Tuesday 2 October 2012

Drafting in Stand Up Paddling

Drafting is a topic that is often discussed in SUP paddling and in certain quarters hotly debated.  Some people feel it should be allowed and that it actually adds to the sport while others seem to think, for various reasons, that it is something that should be banned.  Although I wasn’t at the Battle of the Paddle this past weekend I’m sure it was pretty much like last year in terms of drafting.  When you’ve got up to 400 boards in a race there is only so much water available to paddle on.  At some point, unless you’re leading, you either have to draft or just wallow in all the wash so I figure this is a timely post.  I’ll express my reasons for being pro-drafting in a bit, but first I want to describe how to do it properly and effectively.  If you are going to add drafting to your arsenal of racing skills you might as well do it well.

Drafting in a paddled watercraft is something that comes from marathon canoe racing and, to a lesser extent, sprint canoe-kayak.  People that cycle or have watched an event like the Tour de France on television are familiar with drafting in that sport. While the physics of it are different, the concept is basically the same in paddling.  Drafting is also known aswash riding in Canada and parts of Europe, wake riding in many places in the US and wave riding or hanging in many places in Europe.  As most people who paddle SUP seem to prefer the term ‘drafting’ that is the term I’ll try to use here.

The purpose of drafting is either:
  • To paddle with less effort by riding the wave generated by another board or,
  • To paddle faster than you would normally be able to by riding the wave generated by       another board or,
  • Some combination of the above (i.e. paddling faster and with less effort) by riding the wave       generated by another board
Despite the fact that some people say they can feel themselves being slowed down when someone is riding their wash, there is no proof that this slowing down effect actually occurs.  In all likelihood it is a psychological effect that the lead paddler feels and there is no real physical detriment to having someone on your wave.

Positioning yourself on the wave when drafting from behind

The most common position to draft from is directly behind the board you’re drafting, riding the wave that comes off the tail of the board.  In contrast, in canoes and kayaks the best position is at the side of the lead boat, riding the wave that comes off the bow.

When you’re practicing drafting get the lead board to start paddling at a reasonable speed but not so fast that you are really challenged to stay on the wave.  Slip in behind the lead board so that your nose is almost directly behind the tail of the lead board.  If the board has a squared tail the wave you’re riding will be bigger and easier to ride, if it has a pintail you’ll find the wave to be smaller and a little more erratic.  Again, make sure the lead board isn’t going too fast, as you want to be able to focus on feeling the wave you’re trying to ride.  If you are in the right spot you’ll feel like your nose is down and you’ll see water run up the sides of your board at the nose and maybe even onto the top of your board.  This nose down feeling is the same feeling, but of course less dramatic, that you get when you are riding a bump or dropping onto a wave.  The difference is just a matter of degree.

Let your board move a little forward or back and try to find the sweet spot where it feels easiest to match the speed of the lead board with the least amount of work.  When you’ve done that, you’re on.  You are drafting.  Communicate with the lead board you’re working with and get that person to paddle a little harder.  Try to stay in the sweet spot.  You’ll likely find that as the speed of the lead board increases you have to drop a little further back from the tail of the lead board as the wave off the back of the board will be getting bigger and longer the faster that board goes.  When I am drafting some of the top guys I have to be a surprising distance back from them to get in that sweet spot.  Lots of paddlers make the mistake of being too close to the board they are trying to draft.

Troubleshooting suggestions

If you are having a hard time staying directly behind the lead board and your nose keeps drifting outside the cone of the wave you’re trying to ride, then you need to work on your steering.  It’s a lot easier if you’ve mastered steering without changing sides (see blog post from September 13, 2012).  If you have to you can change sides to keep your nose in the cone but as you shouldn’t be paddling very hard while on the wash, in most cases you should be able to fine-tune your placement on the wave without having to change sides (unless you want to).

One trick that can help is to change sides when the paddler on the lead board changes sides.  This is especially useful if the board you are riding tends to drift a lot from one side to the other depending on which side that person is paddling.

Sometimes you just can’t seem to find the sweet spot very well and despite the fact that your paddling should feel easier it doesn’t.  In this case you should try moving forward on your board to help get your nose down.  I have actually been standing with both feet on the ‘bubble’ of the front deck of a Bark board to be in the ideal spot while drafting.

You should be prepared to do a lot less work when you are drafting. This means that your stroke rate will likely be much lower and your power applied to each stroke will be a lot less.  But you will need to be prepared to increase both power and rate instantly if required.  One of the biggest things to get used to when drafting is that your stroke will be much less consistent from stroke to stroke than if you are paddling on your own.  You need to be flexible and prepared at times to put more effort into steering than moving your board forward.  You’ll also need to be prepared, if necessary, to go as hard as you possibly can to stay in touch with the wash.  When drafting your priority is to stay on the wash.  If you lose it you’ll either be paddling hard uphill to try to reacquire it, or you will have lost your ride and have to paddle on your own.

