Book Review: "Sea Kayaking: Basic Skills, Paddling Techniques and Trip Planning" By Dan Henderson

I recently reviewed "Sea Kayaking: Basic Skills, Paddling Techniques and Trip Planning" by Dan Henderson for Atlantic Coastal Kayaker magazine and for readers who have not yet read the review in the magazine, here it is: 

            It seems the last thing an already well informed and enthusiastic sea kayaker needs is one more ‘how to’ book on sea kayaking.  The basics are well covered in classics like Derek Hutchinson’s ‘Expedition Kayaking’ and John Dowd’s ‘Sea Kayaking – A Manual for Long Distance Touring’, and specific kayaking skills such as navigation can be learned from books like David Burch’s ‘Fundamentals of Kayak Navigation’.   As in all outdoor activities, ‘learn by doing, then repeat’, is preferable to reading about it.  But once in a while a book appears which stands out above the rest and ‘Sea Kayaking: Basic Skills, Paddling Techniques and Trip Planning’ by Dan Henderson may well be one of those books.  If you’ve read the rest, you might find that this book picks up where the others leave off.  And for novice paddlers, while not every chapter in the book might appeal to you, there’s a lot here that would.          

            The author has a solid academic background in exercise science, is a racing coach for Olympic hopefuls, has lectured widely on the science of paddling efficiency and brings the fields of biomechanics, exercise physiology and training methodologies into his discussion of numerous topics throughout the book.   Sounds a bit dry?  Well, I thought so too at first - the introductory chapter, “Getting Started: Gear and Paddling Basics,” alone has ten pages on basic paddling technique!  But the more I read, the more interested I became, which is why I selected this book for review.  Dan Henderson knows something about optimizing performance through paddling efficiency and for that reason alone his book should appeal to the intermediate and advanced sea kayaker.   Who wouldn’t want to improve the way they paddle?

            Almost all of what we do in recreational paddling revolves around an efficient forward stroke.  The author nicely describes components of the forward stroke which are typically used in competitive kayaking and explains how to apply these components to recreational paddling - horizontal paddle in the recovery step before the catch, exaggerated torso rotation, high-angle paddle stroke with an accelerating stroke speed, long glide phase, “done to a ¾ waltz rhythm.”  He describes how you can apply these paddling techniques to long distance touring.  Specific topics covered include dynamic stability, power transmission, power generation, and finally fine-tuning the forward stroke.  This is not just about perfecting a skill for its own sake.   He has a simple goal for all of this effort in learning – “once developed (these skills) allow you to extend your kayaking adventures to exciting new destinations”.  These ideas are thought provoking - I found that this section of the book provides perhaps the best account of how to paddle effectively and efficiently that I’ve read.

            In practice, on the water, paddling strokes other than the forward stroke are typically hybrid strokes – a low brace eases into a stern rudder, a forward sweep becomes a low brace and it’s rare that specific strokes are made in isolation.  Instead of describing kayaking strokes individually, the author approaches the notion of ‘strokes other than the forward stroke’ holistically - rather than explaining, ‘how to do a stern rudder’, for example, he discusses the subtleties of boat and body positions, the importance of controlling blade angle across all strokes and of ruddering using various blade angles where one stroke type leads fluidly to a different one.  I like this holistic approach a lot because it encourages the reader to think about real-life paddling.

            There are several chapters that should appeal more to novice paddlers - for example, the chapter on Route Planning and Navigation.  At just thirty pages long, it doesn’t contain the detail that you’d find in a full-length book on navigation such as Franco Ferrero’s ‘Sea Kayak Navigation’.  But it does contain most of what you need to know without falling into the ‘too much information’ trap.  A bonus in this chapter is a series of exercises where you can test your understanding of the text – for example, how to find the coordinates on a marine chart, plot a course, find headings, determine distance, etc.     

            All the chapters are positioned around the concept of safe paddling beginning with topics such as basic paddling techniques, selecting and transporting a kayak and learning boat control and safety procedures.  Following the chapter on stroke technique, which I’ve discussed above, he moves on to deal with understanding how the vagaries of wind and water impact your kayaking, followed by suggestions for planning and preparing for trips.   Finally, there is a chapter on to how to improve fitness, which reflects the author’s expertise in, and enthusiasm for, the competitive side of the sport.  He outlines training regimens for someone interested in joining a racing team.  There are a couple of good reasons, other than for race training, why someone would be interested in putting these training routines into practice: a) simply to get in shape, and b) by being in better shape you can better enjoy your weekend kayaking trips.  After reading this chapter I’m already planning my personal training regimen for next season’s paddling. 

            Somewhere in every kayaking book I’ve read, there’s one summing-up sentence that the author uses to describe the book, a kind of ‘mission statement’.  In this book, it’s: “Kayaking lets you explore beautiful places, get close to spectacular wildlife, magically glide across the water, attain the healthful benefits of exercise, and enjoy solitude, companionship, and peace”. In summary, the ‘nuts and bolts’ of this book are all about technique, training and exercise.  The payoff is – in his words – ‘health, peace, solitude, companionship, exploration’.  Dan Henderson has done a great job describing how, if we choose to put in the hours of ‘work’ at the front end and get it right, these enhanced skills will take us where we want to go.