Paddle-sailing is a recreational activity like few others. Combining the propulsion of paddle and sail enables us to go further faster, accessing previously inaccessible waters, while enjoying two sports at once!
Modern sailboats are very efficient at harnessing the energy of the wind, but one of the frustrating aspects of a sail-only craft is that when the wind dies, so does the vessel’s speed. Luckily as paddle-sailors, when the wind lessens, we can simply start paddling.
Exercise is of course a good thing, but efficiency and technique definitely have their advantages. Less fatigue, greater distances traveled, and higher sustained speeds are just a few of them.
Before we get into all the tips, it should be noted that there are no rules here. Ultimately, paddle-sailing should be about enjoying the wind and the water. If your boating goal is simply to relax – maybe do some quiet birdwatching and meander around a small body of water – the following may not be so useful. But If you want to improve your paddle-sailing skills, the following tips might help.
As a preface, it’s important to understand a little bit about a boat’s inertia and momentum and about the forces that move a boat and slow it down. At the risk of triggering Physics 101 flashbacks, inertia is a term which refers to how easy or difficult it is to change the speed or direction of an object. Once that object is moving, its momentum determines the amount of friction force required to slow down and come to a stop. Also, it helps to know that applying a force to an object will move it, and that the force of friction will act to slow it down.
Weight plays an important role. Heavy (high inertia) objects require more force to be applied to them to speed up and slow down. For example, a super heavy vessel like an oil tanker requires an amazing amount of force and time to get up to speed, as well as to slow down. Modern large ships may require as much as five miles to stop, even with their engines in full reverse! Wow, think about that for a moment.
Lightweight (low inertia) objects can speed up and slow down quickly and easily. Have you ever seen an Olympic canoe event, or a world class rowing race? These boats are so light, and the paddlers/rowers so strong, that the boats jolt forward with each stroke. They visually slow down each time the paddle leaves the water, making them have a pulsing “go-slow-go” motion that not only looks bizarre but can make for some pretty exciting finish line action!
Since kayaks are some of the lightest production boats around, they have relatively low inertia and slow down quickly, easily succumbing to the frictional drag created from interaction with the water, as well as from the air when sailing upwind.
As a side note, there is a common misconception out there that lightweight boats have a faster overall speed compared with equally shaped heavier boats. While it’s true that a lightweight boat will require less force and physical energy to build speed and momentum, heavier boats tend to hold their momentum better, allowing them to cut through the chop and maintain their speed better. The reality is that a kayak’s top end speed (or hull speed) is ultimately dictated by the boat’s waterline length, underwater shape, and total wetted surface area, not by its weight.
So what does any of this have to do with paddle-sailing technique? By knowing how an object (in this case our kayak) behaves, we can better understand what we can do to efficiently move it through the water.
Which leads us to:
Tip #1. When that wind puff that was moving your kayak so nicely through the water suddenly goes away, it makes sense to start paddling before the boat slows and loses momentum.
A kayak (like any object) requires more energy to accelerate it than to maintain its speed. This is one of the reasons why cars use more fuel when city driving compared with highway driving. In order to conserve energy it makes sense to provide the boat with nearly constant propulsion forces and not let it slow down too much.
Tip #2. Use your paddle and the sail together to build momentum to reach a cruising speed, then let the sail take over to help maintain that speed.
This not only reduces the time required to get up to cruising speed, but helps with the efficiency of the sail(s) by generating “apparent wind” (the moving air created by the boat moving forward), and this additional wind can help the sails move the boat.
Since a kayak without outriggers has a relatively slender form, it lacks the stability needed to take a large sail plan and must therefore rely on smaller sails to get the job done. This means that anything the paddle-sailor can do to increase the sail’s efficiency will be beneficial.
Tip #3. Try to keep the boat relatively flat in the water when paddle-sailing.
A flat (non-heeling) boat is easier to paddle with a double bladed paddle. In addition, having a flat boat positions the sails so they remain perpendicular to the wind flow. This allows the sail’s foil (wing-like shape) to more efficiently produce lift, and this lifting force is what pulls the boat forward through the water.
