When I began kayaking in the late 80’s, the big debate among sea kayakers was whether it was better to use a rudder, a skeg, or neither. Now that the “skeg vs. rudder” argument has cooled down, the current hot topic has switched to high angle vs. low angle forward stroke. Like the old rudder/skeg issue, I stand unequivocally in the middle of the argument. It’s not that I’m trying to be neutral or wishy-washy. It’s just that I believe paddlers should be learning and using BOTH the high angle forward stroke AND the low angle forward stroke. Both strokes have their advantages and disadvantages and different situations call for using different strokes. If you are one of the many kayakers who are wondering what all the discussion is about, or have never even heard of high angle and low angle, let me explain.
“Low angle” and “high angle” refer to the angle of the paddle shaft when you are performing a forward stroke. In a low angle stroke, the shaft is held at approximately a 45-degree angle in relation to the water surface as viewed from in front when the paddle blade is immersed in the water. In a high angle stroke, the paddle shaft is held in a more vertical orientation usually somewhere in the sixty to eighty-degree range. Some paddle manufacturers have begun to identify their blade shapes as being “high” or “low” angle. High angle blades are generally shorter and wider, while the low angle blades are a bit longer and narrower. Suggested paddle lengths for people using a high angle stroke are anywhere from 5-15 centimeters shorter than paddle lengths for those using a low angle stroke.
The question that many kayakers have is “which forward stroke should I be using” or “which is better?” Some paddlers and instructors have become quite passionate about promoting the high angle stroke as “the best technique.” My opinion is that you should know how to perform both forms of the forward stroke and that your choice should be based on the conditions and circumstances in which you are paddling at the moment.
If you are paddling in a wider kayak, you will most likely be more comfortable using a low angle stroke as it can be awkward to plant the paddle in a more vertical orientation when in a recreational kayak or wide sea kayak. The low angle stroke automatically places the paddle blade a little farther from the side of the kayak. This will also make most paddlers feel a bit more stable when paddling in rough conditions. In windy weather, the low angle stroke keeps the top blade closer to the water’s surface and out of the stronger winds that are higher above the surface. Again, this will contribute to a greater feeling of stability as well as less wind resistance when conditions get more challenging. Finally, most paddlers will find the low angle stroke to be better at conserving energy. As a famous kayaker supposedly once said,” you never see anyone paddle in at the end of a 20-mile day using a high angle stroke.”
The high angle forward stroke is the version of the forward stroke favored by racers. As racers are obviously concerned with efficiency and its relation to speed, the argument is made that this should be the stroke everyone uses since everyone wants to do a more efficient stroke, even when speed is not a primary objective. The problem with this argument lies in one’s definition of “efficiency”.
If your definition of efficiency involves speed, the high angle stroke will be best. However, we must remember that most racers are looking to maximize their speed over a set distance. A good racer will not have a lot of extra energy left at the end of a race as he is looking to maximize the distance traveled with each stroke in order to cover that distance in the shortest time possible. At the end of a race, any remaining energy is wasted (in the mind of the racer). The racer will also most likely need a day or two to recover after the race. If you are on a kayak camping trip and have a long day of paddling to get to your next campsite, you will probably need to have enough energy left at the end of the day to set up your camp, make a meal, and be rested enough to do it all over again the next day. Your definition of “efficiency” will involve energy conservation, hence you will likely revert to a low angle stroke. On that same trip, if you are halfway through an open water crossing when you notice storm clouds massing, will your definition of efficiency change? If you are paddling in bigger waves or stronger winds, efficiency may involve increasing your feeling of stability so that you do not feel a need to brace as often. If you need to get to a fellow paddler who has capsized in cold water and needs your help, I suspect that speed will once again be a priority. Since each of these situations places speed, stability, and energy conservation in different priority order, are you starting to see why I consider it prudent to know both a low and high angle forward stroke?
In reality, there are more similarities between the high angle forward stroke and the low angle forward stroke than differences. Both should involve a healthy dose of torso rotation. The stroke should begin as far forward as you can comfortably reach without lunging and should end as the paddle blade nears the hip. The difference really comes down to the angle of the shaft and typically the height of your top hand as you perform the strokes. If you are focusing on using good rotation in your forward stroke, both the high angle and low angle will serve you well.
Maybe it’s time to find something else for sea kayakers to argue about. 🙂