A Guide to Turning and Steering Kayaks

Setting out straight in your kayak was easy, but now you have to turn, and you have no idea how to do it. You’d also love to pick up some steering techniques. How do you maneuver in a kayak in these ways? 

To turn a kayak, start with an initiation stroke, then a shorter, stronger stroke. Steering a kayak entails following the opposite side paddling technique, which requires simple strokes, a sweeping stroke forward, and then a stern rudder stroke.

If you’re looking for more information on turning and steering your kayak, you’ve come to the right place. In this guide, we’ll provide detailed steps, tips, and techniques so maneuvering in your kayak is less of a challenge!

Turning in a Kayak 101: Here’s How to Do It

If you take kayaking lessons with a pro, then turning is one of the first techniques you’ll learn. For those who are self-taught, we’ll catch you up to speed so you can turn your kayak with the best of ‘em. 

Slow Turns

This first technique isn’t for those who want to rush, but it works. You’ll put your paddle in the water, then the kayak uses the paddle as a sort of anchor and turns based on your paddle positioning. 

First, hold onto your paddle tightly, and then put it in the water. You don’t want to drop your paddle, but submerge the blade in the water. Angle the paddle from your kayak’s cockpit. Sharper angles result in wider turns whereas smaller angles turn you just a little bit.

Whichever side of your boat you put the paddle in is the direction you will turn. In other words, if your paddle is to the left of your kayak, you’ll turn left and vice-versa. 

After turning your kayak, expect to lose some momentum, which will cause you to have to regain speed.

Fast Turns

If you’d rather turn your kayak faster, that’s easy to do. You should begin with an initiation stroke where you’re aimed in the direction you desire to turn. Once you’re angled, do another small but strong stroke. This stroke is important, as it’s what actually turns your boat.

This technique allows you to turn 90 degrees. How? You edge your kayak as you turn, which means you’re tilting your kayak, but intentionally. In edging the kayak, it’s on the same side you did the stroke.

As you edge your kayak, you’re committing to a careful balancing act. You need to position your own body in such a way that you don’t tilt too far to the side or you’ll end up in the water, capsizing your boat.

Shift your body weight towards the side you’re edging the kayak. You can gently lift yourself up off the cockpit seat if that helps, but it’s not necessary. Sit up straight, as your proper posture creates stability as well as a counterbalance.

Start from your toes and then do the stroke outward towards the kayak’s bow. The turn will happen quickly and not at the expense of your momentum, as we touched on before. If you’re racing or otherwise competing in a kayak event, this fast turning technique is a great one to learn. 

How to Steer in a Kayak

Whether you’re going straight, turning, or maneuvering in other ways, you must be in control of your kayak. Steering will help you harness that sense of control so you can go kayaking with confidence. 

One of the most recommended kayak steering methods is known as opposite-side paddling. Let’s discuss the ins and outs now. 

Opposite Side Paddling

With opposite side paddling, you’re steering or even turning your kayak using the water you redirect via your paddle. 

First, put your paddle in the water and stroke forward twice. These aren’t strong, powerful strokes, just ordinary ones. After those two strokes, you next want to make a sweeping stroke forward. 

This will require you to reach out ahead of your kayak and place your paddle in the water beside the hull. Then sweep the paddle out and behind you in one single arc. As you sweep, push your bow opposite the sweep direction. Wrap up with a stern rudder stroke.

Attesting to the name opposite side paddling, if you do the strokes on the right side of the boat, then you’ll steer towards the left. Likewise, left-sided strokes will lead to you adjusting the steering on the kayak’s right side. 

You might have to increase the number of sweeping strokes you do beyond one or two to three, four, or more depending on how much you want to steer your kayak. 

When you use the opposite side paddling technique, it’s so you can direct the bow either left or right. Paddling should always be done adjacent to the hull but away from it. This helps your paddle to pull towards the stern. 

