If the forward stroke is the first thing you learn about paddling then how to brace should be the second. The forward stroke will get you moving, the brace will keep you upright if either you or the water does something you don’t expect. You might turn your head just a bit too quickly to catch sight of a bald eagle overhead, a wave may suddenly break broadside on your boat or something similar…and over you go. The Oxford English Dictionary defines ‘bracing’ as ‘pressing one’s body or part of one’s body firmly against something in order to stay balanced’. Let’s think about how you use your paddle and your body to do that. There are basically two maneuvers you can use, the first and most often used is the low brace, the second which we’ll come to later, is the high brace.
There are three key features of the low brace – the paddle stroke, the head-trunk position and lastly the position of the legs and feet.
1. Paddle stroke. Let’s assume you are sitting upright with your hands correctly positioned with a light but fixed grip, shoulder width apart on the paddle shaft. If you lean to one side and do nothing with your paddle or your body then at some point you become top heavy with your center of gravity over the water and you’ll tip into the water. If, however, before you tip you turn the shaft of your paddle away from you 90 degrees (this is called the monkey position, your arms and shoulders are bit gorilla-like at this point) then the blade becomes parallel with the surface of the water and you can reach out and slap the water to right yourself to prevent a capsize. The slap should be quite vigorous - without sending you into a capsize in the opposite direction.
2. Head-trunk position. As you lean into the active blade (the blade in contact with the water), your head should be leaning in the opposite direction away from that side and as you slap the water you should flick your hips with a ‘hip-snap’ towards the active side which will increase your momentum back to the vertical. As you come up you should drop your head towards the active side so that the head is the last thing to come up during your recovery. If you can, turn slightly towards the blade, this will allow you to drop your head further adding more momentum as your head comes up at the end of the hip-snap.
3. Legs and feet. The third thing to think about (if you can, there is a lot going on) is what’s happening with your legs and feet. The leg on the active side should be fully engaged and bent with the foot flat on the hull and the knee pressing up on the underside of the deck as a fulcrum for your hip-snap.
These are the three elements in the low brace recovery stroke. The best way to learn it is to separate the elements and practice them individually. Then at some point when your body memory kicks in, you’ll find this recovery stroke becomes second nature and you’ll be using it as naturally as you do your forward stroke.
The high brace, which you can use when swell or broadside waves are higher and more threatening, is identical in elements 2 and 3. However, in the high brace the horizontal in the active blade is achieved by turning the paddle shaft towards you rather than away from you as is the case with the low brace. So your arms and shoulders assume a ‘bear-like’ profile. The upper arm on the active side should be forward of the shoulder with the arms kept low to prevent shoulder damage which can occur with this brace in heavy water.
These two recovery strokes are all you’ll need under most conditions to stay afloat, they are worth ‘practicing ‘til perfect’. Yep, it's almost impossible to learn these moves from the printed page. We'll practice bracing with every every Driftwood Kayak workshop or excursion and in the meantime, here's a video which demos the low brace….