Frog legs and the forward stroke.

I’m curious where you who paddle sea/touring kayaks (SINKs) position your legs while doing the forward stroke.

My paddling books and many of the advice columns here state the feet, knees, thighs and hips should always be in contact with the hull “whether you’re going forward, backward, turning, sideways etc.” Sit like a frog.

I’ve been experimenting this summer by not doing the frog leg thing with my knees and thighs under the braces. Instead I’ve been keeping my knees close to each other as this allows my hips to rotate more freely, which gives me better torso rotation and, I think, a more effective forward stroke. My knees brush the underside of the thigh brace with each stroke and I can quickly drop both legs if I need that contact with the hull. This has worked for me in waves, (up to two feet) chop, and boat wakes.

During a recent class I was told by the instructor not to do this. No explanation was given and I didn’t have the confidence to ask for reasons. Yes, it makes sense to keep good knee/thigh contact if paddling in challenging conditions or for strokes that need a lot of edge, but those conditions didn’t exist during that class. We were doing forward strokes in pretty flat conditions.

While searching for articles on leg position in the forward stroke, I came across this article:

What caught my eye was this quote from the peer review section:

“Doug stresses relaxed knees/thighs to allow power transfer. If you rotate left, your right knee bends to give that hip room to move forward. This creates a strong position to drive the unwinding of the body with your leg. If your legs are jammed into the thigh braces, you can’t use them for rotation. Don’t worry about staying upright without being wedged into the thigh braces—except for recovery situations or supporting an extreme edge, balance comes from the core and hips, not the knees. » Ginni Callahan, ACA level 5 instructor and BCU level 4 coach, Cathlamet, WA”

I was glad to read those comments and am curious what the experienced paddlers here do.

I think it depends on what kind of sea kayak paddler you are. Are you a technical geek finding your fun in waves and tight maneuvering, or are you a long distance sea kayak racer, perhaps even with a past in flatwater racing kayaks?

I am a paddler of the first kind, and my leg length and cockpit openings won’t even allow me to keep my knees close together. So I always use the frog position.

However, I have contact to some long distance sea kayak paddlers. They are mostly concerned about whether they can do 80 or 100 km (50 or 63 miles) in a day, and whether they can keep up their speed at 10 km/h (5.5 knots / 6 mph) during the day. Tight maneuvering is not a target for those paddlers, just a necessary evil. They will use rudders for turning since they don’t want to control their turns with edging which slows down the kayak.Those paddlers often paddle with their knees closely together (buying kayaks with large cockpit openings for just this purpose). Some of them have even removed the footrests and instead installed a “foot board” all across the width of the kayak so they can sit with their feet in a vertical position in the centre of the kayak to get as close as possible to the correct leg position for a flatwater racing kayak.

However, if you enter a sea kayaking course, you should expect to be taught the first kind of paddling, the technical, geeky stuff - at least around here where most sea kayaking teachings are done according to the British BCU system or the European EPP system which is derived from the BCU system.

I don’t think there are many courses aimed at the fast paddlers I was talking about above. Those paddlers usually have a past in a faster kayak type and have carried over whatever they learned there.

Ben Lawry is BCU but also a racing background. I took a few classes with him as coach, or one of the coaches, over the years before the BCU and I parted ways. I never heard any of the other BCU folks counter Ben including a class where Steve Maynard (RCO) was also one of the coaches. And my husband and I brought paddlers to the BCU, so I know the advice he gave a local fellow paddler who we recommended to the BCU.

It is exactly on your point. And agrees with what you read from Ginni Callahan, that there should be no reason in slavishly insist on knees under the thigh braces. Note that the events I am talking about are from around 2008 , so there is consistency across the years.

Ben was working with someone we had sent the BCU way and recalled that someone local to him had a boat that Ben liked for good for pumping action. It was my P&H Vela (since discontinued) The guy tried mine and then went out and found a used one for himself.

The Vela is a fairly narrow boat to start with, but it also has a higher deck than some boats that followed and so allows for more pumping compared to later designs. Both I and the guy (smaller paddler) fit in it with still a slight frogginness if we stay fully under the thigh braces. Ben preferred that full verticality be maintained for the best pumping - there was always time to get under the thigh braces in a pinch. And the boat is rock solid on secondary - you get the time.