As you practice doing opposite-side paddling, you might find that your kayak begins speeding up but doesn’t turn, or it turns, but not in the direction you want to go. This can happen in the beginning. 

If you overcompensate to fix the issue, you can often make it worse. We suggest taking a break, catching your breath, and focusing on the direction you want to go. 

Like with all things, the more you practice the side paddling technique, the better you’ll become at it. If you’re having a hard time with it as you get started, try to push through. Eventually, you’ll become so familiar with the technique that you’ll barely have to think about what you’re doing. 

More Kayak Maneuverability Tips

Maneuvering your kayak is about more than steering and turning, of course. That’s why, in this section, we’re highlighting plenty of other tips for moving about in your kayak.

Move Sideways with a Draw Stroke

Do you need to angle your boat sideways? If so, then you should know how to do a draw stroke. The technique requires you to put your paddle in the water so it’s facing the direction you intend to move your kayak. 

Hold the paddle low into the water. Your hands should be over the surface of the water, but only by a few inches. 

You should next move your torso so it’s in the same direction as your paddle. Then pull so your kayak is nearer the paddle and congrats, you’ve done a draw stroke. Your kayak should now be sideways.

Learn the Reverse Stroke

We talked about forward strokes in this guide, but what about reverse strokes? This type of stroke will move your kayak backward, as you probably guessed by the name. 

To do a reverse stroke, put your paddle in the water so it’s submerged. The paddle should be between your kayak’s stern and your body. Turn your head back so you can see over your shoulder and then paddle your kayak forward.

You’ll begin rotating back naturally, so let it happen. Then do the above steps again but on the side opposite of the one you just did. 

Use Your Paddle to Stop 

When you’ve reached your destination on the water, you’ll want to stop. You don’t have to cease applying forward momentum to come to a stop; you can do it more suddenly if you use your paddle. 

Start like you would when reverse stroking in your boat, but don’t lift your paddle out of the water. You might feel your kayak work against you, but that’s okay. Your paddle right now is acting as a rudder, dragging you to a stop. 

Apply Vertical Transfer During Ocean Kayaking

Many kayakers stick to freshwater kayaking, but for those who want to explore the ocean in their kayaks, your technique is going to be turned completely on its head. You have to combat the stronger winds as well as the elevated ocean swells.

That’s why having a good vertical transfer is so important. Vertical transfer refers to how you engage your core as you stroke. 

Although it’s your core you’re stabilizing during vertical transfer, correct positioning is all about where your feet are. You want to use the foot pegs that your ocean kayak came with. If by chance your ocean kayak lacks foot pegs, then buy the accessory separately.

The pegs are meant to brace you so you can stay upright as you paddle. Further, your legs can help propel you forward due to their position from the foot pegs.

The energy that drives vertical transfer will begin in one foot, travel up your leg, and then reach your torso and your arms. In your upper body, the energy gets to your core. Thus, vertical transfer involves every major muscle group, including your shoulders, arms, back, chest, abdominals, legs, and feet.

Maintaining a proper posture during ocean kayaking is more integral than ever. The wind and waves can force you to slump forward if you’re not conscious of how you hold yourself. Once you start to slump, you lose that core engagement and vertical transfer no longer works. 

It’s okay if you feel like engaging your core is not your first or even your second instinct when paddling. On the surface, kayaking looks like it’s all about moving your arms and shoulders and maybe somewhat engaging your core. Your legs look like they stay stationary.

Once you go kayaking, you’ll realize that none of that is true, especially when ocean kayaking. The muscles in your whole body must work in tandem so you can achieve and maintain vertical transfer. 

Final Thoughts 

When kayaking, you must know basic techniques such as turning, steering, and braking. It’s okay if right now these techniques are difficult for you even though it seems like every other kayaker you see can do them effortlessly.

Practice does make perfect, so commit to improving little by little and you will!  

Geoff Southworth

I am a California native and I enjoy all the outdoors has to offer. My latest adventures have been taking the family camping, hiking and surfing.

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