High Brace - Avoidance vs Muscle Memory?

After all of these years, this still sits for me as a question unanswered. What am I missing?
Several top level coaches whom I respect stick fairly closely by “just don’t use the high brace”. I have literally seen cringing when it’s mentioned by students. It’s quite possible that they’ve seen some shoulder injuries. But this sentiment hasn’t seemed universal.
I’ve been there for a couple of shoulder dislocations myself. One was a person who I recommended using the edge of the pool to practice rotation / hip flicks. The other was someone who got a low brace extended too high up on a wave in the surf. There are no guarantees. Injuries can happen to any of us.
Now it would be fine to just put a big red X over the words “high brace”, and be done with it, right?
I do quite a bit of playing in the surf, and I’ll occasionally dedicate some time to practicing back surfing. The reason isn’t because I decided I wanted to back surf. It’s because despite my best efforts, I will occasionally find myself back surfing. And the pushier the conditions, the higher the likelihood. I found this incredibly disorienting at first, and it still can be to some extent. What I’ve seen in others, and I’m sure others have seen in me, is a lot of confused indecision about what to do with the paddle in a surprise back surf, and therefore significantly diminished control and capsizes.
So I dedicate some practice to back surfing. What I find that’s quick, secure, and easy to learn is turning my body as if to start a sweep stroke, and touching the water with that forward blade. From there I can plant further to control or pry the bow, or quickly rotate to the other side to do the same there. So now you have both a reassuring brace position, and the ability to perform bow pry turning while back surfing.
The thing about this brace position is it’s a high brace position. When I said I turn my body like I’m about to plant a sweep stroke, and I touch my blade face to the water, the thing I do differently is I keep my elbow tucked into my body behind that forward hand. I keep both elbows tucked into my body actually.
Now, when my kayak broaches in front of a wave out of a back surf, I have a smooth gradual transition out into the wave as I broach in front of it.
But this is a high brace. Much like a sweep and a roll, the whole process incorporates a high brace position for support. You can find different ways to manage your paddle in this process, but this is quick, secure, effective, intuitive, and gives you the same fluid transitions between steering and bracing as stern rudder to low brace during a forward surf and broach.
What I struggle with is that practicing proper best practices, giving it significant practice, leads to muscle memory and execution without thinking about it - unconscious competence. I don’t have to think about keeping my elbows tucked in high brace situations. I just find myself doing it, based out of practice and muscle memory.
Add surfing to the equation, and this above is just a singular example of a situation where someone is likely to use a high brace, whether it’s been taught, whether it’s been properly learned, or not.
So is it a better position to treat the high brace as a statistical probability among all paddlers, whereas the less it’s used, the less it can be identified as the cause of injury. Or is it possible that learned safe execution - given the likelihood that things can come at you pretty fast, and you might, despite your best efforts, find yourself in a high brace position occasionally - might it be best to intentionally create safe high brace muscle memory?

An excellent set of questions. I love high brace, but like you I learned to do it with maximum shoulder safety: literally in a palms-out-chin-up position with my back hitting the water first, chin to the sky. I’ve sidesurfed my share of waves in that position with zero shoulder issues (and I have a bum shoulder, so I would definitely feel if something was wrong).

I think the problem is that it’s taught as the next progressive step beyond the low brace, whereas it might be better to teach it after someone has a solid layback roll with good mechanics. I teach my students to roll with a Greenland paddle so that the elbows-tight, hands-at-shoulder-height position gets dialled in. If they can do that well, then a safe high brace is available. And you’re absolutely right: muscle memory has to be on point.

But yeah, it’s a discussion worth having, as a bad high brace puts too much strain on the shoulder, but a safe high brace is an amazing tool.

I teach high braces, and focus on arm positions. Only thing high brace I don’t teach is high brace turns in sea kayaks (don’t understand when you use them - I think they are a white water thing but not really useful in long boats).

Having a bit of trouble envisioning the position you are talking about. You talk about starting as if a sweep stroke, but when I do a sweep I try to keep the shaft as horizontal as possible, so would not be in a high brace position.

Are you actually in a bow rudder or cross bow rudder position?

