A Sidelong Look at the Draw Family: A Guide to Going Sideways
By Roger Schumann
Once while teaching the sculling draw in an instructor certification workshop, I was taken aback when a student—who’d proclaimed earlier about having spent the entire previous winter “guiding professionally” in Baja—informed me that, “Oh, I don’t really know all those fancy instructor strokes.” His tone clearly indicated that he considered draw strokes to be rather superfluous: good for showing off to impress your paddling buddies, perhaps, but not of much practical use. Like most of us he apparently spent the vast majority of his time in a kayak plodding straight ahead, forward stroke following forward stroke meditatively, ad infinitum toward the ever receding horizon. I was bewildered, not just because it seemed that someone guiding professionally would know how to make a boat move sideways for safety if not purely aesthetic reasons. Mostly, I was baffled, because I hadn’t even begun to get superfluous with any fancy instructor strokes.
Beyond learning the standard draw (or beam draw), that pull-and-slice draw stroke most of us get shown in our first beginner class, a lot of folks don’t spend much time working on going sideways. We can paddle literally hundreds if not thousands of miles interrupting our forward strokes with only the occasional sweep or rudder stroke to correct our course. Draw strokes may not get used that often, but knowing how to do them is like knowing how to change a tire, when you need one, you really need one. They can be invaluable in rescue situations for getting to a capsized partner’s bow quickly to do a T-rescue, crucial for maintaining a safe position in an eddy beside a tide rip or behind a rock in an ocean rock garden, and merely handy for rafting up with a buddy before he finishes off the last snack bar.
But even those paddling aesthetes who bother venturing beyond learning the standard draw to learn the more advanced sculling draw tend to stop there. Yet lurking beyond the sculling draw like stills in the hills, hides a whole family of fancy draw strokes, with more relatives and more aliases than a redneck wedding, sporting colorful nicknames like “sideslip,” “Duffek,” and “hanging” draw. Canoeists of course are familiar with esoteric strokes like cross-bow draws, but then they only have one blade in the water, so to speak. We sea kayakers, with twice the blade opportunities, are obviously at an advantage (if not possibly also more intelligent in our choice of craft). But we tend to be a less dexterous lot. Learning to do things like reaching across your bow to steer can improve physical as well as mental flexibility, for one thing; and taking the time to become acquainted with techniques like running or static draws—not to mention all their cross-bow, backward and one-handed cousins—can help you learn to glide your kayak gracefully in just about any direction imaginable save up or down, while the blade finesse gained can enhance other skills like bracing and rolling as well. Beyond being simply useful, draws look good and are good for you. Draws are sexy. Draws make people smile. Besides being more fluid on the water, knowing at least the names, if not having quite mastered all the techniques, will make you more fluent in conversations with serious paddle geeks, all of which can be great for superfluous showing off in order to impress your paddling partners both on and off the water.
Let’s start with the sculling draw before moving on to a handful of its more eccentric relatives. Sculling develops a subtle feel for controlling the blade, and better blade control translates directly into better boat control and less wasted effort overall. It also forms the core of all the fancy running or static draws that follow.
Assuming some overall familiarity with the standard draw stroke, a brief review of a few technical nuances is in order. With all draw strokes you want to turn your shoulders to the side and “face your work,” do your best to get a fairly vertical shaft angle by reaching both hands out over the water (with your top arm below eye height and your bottom hand nearly touching the water), fully submerge your blade and, of course, by definition, use the face of your blade, not the back.
The key to mastering the sculling draw is learning to skim your blade evenly—not merely moving sideways, but doing so in a straight line without changing the angle of your kayak. Use a dock or a partner’s boat for reference. It’s common to angle the blade too much, especially when moving it from bow to stern so that it digs in like the much more familiar forward stroke, which pulls the stern around and turns the boat. Flatten the face of the blade relative to the side of your kayak, with just enough angle that it barely begins to bite into the water; the subtle feel you are looking for is often described as “spreading peanut butter” rather than scraping it off the bread. If you find your bow or stern pivoting toward your paddle, then you are not sculling evenly and are probably angling your blade too much on that side.
