The Sweep Stroke

Hey, sometimes you just don't want to go straight! Sweeps are used for turning and as a component stroke in a number of other dynamic paddle motions including Eskimo rolls. They are part of your basic skills tool box. So, instead of just paddling relentlessly on one side, let's make it really work for us.

The Forward Sweep: For a turn to your right, start with hands in your normal hand position on the paddle (shoulder width apart, relaxed hand grip and arms stretched out). Now, wind your torso to the right so that your right hand comes back to about your navel and your left hand reaches forward until your paddle enters the water right next to the front or your kayak. While keeping your right hand gripping your paddle in your lap, unwind to the left drawing a wide arc out to your left side with your paddle blade until it reaches all the way back to the back of your boat. You should have made a fairly smooth turn to the right. For a turn to the left repeat the process on the other side, mirroring what you just did on the left.

Key points:

  • Watch your waterside hand as you move smoothly and slowly through your stroke...this will help you rotate your torso and achieve more reach.
  • Draw as wide an arc as you can. Bury your paddle blade just under the surface and pivot your paddle near your navel just like the big hand on a clock. When you hold your paddle low like this you'll be able to reach further.
  • Be sure you start next to your boat and finish next to your boat...its really the first third and the last third of this stroke that do the turning.

The Reverse Sweep: Its exactly the same, but the reverse uses the back face of the paddle blade beginning at your stern and sweeping all the way to your bow. Now you can turn left or right from the same side...and hey, don't slack off just because its backwards, okay? Now, you'd like to turn around in a tight spot? Just do a forward sweep on one side and a reverse sweep on the other. Go slowly, it works better.

Enhancements: Kids, don't try this at home unless you've practiced wet exits and low braces. Now that you've practiced the paddle and torso motion with your boat flat in the water lets add in the lower half of your body to help you turn more sharply. Edging or tilting your kayak will dramatically enhance your turning ability. If you are doing a forward sweep on your left (turning right), then edge your kayak by tilting your hips toward your stroke (your paddle acts as a brace to help you hold this angle). This shortens the waterline length of your boat making it rotate on the more rockered part of your hull...and rocker means you turn more. Another way to think of edging your hull to the left is by raising your right knee against your knee/thigh brace. Turns to the left require you to edge to the right for your right forward sweep.

Key points:

  • Edge gradually and be sure maintain a consistent angle.
  • Keep a vertical torso position while edging....pretend you've grown a tail and just cock your bottom half toward your stroke a bit. Remember, you wear a kayak.
  • When you return for another forward sweep, maintain your edging and protect yourself by returning with your paddle held with the back face down skipping off the surface of the water lightly in a low brace position. That way, if you lose your balance, you've got a brace there to catch you.

With enough practice, you'll find that you can turn in tight spots without moving your boat very far forward or back.... pivoting in place. Its fun, it works and it helps you gain confidence to branch out into a wide variety of other boat handling skills.

Michael Gray is director of Uncommon Adventures, specializing in kayak instruction and adventure tours since 1984. He has taught paddling technique in New Zealand, Belize, Honduras and all over North America. Uncommon Adventures can be found on the web at 

Related Articles

These are my favorite moves to practice and improve angle, edge and vision. In this series of clips,…

When paddling a canoe, a solo paddler or a stern paddler is very often having to do some form of…

Bracing provides support while leaning your kayak: 1) more aggressive boat handling during turns;…

SUP Low Bracing and SUP High Bracing This is going to be really important to learn to navigate…