Forward Stroke

The forward stroke is the skill you will use most frequently when sea-kayaking. A good technique is essential for injury prevention, endurance, power and speed. 

The key to the forward stroke is using the bigger muscles of the back, stomach, shoulders and legs, rather than relying on the arms. Good rotation provides the power for the stroke.

A good forward technique can make an enormous difference to how much you enjoy your paddling, and how your body feels at the end of the day!


  • Sit tall, push your backside into the back of the seat and tilt slightly forward at your pelvis. Don’t slouch!
  • Keep your knees comfortably bent. If your kayak allows, have your knees fairly close together for power. For manoeuvring and stability, your knees may need to be under the coaming or thigh braces.
  • To protect your shoulder, your elbow should not go above shoulder height or behind your hips.  
  • Look to the horizon to maintain a good posture.  This also helps to prevent seasickness.

Hand position 

  • To find the recommended position for your hands on the paddle, grip the paddle and place it on your head. Your elbows should be close to a 90 degree angle.
  • Use a soft grip on the paddle.
  • One hand (usually your dominant hand) is the control hand.  The control hand turns the shaft so that the blade is square to the water for a good catch.  The shaft slips in the palm of the other hand as it is turned by the control hand.
  • Keep the wrists neutral.
  • ‘White-knuckle’ paddling (tight grip) causes repetitive strain injuries, blisters and restricts the entire stroke.


The forward stroke is usually described in these phases:

  1. Setup - body rotated, blade ready to enter the water.
  2. Catch - the start of the stroke when the blade enters the water.
  3. Drive - drive the kayak past your blade.
  4. Recovery - exit the water and set up for the next stroke. 


  • Rotate your torso so that your shoulder is forward and the blade reaches  towards the front of the kayak, parallel with the water.
  • Your hip on that side is forward.
  • Your knee is bent on the same side.


Catch the water with the blade.

  • Plant the blade in front of your toes. Bury the whole blade in the water.
  • Keep your grip light, shoulders down and relaxed.
  • Enter the water cleanly - limit splash and cavitation.
  • The blade should be as vertical to the water as possible.


Drive the kayak past the blade using body rotation and leg drive.

  • When the blade is fully in the water, drive off the foot on the same side and rotate through the hips and torso.
  • Extend the arms, fairly straight.
  • The power comes from the torso and legs - the arms are the link between the paddle and the driving force.
  • Cross your top hand straight in front of you at about eye level.
  • By the end of the drive phase, you have straightened your leg and rotated your shoulders and hips. The opposite hip and shoulder are now forward and opposite knee bent.
  • The drive phase finishes as the blade passes the knees.


  • Exit the blade cleanly, level with your hips.
  • The blade has moved away from the side of the boat.
  • The paddle continues to swing until it is parallel with the water.
  • You should now be set-up for the next stroke.


  • Check that your top hand crosses the horizon at a constant height rather than dropping towards the deck.
  • After paddling for a while, check that you are still sitting tall.
  • If there is a splash when the paddle enters the water the paddle is probably too horizontal on entry. This may be because the paddle is too long or your hands too low.
  • Focus on one aspect of the stoke at a time as you are out paddling e.g. Are my shoulders relaxed?  Is my top hand crossing at eye height?  Am I sitting straight?  Can I feel the catch?  Are my hips rotating? .....     

Common mistakes

Common mistakes that paddlers make with the forward stroke are:

  • Arm paddling – your body remains fairly stationary and the large leg and torso muscles are poorly utilised. Your arm bends through the stroke and the blade stays close to the kayak, exiting late. 
  • Dropping the top hand during the drive phase. This pushes the blade past vertical so that it lifts water rather than drives.  
  • Rotating the shoulders with the hips fixed can cause lower back problems.
  • Gripping the paddle tight can lead to repetitive strain injuries, restricts the stroke, and is tiring. 
  • Leaning back on the back strap and slouching limits the ability to rotate and engage the abs.
  • Paddling with the hands low results in wide strokes that are less effective in driving the kayak forward.
  • Starting the rotation early expends the leg drive and rotation before the blade is fully engaged.
  • Pushing with the top hand rather than just supporting the paddle during the rotation drives the blade past vertical where it is less productive.
  • Bobbing forward to get the catch at the toes is less effective than rotating for a longer reach.
  • Exiting late -  the paddle is way past vertical and lifting water. This will inhibit speed as each stoke is less effective and takes longer.