How to Brace Effectively while kayaking

Bracing is one of those things we tend to learn early and then forget exactly how we’re doing it- it’s sort of like the roll in that respect, but it’s very much like the roll in more ways than that.  In fact, the high brace uses the same stroke we use on a roll, the body mechanics are very much the same, and there are ways to do it right and ways to do it horribly wrong.
There’s also a certain aspect of counter-intuitiveness to it- if we’re sitting normally and happen to be pushed over, often we’ll respond by either moving our legs independently of each other, (something we can’t really do in a kayak) or else by bracing against something solid with our hands and using strength and/or a counterbalancing leg to bring us back to our normal position.  Neither of these ‘natural’ responses are very available to us in a kayak on moving water, so we’re forced to apply different principles in order to stay upright.

We brace in order to avoid capsizing, or at least, in order to recover from being off-balance.

It is important to recognize that some situations on the river are dynamic and the forces involved can be intense- enough to strain or hurt your shoulders or to make a brace at best a wasted effort.  In this article we’ll discuss proper physical form to protect those shoulders, and also situations where a brace is inadvisable.

The Two types of braces

High and Low: Actually, this is a misnomer- there are all sorts of strokes you can use in order to brace and in this sense you could categorize a dozen or more- you can do a high or low brace using a front or back sweep stroke or on a traveling draw or even a scull, and you can use variations of these braces when vertical on your bow and stern in order to control what you’re doing in just about any position- but in general there are two kinds- the high brace and the low brace.

The two braces have a lot in common:

  • The strokes they employ are an expression of the torso, rather than of the arms- that is, your arms more or less just hold the paddle and control the way it feathers, your torso is doing the moving.
  • It pays to keep your elbows in front of your torso and below your shoulders when using them.  Improper bracing can lead to stress injuries and, in some cases, shoulder dislocations.
  • It pays to bring your head up last (very much in the same way that it does when you’re rolling)
  • They both bring you to a position in your boat that is low over either the front or stern deck (some people will argue with this, and that’s fine- there’s room for disagreement)
  • They both follow a set sequence of events: The paddler begins to tip, they commit weight to the paddle, they right the boat (by snapping the hips), and then they recover into the boat.

They also have their differences:

The High Brace uses the power face of the paddle (the one you engage when doing a forward stroke) and is performed with the wrists higher than the elbows.  It is generally used in situations where you’ve capsized pretty far over and/or didn’t have time to get to a low brace.  If done incorrectly, the high brace can be exceedingly dangerous to your shoulder- specifically, if you capsize dynamically and land on a high brace stroke with a straight elbow, you transmit tremendous force against your shoulder. If your arm is over your head, your shoulder is in a position in which it is not particularly mechanically stable, for that matter.

The Low Brace uses the back face of the paddle (the one you engage when doing a backward stroke) and is performed with the wrists lower than the elbows. It is generally used in situations for which you are already positioned to brace, and is generally of limited use if you’ve tipped over too far. It is a powerful stroke, but poses certain risks and if done incorrectly, can expose the user to shoulder injury- specifically, if you perform a dynamic low brace with your elbow high and your shoulder lower than it, you risk an external rotation scenario that could be very painful and very bad.

When (not) To Do Them:

Bracing can be done pretty much in any situation, except for these exceptions, so really it’s easier to remember the ones to avoid:

Upstream when surfing– especially in a shallow situation.  If you brace upstream, your paddle will probably paste against your boat and over you’ll go.  A worse scenario could be if your upstream edge catches and you high-brace upstream…and your paddle catches on the bottom.  If you’re lucky your grip will slip from the paddle or the paddle will break- the other alternative is that your shoulder undergoes serious and hateful trauma.  If you’re surfing on fast water and you flip upstream, there is virtually no way you’ll brace upstream successfully, so go for the roll on the downstream side instead.