Even if you were in a high brace but torso rotated so the paddle was up by your feet, and your arms are in an unsafe position, I think it may be less unsafe because the pressure is less. Your blade would be more slicing through water than a flat supporting stroke. A flat blade (as in a brace) can provide a lot of upward pressure (which could blow out shoulder if arms are not in position), where the slicing blade would not. So maybe this makes it safer.

For back surfing, have you watched Tom Humphries’ (from Neptune’s Rangers) videos? One of the most proficient back surfers I have ever seen. He flips his paddle blade over (so the non-power face is doing the work) before planting it. I am not as proficient as he, so don’t do this (but maybe should as I have a lot of trouble controlling the boat in back surf situations). The video below shows it reasonably clearly:

I definitely can see the teaching progression issue. I like the idea of progressing from rolling mechanics into safe high brace mechanics.

Neither a bow rudder nor cross bow rudder position. Don’t get overly technical about precisely modeled hand positions, and you’ll see it. It’s like the video, without flipping the paddle. He’s placing the paddle in the position he would if going into a forward sweep stroke My front arm is down,. my body rotated, and I don’t extend my elbow out from my body - just my hand.
When his kayak turns off of the wave, he has his wave side hand in a high brace position as the wave goes under him. Imagine the wave is bigger and broken on top such that it will side surf him. The paddle blade moves from the bow to more out to the side with elbow down as you come parallel with the wave.
I notice as he gets going backwards his blade is less up towards the front of the bow. So the video shows what I’m doing, only without the paddle flip. The main point being the fluid motion of that paddle position moving out to the side being a high brace position.
I’ve got a friend out here who likes to flip his paddle while going forward performing stern rudders while surfing.

Peter, you did touch on another important point - the blade slicing through the water. Whether forward or back surfing, I practice my blade slicing through the wave, not on top of it. Leaving the blade planing on top of the water will dislocate shoulders out of high or low braces, as I described with the low brace dislocation in the original post. Blade angle control is important, and seems would be difficult, or at least awkward, in a low brace position while back surfing. It may be possible though?

Despite a perfectly decent low brace, when I was in surf I tended to go high pretty much every time. For me, the effect of all those cautions was that it ALWAYS came with my elbows locked to my side. I can’t recall I was ever tempted to release that restriction. In fact I know I swam a few times because I was unwilling to get my body over far enough to make up for the not-long reach of a paddle sized for someone 5’4" tall.

It’s just faster to get to and frankly, with wrists more apt for a not-big female who plays violin than a burly guy, the high brace feels more secure as long as I don’t extend.

Fascinating video, Peter. Ran it in slow motion so I could watch more closely. What are the two gizmos mounted on his paddle shaft?

As to the high brace, while it was taught in my classes (with a caution about possible shoulder injury), more emphasis was put on the low brace. I work on my low brace but occasionally will practice a high brace. Like Celia, always keeping my elbows tight to my sides. But I’ve never used a high brace nor would I ever attempt a high brace turn. Had never seen one until today when I found a video showing it.

High brace turn in current works well when crossing an eddy line.

On a big enough wave, the low brace becomes unworkable, in my experience.

When I am on my game - not now and I will have a LOT to recover come summer - I find the high brace turn to be really fun. You do need decent inertia, which I typically don’t have unless in moving water or on the side of wave. But if you get some dimensional water to work with give it a shot.

I asked a guy who does a lot of kayak photography if he had any pictures of Tom backsurfing that show the arm positions he is using. Here is what he sent:

The arm positions are that of a bow rudder.

Looking at it, I can see how that could be a worry for dislocations, but we teach it all the time and dislocation concerns are generally not brought Up. I think the difference is that the extended arm is not up high (in the side view it is going just about straight out front, not upward). In a brace as the boat rotates, it would be easy to have your arm go up.

That said, I am going to ask about this on an instructors group I am on and see what they say.