Another common mistake is sculling from knee to hip, which draws the boat diagonally forward. To move straight sideways, the hip needs to be at the center of the stroke rather than at the end, which means you need to rotate further back, reaching an equal distance behind you. The final fix for a flawed draw has to do with “slicing” at the point of transition. At the end of the stroke in either direction, it is important to set the new blade angle before powering the next stroke, or you’ll feel the blade slice for a few inches (to a few feet) before it catches again in the new direction. Practice going slowly and pausing briefly at the end of each stroke to find the proper blade angle before applying power. Later you can start to speed it up. But the rhythm should always remain relaxed, like a waltz (one, two, three…one, two, three) rather than fast like the twist. Think of Lawrence Welk, in other words, not Chubby Checker.
Directional Sculling and Advanced Techniques
When you can scull your kayak straight sideways, try a variation—sculling at a 45-degree angle backward (or forward), again, without changing your boat angle. Skilled paddlers use this directional sculling to position themselves more precisely in narrow sea caves and rock gardens or in tide rip eddies, or to grab a bow or a piece of floating trash on the side that is just out of reach behind them.
To further develop blade finesse, practice sculling with one hand. Finding the balance point is tricky and subtle, but struggling with it using only one hand will make the two-handed version seem much less awkward. This also helps teach paddlers using feathered blades to control their off-side sculling (usually the left) with off-side hand, which will ultimately give them more control and a better feel for their off-side blade during strokes and rolls. This one-handed sculling, so I’ve been told, looks kinda cool as well.
Another more challenging technique is cross-bow sculling. Admittedly somewhat superfluous on its own, it develops the skills and feel for the blade that lie at the heart of more advanced techniques. Invented by canoeists who only had one blade so learned to make the most of it, this technique involves reaching across your bow with the working blade. For example, start sculling on your right side with your right blade. Then pick that blade up out of the water, reach up over your bow as if setting up for a roll, and put the right blade back into the water, blade still facing you, at your left hip. Generally quite awkward at first, this body- and mind-stretching exercise really helps develop blade finesse. Of course those who want even more challenge (and/or attention) can practice this showy stroke one-handed as well.
Draws Under Way
The ultimate in subtle blade and boat control is gained by applying these various draws when your boat has some forward (or backward) momentum. Precise steering control during carved turns can be achieved using a draw stroke off the bow while under way. Known by a variety of names, this bow rudder or Duffek is the most efficient way to make subtle course corrections in tight areas, maintaining more speed and directional integrity (allowing your boat to carve on a precise line) than a braking stern rudder stroke, since it pulls your bow into the turn rather than pushing your stern away. The bow rudder (explained in more detail in “Messing About in Boats” SK, Aug. ‘09) is essentially the forward end of the sculling draw held stationary near your foot, which helps explains why it is sometimes known as the stationary bow draw although the boat itself must be moving forward. To find the proper placement (without forward momentum for now), scull slowly from stern to bow on the right side, as far forward as you can reach, maintaining an “open-faced” blade angle. Freeze and hold that open-faced blade angle about a foot off your foot or shin, depending on your flexibility, and remember this precise spot.
Now with momentum, initiate a carved turn with an edge and sweep stroke on the left, then plant your bow rudder off your foot on the right, creating an elegant, gliding, ever-tightening turn. (Make sure you are using the face of the blade, not the back: Using the back of the blade, by definition, constitutes a “pry” not a draw.) At whatever point you are happy with your new direction, pivot the bow rudder neatly into a forward stroke to regain momentum and start paddling again. Or, to continue the turn, as you finish blending your bow rudder into a forward stroke on the right, reach across your bow with the left blade, as you did for the cross-bow sculling, and plant a cross-bow rudder with your left blade next to your right foot. Unless engaging in some extremely fancy maneuvering in very tight places, the justification for a practical application for using cross-bow rudders with a double-bladed kayak paddle begins to wear thin and disappears entirely for one-handed versions. However superfluous and showy, both techniques are excellent “over-compensation” exercises for refining blade finesse, and may wow certain paddling partners, assuming they are rather easily impressed. Similarly, using a stern draw when paddling backward is a great way to glide your boat quickly back into a safe spot in a rock garden between waves, but beyond that it is mainly a good way to practice getting more comfortable in your kayak, not such a bad goal in and of itself.