Bracing against the bottom is inadvisable- it’s difficult to brace against an object that is moving, and there is a significant risk that your paddle could ‘chock’ and be ripped out of your hands.  We all do it on occasion, whether on purpose or by accident- but it’s not really the best idea in the world.  Even if the water is shallow, bracing against the surface of the water is generally your best bet.

How to do the high brace

As mentioned before, the high brace uses the same stroke and body mechanics as whatever roll you’re familiar with.  I will use a sweep stroke as an example, and note that just about any stroke will do. As with either brace, we begin by losing our balance- some force has acted on the boat in such a way that your head is now over the water, rather than over the boat, and what’s more, we didn’t have time to set up a low brace stroke, so we’re about to get wet.

Step oneGet to the water as fast as you can. Yes, that’s right.  You’re going over and into the water, because once you get over far enough that a high brace is needed, it’s actually less work to let the water slow your rotation, and also to support you.  What I mean by ‘getting to the water fast’ is twofold:

First, if you move your torso and head towards the water, you begin the process of righting the boat.  To put it another way, if you try to move your head up and over the boat, all you will succeed in doing is to pull the boat over on top of you, requiring you to roll.

Second, by moving your torso and head towards the water, you also speed up the process of the brace… by waiting for the right moment to begin.  The idea is that if you’re capsizing, you’ve got a couple of options- fight it all the way down, and then struggle all the way up, or to use the time in which you’re falling into the water as an opportunity to establish your sweep stroke, and to take advantage of the fact that in the water you’ll weigh less- and you won’t be fighting all that falling inertia.

You’ll want the first part of your body in the water to be the back of whichever shoulder is on the downward side- this means that you’ll be turning your torso away from the downward side- winding your body up for the stroke.  Remember, keep your elbow in towards your ribs and as low and bent as possible- you’re about to take some force against that paddle blade, and the more bend your elbows have in them, the more shock absorption they can offer to protect your shoulders.

Step two: Establish your sweep stroke. Actually, you should begin doing this right away, while you’re capsizing, so perhaps describing it as a distinct step is misleading.  The stroke is identical to that of a sweep roll- you begin somewhere near the bow, and keeping your elbows in towards your torso and below your shoulders, describe a flat sweep that goes wide and away from the boat.  Beginning the sweep near the bow does a few things:

First, it requires you to wind up your torso, so that your stroke has power and you don’t try doing it all with your arms.

Second, it keeps you from fighting your fall with a lot of leverage, which can hurt you, and

Third, it allows you to get a good grab on the water when it comes time to  recover into the boat- the wider part of the sweep (where you have good leverage against the rotational axis of the boat) is saved for later, when you’ll weigh less and be moving downward much more slowly.

Step Three: Commit your weight to the water while you right the boat.  You’ll right the boat by snapping your hips, but in order to do that you have to trust your paddle and body to the water for an instant- if you attempt to lift your head and torso out of the water by moving your legs, you’ll merely succeed in pulling the boat over on top of you. Helpful techniques include…

Reach wide with your paddle- the farther away from the boat you reach, the more leverage you’ll have against rotating it.

‘Push down’ with not just your head, but with your entire torso- in reality, pushing down against the water with your head will achieve very little, but this will encourage you to avoid raising it prematurely, which will pull the boat over on top of you.

Think of your paddle as an extension of your torso, rather than a tool in your arms.  Your arms should be placing the paddle and articulating it in terms of feathering, but most of the heavy lifting should be done by the more powerful torso muscles as they unwind from their initial ‘wound up’ position.

Step 4: Recover low into the boat.  At this point the boat should be righted, and your task is to use the last of your sweep (and perhaps the beginning of a sweep the opposite direction, towards the bow) to bring your body up on top of the boat.  Here are a couple of ideas to think about:

Your body should ‘stack up’ into the boat- that is, you want your head to come in over the gunwales last.

It’s easiest if you lift yourself as little as possible, which means that you want to get your head over the gunwale first, and then sit up.  Recovering to the front or back deck makes this process easier.

Use your torso to bring the boat under you, rather than your arms to ‘lift’ yourself into the boat.  As you do this, your wide paddle stroke will turn into a shallow, traveling draw toward the boat- generating lift as you gather yourself into the boat.