I think this gets to the crux of my question.
He’s at a safe moment for his arm positions. I imagine if he turns sideways, the arm into the wave ends up with the elbow in close to his body. If not, that’s a whole different discussion. But if you practice high braces with elbows kept close to the body, I think that has a good chance of coming naturally as you broach out of a back surf. Now imagine someone who just doesn’t use high braces because high braces are injury prone, using these pictures as an instruction model for back surfing control. In this unfamiliar moment, as their kayak rotates, do they end up with an extended arm on top of a wave? Would spending time concentrating on safe high bracing lead to safer bracing in these moments?
Is someone who practices safe high braces and doesn’t particularly fret using them more or less likely to get injured than someone who doesn’t practice, avoids, and finds themself resorting to one in rough water situations?
Anyone, would you emphasize a solidly learned safe high brace for rough water, or would you skim over it lightly while solidly emphasizing avoidance?

Emphasize a solidly learned high brace.

I do use a high brace a fair amount. All depends on where my paddle is when a brace is called for. Some positions are more natural to go to high brace, where others are ore natural t go to low brace. Best to learn how to do it correctly (and safely) so you can use it when needed.

From a comment he has on the Youtube video:
they are foam grips I duct taped onto the shaft for better leverage on the paddle blades. I normally paddle with a bent shaft which I don’t have anything added onto at this point.

I am trying to remember what he said when he talked about flipping his paddle over as being better. I think it was due to his normal paddle being a bent shaft, and the positions of the bends on it didn’t work well for back surfing. Could be wrong.

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Thanks for the catch on the paddle being upside down. Was wondering about that but was more interested in trying to assess the outcome of his arm positions.

These were taken when he was into a wave face, so the same shots not even a second later could have very different arm positions. Or be a bow rudder or whatever. So I leave that assessment to the instructors.

The one thing that short-torsoed me is seeing is that in the second shot, to my eyes he is behind the center of balance or what ever in the boat. By a similar time on the wave, I have to be if anything ahead of it or I will too easily get pulled off center and end up swimming. My shoulders on their best days are not made to counter a really strong pull like that, and it is the shoulders doing the work with an extended arm.

I might capsize before I hurt my shoulder, but in surf it can be an open question whether that or taking a swim is the worse risk.

I was taught low and high brace decades ago. To the best of my recollection, over the last 37 years or so of kayaking, I’ve never had to consciously brace to prevent a capsize except on a few rare occasions when I’ve ended up in mild ocean surf (I’ve mostly lived near low energy salt and fresh water environments), and then it’s mostly been more of a leaning on my paddle while side surfing - not really a proper brace.

A few years ago, I was at a paddling festival in Charleston and took a surf class. The waves were real dumpy and kind of chaotic that day. I was very conscious of wanting to keep my elbows low and not wanting to do a high brace, but I ended up getting turned by a wave after a short ride and tried to side surf, but the wave was too big and rolled me anyway (failed side surf). Somehow I ended up in what I think must have been a bad high brace-like position. Trying to reconstruct what happened after the fact, I think that as I was in the process of being rolled by the wave (towards the beach), the surging water grabbed the back side of my seawards facing paddle blade and pulled (or maybe “pushed” is more accurate) it further away from my body. So as I was at that point more or less horizontal with respect to the water’s surface, the paddle got yanked up and over my head (and I’m guessing a bit behind), forcing my arm into an untenable position. The wave passed and I ended up upside down with a paralyzed arm which fortunately, after 10 minutes or so, resolved (although several times during the rest of the day while doing small little things like rolling down my window, it again became temporarily paralyzed). I thought I had subluxated my shoulder but a PT I saw later on said she suspected I suffered a shock to my brachial plexus. As an aside, being upside down with a functionally paralyzed arm emphasized to me the need to ensure you can pop your spray skirt and wet exit with your non-dominant hand/arm which fortunately I was able to do.

I wish I had a video of that so I could better assess what I did wrong. I feel like even though I was very conscious of not wanting to end up in a high brace position, it happened anyway, partly because the wave’s energy forced me into that position. But maybe I wasn’t holding the paddle correctly while side surfing and that allowed the wave to throw the paddle over my head when the side surf went awry. I suspect that I was holding the loom with my knuckles up and my hands above my elbows, but still low so that the paddle loom was just a few inches above my lap (so sort of a hybrid low/high brace).

