Thu, 8 Dec. 2011 - 6:22 p.m. MT
Credit: ARA Staff - American Running Association
Paddle sports can be as basic as jumping in a sit-on-top kayak in a t-shirt and shorts and going for a spin around the reservoir. But with the increased popularity of adventure racing in the last five years, more and more people are taking paddle sports to new levels. Most adventure races include some type of paddling, whether it be canoeing, kayaking, or rafting on still water, whitewater, or open water. Whether you’re thinking of trying an adventure race, or you’ve simply been flirting with the idea of getting out in a boat for a bit of recreational paddling, the following will help you sort out the different types of boats and paddles available and give you a few basic strategies for packing your vessel and getting the most out of your experience in the water.
Types of Boats. A very popular boat in both adventure racing and everyday touring is the two-person inflatable kayak. This boat is lightweight, conveniently stored, both easy to transport and to paddle, and inexpensive. The boats can typically carry one or two people, which in a race is good in the event you’ve got an odd number of team members. Open canoes are also very popular because they are the most commonly rented boat. These boats are stable and relatively quick, which means they are useful in a variety of conditions. The sit-on-top kayak has been popping up all over the world in adventure races. These boats are virtually impossible to sink and reboarding is easy in the event you fall off. By contrast, decked kayaks (which you sit inside) can fill with water and are difficult to reenter if you fall out. Races on open water typically favor hard-shell tandem sea kayaks or four- to six-person whitewater rafts.
Types of Paddles. Narrow boats will move along most efficiently with a double-bladed (kayak) paddle. The advantage here is that while the working paddle blade is pushing in the water, the free blade is already on its way to the start of its stroke—unlike a canoe blade which wastes much more of its time out of the water.
Wing-bladed kayak paddles are the most efficient choice. These paddle blades resemble spoons and function as hydrofoils—that is, underwater wings. The key is that the water moves over the blade in only one direction (like air over an airplane wing). With a flat blade, the paddle blocks the water, forcing it around both edges and dissipating the energy of your stroke in the turbulence created behind the blade.
Adjustable-length paddles will give you a further advantage, as they accommodate a variety of water depths, body types, and boat widths. Look for a stiff blade of fiberglass or the like—you do not want the paddle to easily flex when you apply force in the water. To choose the correct paddle length, stand barefoot and hold the paddle vertically against your body. As you raise your arm your fingers should just curl over the top of the paddle blade.
There are, of course, instances when a double-bladed paddle won’t do: Whitewater rafts are too wide for a single paddle to make it all the way across; outrigger and dug-out canoes either have rigging that prevents the use of one paddle or weight too great to be powered by it. Row boats are too slow to accommodate a kayak paddle’s rapid cadence. Additionally, great amounts of overhanging vegetation will interfere with a kayak paddle’s technique.
Whether you choose single- or double-bladed paddles, keep in mind that rented paddles or those that an adventure race organization provides are invariably heavy, low in performance, and made of plastic and aluminum. Even the heaviest synthetic-fiber raft paddles will be less than half the weight of a standard aluminum-and-plastic rental paddle, so whether you are serious about racing or simply want the most fun for the least effort during your day off on the lake, it is worth looking into a resin, fiberglass, or carbon paddle purchase.
Wash Riding. Much like drafting in cycling, there are advantages to be gained by placing your boat on the displacement wave of another boat during a race. This is known as wash riding, and measurements in test tanks have revealed that improvements in speed of up to 15% routinely occur when this strategy is properly deployed. Try to place your boat on the front of the first wave being created by the boat in front of you. The closer to the first boat’s stern you place your bow, the more effective. The second-best option is to ride off to the side of the lead boat, on what is called the bow wave. Position your bow three-quarters of the way back from the bow of the lead boat, and as close to the side of it as possible. The wave tends to pull the boats together, so use this strategy with some caution.
Packing. A slightly bow-heavy boat travels more quickly, but won’t steer as accurately. A slightly stern-heavy boat will steer fairly easily, but it won’t go as fast. Most paddlers, then, store their gear in the middle. It also will reduce the likelihood of flipping, also known as “swamping.” Store your gear such as food, water, and first aid in waterproof bags and secure it to the boat. Be sure not to place the gear in areas that impede paddle stroke. Lightweight, roll-top, nylon dry bags, which come in sizes from cell-phone-small to bicycle-large, are a good way to protect your gear from the elements. Nine-to-12-foot-long truck straps with spring-loaded metal buckles are the most secure straps to hold your gear in place, even in the event of a capsize.
There is a world on water out there waiting to be discovered, and with these tips, you can begin to explore it, and get in some terrific crosstraining time as well.
(Runner’s World Guide to Adventure Racing by Ian Adamson, 2004, Rodale Press, New York, NY, pp. 69-89)
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