What does kayaking have to do with Pixar’s Cars movie? Do you remember the scene where Doc Hudson is coaching Lightning McQueen on how to race on dirt?

Doc Hudson: “I’ll put it simple: if you’re going hard enough left, you’ll find yourself turning right.”

Lightning McQueen: “Oh, right. That makes perfect sense. Turn right to go left. Yes, thank you! Or should I say No, thank you, because in Opposite World, maybe that really means thank you.”

That scene reminds me of some of my own coaching sessions during which I will encouragingly say to my students “Edge right to go left” and receive confused looks! Maybe you don’t have kids and haven’t seen the movie, but whether you are racing on dirt or sea kayaking, if you want to turn, you’ve got to get your back end to slide!

As novice kayakers we soon learn that to make a kayak turn more quickly we need to tilt the kayak to one side. This is true for almost all watercraft except perhaps a coracle! The longer the kayak and the less curvature along the keel line of the kayak (rocker), the more we will need to tilt the kayak to help it turn. We discover that tilting the kayak into the turn (inside edge) works best for shorter kayaks and tilting the kayak away from the turn (outside edge) works well with longer kayaks.

Many of us will just accept that these fundamental principles work and just get on with our paddling. Some of the theorists among us might want to know why this is true and in asking questions we quickly discover that the answers are many and complex. When we tilt the kayak, we not only reduce the apparent waterline length, we also change the shape of the hull presented to the water. When the kayak is upright, it presents a symmetrical ellipse (biconvex) shape to the water. When you tilt the kayak to one side, the ellipse becomes a non-symmetrical segment shape (plano-convex), and when moving forwards (or backwards), the curviest side of the segment (the lowered outside edge) deflects the kayak more than the straighter keel line, making it turn in the direction of the raised edge. The hull of the kayak is acting like a wing, forcing water around the curviest side, causing it to flow faster, thus reducing the pressure. The water passing along the straighter keel line is relatively slower, thus has a higher pressure. The two combine to generate a force that causes the kayak to turn. The Venturi Effect, Bernoulli’s Principle and Newton’s Laws of Motion all help us understand why this happens (or confuse us further!)

The design of the kayak whether fish form, swede form or symmetrical will contribute to its tracking and turning characteristics. It is important to note that it is the shape of the kayak at and below the waterline that is significant, not the shape of the deck. A swede form kayak will typically turn more readily than a fish form kayak and a fish form kayak will track (go straight) more easily. Of course, there are many other things to consider when choosing a kayak: intended use, hull speed, comfort and ergonomics, skeg vs. rudder, construction, etc.

Axel Schoevers demonstrating edge. Note the glassy water at the stern of his kayak. Photo by Larry Shore.

Edging vs. Leaning

By tilting the kayak, we are reducing the waterline length and changing the shape of the kayak in the water. But how far should we tilt? You will likely hear the terms ‘edging’ and ‘leaning’. The difference is that when we are edging, we are in balance – our weight remains over the center of buoyancy of the kayak. When we are leaning, our center of balance gets outside the center of buoyancy of the kayak and if we don’t use our paddle for support, we will likely capsize.

Typically, we edge when performing a turn where we are tilting the kayak away from the direction of the turn (outside edge turn), such as when performing a forward sweep stroke. We lean when we are performing a turn where we are tilting the kayak towards the direction of the turn (inside edge turn) such as a low brace turn on a wave.

When edging or leaning the degree of tilt can be dialed up and dialed back but the goal is to free up the bow and stern so that the boat starts rotating. How much you need to edge, or lean depends very much on the design of the kayak and the type of maneuver you are trying to perform. The tighter the turn you want to achieve, the more you will need to tilt the kayak. A highly rocker-ed kayak will need very little, a kayak with little rocker will need to be edged significantly to carve an outside edge turn, especially if it has a distinct keel built into the bow and/or stern. As we move forwards, we want to see the stern of the kayak sliding with the point of rotation being towards the bow. If we are moving backwards, we want to see the bow sliding around with the point of rotation being towards are stern.

The degree of tilt for an inside edge turn needs to be more than for an outside edge turn, to negate the forces created by the change in hull shape. Thus, we need lean into inside edge turn and we need water moving under the paddle blade to support us. An inside edge turn is typically done at when moving at speed or when the paddle blade is moved quickly through the water.