In summary:
  • Master steering without changing sides
  • Be prepared to draft either further back when drafting a fast board or closer when drafting a       slower board
  • Change sides when the person you are drafting changes sides (matching the side he/she is paddling on) if the lead board drifts from one side to the other
  • Move forward on your board to find the right board trim to get your board running downhill
  • Be prepared to vary your power and stroke rate from stroke to stroke and make steering and staying in the sweet spot your priority
  • Hang onto your ride at all costs.  If you lose it you’ll be forced to paddle uphill to reacquire it   (thus wasting energy) or paddle the rest of the race on your own

Drafting on the side of the lead board

Advanced paddlers may find that riding on the side of the lead board is even more effective.  It is a bigger and cleaner wave, especially if the lead board is a pintail, and you won’t be paddling in the swirls coming off the paddle of the lead paddler like when you draft behind.

The problem with drafting here is that you have to maintain the correct distance from the lead board or you will be hitting the lead paddler’s paddle with your board or worse still you’ll be getting your paddle tangled with his.

To learn to ride here, find a stretch of flat, glassy water.  Watch the board you’re going to ride and identify the bow wave that comes off the nose.  That is the wave you’re going to ride.  You’ll want to be far enough back on it so that you are far enough from the lead board that you won’t be interfering in anyway with his/her paddle.  Try to estimate where that means you’ll need to have your nose positioned along the leader’s board.  It is usually somewhere near his/her feet.

Now, line up beside the paddler you’ll be riding with your nose approximately in the position you identified.  Get the paddler to start paddling slowly, gradually increasing speed.  Try to position your nose on the bow wave of the lead board in the approximate spot you’ve targeted and look for that nose-down, paddling downhill feeling that you felt when you were drafting from behind.  I strongly suggest paddling on the side the lead board is on with your paddle between your board and the lead board.  You’ll have to pay attention to prevent your paddle from interfering with the lead paddler’s, but it will help prevent you from getting sucked into the lead board and will help you maintain appropriate distance between boards.  Use all of your steering without changing sides tricks, including leaning your board.  When you suddenly find yourself paddling much more easily then you’ve found the sweet spot and are now drafting.  Hang there for a bit and then ask the lead board to gradually accelerate a little.  Observe how the wave off the lead board changes and how that affects where you need to position your board relative to the lead board.  With practice you should be able to find and stay on this wave quite easily and be able to benefit from it in increasingly rougher water.

Troubleshooting suggestions

Like drafting from behind, the most important skill required is being able to steer capably (i.e. make necessary steering corrections) without changing sides

  • Play with your positioning until you find the sweet spot
  • Be prepared to move forward on your board to help get the board running downhill
  • Be prepared to vary power and stroke rate as necessary

Whether you are riding behind or on the side, practice makes perfect.  The more you can play on the wash the better you will be at drafting.  Don’t look at it as taking the easy route in training.  Find a training partner who is your speed and take turns leading, trading leads every 2, 3 or 4 minutes.  You’ll find your training pace increases and you’ll be working really hard when leading.  When riding you’ll get to a point where you are paddling ridiculously easy, yet going fast.  Together you and your training partner will be covering distance at paces faster than you customarily go.

Drafting in races – tactics and ethics

Every race I paddle that my good friend Jimmy Terrell is in, I know that at some point in the race we’ll be paddling and working together.  In the three most recent races we’ve done together we worked together a lot.  At the Orange Bowl in January 2012, the 2012 Carolina Cup and the 2012 Eastern Canadian Championships we paddled the majority of the race trading leads.  At the Carolina Cup we worked together for the entire flats section and it allowed up to pull way ahead of the guys behind us and chase down and catch Matt Becker and Nick Leason.  We were actually closing the gap on Chase and Danny as well; it’s just that they had too great a lead coming in from the ocean to catch them.  It was definitely beneficial for both of us.

When working with another paddler in a race you need to communicate.  Ideally two evenly matched guys should share the lead equally.  Agree on 2, 3 or 4 minute leads.  When it is time to switch leads the lead guy just says, “I’m out” and pulls off to the agreed side (Jimmy and I usually pull out to the right).  He can take a little rest for a second while the new leader catches up and takes the lead then he’s got to, at all costs, get on the new leader’s wash.  The new leader should make sure the new drafter is on before really hammering.  Once comfortably drafting it is easy days for the duration of the other guy’s lead.  While riding you’re resting and recharging for your next lead.  You can really bump up the pace by doing these lead change intervals.  It is a great way to chew up distance in a race.

