Often, there is the perception that open pool sessions are really only for the more skilled kayaker who wants to practice rolling over the winter, or perhaps wants to learn how to roll. While pool sessions are very useful for those two goals, beginning paddlers should also take advantage of pool practice over the winter. There is much that can be learned and practiced over the long winter months that will make you a better kayaker come spring.
Here is my list of suggested sea kayaking skills that can be worked on in a pool, even when space may be a little tight:
Wet Exit: If you aren’t comfortable tipping over, releasing your sprayskirt, and getting out of your kayak, by all means you should be in the pool doing as many wet exits as you can until exiting a boat after a capsize becomes completely second nature and boring.
Improve Your Balance: Play with your boat and do a bunch of crazy stunts to get more comfortable with the balance and stability of your kayak.
- Instead of getting into the cockpit of your kayak, sit on the back deck right behind the cockpit with your legs straddling the kayak out to each side hanging down in the water. Try paddling your kayak while sitting up on the back deck. If this is a little too challenging at first, put a paddle float on both blades of your paddle so you can stop yourself from capsizing until you get a better feel for balancing.
- Try getting your feet and legs out of the cockpit while your kayak is floating in the pool. Dangle your legs out to the side of your boat and then try to turn yourself around in a 360-degree circle keeping your butt in the seat the whole time. At different times during this exercise, you will have to balance your boat with both feet hanging over the side on the left side of your kayak, and then again on the right side of the kayak. You’ll have to balance while lifting your legs up and over the front deck and up and over the back deck.
- Try doing a 360-degree circle like the one above, but do it while seated on the back deck of your kayak.
- Try climbing out as far as you can toward the bow and stern of your kayak while it is floating.
- You can begin to work on a balance brace by doing a back float in the water with your feet resting on the seat of your kayak inside the cockpit. Gradually start trying to inch more of your legs and finally your butt into the cockpit of the kayak. The cockpit will end up flooding, but your boat won’t sink if you have watertight bulkheads. The flooded cockpit will lower the boat in the water slightly and make it easier to start getting the feel of the balance brace that Greenland-style kayakers often do. To bolster your confidence at first, you can use that same paddle with the floats on both blades as some additional flotation, although wearing your life jacket should provide more than enough flotation to do an easy back float.
- Practice your bracing skills or just your ability to balance by putting a swimmer on your back deck (or your front deck) which will make your kayak much more unstable.
Fine Tune Your Boat Control: Edging a kayak is an important skill for paddling in waves, making your long sea kayak more maneuverable, and counteracting a boat’s tendency to weathercock. If you haven’t learned how to edge your kayak, or you want to build up the muscles to be able to hold a deeper edge for a longer period of time, there’s no better place than your local pool. You can practice edging right next to the pool deck. Try not to touch the pool deck while you hold your edge, but it’s comforting to know that you can put your hand down and stop yourself from capsizing if you begin to lose your balance.
Stationary Pivot Turns (or Pinwheel Turns): When you have developed the confidence to edge your kayak without needing the pool deck nearby, move out into the middle of the pool and practice turning your kayak a full 360-degrees using a combination of alternating forward and reverse sweep strokes. You can begin by keeping your kayak level as you do these strokes, but for maximum turning efficiency, you will want to edge your kayak toward the same side as your working paddle blade. In other words, if you are doing a forward sweep on your right side, your boat should be edged toward the right. When you switch to the left side to perform your reverse sweep, you will also change your edge from the right side to the left side.
Can You Draw? A very useful skill for all paddlers is the basic draw stroke – with either an in-water or out-of-water recovery. If you are very new to paddling, you should definitely take the time to learn how to do a draw stroke.
Learn to Scull: If you already know how to do a basic draw stroke to move your kayak sideways, try learning the sculling draw stroke. This sculling stroke can gradually lead into a sculling high brace. Using the back face of your paddle blade, you can also do a sculling low brace. Sculling is really all about learning to take control of the blade angle on your paddle.
Practice A Hip Snap: This skill is critical for doing effective braces like the slapping and sweeping high and low braces. It is also a lead-in skill for the bow rescue and certain rolls like the C-to-C Roll. You can start by doing hip snaps as you hold onto the pool gutter. Move on to holding the bow of a friend’s kayak, and eventually work on hip snapping with just a paddle float or life jacket in your hand.
Learn to Brace: Even in a restricted space (which is often the case when you have sea kayaks in a pool), you can practice the slapping low and high braces, sweeping low and high braces, and sculling low and high braces.
Experiment With Your Paddle Float Recoveries: While it is not advisable to paddle alone and assisted rescues/re-entries are preferred over solo rescues, you never know when you might find yourself responsible for getting back into your own kayak without the assistance of your fellow paddlers. At those moments, your paddle float will become indispensable assuming you know how to use it. While all rescues should eventually be practiced in the conditions in which you paddle, a pool is a great place to work through the mechanics of how to do a basic paddle float re-entry. If you can’t do it in a pool, you’ll never be able to do it in wind, waves, and cold water. A pool is also a great place to experiment with all the different ways that you can use a paddle float to re-enter your kayak. Not all of these are going to be super practical methods, but the more ways you find that you can use your paddle float, the more options you may have when the “you-know-what” hits the fan.
- Standard paddle float re-entry climbing up with your stomach on the back deck behind the cockpit while holding the paddle against the coaming with your hands.
- Standard paddle float re-entry climbing up with your stomach on the back deck behind the cockpit with the paddle secured under decklines/bungees.
- Standard paddle float re-entry using a stirrup/sling deployed on the paddle shaft.
- Heel Hook paddle float re-entry with the paddle secured under decklines/bungees aft of the cockpit.
- Heel Hook paddle float re-entry while holding the paddle against the coaming with your hands.
- Heel Hook paddle float re-entry using a stirrup/sling deployed on the paddle shaft.
- Do a re-entry and roll with the paddle float on the working end of your paddle.
- Do a re-entry and roll using just a paddle float in your hands (if you lost your paddle).
- Doing a cowboy scramble rescue with a paddle float on your paddle for a little extra “just-in-case” stability as you move up your back deck.
Assisted Rescues: Assuming you have some friends at the pool session, or make some new ones, you can always practice some assisted rescues. Make sure you practice being the swimmer in the water as well as the rescuer. You learn a lot from being in both roles.
Preparation for Learning to Roll: For those beginners who do aspire to learn how to roll, I strongly suggest you get copies of two DVD’s – Ben Lawry “Dr. Ben’s New and Improved Rolling Elixir” and “Simplifying the Roll With Helen Wilson”. You can also look over my older archived blog posts. I have several posts that deal with getting started with learning how to roll.
In addition to the skills that you can practice, taking your kayak into the pool can be a good way to test out the watertightness of the bulkheads and hatch covers. After playing around with your kayak, doing wet exits and rescues, and flooding the cockpit, check the inside of your hatches. If you are seeing a lot of water in those hatches, you need to think about what would happen if you used your kayak (in its current condition) out in the real world of wind, waves, and cold water. This should be your wake-up call that you need to think about how you can improve the flotation of your present kayak or get you thinking seriously about upgrading into a better kayak. I’ll have more about this subject in a future blog.
As you can see, there are plenty of skills besides rolling that can be practiced in a pool. Take the time to find the pool sessions in your area, and if you can’t find any, perhaps you can organize something for your local paddlers. It can be a really fun social event right along with the skill-building. Have fun and get wet this winter!