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Paddle Techniques: The Catch

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Most of my paddling life I’ve been using the Hawaiian stroke, which probably comes as no surprise given my Ohana. But my canoe partners and I converted to the Tahitian stroke over the last few years, and I’ve translated it into Stand Up Paddling–both for distance/downwind and for surfing. It is a more efficient stroke, but it’s hard to fully master. Picking up some of the basic elements will help your paddling, but you’ll probably need some qualified coaching along the way to avoid adding bad habits and to pick up the little subtle elements that make the stroke really work.

The best way to learn to paddle is to join a canoe club, do six man paddling, and have your partners bug you to do it right. Big time commitment though, and it will take at least a year to get good. Any good canoe paddle coach can help you with the basics, but the Tahitian stroke is not common, and they may not know the modifications that make it work for Stand Up Paddling.

Paddling is far more complex than it seems. It’s like playing an instrument. I can show you the chords, but you’re going to need a lot of practice to be ready to jam with Eddie Vetter. Even the “chords” for the Tahitian stroke are pretty complicated, so I’m going to break it down over a number of posts.

We’ll start this series with the Catch–the key to effective paddling. Catch is about three things: Reach, torso position, and timing. Reach is a bitch. Reach is what you hear paddle coaches yelling all day long.

Stand on your board in your usual stance and position, reach forward as far as you can and have someone mark that spot on your board with tape or a Sharpie. Copy the mark to the other side. Now mark several spots every couple of inches FURTHER towards the nose of your board, because as far as you can reach today is not enough.

Three body movements add reach. Stand with your shoulders square and reach your arm as far forward as you can. That’s one. Now rotate your shoulders and you can reach quite a bit further. That’s two. Now twist at the hips, turning your torso forwards. That’s three. If you do all three together with a little push–a gentle punch with your lower arm–you’ll have momentum, your joints will open, your muscles will stretch, and you’ll be able to reach even further. That’s four. A free bonus.

Jeremy Riggs tries the reach

To make the catch work best your paddle needs to be as vertical as possible. If you reach across your body to do that your upper arm will be at a very weak and clumsy position. So you need to stack your shoulders–bend at the waist a little to get your upper arm shoulder as high above your lower arm shoulder as you can. Extend your upper arm to get the paddle vertical.

You can see the shoulder stacking pretty clearly in this sequence, courtesy of Randy Strome at the Standupzone

The lower arm comes forward with the torso and shoulder twist, upper arm comes over the head to get the paddle as vertical as possible, lower forearm punches forward lightly, straightening out the lower arm and extending the muscles without hyper-extension, and then the paddle enters the water just as the muscles start to contract.

More reach!

Better–good torso and shoulder twist, stacking the shoulders and keeping the paddle perpendicular to the rail

From the other side

Now all these new movements need to come together at the same time so your can push the paddle into the water just as the momentum ends. The timing is just about impossible at first, it’s one of the hardest things to learn, and it needs to become automatic.

Next time we’ll get into the power stroke.