Once the guy got his own boat, if you looked closely you would see him going down the river on evening paddles with a slight knee bump showing under the skirt.

These days I alternate between the Vela and my “babysitter” for when I am alone, my husband’s NDK Romany. The regular Romany is a bit oversized for me so I can get some pumping action pretty much directly under the thigh braces because they are cut so aggressively. The Vela, I no longer know exactly what I am doing in there. Me and that boat have a lot of miles together - but I am pumping when I pay attention.

As to foot pegs versus alternatives - many of us from older times use foam blocks against the bulkhead to avoid needing the foot pegs at all. Much nicer on the feet. The Vela has foam blocks installed to the point where the foot pegs sit. My first composite sea kayak that I got in 2003 has never had rails/foot pegs. When we got it from Tom Bergh at Maine Island kayak, he arrived with shaped foam blocks already cut for it to sell me if I wanted. I took them, I still have the footpegs and rails that came with the boat in a bookcase in the bedroom. (Free to anyone who wants them…)

The only reason the Romany doesn’t have full foam blocks is that I would have to shape and add another wide one to get to where my feet are in the boat. I have been too lazy to bother.

You have to develop some skepticism about whether a particular instructor you are working with is going to say something which is universally agreed with. I had one BCU coach tell us all to turn off our VHF’s set on weather alert on a training in Maine. The reason given was that you occasionally pick up chatter from a fisherman looking for bait from others, on an unexpected channel. The coach felt it was nosey. But I don’t know of any other coach who would EVER recommend in those waters that you travel without a weather alert on. (The coach was from Florida…) There were other things that day… suffice to say that Florida habits do not always work in Maine.

Later add - there is a really good reason for aging backs to do adequate rotation, that is to make sure the lower spine is being moved around and the core muscles are properly supporting it. If it is a choice between keeping your back healthy and strictly following the instructions of a coach, choose your back first. The coach is not the one who is going to have to live with your back.

This also hinges on how froggy you get if tucked under the thigh braces.

My kayak, a Pilgrim Expedition, is narrow enough that, although I still do the frog thing, the degree of splay is less than in other kayaks. Also, I did not aggressively foam the thigh braces, so comfort has never been a problem. I have plenty of wiggle room. As posted in an earlier thread, I had the chance to paddle the regular Pilgrim with more foam, in surf. I liked the snugger outfitting in surf but hesitated to set my own boat up like that.

The front coaming is narrow enough that I cannot place both knees together with side space (sticking above the coaming) like I sometimes did in wider boats. I can put them closer together with a bit more of a bend than in froggy position, but there isn’t much point in doing that because the footpegs are not placed well for that.

BTW, when I bought my kayak, after a couple of paddles in lakes, I drove with it to Tybee for the symposium and to live there part of the winter. The light foaming I have worked well enough that when our class sampled The Triangle, I was able to roll up from every capsize. The instructor, Tom Berg, first asked our group Who Thinks They Have A Combat Roll? Of course, nobody dared to say definitively yes. I said, “Well, SO FAR, it has been reliable.”

Moments later I was eyeing what looked like a nasty wave coming at us from one direction. I avoided being flipped by it, but another wave got me from a different direction as I was sizing up the first one! (Lesson: Never assume there is only one hazard.) I rolled up, and Tom shouted, “Combat Roll Number One!” with a big grin. Immediately, the person nearest to me got caught by another wave and also rolled up. “Combat Roll Number Two!” It would have looked staged to a bystander, but trust me it was not. After that, I merrily went into the fray, capsizing and rolling up probably another 5 or 6 times, whooping it up the whole time. Yeah, it might be better to avoid getting flipped in the first place, but I wanted to test my roll. Besides, it was fun doing that in warm water with no rocks or logs or strainers to worry about. If you get the chance to go there, I highly recommend it.

I’m also in agreement with the Ginni Callahan quote. Once I learned what that freedom of movement offered towards my forward stroke - and no reason to stop there - once I learned what that freedom of movement also offered towards my maneuvering strokes in a sea kayak, it became noticeably negative to not have it. Your leg power can be transferred to maneuvering strokes just as it can be to the forward stroke.

