The proper way to bow stall your kayak

The bow stall is one of those useless tricks that just seems soo cool that you have to do it from time to time.  Learning this maneuver is good practice for other tricks as well- developing control of your boat on your bow station is good practice for dealing with vertical and past-vertical situations that may arise elsewhere, and it’s just plain fun besides.

In this article we’ll discuss some ideas that may help you break down what goes into a successful bow stall, and maybe give you some ideas on how to practice this maneuver and apply it to other situations, like bow splats, flatwater pirouettes, splitwheels, and any other move that involves being in control of your boat while vertical on the bow station.  Obviously, reading this article won’t make you good at it- only practice will do that- but hopefully, after you read this article you’ll understand the ideas behind this move better.


The problem you face is that your boat is generally least stable when vertical on end- and to understand this it’s important to understand just what makes a boat stable… to this end, let’s introduce a couple of terms:

CG, or Center of Gravity:  Your CG is an imaginary point that describes the center of your weight- it’s the point at which the entire weight of a body may be considered as concentrated- such that if supported at this point the body would remain in equilibrium in any position. As you move your body into different positions, this point changes, and it’s important to understand that your CG is not necessarily in your body- in fact, when you’re sitting down with your legs forward, it’s somewhere just in front of your belly.  Also, you can change your CG** by immersing part of your body in water, where buoyancy counteracts gravity to some extent.  In sum, your weight can be described as a downward force that passes directly through this point and directly towards the center of the Earth’s gravity.

COB, or Center of Buoyancy: Your COB is defined by the shape of the water displaced by your boat, PFD, paddle, body… and whatever else you’ve got that floats.  To visualize this, look at the waterline on everything you have that floats- your COB will be an average of everything you’ve got that floats that is displacing water.  In sum, your buoyancy can be described as a straight line going away from the center of the Earth’s gravity.

You balance your boat on still water by keeping your center of gravity balanced precisely above your center of buoyancy- so ‘stability’ in a boat might be described as how rapidly and how far your COB can move in order to stay under your CG- and the shape of your boat (or more precisely, the shape of the water it displaces at any one given moment) defines this.

How mobile is your COB? The reason a flat-hulled boat is so stable-feeling is because you can move the ‘center’ of displaced volume around underneath you quite rapidly simply by edging your boat- you move your hips 30 degrees left to right and the shape of displaced water under you changes dramatically, which causes your COB to shift accordingly.  A derived principle of this phenomenon is that in situations where your COB is higher than your CG, a shallow, wide shape will be stable by virtue of the mobility of your COB.

It follows, then, that unless your CG is lower than your COB (it won’t be), a vessel with a deep, plunging profile will be eminently unstable because it lacks primary stability- and this is precisely what your boat will be when it’s vertical.

Boat considerations:  It should go without saying that this maneuver is easier with a slicy bow, preferably one with low enough volume that while vertical you’ll be able to get your face down into the water.  Length can be a consideration as well- short, corky boats will feel less stable than long, slicy ones because a long, slicy end can serve as a keel, engaged deep below your COB.  A deep slicy end engaged in the water can keep your COB from shanking past you towards the surface. What you’re doing in a bow stall is balancing your CG over the COB- and this is easier to do when these two things are close together and/or relatively static.

Paddle Considerations: This will probably be easier with a paddle with a relatively small feather/offset- 45 degrees or less is desirable, because at times during this maneuver you’ll want to engage both paddle blades at once- and dealing with blades operating in two seriously different planes can be confusing.

Getting there:  Okay, now that we’ve discussed some of the principles we’ll be working with, let’s get on to getting vertical.

  • The flatwater cartwheel approach

This is my preferred method- I find it to be more predictable and easier than other means. I’ve discussed this method in my article on flatwater cartwheeling, so we won’t go into it here.

The ‘plow’ approach seems to be a popular alternative, so we’ll briefly discuss it here.  Essentially, the strategy is to paddle forwards, lean forward so that your bow engages oncoming water, and paddle until it’s angle of attack becomes so great that it goes under you… at which point you need to make sure that your forward momentum stops, or else you’ll continue on past it.  Of course, the whole while your bow will be looking for a way to shank out from under you… but here are a few tricks that will make this process go a bit easier:

  • Use your stern wake

We all push a little wall of water in front of our boats and pull an even bigger mass of it behind us- and we might as well use it to our advantage.  Paddle forward at medium speed, enough to generate a wake… and then pause for a moment- let the bow wave get a couple inches from your bow (and while this is happening, your stern wake will catch up with you, lift your stern, and give you a little push), and *then* get your weight forward- your bow will bury in the face of your bow wave and this will help you get it down.

  • Short, forward strokes

Long strokes may feel powerful, but the bow will want to shank on you if you commit any weight astern

Also, if you’re accustomed to pushing with your feet to oppose each paddle stroke, be aware that this may result in a ‘waddle’ effect that will lead to the bow shanking off to one side or another as the bow loads with oncoming water.  Reach and lean as far forward as possible, and use short, quick strokes to pull your weight forward over the top of your boat.  As your bow engages more and more oncoming water, it’s angle of attack will dramatically increase.

  • Braking strokes:

Once your boat is committed to being vertical, you need to scrub your speed down to zero by the time it actually gets vertical, or else your stern will shortly be going over your head.

  • The ‘splat’ method:

Another means of loading your bow with water is to find a place where the water comes to you.  Find a rock with a shallow angle and a healthy current coming into it, and point your boat into the current, allowing it to drive your stern up onto the rock.  Your bow will initiate into the current and you’ll end up in a bow splat- (be careful not to do this move on an undercut rock, and make sure your outflow is clear of shallow rocks or other hazards) and as an added bonus, the rock will support you somewhat… provided you haven’t selected one with too steep a front face.