If you think there is someone you might end up working with in the race you can talk with them before the race and get the details of lead changes, etc. ironed out.  If there isn’t don’t despair, there will be other guys in the race who will present themselves as good to team up with as the race develops.  I remember in the 2011 Carolina Cup pulling on to Anthony Vela’s side wash and having the easiest ride ever.  After about 500m I told him I was doing nothing and didn’t want to draft off him the whole race.  I asked if he wanted to work together.  He agreed and I took the lead.  AV, jimmy and I had a very successful draft train that lasted all the way to the ocean.  What was really cool in that example of working together is that moment was the first time that AV and I ever met.

I know people always wonder what to do about that paddler who just wants to draft but never lead.  In my experience it isn’t a huge problem for a few reasons:

If you’re leading the race and the guy drafting won’t take a turn leading then just slow down.  I have led and paddled very easily before in both C1 and on a SUP.  At some point you won’t be working any harder then the guy riding you.  You should have as much energy for a sprint to the finish as the guy that has stuck himself on your draft and should be able to hold him off at the finish.  The important thing is to stay in front, and as you approach the finish not let him get his nose past your feet.  Remember when you pull off the rear wash and try to pass someone there is a point where you are going uphill.  Make it hard for the guy trying to pass you to get past that point and keep him in the “uphill zone”.  Not only will he not pass you, he’ll spend a ton of energy trying to because he’ll be stuck in that uphill spot too long.  The only caveat with “leading slow” is that you have to make sure you don’t let a group working together behind you get back into the race.

If you are further back in a race and someone isn’t taking his or her turn leading then my experience has been you probably don’t have to worry a lot.  If the person is good, he’ll want to close up the gap with the leaders.  As such he should be eager to work together and take his turn leading so that the pace will be faster allowing the two of you to gain ground on the leaders.  If he isn’t good then he’s probably working his butt off on your wash and can’t lead.  He’s just hanging on for dear life.  Although the free ride he is getting off you in going to help him beat people who might normally beat him, he isn’t going to be a threat to you if you keep your wits about you at the finish.

You should be able to shake the guy that is just hanging on and can’t effectively take a turn leading.  Try paddling on your stronger side and letting your board drift gradually to that side.  The guy drafting you will have to follow you in the direction you are drifting.  Staying on that side, hop back a little on your board and do a couple of hard, fast wide (sweep) strokes to quickly change course in the opposite direction.  Then immediately move back forward on your board and paddle your ass off.  The guy who has been riding you will initially be shot off to your paddling side and will lose contact with your wave.  You’ll have to be committed to the move you’ve just made and be willing to go very hard for up to 3 to 5 minutes to completely drop this paddler.  There is nothing worse than using energy making a big move like that but easing up too early and letting the guy get back on your wash.  If you try to make your move and within 30 seconds to a minute the guy has recovered and is back on your wash then abort your move and lead slow for a bit to rest before considering another move.  If the guy is on your side wash he might be easier to shake, as he’ll get shot off more easily.  You are just going to have to drift to the side he is on before making your course change to the other side and hammering it.  Again, stay committed to your move.

Don’t try to do things like splash the guy on your wash.  Not only is it ineffective and a waste of energy, you’ll end up going slower and look like an idiot while doing it.

Obviously, it’s my opinion that when you are riding you have an obligation to take your turn leading.  Nothing is worse than being known as the one that drafts but never leads.  Only draft boards in your own class.  It’s not cool when a guy on a 12’6” board drafts someone on a 14’, or someone on a 14’ drafts an unlimited.  Girls drafting on guys is equally uncool.  I’d also say that it is good etiquette to resist the temptation to sprint by someone at the finish if you’ve ridden him or her for the vast majority of a race.

Drafting can make races way more interesting for athletes and exciting for spectators.  Personally I love close finishes whether I’m watching the race or in it myself.  Drafting keeps things close.  It is extremely hard to lead and blow apart a draft train.  When there are good guys in a race the guys in the draft train will almost always finish close together at the finish.  In contrast, if drafting were prohibited there would probably be big gaps between paddlers at the end of a long race.  What is interesting or exciting about that?  A great idea to compromise and allay the fears of those who can’t get by the vision or someone riding them the whole race and passing them at the end, is to make the last mile of distance races a “drafting free” zone.  You could conceivably have guys on jet skis patrolling the last mile and assessing time penalties to those that won’t do their own work. 

Play around with drafting in practice and if you race give it a try in races.  It is a perfectly legitimate tactic that smart athletes will use when the opportunity arises, however it does require some personal responsibility to use it appropriately and ethically.