Anyone who has executed a belly flop in a pool knows how hard water can be. We as paddlers, take advantage of that property of water when we do a slapping brace. In a low brace, you push down against the water surface (or slap the surface) with the backface of your paddle. The water will give a brief second of resistance or support for the paddle blade before it goes under water. It is during this brief moment of support that the brace is executed. You will be using your lower body (hips and knees) to bring the kayak back to a balanced position while you are receiving the support from your paddle. You may want to think of it in this way: if you trip on a throw rug while walking down the bedroom hallway in the dark, your first instinct will be to put your hand out against the wall to stop your fall. Simply putting your hand on a vertical wall surface will not stop you from falling, but it will give you momentary support or stability while you get your feet back under you. It is the act of getting your feet and legs back under you that prevents you from falling. This is what a brace does for you. Just putting your paddle blade on the water will not stop your capsize, but it will give you momentary support while you use your lower body to bring the kayak back under you. However, by the time you finish bracing, the paddle blade will have gone under water. If you pull the blade straight back up out of the water, you will likely pull yourself off balance again, which is what you were trying to avoid when you did the brace in the first place. To remain upright and balanced, you need to bring the paddle back to the water’s surface by slicing it back to the surface.
I mentioned awhile back in one of my blog posts that I would elaborate on a 4-step progression for learning how to brace in a future blog post. Well, the future is now! Since we are in the heart of pool session season, this is a skill that can be worked on in a pool. Step 3 of this progression actually works better in a lake where the water is shallower, but you can get started in a warm swimming pool for now. I am going to give the instructions for learning to do a slapping low brace as I believe that this a good brace to start with. The basic format of this progression can be used to learn a variety of other braces when you are ready to tackle them. Remember that all low braces have the following two characteristics; the backface of the paddle is used against the surface of the water and the elbows are positioned over the top of the paddle shaft as though you were doing a push-up on the shaft.
Step 1: Keeping your kayak completely level and balanced, practice slapping the backface of your paddle blade on the surface of the water. Start by slapping the right blade on the right side of the kayak. (You will want to practice this on both the right and left sides.) This slapping action is really more like a solid push downward on the water’s surface. The paddle should be held as close to horizontal as you can get it (considering that the kayak will prevent you from holding the shaft completely horizontal). The shaft is at a right angle to the long axis of your kayak. Keep your elbows over the top of your paddle shaft like you are doing a push-up. After the paddle blade has submerged, rotate your right wrist back (like you are revving up your motorcycle) to feather the blade up out of the water. By rotating your wrist back, the blade face will be perpendicular to the surface of the water and offer little resistance as you slice it back up to the surface. When you were pushing down on the water, the blade was parallel to the surface of the water. Practice this skill on both sides of the kayak. Continue practicing this Step 1 until you can rapidly and repeatedly execute the “slap and slice” of the blade on both sides of the kayak with your eyes closed. When this has become easy, it is time to move on to Step 2.
Step 2: In this step, you are going to pretend to capsize so that you can practice the coordination of righting the kayak with your lower body while you are slapping the water with your paddle. Use a “J-lean” to simulate the start of a capsize. A J-lean is what you do to edge or tilt your kayak without letting yourself become unbalanced. If you have not mastered this skill, you need to work on it before going any further in your bracing progression. With the kayak tilted toward the right side, you will slap down on the water with the backface of your right paddle blade. At the same time, you lift up the right knee on the the thigh brace on the right side of the kayak. When you first initiate your J-lean, your head will be leaning toward your left shoulder as it probably would be if you were trying to prevent yourself from capsizing. As you slap the water and lift the right knee, your head will move from the left shoulder over toward the right shoulder. Tilting your head over to the right shoulder will actually make it easier for you to lift your right knee. The actions of slapping the water and lifting the knee should happen almost simultaneously. Recovering the blade to the surface of the water with the slicing motion happens after the kayak is upright and balanced. Practice this coordination on both the left and right sides. You will most likely find that one side feels more coordinated than the other and you will have to put in some extra practice time on your “uncoordinated” side.
Step 3: This is where you may need to wait until spring so that you can get into a very shallow area of a lake. You want to find an area where the water is shallow enough that you can push yourself up off the bottom with your hand if your kayak begins to capsize. Water depth should be around 6-10 inches. Instead of just pretending to capsize with your J-lean, you are going to actually throw yourself off balance and try using your low brace to stop yourself from capsizing. If your low brace fails for any reason and you start to tip over, you can put out your hand on the bottom of the lake and push yourself upright again. That way you can practice dozens and dozens of low braces without having to worry about doing any wet exits and recoveries. The key to developing a strong and reliable brace is repetition. If you try practicing this skill in deeper water, you will have to wet exit every time you mess up on a brace. By the time you empty the water out of your kayak and re-enter, you may not feel like practicing a lot more braces. An alternative for the pool environment would be to have another kayaker standing by to offer a bow rescue if you capsize. That way you would not need to exit your kayak and your boat will not fill with water if you are wearing your sprayskirt.
Step 4: This is the advanced test. Have someone stand near the stern of your kayak in waist deep water and attempt to capsize your kayak. You will not be able to see if the person is going to try to tip you over to the right or to the left. You need to be prepared to react quickly with a brace on either side. If you are able to stay upright, you can feel pretty good about your slapping low brace skills.
If you talk to a more experienced kayaker who tells you that he/she doesn’t use the slapping brace all that often, but prefers to use a sweeping brace, do not be tempted to skip learning the slapping low brace first. There are advantages to using a sweeping low or sweeping high brace and it may very well become your brace of choice in the future. However, there are distinct advantages to learning the slapping low and slapping high braces first. In learning the slapping braces, you will need to develop a more precise level of coordination between the slap and the hip snap that brings the kayak upright. Once you have mastered this coordination, the sweeping brace will give you a significantly increased amount of support time in which to execute your brace. If you go directly to the sweeping brace without first learning the slapping brace, your coordination between the slap and the hip snap may be sloppier and you will not feel like you have noticeably more support time with the sweep. This could result in your not having as much confidence in your brace when you really need it. If you are a visual learner (as most of us are), I strongly encourage you to get a copy of Volume 5 of the University of Sea Kayaking In Depth Instructional Series. Volume 5 is titled, “Bracing Clinic – The Art of Staying Upright”. This is hands down the best DVD I have seen on the skill of bracing. It covers all the braces and gives a lot of exercises that you can do to help you learn or improve on your bracing skills. Check out www.useakayak.org.
See you at the pool!