I’m there, now what?  Once you’ve figured out how to get vertical, it’s time to figure out how to stay there, and how to do other things, such as pogo, screw, transition into cartwheels, and recover from being off-balance.

  • Fore/aft pitch control

Your fore/aft pitch control will rely upon two distinct mechanisms- a combination of surface and deep strokes with your paddle, and your fore/aft articulation of your body.

The strokes: First of all, your paddle input should be a minor part of the equation- these are here for fine control, and to help you control what you’re doing with your weight.  In general, these strokes can be broken down into strokes that push and strokes that pull.  Because your boat will rotate around it’s center of buoyancy and your slicy end functions as a lever or keel of sorts, in general a stroke that pulls will have the effect of pulling your stern over towards your head, while one that ‘pushes’, either down into the water or out near the surface of the water, will have the effect of pushing your stern back, away from your head.  What actually happens is that with a push or pull stroke, you lever the boat against the drag of the deep bow.  In general, your ‘push’ strokes will be variants of the low brace, while ‘pull’ strokes will generally be variants of the high brace.

  • Fore/aft body articulation

When you move your body fore and aft, you change the location of your CG relative to the boat and to the water it’s displacing.  When you engage your body into the water, you also move your CG… because in water you ‘weigh’ less.  In general, by leaning far forward, you move your CG low and close to the centerline of the boat- allowing you to be pretty vertical without tipping over.  By aligning your torso parallel to the water surface, you move your CG as far forward as possible- useful if you’re too flat.  In general, leaning ‘back’ (i.e. standing up) will create a moment where your resistance to gravity will pull the stern over towards you.

I find that my most stable position is leaning forward, with my face close to the surface of the water- if I’m in danger of going past vertical, I use a combination of ‘pushing’ strokes and engage my head and upper torso into the water- this simultaneously pushes my stern away and shifts my CG closer to the boat.  If I’m in danger of going flat, I’ll extend my torso as far along the surface as I can get it (parallel to the water surface) and use little pulling strokes to ‘claw’ my weight forward, back over my COB.

If you end up going too far back, you’ll end up flat.  Strategies for getting back to vertical include:

  • pulling yourself vertical (sort of like the ‘plow’ approach to getting vertical)
  • screwing yourself vertical (edging your boat to one side and using sweep strokes and weight commitment to ‘fly’ the bow down, and
  • going for a cartwheel off the stern using your stern’s falling momentum.
  • …and of course, you can just land flat and tell everyone that you were tired of being vertical. 🙂

If you end up going too far forward, you’ll end up upside-down.  Strategies for dealing with this include:

  • pushing your stern back up to vertical
  • screwing yourself vertical (edging your boat to one side and using sweep strokes to slice the bow back under you)
  • screwing the boat 90 degrees and going for a cartwheeloff the stern using your stern’s falling momentum.
  • …and of course, you can do a bow screw-up and land upright. For more info on screw-ups, read about squirts.

Left/right yaw control:  Believe it or not, if you know how to do a low brace, you’re more than halfway to being able to control your yaw, or side-to-side attitude while vertical.  The problem you face with yaw control while vertical is that the buoyancy of the boat wants to find a way to get out from under you… and the trick is to use low-brace strokes and weight commitment to keep your CG over your COB.  Remember, like any control stroke, your arms are just there to place the stroke- the real work is done by your abdominal muscles.

Rotational control: Once you’ve got your pitch and yaw control down, you’ve got all the tools you need to screw around on your bow- the same pull and push strokes used to control pitch can be applied to turn you on your vertical axis.  When screwing off-vertical, keep in mind that a slicy boat, combined with your spin momentum and torque, can be used to dive the bow or slice it to the surface, depending upon the way you edge the boat.  When performing these screws, keep in mind that what you’re doing in reality is a squirt on your bow, and that the same rules about committing your weight towards where you want to be still apply here- in fact, the principles are exactly the same, you’re just approaching the problem from the opposite direction.  One thing I’m fascinated with right now is the prospect of screwing on the bow on an interface or in a nice big sticky whirlpool… when it works, it’s amazingly fun… but doing this in moving water in a playboat can be as much an art as a craft.

Ways to cheat: There are a number of ways to make learning the bow stall easier- and here are some suggestions… and remember, it’s not really cheating because there aren’t really rules, are there?

Adding water to your boat and using the plow method is an easy way to get comfortable with verticality on your bow- well worth doing if you want to slow down the whole process- what you’re actually doing is adding weight to the bottom of your boat- and when your bow is ‘the bottom’, this will increase your stability significantly.  If you’re having trouble getting or staying vertical, or if you want to slow down the process but don’t have access to a squirt boat, this is a great way to practice.

Starting out with a solid object to lean against– (it should be noted that this solid object should be at or below water level) this can be a very good way to feel out your balance.  To get vertical, simply roll over onto whatever you’re balancing against, so that your back deck is above you- from here, do a pushup, lift your butt, and draw your feet in towards your hands until your boat is balanced underneath you.  For added fun, pogo against your balance object and see if you can do a ‘reverse seal launch’- bounce in the water and up onto or over the object.

Hand paddles: Actually, hand paddles aren’t cheating at all, (I find initiation more difficult with them) but it should be noted that they’re excellent for working on balance on end- once you’re vertical, your control is finer as your hands can work independently.

We’ve gone off into a lot of possibilities, considering all we’re trying to do is balance our boat on end with some modicum of control- but we’ve discussed so many possibilities simply because there are so many to choose from when you’re on the bow.