Tip #4. Unless you are surfing wind swells and chop (sailing downwind), flat water will allow you to sail faster.
“Choppy” water has a surface composed of lots of small rough waves. Wind swells are larger waves spaced farther apart. Cutting through chop and swell reduces the boat’s speed and therefore its momentum. Every time the bow plunges through a wave, the part of the bow that was previously above the waterline is now creating frictional drag in the water, slowing you down. For fast and efficient upwind sailing, it’s best to look for flat water. That said, downwind wave surfing can produce some of the fastest speeds in a kayak. This is mainly due to the effect of harnessing the energy and speed of the forward moving wave which is then added to the boat’s forward speed.
Tip #5. The best wind speed for sailing upwind is less than fifteen knots (small or no whitecaps present). And the ideal wind speed for windward sailing is probably somewhere between ten and twelve knots (just before whitecaps develop).
The reason is twofold. First, friction created by our bodies, the boat, and the rig in the wind, slows upwind progress. Second, the waves slow the boat down and kill momentum. While we did what we could in the rig’s design to reduce its frictional profile in the wind, when it comes to our body size there is little we can do to (except maybe go on a diet). Basically, when we hold an upwind course we are required to fight against both the wind and sea.
Even though the Kayaksailor’s sail shape is efficient at generating pulling force, its small size limits how much it can do. In strong winds of over 20 knots (large, frequent white caps are present), paddling while sailing with the leeboards in their full down position is usually the best way to maintain cruising speeds to windward.
Tip #6. Lean your torso out to windward to compensate for heeling, instead of bracing with your paddle to leeward.
Normally a kayaker will brace with their paddle, essentially pushing it against the water’s surface, to prevent the boat from capsizing. While this works fine for downwind sailing when the boat isn’t heeling (leaning over), it doesn’t work so well on a beam or close reach when the side force of the wind causes the boat to heel. The reason has to do with the position of the sailor’s torso when bracing. The weight of one’s torso is used as a counterbalance to offset the heeling forces of the sail, and, leaning one’s torso to windward is one of the best ways to prevent capsizing.
That said, at some point one’s torso weight may not be sufficient to prevent further heeling. This is the time when un-cleating and easing the mainsheet is needed to spill power from the sail and allow the torso to be a more productive counter balance.
You might ask, Why not ease the mainsheet in the first place? While this is an option, leaning one’s body out to windward will preserve the pulling power in the sail, resulting in faster boat speeds.
The reason we don’t want to paddle-brace to leeward is that our torso weight moves in the wrong direction, essentially helping the sail heel the boat over. Doing this results in an awkward situation where the paddle-brace becomes ineffective. It also slows the boat due to the paddle blade’s friction in the water. In short, save paddle-bracing for those exciting downwind legs.
Tip #7. Try a series of broad reaches instead of a run.
Just like many catamarans, the Kayaksailor rig doesn’t have a backstay. Instead, the shrouds (side stays) are positioned aft of the mast not only to give the mast aft support, but to provide the forestay adequate tension to allow the leading edge of the genoa to have the correct shape. The aft shroud placement creates a situation where, on a direct downwind leg, or “run,” the lower part of the mainsail will rest up against the leeward shroud and lose its curved shape. Also, the sail can’t be completely let out perpendicular to the wind, which is the most efficient sail position for running.
Like for catamarans, the answer is to angle off slightly from a directly downwind run, onto a deep broad reach, and sheet in the main so that it is just brushing the shroud. This will allow better boat speeds, not only because of the better sail shape, but because the leeboards will now be engaged.
The resistance of the leeboards to move sideways in the water, and the sideways pulling force of the sail work in conjunction with each other to move the boat forward. This forward speed makes apparent wind, which allows the sails to interact with more total wind, generating more pulling power, leading to even faster speeds.
The genoa also works better when it is not completely blanketed by the main, as it is on a run. Of course sailing a series of broad reaches means more jibing, so having your jibes down will be important. If you haven’t read it yet, here is a blog post I wrote on jibing technique.
Tip #8. When reefing out on the water, point the bow downwind. When shaking out the reef, point the bow upwind.