I probably do as much playing at the beaches as I do distance paddling. I definitely find fun in waves and tight maneuvering.
Yesterday I was out surfing waves in an inlet in a kayak with an ocean cockpit, and I use my legs to my best advantage, whatever I’m up against in the moment, in whatever sea kayak I’m paddling. For myself, when I sit in a kayak and set the footpegs, I want my legs to be able to lie flat on the bottom in the middle of the kayak. Then I can just simultaneously raise my knee and slip my heel back, and leave my legs, at rest, without holding anything up, resting in the thigh brace position should that be what I desire. (I don’t think I really do that while actively paddling though.) And I have freedom of movement for some pumping of my legs and rotation of my hips. If I want to be technical, I definitely have to support that freedom of movement as far as a sea kayak is concerned, regardless of the type of paddling.

At the risk of oversimplifying, having your feet splayed outward like a frog (typical whitewater/touring kayak) is great for stability, but is horrible for rotation (reduces leg drive and torso rotation). Having feet vertical and knees close together (like in a racing K1 or a surf ski) is great for leg drive / torso rotation, but “bad” for stability.

The best of both worlds is having a wide, angled foot-plate or bulkhead, that allows you to position your feet/body as necessary to suit the conditions; when conditions are favorable, get in the “surf ski” position and “fly”, when you need to brace, roll, or are getting a bit nervous about stability, become a “frog”.

To feel this yourself, sit in on the floor (the more slippery the surface the better) with your feet pressed against the wall, knees bent slightly, cross your arms (to isolate your core) and drive your legs like in your kayak (so that your butt rotates in place like you are sitting on a phonograph) . Notice what happens to your ability to rotate, and your relative stability as you move from “frog” to “surf ski” and back.

Greg Stamer

Thanks for your responses.

@“Allan Olesen”
Only time I’ve paddled 7+ mph was during a surfski demo. That was my first experience not sitting frog legged in a kayak. It felt great. No interest in racing or doing 50 miles in a day (I’d probably collapse). As paddling forward is what I do most of the time, I want to make it as efficient as possible. I do enjoy working on technique primarily because Great Lakes waves have a very short period and waves can be steep so when I need to maneuver, I want it to work. Plus, it’s fun.

I wonder if those long distance sea kayak paddlers you mention might be happier in a surfski. There’s a gal up here who is paddling the coast of all five Great Lakes in a Stellar surfski. Hatches were added so she can carry camping equipment and other gear. After a rough start, she’s paddled about 2,260 miles since late March. Completed Lake Michigan and is close to finishing Lake Superior.

I appreciate your comments. I’ve thought about a foam block but worry if it would have any effect on the bulkhead wall, maybe making the hatch leak. My kayak is 21" wide so moving my feet to the edge of the foot braces is workable although it would be nice to have my feet centered. I have SeaDog foot braces with plenty of room to move them back. Maybe I can experiment with a center foot support using the braces to support it. Since I switched leg position, it’s made a vast difference in seat and leg comfort. But I’m still in awe of WaterTribe and other long distance paddlers for their endurance, not only paddling but being in a cockpit for such long hours.

As to instructors: I’ve had good experiences and a couple not so good. Sometimes seat time is the best educator. From a student’s standpoint, I think that any instructor who states a particular stroke or leg position is not appropriate owes an explanation why. Personal custom/preference shouldn’t count.

@pikabike: I’ll win the lottery before I ever see a Pilgrim for sale in my area. Rolling: baby steps were introduced in a bracing class. I’m incompetent on my left side. That will have to wait till pool practice, as I’m not about to flounder on my own.

@CapeFear, @gstamer. I’m a believer.

@Rookie On rolling, some people are really really whatever-sided. My husband was way left sided and pulled off his first combat roll in waves on that side a few hundred rolls before I hit mine in the same conditions. But he never could master his right side - his kinesthetic sense just didn’t work over there.

I am very right sided. I finally got my left side (lost it since, gradually working on that) but only by spending pool session after pool session working on a really solid, controlled scull. One night I was as usual working on sculling up in three strokes and suddenly found myself up in one. Hence a roll.

