The real joy of kayaking is that it is hugely accessible to beginners, while offering plenty of challenges to more experienced kayakers. And the art of paddle handling illustrates this perfectly.

At one level, you can simply climb into a kayak and paddle away—it’s that intuitive! At the other, there are a wealth of strokes and techniques that take time to master, but enrich your experience on the water.

In this blog post, we’ll look at the building blocks for competent kayak paddling. Along the way to mastering six key paddle strokes, we’ll also consider grip, posture and paddle type.

First, though, a quick point about safety. Practice on calm, flat water close to the shore, where there is no risk of wake from passing watercraft, strong winds or currents. Always wear a personal floatation device (PFD) and think about appropriate clothing, such as a drysuit or wetsuit.


Type of paddle

Before you get going, it’s good to figure out what kind of paddle you have. The chief differences are in the blades of the paddle, which are the broad surfaces that do the job of propelling you. Look at the following attributes:

  • blade offset
  • symmetry
  • curve

Paddles are typically built in two halves which slot together in the middle of the shaft. It is often possible to rotate and set one side compared to the other via a spring toggle poking through a hole near the join. This allows you to set the blades so they are parallel to each other, or offset them—known as feathering.

As a beginner, it is easier to learn the paddle strokes when the blades are parallel, so adjust the shaft as necessary. As you grow in confidence and power, you are likely to find that a 30-45 degree feather minimises the effort required by the wrists.

Blades are often designed to be asymmetrical, to provide a bit of extra power and manoeuvrability. The shape can be quite subtle, so look carefully to see whether the top edge of the blade is longer than the bottom. Some say it is easier to learn with a symmetrical blade, because it doesn’t matter which way up you hold it.

Many blades are also slightly curved. As the paddler sits in the kayak, the curve should be a light concave. This allows the paddle to grab the water a little more effectively as you swing it back towards the stern.

Don’t get hung up on paddle length as a beginner—it’s much more important to get out there and start experiencing the delight of kayaking. But as you gain in skill, you might start to experiment with different paddle designs. The pros often say that you should use the shortest paddle you can handle.



Having determined your paddle type and set the feather accordingly, you need to perfect your grip. Hold the shaft level, such that your big knuckles are facing upwards and the blade is vertical. If you have asymmetrical blades, the shorter side should be on the bottom, and the curve should tend towards the stern of the boat, not the bow.

You want to grip the paddle with both hands so that your elbows are bent at 90 degrees. A useful trick to achieve this as a beginner is to balance the shaft of the paddle on your head, then reach up to grip it on either side with your elbows forming a nice right-angle. This shape is often called the paddler’s “box”.

Bring the paddle down again to rest in front of you. Relax your grip so you’re not gritting your teeth and hanging on feverishly—otherwise you’ll soon tire. Much of the power from a good stroke comes from twisting your torso and engaging your shoulder muscles, not from flexing your arms.

Posture is also important for comfortable paddling. You want your knees to be pushed up and out, bracing you against the inside of the kayak. Some kayaks have footrests, knee and thigh pads to minimise chafe. Your back should be straight, leaning slightly forward. That way, your core is not busy hauling you upright and can devote its power to the stroke.


Forward stroke

This is the basic building block for any paddler. It is the simplest and most intuitive movement, and it is the one that will propel you and the kayak forward. It is also the stroke you will spend most of your time in the water doing. As such, it is the most important answer to how to paddle a kayak.

Reach forward with the paddle on one side of the kayak and dig the blade into the water at around the point that your toes reach inside the bow of the boat. If you got your grip right, the blade should now be square to the kayak itself. Move it back towards you, rotating your upper body as it comes. While you’re honing this stroke, it can help to follow the blade with your eyes, as this will help your body swivel correctly.

Rotating your torso like this engages your core muscles better. This provides more power for the stroke and takes the onus for propulsion off your arms alone. With the paddle now inclined heavily to one side, you’ll find the opposite hand raised above your head. Push with this arm, even as you pull with the other, for more balanced power.

It may sound easy, but it takes time to commit to muscle memory. If your arms tire quickly or your joints start to hurt, then it’s quite likely that you’re not making full use of your core. Shoulders, back and abdominals should be taking the strain, while arms act more as levers.