Most sailboat sailors will point their boats directly into the wind to “reef” (make the sail smaller). With the Kayaksailor, it’s usually easier to reef with the bow pointed directly downwind. The reason is that since the kayak is a low inertia boat, when pointing it into the wind, the forward speed will quickly decrease to a stop, and the bow will naturally turn off the wind. This allows the sail to power up and become unmanageable before the reefing knots can be tied.
This powered up situation can be frustrating, and a little scary too. Holding a powered up sail in a strong wind is a good way to capsize. By pointing the bow directly downwind, one’s body will block the wind from the now smaller sail, making it relatively easy to grab the boom and gather the sail together. This downwind position also allows more time to tie the quick release knots in the reefing lines. Just be aware that while pointing downwind the boat will want to speed up, so make sure there is enough water in front of the boat to get the job done.
In very strong winds it’s much easier to reef on shore or in a protected cove where the wind is lighter. Also, if you are just launching and it looks pretty windy out there, consider reefing before heading out. It’s quite a bit easier to “shake out” (untie) a reef, than it is to reef down. Shaking out a reef should be done with the bow pointing into the wind, since it’s just a matter of pulling on the tag end of the quick release knots and then quickly raising the halyard. Raising the halyard is always easier when the boat is into the wind.
Tip #9. Always raise and lower the mast as quickly as possible while pointing the bow directly into the wind.
Quickly raising or lowering the mast while pointing directly into the wind is important to prevent mast track stress. The shrouds and forestay support the mast when it is in the full upright position, but when the mast is halfway up or halfway down, it is unsupported except for the minimal support provided by the mast car and track. This halfway zone is the most vulnerable position for the mast track. Pointing directly into the wind and acting quickly will keep the track in good shape.
Tip #10. Keep the mainsheet on your lap at all times.
Paddle-sailing requires that the mainsheet be cleated so one’s hands can be on the paddle. If a strong wind gust hits, and the main needs to be eased to prevent capsize, having immediate access to the sheet is critical. One’s lap is a pretty good place to keep the sheets.
That said, when it’s really windy and one is paddle-sailing to windward, it can be helpful to hold the main sheet between one’s hand and the paddle shaft. This way that fraction of a second needed to grab the sheet from one’s lap will be eliminated allowing for a more rapid response. Windward paddle-sailing in strong gusty conditions can be tricky since the mainsail is normally tightly sheeted in, and this puts the kayak at greatest risk for excessive heeling and capsizing. So it’s smart to have the mainsheet ready at hand.
Tip #11. In strong winds, pull in the main sheet prior to tacking.
This can prevent the mainsheet from getting wrapped in the goalposts. Most of the time the main sail will already be sheeted in prior to coming about since it is likely that the boat will already be on a close reach as one initiates the tack. But situations may occur when one paddles into the wind from a beam or broad reach and the sheet is loose. This makes it possible for a hard wind gust to blow the sheet back around the goalposts. If this happens, don’t worry, simply uncleat the sheet and release the wrap with your paddle blade. But it’s better to avoid the situation altogether by simply sheeting in prior to tacking.
Tip #12. Backwinding the genoa will help speed up your tack.
In other words, when coming about, or “tacking,” if one waits to release the genoa sheet from the cleat until the mainsail fills with wind from the other side, the now backwinded genoa will help drive the bow away from the wind and onto the new tack. It can be helpful to listen for the main’s battens “pop” to the other side and use it as an audible cue to release the genoa and sheet it on to the new side.
This is another maneuver that kayak-sailors share with catamaran sailors. Like many beach cats, kayaks lack the adequate inertia, as well as maneuvering ability to quickly pivot through a tack. Cat sailors frequently use a backwinded headsail to drive their boat onto the new tack.
Another advantage of backwinding the genoa is that it helps to prevent the knot in the Kayaksailor’s genoa sheet from getting caught in the mast car.
Tip #13. Try not to “choke the slot” with the genoa.
What the heck does that mean? Over-sheeting (over-tightening) the genoa sheet not only flattens the genoa to the point where the curve in the sail, or “draft,” which is responsible for generating power, goes away, but it can also restrict the air flow around the lee side, or low pressure side of the mainsail, reducing its efficiency. The resulting narrow, vertical gap or “slot” between the genoa and mainsail restricts the air flow between the two sails, and so is called “choking.”
