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Try Paddling on Different Boards When You Get the Chance

Two of the biggest things that separate the very best SUP paddlers from recreational racers or non-racers is their overall skill level and the impressive level of knowledge they have of their boards and how to paddle them.  Top racers have spent countless hours paddling in a variety of conditions developing their skills.  They’ve also come to know their boards intimately in the process and can make them do pretty much whatever they want in virtually every condition they’ll face.  They have tremendous stability and appear as comfortable on their boards as they do on land.  There is no shortcut to this.  That skill and comfort they demonstrate comes from years of paddling in general and a good amount of quality time spent on the specific board they’re using.

More Water Time

So, if you’re a recreational racer or fitness trainer and want to get closer to the level of the local elite racers in your area, or are an elite racer trying to get closer to the top level, the first thing you need to do is be prepared to get on the water more and spend more time on your board.  If you’re at all tentative getting your body weight outside of the board and onto the paddle you’ve got a lot of work to do and there is no way to fast track doing this.  You’ll need to let loose, feel like you’re weight is precariously outside the board every stroke and risk falling in the water.  Eventually you’ll learn to trust your paddle to take your body weight.  Then you’ll need to paddle for hours and hours learning to load weight on your blade and then unload it within the stroke smoothly and efficiently.  Once you’ve mastered this in flat water you’ll need to start doing this in progressively more challenging conditions.  It might take a season or two, but this is the path to developing the skills that the top racers possess and that help them paddle fast.  I cannot emphasize enough that for most people I see in clinics, this should be the starting point.  There is absolutely no benefit to shortcutting this step and moving on to lots of advanced drills before you’ve invested a considerable amount of time on the basics.

Once you’ve learned to load your blade with some level of confidence and can trust your paddle to take your body weight when you get it outside of the board each stroke, and once you’re stable on your board in a variety of conditions, you’re ready to try some fun things to accelerate and refine your learning.  One of the most fun things you can do, and something that certainly adds variety to your paddling and keeps things fresh, is paddling on different boards.  Experimenting on different boards is a great way to develop your board skills and helps you gain insight into the characteristics of your own board that can help you make it perform better.

Swap it Out

One of the things I like to do is swap boards with my training partners for part of a workout.  When you get on a different board you’ll find it balances slightly differently.  If it is more stable than yours it gives you the chance to really focus on getting outside your board and loading your blade with even greater confidence.  Or, if you’re paddling in big water it gives you the chance to paddle harder in an effort to catch bumps, feel more stable on the bump and move around more on your board to help you maximize your ride and link to the next bump.  If the board is less stable than yours it gives you a great chance to work on your balance.  You’ll want to try to paddle exactly like you do on your own board.  Don’t hold anything back!   You’ll find that with a little practice, and maybe the odd swim, you can make the less stable board do the same things as your own more stable board with an increasing sense of confidence.  Within even just one workout you’ll feel your balance improve.  Then, you’ll get back on your own board and feel much more confident on it.  

Every board has it’s own characteristics and nuances.  Though many look the same they won’t feel exactly the same when you paddle.  When you’re in big water those differences will be magnified.  Your task on the strange board you’re experimenting with is to listen to it, feel what it is telling you as you paddle it, and control it.  Don’t just get on it and hammer.  Try to get in tune with the different board as you paddle it coax it into feeling as comfortable and responsive as your own board.  You’ll discover subtleties in things like stance, foot position, and points of emphasis in your stroke that effect how well the board moves.  Ideally you should have a GPS with you so you can see how subtle changes in what you’re doing affect board speed.  Recognizing these subtleties and understanding them are keys to refining and advancing your skills.  Once you’ve identified these things on another board you’ll be itching to experiment with them on your own board.

Comfort Zone

When you get back on your own board you should immediately feel a greater level of comfort.  It’s like sleeping in your own bed after travelling.  You’ll be back where you’ve put in all your time and hard work.  Often we are so comfortable on our boards that we don’t really think about what we’re doing, we just hammer away.  Or, even though we try to be thoughtful and aware while paddling, we just don’t have very heightened senses as they become sort of dulled by familiarity.  Paddling on a strange board and finding a way to make it work should heighten your proprioception and increase your awareness of your relationship with the board.  Coming back to your own board with that increased awareness allows you to feel new things and better identify the impact of what you’re doing each stroke on things like board speed and movement.

Over the years I’ve seen a lot of athletes, whether it is in canoe-kayak or SUP, who are reluctant to change to another boat or board for even a short workout.  It’s like they are afraid that in doing so they’ll lose their feeling for their own boat/board.  The reality is, if your skill set is fairly high and you’re at a point on your own board where you’re finding it difficult to improve, you should absolutely be experimenting on different boards – not necessarily with an eye to permanently changing boards, but rather just to get a new stimulus and to reactivate your board awareness.  If you’re less experienced, experimenting with different boards is a great way to accelerate development of new skills.

I remember in 1980 in my first tour of Europe with the Canadian Canoe Team in which I was racing in senior events against the world’s best, I had to race in a strange boat at an international regatta in Amsterdam.  I had always trained and raced in a C1 Delta.  Unfortunately, there was only one Delta on the trailer and, as a junior athlete, I was assigned the C1 Beta.  The Beta was sufficiently different in design that it required a significant adjustment to paddle it effectively.  I had only a few days to prepare in it before racing so made the most of those workouts, trying to learn all I could about the boat as I paddled it and make any subtle adjustments required to make it go fast.  As it turned out, I was the fastest Canadian in the C1 1000m that weekend and finished 2nd in the final.  When I got back into a Delta in subsequent regattas in Nottingham and Duisburg I was even better than I had been before.  I’d learned some new subtleties about the Delta and my own paddling technique because of my experience in the Beta.  Rather than returning to the Delta confused or searching for my feeling of comfort in it, I returned to it sharper and technically more aware.  I had increased both my skill level and understanding of the boat.  

Any of the top SUP paddlers in the world can jump on any race board and be fast.  They have excellent, well-established skills and board awareness.  It’s a big part of what makes them so good.  So, for those who are ready for it, paddle on different boards when possible.  You’ll increase your skills and awareness of what your board does underneath you and how what you do affects it, and that will make you a better paddler.  Have fun!


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