Thursday 13 September 2012

Steering Without Changing Sides

Virtually every SUP paddler that races is able to keep their board straight.   The manner in which they do that is something to discuss as it can have a big impact on results, particularly in certain conditions.

Paddling on one side is something I am used to from sprint canoe.  Obviously for races of 200m, 500m and 1000m, which last up to just over 4 minutes staying on one side is not a big deal.  However I have also raced 10,000m (it used to be a world championship event) and there are even 42km canoe marathons raced in C1s and C2s requiring paddlers to stay on the same side for the entire distance.  In comparison, SUP allows paddlers the advantage of being able to change sides when they get tired and it does make a difference, particularly over a longer race.  I think everyone should make use of that advantage and change sides when they need to in order to maintain optimal speed.   However I don’t think that paddlers should be changing sides to steer.  Let’s put it another way – you should change sides when you want to change sides, not when you have to in order to steer straight.

I have found it is possible to paddle indefinitely on one side with minimal steering effort in all but the most extreme side wind conditions.  In fact I regularly do paddles of 5km or more on one side before switching.  Why?   I might have to in a race, especially if there is a strong side wind that makes it easy to steer straight on one side and nearly impossible on another.   So, that begs the question, how do you steer straight without changing sides?

Steering without changing sides all comes down to two things:

1.   Getting over the water right at the catch
2.   Using your blade to pull the board towards the paddle not only in a forward direction but slightly to the side as well

If you are on a race board then there is a third thing to add:

3.   Leaning the board

Getting over the water at the catch

You will not steer straight if you don’t do this.  Your top hand MUST be over the water as opposed to inside the board.  Your shoulders must be stacked and the blade vertical as seen from front or back.   This should allow the paddle shaft to be right along the rail as you pull, meaning your pull is lined up as closely as possible to the long axis of the board.  This serves to minimize the turning effect of each stroke. 

Use of blade face to steer

Most people advocate a blade face that is completely square (perpendicular to the long axis of the board – think perpendicular to the rail).  Instead I would suggest the blade face be open slightly to the rail of the board at the catch.  If you have a good catch and are able to secure the blade in the water effectively at the catch, this slight angle of the blade face will pull the nose of the board towards the paddle.  Once the board has started to accelerate and the nose has been pulled over the blade face should be square and pulling right along the long axis.  In flat water, with little or no wind, just this slight adjustment will maintain a straight board indefinitely.

Correcting a course deviation

Okay, so you are steering perfectly straight and then suddenly you find you are pulling your board around and heading towards the side you aren’t paddling on.   Or perhaps you are coming up to a curve in the river you are paddling on and need to adjust your course to the paddling side.  Do you change sides now?  You don’t have to if you’re not ready to. 

If I am paddling on the right and now my board is running to the left then the board has got away from me.  I should be able to bring it back to the right without changing sides:

·    Get your top hand out over the water more.  As seen from front or back your paddle is no longer vertical but slightly off vertical with your top hand farther from the board axis than your bottom hand.  This will get the blade closer to the board axis (it will actually be under the board) and minimize the turning effect of your stroke even more.
·    Open your blade face to the board even more.  You will be pulling the nose over to your paddling side a little more each stroke
·     Load a little bit more weight on your paddle than normal in the pull keeping the top hand out of the board and blade face slightly open through the pull.  In sprint canoe we call this “paddling under the boat”.  You should be able to bring the board back to your paddling side over just a few strokes.
·     Lean the board to the side opposite your paddling side.  For most SUP paddlers who surf this is counter-intuitive as it is the exact opposite lean you would do when surfing a wave.  It is the shape of the displacement nose and relatively soft rails near the front of race boards that allows the race board to behave like a sprint canoe when the nose is buried.  This lean will help your board track back to the paddling side. 

·    Paddlers with a canoeing background should not attempt to use a J-stroke to steer.  It is ineffective as the blade at the end of the stroke is too close to the middle of the board to have any useful steering effect.

·    This steering can be performed with virtually no loss of speed

Steering Drills

·       Slalom drill
o   At speed, get your board turning to the non-paddling side
o   Now try to bring it back to your paddling side by:
-  Paddling under the board
-  Using your blade face
-  Loading more weight than normal on the blade when it is under the board
-  Leaning the board away from the paddling side
o   Maintain these steering inputs until the board has run past straight and is now running to the paddling side
o   Paddle out from the board and make it run to the opposite side again.
o   Repeat steps above, so that you are basically doing a slalom down the water course
o   As you progress challenge yourself by letting the board run longer before bringing it back (make it so that you require a greater steering correction) and by trying to do it at increasingly faster speeds.

·         Paddle on one side drill:
o   Try this drill on a stretch of flat water that has some curves or bends
o   Paddle on one side only for 5 to 10 minutes, negotiating any bends in the water course without changing sides to steer
o   Try to make your steering corrections with minimal loss of speed
o   This drill is effective not only for steering but for building up endurance in your paddling muscles, preparing you for times in races where paddling for extended periods on one side is necessary.

Give these drills a try and have fun!  Remember, you should view changing sides on a SUP as a luxury that you can use to your advantage, not a necessity.  You’ll be much better equipped to race successfully if you can master these steering skills.