Moving back to something more practical, a sideslip is essentially the same stroke as a bow rudder, only you do it off your hip instead of up by your feet. Instead of turning the boat, your goal is to have it glide diagonally off course a few feet, to dodge past a submerged rock or stalled kayaker, without actually turning your boat. If you used a turn to go off course to miss an obstacle, you then have to turn back on course. With a sideslip, you drift off your collision course without actually changing your boat angle, then continue on your way with little loss of momentum. It is also a great way to slide quickly toward something, like the bow of a capsized kayak. I routinely use this for T-rescues in rough water, as it helps keep the waves from knocking me off course and missing my swimmer’s bow.
Like the bow rudder, the blade angle is subtle. A common difficulty when practicing sideslips is that you find your boat turning toward the blade as it does during a bow rudder. This happens because paddlers typically plant the sideslip too far forward, next to their thigh, instead of back by their butt. Each kayak is different, so you’ll need to experiment with finding the “sweet spot” where yours drifts sideways without turning. One way to practice this is to intentionally plant the blade too far back behind your butt and as you feel the stern start to turn toward the paddle, start to scull gently forward until the turn stops. Another common mistake is edging the kayak. Since you don’t want to turn in this case, don’t initiate one with your lower body. Keep the boat flat.
The advanced manner to initiate a sideslip is to blend the end of your forward stroke into a sideslip at your hip without taking your paddle out of the water. Instead of lifting your blade at the end of your forward stroke, quickly cock your wrist outward and into a sideslip position just as the stroke reaches your hip. Then glide sideways past whatever obstacle, real or imagined, you are trying to avoid, and resume paddling. Paddlers with a penchant for superfluous skills development or just plain showing off can of course practice whatever combination of one-handed, cross-bow, backward sideslips they fancy in the name of enhancing overall comfort and control.
I sometimes goof around with members of the draw family, like sideslips and bow rudders, as they are an entertaining bunch that helps make the paddling more interesting on long, flat-water tours. By following a few inches off the stern of another paddler, you can judge how much your boat is moving sideways or turning, since this can be difficult to assess on open water. But remember, this is not a big move; you only need to glide sideways a foot or so to avoid an obstacle before continuing on your way, losing as little momentum as possible. For extra momentum, try to sneak in a partial forward stroke at the end of a sideslip as you lift the blade out of the water.
I observe groups of skilled paddlers using a more useful form of this exercise subconsciously. Once, when teaching another group of instructors, I noticed that we were all paddling close enough to chat in more or less conversational tones during a crossing of San Francisco Bay to Angel Island. Everyone was able to maintain a distance of only a few feet between boats. This was in stark contrast to the group of beginners I’d been teaching the day before, who either crashed into one another if they got too close or drifted so far apart to avoid doing so that most communication had to be done through shouting across the water like an unruly mob of barking sea lions. Instead, our group was conversing in civil tones, discussing the finer points of navigating in tidal currents. At one point I was listening to a woman on my right describing her experience the past several summers teaching in Alaska, when we drifted close enough to almost touch paddles. Simultaneously we both threw in a quick sideslip, she on her right, me on my left, glided apart a few feet, and kept on paddling. She never broke stride in her story, and it was so quick and smooth I almost didn’t notice what we’d done. Then I started looking around at others. Without seeming to give it a second thought, or skipping a beat in their conversations, everyone was deftly using the occasional sideslip or bow rudder to keep from running into each other or from drifting too far apart. And it dawned on me that these fancy instructor strokes, not only looked pretty cool, they were pretty darned useful as well.
A video of these techniques is available on the web at www.seakayakermag.com/Resources/links.htm
Roger Schumann is the author of Sea Kayak Rescue and Sea Kayaking Guide to Central and Northern California. An ACA Instructor Trainer, he leads classes and tours in Baja and teaches courses in marine natural history at Prescott College. He can be reached via email at: firstname.lastname@example.org.