Two more quick thoughts. The high brace position, while side surfing, always seemed preferable to me (until I learned about the dangers of the high brace vis-a-vis shoulder injuries) because when you lean very aggressively into the wave, like at a 90 degree angle, it’s easy to keep the paddle face on the surface of the water but near impossible to do that with a low brace so far as I can tell.

Second, when using a skimming brace during aggressive turns, I often lean way back to lower my center of gravity. I have wondered how that interacts with a high brace in terms of safety. It seems that if you are basically laying on the deck of your kayak, the high brace becomes something else as you are basically in kind of an upside-down push-up position (or bench press position) and the forces that would normally be pulling the paddle over and perhaps behind your head, would now just be pushing the paddle out and away from your torso.

That sounds like a deep form a sculling brace. The basic sculling brace one stays upright and sculls in a modification of the high brae position. But you can only lean over so far before you can’t support your weight with the sculls. But leaning back and then pivoting in to the water, a portion of your weight is supported by your PFD and your body’s water displacement, so less effort is needed to keep you from flipping. This next step is what I call a deep sculling brace.

Monkeyhead, wouldn’t it be great to have video of those type of moments?
I participated in a class where Wayne Horodowich spoke at length about shoulder anatomy and safety. I remember him talking about the anatomy, and how if your elbow rises to shoulder level and above, this is where things are more free to pull apart. He seemed to know what he was talking about? I really enjoyed his class. I can’t recall if he had a solid stance on this master or avoid high brace subject.
Now when you say you were “very conscious of not ending up in a high brace position”, and “somehow I ended up in what I think must have been a bad high brace-like position”, this makes me wonder.
Put your low brace out there and let it come up on the surface of a steep wave. Your shoulder is exposed. I know of 2 shoulder dislocations happening like this, where they described it as such. Yours sounds like it could be that? Is it possible that it was the result of a bad low brace-like position? Video would be good. There is very little room in that situation between a safe low brace and a very vulnerable one.

The way I have been taught, this is per definition a high brace, even though you keep it low.

Why would you want the blade on top of the water? There is often more support to find below the water surface.

Of course, you could be thinking about the more vertical shaft orientation of the low brace. However, I don’t think that is a problem either in side surf. I have never felt that as aa problem, even though I have been told that I lean too much into the wave. (I am a terrible surfer but an ok side surfer.)

Theoretically, you don’t need upwards lift to avoid capsizing. You just need a force, which can create torque around the longitudinal axis of the boat. That torque can as well be created by a horisontal force below the boat - which you can be pretty sure to get when the boat is rushing sideways towards the beach in non-moving water.

If you watch around the 1:30 part of this video, you will see a forward surfing broach into a side surfing low brace. For those who aren’t sure what is meant by “low brace”, if you hold a paddle like you normally hold a paddle, and you are supporting yourself on the back side of your paddle blade, knuckles facing down, that is considered a low brace. As you can see, in this context, it has nothing to do with how low you keep your arms. We’ll assume this is a very calculated low brace position with an experienced paddler. Notice the arm position, how high it gets in this low brace. Imagine a situation where you have clapotis, things feel out of control and are happening fast, and a wave jacks up under that low brace. This is that compromised position for that shoulder. And this is why shoulder dislocations can easily happen out of low braces in rough water play, not just high braces.
The thing that saves your arm position in these braces is blade angle control - the ability to control the level of your blade into the wave with neutral to slightly diving to slightly rising positions, so that it never goes too far below you, or comes too far up on the wave. This just comes with a lot of blade angle control practice. I find it more awkward and unnatural to achieve a slightly diving blade angle when slicing forward through the water in a low brace position, which is what leads to this compromised arm position such as this example. What’s your experience?
The other piece is that, at the moment where his blade is on top of the wave and his upper arm high, if he converts that to a high brace by flipping his paddle, aiming his knuckles to the air, he could have his paddle at shoulder height and still have his elbow tucked down against his body. You don’t need paddle extension for support in that situation. (The movement provided by the wave pushing you provides gobs of support.) But again, if a wave jacks up higher while in either a low or high brace position, you don’t want to follow it up, you want to practice slicing the blade through the wave, and keep your arm position down.
I saw this great P&H boat with great paddlers out having fun, and I couldn’t help but notice this good example that demonstrates how easily you can get your arms up high in a low brace.