With time away due to family illness, I have been able to recover my right side for at least basic paddling situation. It seems I can let that side go and get it back easily after long time off. But my left is going to take much more repetitive work. Again, it is my lesser kinesthetic sense on that side. Probably tension due to lack of confidence too, I admit.

What is the bulkhead material in the Samba? I have seen it, but am blanking on what it was.

In fairness to that instructor, it is possible they had a reason for fixing you in there so tight and failed to enunciate it. Or they were a bit out of date. Over my time of doing sessions with the BCU, I gradually saw them change their majority teaching on a few points. One big area of change was to argue for a looser (and more back-friendly) relationship in the cockpit - for example paddling on edge by dropping your weight into the bilge rather than holding up the other side with your leg. It is interesting that these guys - and it was pretty much all male-centric for most of my time dealing with their training - were all getting older as I was. I had to wonder how many of them were noticing the same issues with overuse as a lighter weight female and were looking for less athletic ways to solve problems.

In any case, just don’t abandon your own common sense for a training. I don’t care who they are. That instructor I mentioned above was also taking us into the middle of a channel between islands to practice rescues. I kept telling them they were reading the channel wrong but was totally ignored. Had they insisted, I was going to fail the class and refuse to go past the buoy marker in hopes that others in the class with some experience in those waters would help manage the situation. I didn’t have to - when we were about 80 feet from the nearest buoy a lobster boat came barreling thru.

My closest to becoming a newspaper story was when my husband and I deferred to the opinion of a rated 4 star paddler about a crossing to loop around an island near the mouth of the Narragansett. He kept insisting that the winds would not get overly problematical as my husband and I, little training but a lot of ocean time compared to him, were concerned that out timing would put us in the middle of it. We were right, shit happened, and at least we had drysuits. Us and the boats, after a series of mishaps in 30 mph winds, ended up on the opposite shore from our cars getting a ride across the bridge from a couple of locals who had a lot of fun at our expense. They were right, really nothing we could say.

Pool practice is nice to have. I am still trying to find one for where I live. Otherwise, it might be another 7+ months with no roll practice, like this past winter. Fortunately, my roll was still intact come spring.

You are on the right track by calling your nondominant side simply the “left” instead of “my offside.” Psychological thing. It helps to do as many things as possible on both sides, both paddling and nonpaddling. Yeah, I mean using eating utensils with your other side occasionally, stuff like that. Learning to tie different knots both sides. I am right-handed, but after doing a lot of leftie stuff, I sometimes forget “which side” I just rolled or did something else with. When I stop doing things with both sides, the right dominance reasserts itself more strongly.

The brain needs exercise on both sides, apparently.

Have been paddling a EDY Fathom LV since April. Got tired of searching for a used LV so I took advantage of a generous discount offered by a nearby dealer and placed an order last winter. Its 21" beam and 15’5" length are similar to your Vela stats. Hard chined, which I prefer. Bulkhead walls are ABS. It’s my load and go boat and because of it’s super secondary, was the catalyst to change leg position. The Samba stays home on the beach for practice sessions.

I’ve been thinking about the rolling thing and wondering if it’s something worth learning if you can only do it well on one side. Don’t think you get a choice on which side you capsize, or can you control that? Nor do I know if you have a choice on which side to roll up. This is all a strange new world.

All I’ve done is rank beginner basics. First using a paddle float and kayak bow for the hip exercises, then a person standing alongside for the rolling part. On my right side I can bring my LV over me with my head resting on my paddle or a kayak bow, then pop back up. Left side is weaker and just doesn’t work well. Could be part mental too, as I hold back from edging deeply on my left side because I don’t feel balanced, although I am trying to overcome that with more practice.

First attempt rolling was a disaster (no paddle was used). Maybe because I had to go over on my left. Got disoriented, sat up, fell out of my seat, and wound up looking at the lake bottom wondering where my support person was, rather than doing something smart like popping my skirt and exiting. Second try went better - but that’s where it ended. On a bright note, I’ve always had a strong aversion to my head being under water. That was cured quickly. Sort of like avoiding a food you think you hate and it turns out not to be as bad as expected.

I do have some uncertainties but will practice the basic stuff in the shallows of home water and see where it goes this winter at the pool.