That’s the high brace.  A lot of details, but fortunately once you get the movement into your muscles you can forget them and just get on with paddling. 🙂

How to do the low brace

Demonstrating the low brace technique

Unlike the high brace, where getting wet is inevitable, the object here is to avoid going into the drink.  The fundamental principles, however, remain the same- you must establish your stroke and commit your weight to the brace, right the boat, and then recover into it.  Because the object of this brace is to stay dry, we won’t have a ‘step one’, at least not in the same way… but a very similar principle is exercised, in that we don’t want to try to correct the boat until we’ve got a stroke in place, and also in that the head should be the last thing to come up.

Step oneEstablish your stroke and get your weight on it immediately.  So you’ve begun to tip a bit, and your head is outside the gunwales of the boat, and you must either brace or capsize- but you were able to get a low-brace stroke in place quickly, excellent.

Although a lot of people teach the low brace as a ‘slap’ stroke, the slapping part is not necessary, nor is it the point.  I often see beginners ‘cocking’ their arms in order to deliver a powerful slap to the water, but this cocking motion wastes time and also tends to put the elbow out high and wide, an inadvisable position for the shoulder.

Until you’ve got an active brace stroke working in the water, it is pointless to try stop capsizing- put another way, you will continue to capsize until you have a stroke to brace against, and you’ve committed your weight to it.  If you attempt to lead ‘up’ with your head, you will simply continue to capsize, while pulling the boat upside down on top of you.

Step two: Commit your weight to the water while you right the boat. Again, you must first right the boat before bringing your head up and over it. Tips for success include:

The stroke should begin wide and move inwards, like the recovery phase of the high brace, except that you’ll be using the back face of the paddle.

You want to keep your elbows as close to your hips (internally rotated, below the shoulders) as is practicable with this stroke.  (if you must raise your elbow higher than your shoulder, it’s probably advisable to forget the low brace and switch to a high brace.)

Step three: recover low into the boat.  In this respect, the low and high braces are nearly identical.

Your body should ‘swing up’ into the boat- that is, you want your head to come in over the gunwales last.
It’s easiest if you hold yourself up as little as possible, which means that you want to get your head over the gunwale first, and then sit up.  Recovering low over the front deck makes this process easier.
Use your torso to bring the boat under you, rather than your arms to ‘push’ the water away.  As you do this, your wide paddle stroke will turn into a shallow, traveling draw toward the boat- generating lift as you gather yourself into the boat

Safety Considerations

For the low brace, where your wrists will be lower than your elbows and you use the back face of the blade, aviod a situation where you put your elbow in a high exterior rotation- that is, where your elbow is pointed straight up relative to your torso- this sort of articulation puts you near the edge of your rotator cuff’s functional range and it also primes you, should you be overloaded with some impact force (like your paddle hitting a rock in this position) for terribly bad things to happen to your shoulder.  I recommend instead a low brace with an interior rotation, with your elbow pointed as ‘down’ as possible- this is pretty much designed to keep you from pushing down with your outboard arm.  Instead, think about your arms and paddle forming a triangle- and the job of your outboard arm is to stay more or less straight, as your inboard arm stabilizes the triangle and bears a lot of the weight (this wouldn’t work if your paddle shaft was stretchy) and your torso does the lifting and pulling the boat underneath you.  Thus, instead of pushing ‘down’ with your outboard hand (hard on your shoulders), you’re pushing away- while pulling across your torso with your other hand and the net sum is that altogether you do the same thing, but without exposing your shoulder to scary consequences as much.  Internally rotating your elbow (pointing it towards your hip) is significantly easier if your paddle has a bent shaft, by the way- lines up your wrists a bit better.

A solid brace is an important skill- not only does it allow you to keep from having to roll all the time (and there are times where flipping will be inadvisable, yessirree) but it also makes playing a lot more fun, as you can be a lot more aggressive if you’re warmer and getting more air.