When your downhill hand has travelled back as far as your side, it’s time to lift the blade from the water. You want to do this with as little drag as possible, sliding the blade out sideways, in line with its surface. Then reach forward on the opposite side and repeat the movement.


Reverse Stroke

You can use the reverse of the stroke described above to stop the boat or get it moving backwards (astern). It can also be used to swing the boat round if you apply the technique on just one side.

First check and adjust your grip and arm position if necessary. Then twist your upper body and plunge the blade into the water at about the level of your side. Now the arm movements are reversed: the lower arm pushes the paddle forward while the upper arm pulls it back. Untwist your body until the blade reaches your feet—then slide it out of the water. Repeat on the other side.


Sweep Stroke

This is a technique that allows you to rapidly turn the boat. It starts similarly to the forward stroke—sliding the paddle blade in at the level of your toes. But instead of pulling the blade back along the side of the boat, you sweep it round in a wide arc.

Just as a long lever exerts more force than a short one, this wide sweeping movement will cause the boat to turn away from the paddle—using you as the fulcrum in the middle. Repeat the motion on the same side to keep the turn going. If you find yourself edging forward in the turn and want to stop this, you can always apply a reverse sweep stroke on the other side to balance the forces out.


Drag Stroke

The other key stroke in your paddling armoury allows you to move the boat sideways without turning or edging forward or back. This is very useful when you want to launch from a step or pontoon, or to dock against one at the end of your paddle. It also allows you to approach other boats safely and slowly.

First, adjust your grip so that the blade of the paddle lies parallel to the boat itself. Turn to the side you wish to move towards and reach out with your paddle. The blade should slide into the water 60-80cm away from you, at the level of your hip.

This movement naturally causes the paddle to slope down sharply. Using your lower hand, pull the blade smoothly towards you and you’ll find that the boat drifts sideways. Be sure to stop before the blade makes contact with the side of the kayak, otherwise you’re in for a wobble. Twist (feather) the blade 90 degrees to slide it out of the water again and repeat the stroke as necessary.


Sculling Stroke

This is a next-level stroke which also results in the boat sliding sideways. It is a handy technique to learn because you don’t have to reach so far from the boat as with the previous draw stroke. This makes it possible to approach a pontoon more closely under control.

Adopting the usual box stance, rotate your body to face the side you want to move towards. The trick is to rotate the paddle such that it almost parallel to the boat, but not quite. Dipping the paddle into the water at your side, you will push the blade forwards making sure that the leading edge of that blade is angled away from the boat.

Stop when the paddle reaches the level of your toes and rotate the blade in the water a little. You want it so that the leading edge of the blade is again angled away from the boat as you perform the backwards stroke. Repeat this process again and again, never removing the blade from the water, and you’ll find that you are effectively pulling the boat sideways.

As you get more proficient at this stroke, you can find it becomes more like a flattened figure of eight. It is a technique that has been used for centuries to propel boats across harbours using a single oar.


Bow Rudder

This is a way of putting in a sharp turn while the boat is moving. Reaching forward, plunge the blade into the water at the level of your toes on the side you wish to turn towards. Roll your wrists back so that the leading edge of the blade rotates about 45 degrees away from the boat and enters the water close to the vertical. Brace yourself in this position.

In performing this move, you will naturally lean into the turn. When you’re on the desired course, snap your wrists back and resume the forward stroke described above. You can also perform a stern rudder manoeuvre for similar turning power.

There are many other variants of the basic strokes, plus specialist strokes for whitewater, sea and other forms of kayaking. Master these ones first and see where they take you!


Specialist kayak insurance through Insure4Boats 

Once you’re happy you’ve got the hang of paddling a kayak and are ready to take to the water, you might want to take out specialist kayaking insurance

Through Insure4Boats, you’re covered for accidental loss or damage to your kayak and for legal costs up to the value of £3m if you damage another boat or third-party property, or injure another person. 

Learn more about how we can help here, or click the button below to get an online quote in minutes.

Please note the information provided on this page should not be taken as advice and has been written as a matter of opinion. For more on insurance cover and policy wording, see our homepage.