As to instruction, if I’m doing something that is working well and am told not to, I’d like to know why. I’m paying an expert to teach me so will do as I’m told during class. But not afterwards unless there’s a good reason. In all other respects, that particular instructor was great. Only once was I incredulous when, in a GP class, I was called out for doing it “all wrong” because I use a high angle stroke. She holds an ACA L2 certification, but I knew better (thanks to Bill Bremer who made my Lumpy and studying Greg Stamer’s website). While I lowered my hands for the class (and got a verbal pat on the head), I avoid any symposium where she’s on the list of coaches because I don’t want to get stuck with her again.

Ok, l will have to get back to some of this later. Hanging around trying to figure out if an evening paddle is a go or no because a dreadfully badly timed front coming at is.

But on the easy stuff… Always worth getting a solid roll on at least one side, so you can work on the other more easily. If l fail on my left l can cross under and come up on my right. Beats the hell out of getting out of the boat and having to do it all the hard way. WW and in tidal current or surf both sides are better, but 90% of the time your best side will work if you wait down there for a few seconds. No need to cover why here, but it works.

Your left side problems are likely mostly a lack of confidence. Once you have a good understanding of the motion on the right, you will have an easier time drilling the left into submission. I really did have to get that side by sculling. Regular roll training was not working

Yeah, there are a handful of individual instructors l would not pay a dime to work with, just had nothing but useless with them. Some others that are only good for certain skills, for ex it is worth it to go there for canoe training but downright dangerous in strong current work. People are still people and that is fine. It is only a problem when they decide they are infallible.

Anyway, time to recheck the radar.


Thanks. Will try your lefty tips. Am adding extra reps on my left arm for weight training and have been faithful about rotator cuff exercises, so think my shoulders are in pretty good shape. Maybe more intense practice working left side strokes and left edging, carving etc. will help with the balance/confidence issue. We’re losing daylight hours here so the best option for midweek paddling is to stay home and do practice stuff. Used to have daylight until 9:30 p.m. No longer. :’(

What’s really odd is that I can do a pretty good sideslip rotated and traveling left, but it doesn’t always work that well on my stronger right side. Maybe because I’m edged to the right to go left and vice versa?

Neither of my boats have seats that are conducive to butt rotation. I’m a full time frog. I think when they start making sea kayaks with seats on rails and you can push the seat backwards… that would be some leg power.

Do all paddling strokes and maneuvers on both sides if you can. ALL of them. I find that sometimes one side or the other is better for a particular stroke, then next time it starts out the opposite or both are the same. I think some things are especially prone to influence by wind direction, even light wind. Tiny differences in amount of torso rotation have surprisingly big effects, too. If one side is a little tight, that’s all it takes to throw things off from just-right.

If one side is not as good as the other, I immediately work at improving it. I don’t want a little defect in technique to become ingrained. My goal is always to fix whatever it is during that day’s paddle. This is one reason why I usually prefer to paddle alone; one person playing technique-dialer while the other is just focused on getting from Point A to Point B (or worse yet, chatting) don’t add up to the best combination.

Funny you mention sideslip (hanging draw, whatever). That one probably exasperated me more than anything else. Because on a day when leftside forward was better than rightside forward, oddly enough rightside backward tended to be better than leftside backward. I would do all of them oriented both directions to shore or dock just in case wind was affecting it. But WHY this happened, I still don’t know…

Stern rudder is another good one to get ticked off over, LOL.

With all the potential futzing up of geometries, depths, heights, and intensities, paddling mechanics isn’t quite as easy as it might look. The more I think about it, the more complex it seems. I’d better stop thinking about it, haha.

I foamed my boats back from the bulkhead leaving the foot brace rails in so that someone else could use the boat. Once you get the foam right you have the best of both worlds.

@pikabike said:

With all the potential futzing up of geometries, depths, heights, and intensities, paddling mechanics isn’t quite as easy as it might look. The more I think about it, the more complex it seems. I’d better stop thinking about it, haha.

Very Newtonian. But very fun.

A hanging draw/sideslip in reverse gear? That’s pretty creative. Thanks - have something new to play with. Starting with the left side, of course.


Back the next day - got away with the paddle last night before the monsoon hit. Frankly due to another paddler’s suggestion on how and it was a small group. We dropped two paddlers who correctly bailed because of the conditions and their boat or comfort zone were not a match for the situation.

