little speed.  And speed is important here.  Obviously, speed equals balance, but it also helps him get the nose of his board around more quickly as we’ll see. 

Is the “hop and step” the best way to get to the back of the board?  Well, I know that this is what Connor Baxter does as well, and Connor is probably the GOAT of technical racing.  That said, I’ve quickly realized that just because Connor does something, it doesn’t mean that I should.  His skills are developed to such a crazy high level because he’s been paddling in the most challenging ocean water you can find, since he was 11 years old.  

On the other hand, I come from a flat-water canoe background and only began paddling SUP at age 48.  No matter how many reps I do, I’ll never match Connor’s skill.  There just isn’t the time and, unfortunately, your ability learn new skills (especially those that involve balance) decline as you age.  For me, I find it is much easier to get to the back of my board by cross-stepping.  

When I cross-step, I first position my right (paddling side) foot on the center line of the board, directly and close behind my left (inside) foot.  From there, I just walk back along the center line of the board.  It’s just a left foot step, and then a right foot step that crosses the left foot.  Two equally spaced steps that get my right foot right onto the kick pad at the tail of my board.  

What’s the advantage of cross-stepping?  Well, I find it much easier to control the length of my steps than I do the distance that I jump backward on my board.  I am much more consistent and precise getting to exactly where I want to be on the tail of my board by cross-stepping than I am hopping and stepping.  

If you’re going to do any type of turn I highly recommend learning to cross-step.  It’s surprisingly easy and you’ll not only use it in turns but also downwinding and surfing.  We’ll look at footwork in greater detail in a future post, but hopefully this encourages you to stop shuffling and scooching and try cross-stepping.  It’s summer, after all, and the air and water are warm.  There is no better time to start to experiment with this valuable skill.

Step 2 – Hitting the brakes and using the blade face to pull the nose around

Video 2 starts with Bruno on the tail of his board in his goofy stance with his paddle on the left.   Immediately, he begins to hit the brakes.  It’s important to note that he uses the back of the blade against the water to brake.  You can see he really puts his body into braking as he noticeably leans his body weight back in order to apply more force to his braking motion.  At this point, his paddle is tucked right up against the side of the board.  

This braking motion alone will start to bring the nose of the board around towards the paddle.  The more speed you are carrying, the closer you are to the board and the more forcefully you lean on the back of the blade, the more the nose of your board will come around.

Once his board has braked, he begins to slide his blade away from his board through the water.  In fact, as he does this his blade face is initially facing more towards the nose of the board than the tail.  It’s extremely important to note that he is using his blade face to work against the water to continue to pull the nose around through this entire motion.  The orientation of the connection between the blade face and the water changes throughout this motion, but the connection itself remains uninterrupted.

This is the tricky part of this turn.  Getting the blade further from the side of the board will help you pull the nose around more quickly, but it also shifts your weight from safely over the board to out over the water a little.  It is imperative that the blade face be actively working against water to pull the nose around throughout this entire phase of the turn.  Imagine having that much body weight out over the paddle and then the blade face losing connection with the water.  The blade is very nearly vertical at this point in the turn, rather than flat on the water like it is when you brace.  If the blade face isn’t connected and actively working against the water, your paddle won’t support you – there will be nothing to support the body weight that is off the board and out over the paddle.  You’ll very likely end up swimming.  

As the nose of the board comes around to almost a full 180 degrees, you can see that Bruno now begins to slide his paddle through the water back towards the board.  Again, the blade face continues to be engaged, working against the water, with no interruption or break.  As the blade gets closer to the board, the blade face begins to face increasingly towards the tail of the board, like it is in a normal forward stroke.  At this point, he is finishing his turn and preparing to paddle out of it.  

Step 3 – Paddling out of the turn

Video 3 illustrates the next step of this turn – completing the turn itself and paddling out of the turn.  It starts with Bruno completing his work with the blade face during the turning motion.  He has pulled the paddle right back into the rail of the board and the blade face is now once again facing the tail of the board.  

He finishes the turning movement by lifting the blade out of the water well before it reaches his feet.  Remember, however, that he is standing further back on the board than normal.  In fact, at this point in the turn he is still standing on the tail.  So, really, he is exiting the water close to where he would in a normal forward stroke. 

As he reaches forward for a new stroke he is still standing on the tail of the board with his left foot.  However, unlike during his turning motion, his weight has now shifted forward again and his board is now once again flat in the water.  His turn is very nearly, but not quite, complete at this point.  You can see that as he enters the water for this new stroke, he is drawing the nose of the board to the paddle almost as he would in a forward steering stroke.  Then he begins to pull a full forward stroke. 

Though his legs are still in his goofy surf stance, his upper body is very forward to start this stroke, much like in any other forward stroke.  He begins to load the blade with his upper body weight and his upper body moves much like it would in a normal forward stroke.  This is important, because this contributes to a well loaded stroke that not only begins to move his board forward, but also ensures that the blade will support him and provide him with some stability as he completes the last part of the turn – returning to his normal, forward paddling stance.  

You’ll see that he pulls almost a full stroke, with both the connection and the increasing speed of the board enhancing his stability.  Then, as he’s exiting, he pulls himself forward up the board.   This movement is not dissimilar to the forward reloading of the hips at the exit in a normal stroke.  It’s just that in this case he is not only reloading his hips forward, but bringing his left foot forward from the tail of the board.  

Bruno steps forward with his left foot bringing it beside his right, then does a little hop with both feet to re-establish his normal forward paddling stance.  All of this occurs before he takes his next stroke so that the second stroke he is taking out of the turn is an entirely normal forward stroke.  

Now, if you cross-stepped to the tail of the board like I would, you’ll probably cross step forward rather than doing the step/hop like Bruno.  Otherwise, you’ll be moving very much like Bruno is as he begins to paddle out of the turn.  

Repetition, repetition, repetition

Pivot turns are a complex skill that requires lots of practice, especially if you plan on racing and using them in rough water.  Though I think this turn is going to be easier for a lot of paddlers than trying to do a weak side turn while paddling on your weak side, it is still going to take a lot of practice to make yours look as smooth as Bruno’s.  Expect to get wet practicing them, especially as you learn to keep the blade face active and connected through the entire turn.  

More novice paddlers are likely going to have to work on their footwork before starting to practice the turn itself.  Be patient, remembering how valuable good footwork is, not just for pivot turns but for downwinding and surfing as well.  

Don’t rely solely on this turn 

As much as I think this turn is a great option for a lot of paddlers, including myself, it would be a huge mistake to stop practicing doing more traditional weak side turns.  Lots of different things happen in races, making the decision on what type of turn to use situational.  Though you might like to use this technique in every weak side turn you do, sometimes you’ll be forced by circumstances to change sides and paddle on the outside of your weak side turn.  Whether it is the buoy, another board or another paddler’s paddle in the way, sometimes you have to change sides just to find water that you can put your paddle in.  It’s far better to be prepared for this than not be prepared for it, even if you end up using Bruno’s turn in 90% of your weak side turns.  

*

Stay tuned for more posts this summer on skills like footwork, turns and using your blade face.  If you’re an experienced paddler, you’ll likely have understood everything written here and can get on the water tomorrow and start to practice it.  If you’re less experienced, it is perhaps going to take a while.  You might be better off learning some more basic skills first.  I’ll work at providing you with information on them in the next few issues.  

Happy paddling!

Larry

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