Paddling from Sandy Beach to Portlock Point, the last stretch of the Molokai Channel race, is extremely challenging. The water is rough and you have open ocean swells coming in from the channel mixed in with huge chop almost as big that has reverberated off the cliffs so that swells are coming at you from all angles while you are trying to catch and ride bumps. Sometimes a chop will come at you from the back and side and take your feet out from under you. After regrouping at Portlock Point one day I asked Aaron Napolean for tips on paddling through that kind of water. He said the key is to go fast and outrun the ones coming at you from the back! Not an easy task for someone without the last name of Napolean but he is absolutely right. Paddling a stand up is like riding a bike, the faster you go the more stable the board becomes. In rough water I now do everything I can to make sure the board keeps momentum. I find shorter strokes at a higher rate helps because it keeps the board moving and keeps you centered over the board more than a deep powerful stroke. If you do fall I find its helpful to get up to speed first on your knees then stand in a quick movement without breaking your stroke cadence. Better yet if you can stand after catching a small swell or bump to keep you moving during that critical moment from kneeling to standing. These are pointers for riding a normal board in very rough water. The same applies for riding a tippy board in calmer waters. However, in smoother waters you can do a deeper pull. To compensate for putting a lot of weight on the stroke side you can shift your butt to the other side like the photo of Jim Terrell above. The key in smooth and rough water (besides going fast) is to keep the board level and quiet. You don’t want the board bobbing left and right with your stroke because this slows the board down. A smooth and level flow though the water is fastest. My 18′ coastal board is 25-3/8 wide with rolled rails and no hard edge. This board exaggerates any bad technique so the importance of proper weight shifting while paddling is ampified and where I got the basis for this tip. You might try paddling on a tippier board than your own every now and then to improve your skills. It will make you faster and more comfortable on your own board.
To paddle a board with a rudder fast you need to learn to use the rudder as little as possible. Every time you move the rudder you slow the board down unless its a quick tap that drops you into a bump. Rudders are a necessity on long 18 foot boards in Hawaiian waters but good paddlers like Aaron Napolean will tell you they hardly touch it on the 8 mile Hawaii Kai downwinder. When first getting on a ruddered board the tendency is to oversteer using the foot pedal too much. Paddle and board steering with a quick tap to the foot pedal works best for riding the bumps. On some boards you can steer them like prone paddleboards where you weight the rail on the opposite side you want to go to initiate the turn. Then when you catch the bump and step back on the board you can turn it like regular surfing on a longboard. This allows the board to flow with the ocean rather than make abrupt direction changes with the rudder that slow board down and could cause you to lose the bump you were trying to aim for. A lot of the rudder boards now have fore fins. This helps to smooth the arc of the turn and make the turns less abrupt. The photo above shows a custom Brian Bills fin setup where the back fin is actually nestled into a curve on the back of the fore fin for less drag. Boards without fore fins work well also where the bumps are big like on Maui and turning is more important that losing a little speed. Where the rudder is most valuable is paddling in a side or cross wind where you can steer the board into the wind and give your arms a break by not having to paddle on the lee side 100 strokes for 5 strokes on the windward side. Used properly the rudder can be a great asset once you get used to it. Like anything it takes practice.
Catching and riding bumps calls for a slightly different finish to the paddle stroke. While you can muscle your way into the bump its much easier to catch bumps if you incorporate unweighting and pushing the knees and hips forward towards the end of the stroke. Take a look at the sequence of photos above. In the first one you can see the picture perfect form of one of our well coached first time paddlers. At the start of the stroke shoulders are stacked with good forward reach, the body is twisted with chest facing towards the opposite side of the paddle stoke and after setting the blade shes ready to unwind at full power. This is great in flat water but if you place that stance perched on a bump, having your butt behind the crest of the bump will make it difficult to push the board into the bump. As you finish the stroke it helps to stand back upright and unweight slightly as the second photo shows and then bring the hips forward and drive the board into the bump with your knees. This simple body movement can get you in the bump without paddling and keep you in trim on the board to stay with the bump. This is the whole secret to going fast downwind. Paddlers who have this wired look like they are hardly paddling and always surfing vs paddlers who stays in a bent forward mode and needs to constantly paddle to keep moving. The timing of this movement works best if used at just the right time at the end of the stroke so the propulsion of the stroke is used to thrust the knees and hips forward. If the bumps are close together and steep you may not even have time to get in the position in the first photo and its better to stay in the upright position and take a couple of short hard strokes only using the twist withoug the full bent forward reach. The trick is to play around with all of these ideas and match them to the conditions. That is the art of bump riding and you need to put in the time to master it.
This is the first in a series of SUP tips based on what we are seeing in our advanced distance paddling clinics. We have the awesome instruction team of Jared Vargas who just took 2nd overall at the Paddle for Humanity and has a great bag of drill tricks, and Morgan Hoesterey legendary distance SUP queen who is great at thinking up all kinds of torture (intervals and dryland) to make the group stronger. As we move into the Molokai Distance Clinic Scott Gamble who took 3rd overall at the Molokai to Oahu race will be joining us. On our longer Saturday open ocean runs we paddle alongside the group and give pointers. At this point Jared and Morgan have honed the group’s form and you see all the basics of shoulder stack, forward entry, burying the blade and untwisting for power being done well. Another important skill is directing how the paddle travels in relation to the board which can make a difference.
What I see alot of is the blade entry and path following the curve of the board like the red line next to the board. In most circumstances this is not what you want as it will cause the board to aim towards the the opposite side you are paddling on causing you to need to switch hands sooner and the board to zig zag through the water. Instead the paddle should travel straight back and to do this you need place the blade of the paddle about 6″ away from the board at the start. We also often see the blade of the paddle pitched out which will also cause the board to zig zag. It should be a perpedicular to the path of travel as shown by the “straight” blue line. All this seems obvious but you’d be surprised at how many good paddlers follow the board outline.
In some cases you can use the in and out paths of paddle travel and blade pitch to purposely steer the board off a straight path. This works for no rudder boards in a side wind or to steer into a bump. In this case the angle of the paddle path will steer the board to the direction is pointing and you can use this path on both sides of the board if needed. Likewise the blade pitch will do the same thing. Play around with this, it is another skill to master to make you a better paddler ~ Jeff