Edging Technique

Our focus when edging the kayak should be to put weight on the hip on the side we are edging towards. The opposite knee will come up in response and probably make contact with the thigh brace but there should be no conscious effort to lift the knee. It is important to stay relaxed and have the ability to rotate. If effort is put into lifting the knee, you engage your core and your ability to rotate is compromised. Stay relaxed and maintain good posture as you drop your weight onto your hip. The leg on that same side may drop towards the floor of the kayak. Notice what happens to your spine as you put weight on your hip. Your body creates a C-shape, and by accentuating that, keeping your head centered over the kayak, you can edge more aggressively but remain in balance. Now edge to the other side. Your body should form a C-shape in the opposite direction. Practice dialing up and dialing back the degree of edge – this is best done in shallow water so that you can push of the bottom if you go too far! See if you can find a point at which the kayak feels relatively stable while on edge. This is called secondary stability and is a design feature to feel for when choosing a kayak.

Once you have found that secondary stability, you can quickly dial up the amount of edge to that point. It is rarely necessary to go beyond that. Indeed, if you edge too far while performing an outside edge turn, you will find that water starts to build up on the back deck of the kayak and this will reduce the turning effect or even cause you to tip over!

Sean demonstrating lean. Photo by Dominic Lemarie.

Leaning Technique

For the inside edge turn to be truly effective, the kayak needs to be travelling fast or at the very least the paddle blade needs to be moved through the water quickly enough and with a slight climbing angle to prevent the paddle blade from diving.

The technique for leaning is like edging in that the focus should be on putting weight on the hip, but both knees are engaged with the thigh braces to stop you from falling out of the boat! Some form of brace will be necessary to avoid a capsize. Your paddle shaft should be as horizontal as possible, with your elbows above your hands, the active blade (the blade in the water) with a slight climbing angle. While the body may form a C-shape, the head is well beyond the center of buoyancy of the kayak.

The goal is to get the kayak over onto its side. It is hard to get a wide, flat-bottomed kayak to tilt over that far. A kayak with a round hull will roll easily onto its side, but it might also have a tendency to keep going until it is fully upside down! Kayaks with relatively hard chines respond well to leaning and the kayak will continue to surf on its side quite effectively and allow you to change direction.

As you move your weight well outside the center of buoyancy of the kayak, it is important to ensure that you maintain your ‘Paddler’s Box’, protecting and not overextending the shoulder as you brace.

Troubleshooting

When performing a turn using edge the kayak may feel unstable, especially in choppy water. One way to combat that is to keep your working blade ‘active’ (always moving).

It is important to maintain edge until the turn is complete. If you allow the kayak to return to the upright position during the turn, you will slow down the rotation or stop it altogether. The turn may require several strokes to complete and between strokes a skimming brace recovery will provide support to allow you to maintain your edge.

If the kayak does not seem to want to turn, check that you are edging far enough or that you are not consistently on edge throughout the turn. When performing a turn using forward sweep strokes, look at your stern – is it sliding? When performing a turn in reverse, using reverse sweeps, look at your bow, is it sliding? If you find yourself capsizing during an outside edge turn it is possible that you are edging too far for your kayak or your skill level. Try keeping that working blade more active as you perform the turn.

When performing a low brace turn using inside edge, if the kayak doesn’t turn as far as you’d like, make sure you have enough speed, be sure to initiate the turn with a forward sweep and outside edge, then switch to aggressive inside edge. Hold that position for as long as possible but be ready to bring your weight back over the center of buoyancy of the kayak as you lose speed. If you find yourself capsizing while doing an inside edge turn it is possible that you just didn’t have enough speed to start with, or that you held the brace for too long. Try to dial up the amount tilt and be ready to dial it back.

Edge control is the key to making a kayak (or canoe) dance on the water. Practice figure of eights, forward and reverse. Start on flat water and then take your practice into more challenging conditions. Making your kayak turn effectively is incredibly satisfying and a crucial skill to acquire for control in more dynamic conditions.

Sean Morley is an ACA Level 5 Instructor Trainer and coaches paddlesports in the San Francisco Bay Area of California.