Paddling Techniques: Get A Grip!
by Donna M. Kazo

Wildlife Research Team has always wanted to get as many people out in our canoes as possible. We always want them to have a really good time. We want them to come out again. Over WRT's twenty years, I've observed a very wide range of personalities pick up a paddle. I wish now I'd been a little bolder and had gotten nosy enough to ask them why they'd made the choice. But I've gleaned enough from these experiences to perpetually fascinate me. Certainly it has been my motivation to write this article, with more to follow.

Let's begin with an important fact: canoes are not unstable. Paddlers are. For example, take horseback riding, another enjoyable but balance-challenging activity. Horses are perfectly collected when they are running free on their own, but become insecure with riders on their backs, and must be re-educated to move properly and with balance. The same thing happens with canoes.

Parents Tiffany and Jeremy Smith doing it right!

Since our beginning, we've always welcomed anyone in our canoes, with our unique "You Point, We Paddle" program. We've always wanted to share our fun with anyone with a taste for adventure. So not everyone has been required to paddle, especially if they had a disability or were very young or very old. (Many great memories come to mind but have to be suppressed for now, sorry.)

So let's face it, unless you are unable to paddle due to age or infirmity, you are going to have to take hold of this stick with a wide part on one end and a handle on the other and dip it into the water a few thousand times in order to get anywhere. And what I've seen is that when you don't learn to dip it correctly, you won't have the really good time WRT wants you to have. You may end up hating the paddle, the canoe, WRT, the water, the air, and Life itself. If you can't make that canoe go where you want it to—usually in a straight line, or what we call "on the rails"— then you'll be frustrated, sore, exhausted, and probably as mad as hell at whoever's in the canoe with you.

Not only have I witnessed this happen to many others of all ages and both sexes, I've been there myself. I was very lucky to have had a great teacher in my soulmate and partner, the late Dr. Tom Kazo, but must confess to being at times a really rotten, crabby student. Turns out I was more mad at myself than him, although it took a while to realize this, honestly (sorry, my darling). So when I see a couple yelling at each other from bow and stern of their canoe, I feel their pain and want only to make them happy with each other. To do that, we have to make the canoe happy first. And to do that, we have to learn how to paddle correctly. (I hasten to add, in Tom's memory, that he never yelled at me, although he did get aggravated, as he put it; all the yelling, I must confess, came from yours truly.)

Every moment in our canoes, we are influenced by countless factors beyond our control: weather, wind, tide, currents, boat traffic, other people, even wildlife. We may have improperly loaded our canoes and they don't respond well; happens to everyone. I can think of only one factor which is totally under our control, yet I so often see people ignore it and thus make themselves miserable.

In three words: Get A Grip!

The correct grip.

Hold your paddle properly and you will improve your canoeing experience, your health, and maybe even save your life. Canoe paddles are like baseball bats, golf clubs and tennis rackets in that all must be gripped correctly for maximum performance. Hold your paddle improperly, however, and you may catch a wave wrong, or maybe hit a tree in a mangrove tunnel, and out of your canoe you go. I've seen it happen. On our trips, nobody's ever been badly hurt, only wet, maybe scraped up a bit and certainly very embarrassed, but people have been injured or killed while canoeing elsewhere. I'd love to know how they were holding their paddles, among other things.

The wrong grip.

What truly inspired this particular column is my never-to-be-answered question: why do people neglect a perfectly good handle at the logical top of their paddles, and grasp the area just below the handle? I see this happen all the time, and not just with beginners. The paddle is not a guitar, nor is it a broom (not that people really use brooms anymore, come to think of it, they use those robot vacuum cleaners!).

On the right: This is not a broom!

Time now for an anatomy lesson: the top of the paddle is a handle called the grip. There are several different types and shapes of grips. The other end of the paddle is the wide part that goes into the water, and called the blade. In between there's a stick that's properly called the shaft. Just as the shaft begins to widen into the blade is an area called the throat. Fairly simple anatomy lesson, right?

Ben and Mike using the correct grip.

Ben and Mike using the correct grip.

Now it's time to learn where to hold your paddle. If you are going to paddle on the left side of the canoe, your left hand will grasp the shaft and your right, will grip the handle at the top. This may seem like common sense but I have seen people do it the other way. Yes, really! To paddle on the right, reverse your hands.

If you grasp the shaft too far down, your hand will bang into the side of the canoe, and pain is not fun. So the best location is about two to three hand's widths from the throat. Experiment so as to avoid painful paddling. (In a future article we'll learn about how to choose a paddle, don't worry.)

Perhaps the word "grip" should be avoided, as we usually think of "the death grip" and you don't want to do that when paddling. For one thing, the white-knuckled grip uses up energy, while cramping your hands. You are not propelling a missile like a player of tennis, golf, or baseball. Let your hand just loosely embrace the handle of your paddle. What you want to do is engage the biggest muscles in your body, such as your abdominals, less so the small muscles of your arms. With correct hand placement, you will get awesome leverage and tap into your personal powerhouse of core muscles. Remind yourself: Relax! This is fun!

The wrong grip.

Your hand on the grip of the paddle is called the control hand for a reason. Subtle adjustments made by this hand control the angle of your strokes, and also the outcome of your day on the water. A righteous set of angles means powerful, efficient, even elegant strokes that propel you swiftly and quietly where you want to go. This outcome is not available to those who grab the paddle just below the handle (left). Those who never "get a grip" and stubbornly continue to grasp the paddle incorrectly will continue to shortchange themselves. They won't want to go canoeing again, and will have reduced their options forever.

I do believe that canoeing is a metaphor for Life. Every time I get into a canoe, I am tested in a multitude of ways. If I don't pay attention, I will suffer the consequences. Sometimes it's not fun and even painful. Certainly there is an element of risk. So I learn to prepare myself as much as possible. I know for sure, after twenty years of canoeing, that rewards come only to those who take a risk. And the rewards have been many, because I was out there on the water when the huge manta ray surfaced and then dove deep just in front of my canoe, when the dolphin took a breath just behind me, when the young bald eagle flew just a few feet from my bow because I had paddled up so quietly he didn't hear me. At times I have been scared so much that I shook! But I learned to be strong, to listen to Tom without arguing, to figure things out, to read the signs of nature. Mostly, I learned to trust myself based on my successes, that I always made it home safely. Are these not lessons we need in Life?

And like many things in Life, the outcome of our experience may be influenced by one small factor which is under our control; in this case, holding a canoe paddle correctly.

So if we ever do paddle together, and I nag you about getting a grip, it's only because I care about you! I've seen people hurt themselves and I've seen people have a total blast, so guess in what category I want you to be at the end of our day together?

Dr. Tom Kazo demonstrating the correct way to paddle to WRT members at his Guide School.

Dr. Tom Kazo demonstrating the correct way to paddle to WRT members at his Guide School.

Photo Credits— Donna Kazo, Wildlife Research Team.