So how do you know when your rig’s slot is choked? While it’s relatively easy to check the trim of the mainsail by observing the tell-tales and making sure they are flying together, it’s very difficult to see the genoa at all because the mainsail is blocking the view. If the boat feels like it’s going slower than it should, re-trimming the genoa might be all that is needed to open the slot and generate some speed. Try easing the genoa sheet until the genoa “luffs,” or flaps in the wind, then pull the sheet in just until the flapping stops. If you are not sure whether or not you sheeted it in too much, or if you change course, simply repeat the process by letting out and re-trimming. This technique works well in winds above five knots, but in very light air one may not be able to hear the sail luffing. In this case, simply grab the end of the boom and momentarily move the mainsail out of the way for a better view to see if the genoa is luffing.
Tip #14. Insert the leeboard pushrod into the forward facing hole on the leeboard head.
This will likely help with your paddle stroke. If you want to make more room under the boom for your paddle blade, simply insert the leeboard control rod into the forward end of the leeboard head. This allows the fiberglass leeboard rod to lay against the foredeck instead of sticking up in the air and getting in the way. Kayaksailor owners have been doing this for years, and it definitely allows for a cleaner paddle stroke. Here is an old blog post on the topic.
Tip #15. Practice using a low angle paddle stroke.
A less vertical, or “low angle,” paddle stroke works well with the Kayaksailor. The reason is that one is less likely to hit the leech (back edge) of the main sail with end of the paddle blade that is out of the water. Many paddle manufacturers make low angle paddles. These typically have slightly longer shafts and smaller, narrower blades. The narrow blades also make them easier to fit between the boom and the foredeck during the power stroke. We like using ultra-skinny Aleutian Island style paddles, but most low angle paddles will work well.
Hopefully these tips will help to improve your paddle-sailing skills.
Please feel free to leave a comment.
Fair winds and happy paddle-sailing!
Thanks, David, this is very helpful. Unfortunately, I am not familiar with some of the sailing terminology. I hesitate to make this request after you put so much time and effort into these blogs but is it possible to include line drawings or something similar to clarify exactly what you are recommending? Thanks again, keep up the good work!
I found this write up very interesting and very helpful and I’m looking forward to my next Kayak sailing trip here at home in Sussex in the UK when I can try out the various tips described.
Some years ago I made a wooden Aleution paddle after reading one of David’s write ups about the advantages of the Aleution paddle and I much prefer it to the standard broad paddle blade for both general touring and kayak sailing.
Thank you David.
Thank you! These are great tips and would be the basis for instructional videos you could make in your “spare time” — hah! Really great descriptions and I appreciate you making explanations for those transitioning to sailing with a kayak…
Thanks Luna! Yes, video would be best. My plan is to make several 10 sec. videos and insert them after each tip. If you have questions, feel free to give me a call. 🙂
Hi Ian! Thanks for the feedback. Summer is in its way!
Hi Mark! Thanks for the comment. Agreed, visual clarification would be helpful. Just waiting till things slow down a bit to add to the post. If you have any questions, please feel free to give me a call. I’m always happy to help.
Thanks a lot for your generous information you provide. Untill now I am a potential kayak sailor. I have only read sailing. I’ m supposed to sail this sommer for the first time. Your tips have helped me to understand things which were not clear to me. Thank you.
Hi David. Late comment – a year after the blog – I have been using a Lend Kinetic wing Paddle since the year dot and highly recommend them to my fellow Kayak Sailors AS the perfect tool for the job. The inbuilt flotation makes the paddle into a movable out rigger as the curvature of the backface combined with the inbuilt flotation prevents the paddle digging in when bracing allowing one to keep the main powered up for longer. I believe the paddles are now made by Celtic Paddles in Scotland. Happy Paddling. Gavin
Hi Gavin. A real pleasure to receive your comment. You’ve been on our minds. Many of our friends use Lendal blades and love them. Don’t know why they stopped producing the Kinetic.
Thank you Theofanis. You will absolutely love sailing!