First, I didn’t realize or had forgotten you switched boat. My bad. I suspect that you could foam it out with no problem if you went for at least a 2 inch wide, maybe three if you had the patience to shape that thick a chunk, minicell foam. The thicker the foam block, the more the foam itself will absorb any pressure. And do as Greyhawk recommended (and I did in my Vela), pad around the footpegs and rails with the footpegs towards you near the seat side. It’ll hold the foam block in and leave you with an ability to let someone else use the boat.

I am unclear how the first attempt at a real roll was approached with you, but in most cases I have seen people get started by dropping down on the same side they will be coming up on at first. Until the body memory is drilled in on that side. Then they can take advantage of the inertia you get from a full 360 rotation.

My bete noire with rolling was claustrophobia about being under the water and having to keep my legs in a boat. Had done body surfing when I was younger so being somewhat pinned down there to wait was not a big deal. But the lack of freedom of my legs was a monster for me. Took a ridiculous amount of time to get by it and it is still something I have to work around if it has been a while away from things.

I have a similar issue on the side slip, one side doesn’t slip as well as the other but I forget which, and it is a combination of edging uncertainty on that side and very practical issue that my rotation is not as good on one side as the other. Especially since I am a summer away now from any Yoga classes. It is physical flexibility and starting out with one side more restricted is fairly normal. Shows up in the static brace too - on my left I have to grab the edge of the boat behind me before going over ,to hold the arch.

@Celia >

First, I didn’t realize or had forgotten you switched boat. My bad.

Nope, you’re good. I hadn’t mentioned it before.

Think I have a mental picture of the foam block placement. Before I started work on a foam low back support I purchased blocks of heavy duty florist foam to play around with as working with minicell is new to me. The fake stuff gave me an idea of what I needed to do, but midway I had to reinstall my backband for the bracing and rolling intro class, so the final work on that project’s on hold right now. But I’ve got lots of the fake foam around to play with.

Your and Greyhawk’s description sound like a better idea than my initial idea of attaching a three-inch wide piece of wood to the foot braces with Gorilla tape (which has pretty amazing adhesion, even when wet).

For now I’ll just practice whatever baby rolling steps I can do safely on my own. I have Cheri Perry & Turner Wilson’s “This is the Roll” video for inspiration.

I subscribe to Bryan Hansel’s “Paddling Light” and a while back, came across this comment: “Competence doesn’t come with gear choice or a class. It comes from seat time and lots of it.” I believe you and a few others have made similar remarks. It’s been a good comment for me to remember.

@Rookie said:

I’ve been thinking about the rolling thing and wondering if it’s something worth learning if you can only do it well on one side. Don’t think you get a choice on which side you capsize, or can you control that? Nor do I know if you have a choice on which side to roll up. This is all a strange new world.

For the first year or so, I could only roll up on my right side. During that year, I had perhaps 40 involuntary capsizes*, and in all but 2 or 3 of them, I was able to roll up. So I would say that it is well worth learning, even though you can only roll up to one side.

The trick is: As soon as you have a decent roll to one side, start practicing on getting into position for a roll after capsizing. Ideally, you should be able to start from any position under the water and get yourself into position for a roll. If you can do that, you only really need to be able to roll up on one side, as long as you are on flat water with not too much wind**.

Also, being able to set up a roll under water will make your roll much more usable in real life. I know a lot of paddlers who can roll when they train roll, but they never roll up when they capsize, because they depend on having set up the roll before they capsize.

*: I don’t understand why people brag about never having capsized. In my opinion, if you don’t capsize, you are not training hard enough. So I am pretty proud of those 40 capsizes.

**: The approach of only rolling to one side may not work when you capsize in waves or strong wind. Under those circumstances, the wind and water will often decide which side you need to roll up to, and then you will have to obey or bail out. When I could only roll up to the right side, I joked that all my island circumnavigations had to be counter-clockwise so the waves would always help my roll.

Agree. As soon as you get a reliable roll on one side start working on the other side. From then on, for every roll or brace you do to the right, do one to the left until they are equally comfortable, said the man with a pool in his back yard.

Seriously, it helps if you have a pool or water close by to practice in.