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Paddle Techniques: Recover

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We’re going to talk about how you finish the Tahitian stroke and then put the whole thing together. The first two articles: The Catch, and Adding Power, are both useful even if you don’t adopt a Tahitian stroke. This article isn’t, it’s only useful if you adopt a true Tahitian stroke. The unique part of the Tahitian stroke is in the recovery–pulling the blade out of the water and getting it back out to reach, catch, and start again.

When people first start paddling they tend to pull the paddle back as far as they can, and then recover by lifting the paddle behind them and swinging it back to the front. It’s too bad this is such a natural movement, because it’s a really bad way to paddle. You can’t add any real power once the paddle reaches your feet, any pull on the paddle as it travels back pulls the rail and tail of the board down and pulls you out of balance, and that long swing takes a lot of energy.

After people gain experience they often progress to a rough copy of a Hawaiian stroke. They pull the paddle to just before their feet, drop the upper hand out and down which pops the blade out of the water, then they swing the paddle forward to recover and bring the upper hand back into position for the next stroke. This is a more powerful, but it takes a lot of energy to swing the paddle through the stroke and there’s no time to rest.

The Tahitian Recovery
As soon as you put the power to it, start recovering by lifting the paddle out of the water like drawing a sword from a scabbard. You turn the handle with your top hand like a knob to feather the blade and help it pop out of the water. You do this feathering movement even when the wind is behind you because it helps the paddle exit the water cleanly. Break your lower wrist inwards as your upper hand turns the knob, then push upwards with the lower hand while the upper arm relaxes and follows the movement. You extend your lower arm, move your upper shoulder and arm into the stacked position, rotate your torso and shoulder forwards and punch out for the catch.

The upper arm moves through a small circle that is flattened like an almond. It adds power in the stroke by pushing down as the shoulders twist.

The lower arm adds power at the same time, pulling back with the torso and shoulder, then relaxing as it pushes the paddle up out of the water. Then it pushes forward in a gentle punch to reach for the catch of the next stroke.

It’s not a conga line, it’s Jeremy Riggs showing the Tahitian recovery. The sequence starts from the back “jeremy”. Photo courtesy of Randy Strome

The total amount of movement in the recover is a fraction of the effort required in swinging the blade back into position with conventional strokes. The downside is that your upper arm can get tired quickly from staying in a high position constantly. The trick is to relax the arm all the time you are not pulling, and let it hang from the handle rather than trying to use the upper arm to pull the paddle from the water. Your upper hand feathers the paddle, but it does it like turning a knob, a very easy movement.

The lower arm needs to relax during this movement also. You’re going to use the lower arm to push the paddle upwards, but it’s a light weight. You should feel the muscles go soft as you pull the paddle from the water. Start breaking the wrist immediately, and keep it bent softly until you start the punch for the reach. The biggest advantage of this stroke is how efficient it is. If you’re keeping your arm muscles tight when you’re doing the recover you’re not gaining full benefit.

You should exaggerate all the movements at first. Keep your initial pull VERY short, as soon as you put the power in, you stop pulling and start recovering. Your upper arm needs to hang on the paddle during recover and the lower arm should feel soft and loose. Exaggerate the relaxation. Your reach should be extreme. Go past your comfort zone and get your shoulder way out. Stack your shoulders and get the paddle as vertical as possible. You might find your paddle is too short for this long reach. Consider getting a longer one or extending the one you have. There’s an article in Ke Nalu about paddle length and how to extend a paddle that’s already cut.

Even in this exaggerated approach you should start seeing the benefits of the Tahitian stroke. You won’t be fast at first, and your shoulders will probably hurt. Your balance will feel off and the board will be more tippy because you are not winging out a big balance pole every stroke. Keep at it and all of this will improve quickly. You’ll find your arms are not tired after a long paddle. You’ll find you can immediately bump the cadence way up when you want to, because the recovery movement is so short, and the short, sharp power strole takes a fraction of the time. You’ll find you can get into bumps with fast strokes that feel like you are just tapping the water.

This is NOT the prettiest stroke I’ve ever done. Let’s look at the flaws starting with the second me from the back. My lower wrist isn’t broken and soft enough so when I push up, my lower arm pivots from the shoulder and pushes the paddle too high (third me). With my arms too high I have to swing the paddle more instead of just punching it forward (fourth me) but now I’ve got it in the right place, I stack my shoulders and get a good catch. Photo courtesy of Randy Strome.

Remember, 70 percent of the power available in a stroke happens during the catch. A long stroke is something like “onnnne huuundreeed” while a Tahitian stroke is “70,70,70″. It works out that way. You have a lot more control over the amount of energy you use and your pace. You can increase the cadence, or you can pull a fraction longer or a fraction harder.

Don’t be surprised if that takes a while to learn. It has to get into muscle memory, and you have to master all the little bits. To really get it takes about a year with a lot of paddling. Here’s a quick recap starting from recovery:

  • At the end of the power stroke don’t wing your upper arm–pull the blade up and out of the water like drawing a sword.
  • Breaks the wrist of your lower hand inward and relax most of the lower arm, using only minimal effort to push the paddle upwards.
  • Upper hand holds the handle like a knob, with the thumb pointed to the side.
  • Twist the blade to a feathered position without putting a strain on the wrist.
  • As the blade leaves the water the shoulder, arm and upper torso do a gentle punch, reaching for the catch.
  • Upper arm extended, stack the shoulders.
  • Push the blade smoothly in, torso and shoulder rotation applies power.
  • Upper hand pushes forward and slightly down to aid in the power keep the shaft vertical.
  • As soon as power is applied you relax, and start the recover.
  • The upper arm motion is a fluid rotation like an almond.
  • Pay attention to relaxing muscles when you can.


Mistakes people make

  • Forcing the stroke. Relax. If you do it right your hands, torso and shoulders return to position automatically
  • Pushing too soon. Keep your cadence easy and your pull light. Get the motions down before you try to go fast.
  • Pulling up the paddle with the upper hand. The upper hand follows the paddle. You push up with the lower hand
  • Holding the handle too tight. Hold it like a knob.
  • Tightening the lower arm. Relax it while you’re pushing up. Sounds funny, but you’ll get it.
  • Too short reach. You have to get out there and stretch your muscles out. If you’re reaching short your body is all cramped up. Open your shoulders and your torso.