Downwind paddling tips and tricks

As we move into late summer and early fall we are entering peak season in Northern Michigan for awesome downwind paddling.   The water temperatures are relatively warm based on a nice late summer heat wave, the air temps are good on most days, and the wind is starting to blow.

I have written about downwind paddling before so will try not to duplicate previous blogs.  Rather I will attempt to give a refresher and share some of my latest insights and learning as well as some invaluable advice I recently received from Rob Hartman.   Rob himself has made significant improvements this year in his downwind paddling prowess, but continues to recognize, like all of us, there is still so much to learn.

Holding a high AVERAGE Speed

The Fastest Mile Competition that I started this year has been an excellent motivator and gauge for assessing improvements in downwind paddling.   This was part of the reason I started this challenge.  I realized that while it is easy and tons of fun to just go out and catch waves one at a time and charge straight down the face, the real challenge comes in linking them together and maintaining high speeds for miles at a time.  Nothing will kill your average per mile pace like a few stalls in the middle of a downwind run.

Below are some excellent pointers directly from Rob (anyone who has followed the Fastest Mile Challenge has seen Rob continuously string together 11 mph averages on big days in Lake Michigan, so I would say he is definitely onto something)

  1. Nose in the hole, head for the hole behind the wave you’re chasing in front of you. Watch for other holes to form and maneuver towards them
  2. Stay loose, not over-working trying to catch a bigger swell. Know when you aren’t going to catch it and when to back off. If you miss one, the one you miss will still increase your speed, and you might then use a couple waves to increase speed and then actually catch the 3rd one or so.
  3. Start paddling to catch a wave sooner, and stop paddling sooner once on it
  4. Hanging back on the wave. This helps keep you from stalling/jamming into the wave in front, gives you the ability to turn more easily because there is less of the waterline in the water, allows you to stop paddling sooner, gives you potential energy to charge down and link to a newly forming run in front or to the side
  5. It seems like anytime you feel yourself trying to blast uphill, or ruddering really hard, you’re probably doing something wrong
  6. While hanging back, high on the wave, surf right or left on the wave.
  7. Stay “sharp” and be ready in between runs. Resist the tendency to rest too long on a run.   It is better to start a light, “spinning” stroke sooner so you’re more ready to apply power to catch the next run sooner, hopefully linking to a new one before you lose too much speed.
  8. The things that are most clicking for me are hanging back on the wave (stopping paddling sooner) and staying sharp between runs (starting paddling sooner).
  9. The thing I don’t have a good handle on is turning right or left as soon you’re on a run. I think the idea is you’re moving faster when surfing to the side. That extra speed is obviously good because it allows you to link to other runs. Turning also helps prevent stalling and inherently keeps you further back on the wave.
  10. It seems like in the bigger stuff you can kill yourself trying to surf down the face of every big wave that comes. It’s almost like there are times where you want to be a little less aggressive, but maybe more responsive/reflexive.
  11. It’s helpful to think of getting moving faster little by little, wave by wave, rather than surfing one all at once.
  12. Based on point 2 above,  the idea of staying back/high makes more sense.
  13. Only think of charging down the face when you’re purposefully trying to link to the next wave

These are all excellent points from Rob.   Additionally I would add the following:

  1. Re-iteration of point 3 above.  This is so critical I am making it my mantra for the rest of the season.   Stop paddling as soon as you feel your on the wave (typically sooner than you think).    And start paddling sooner while you still have the momentum of the wave to propel you to the next one.
  2. Don’t give up or get frustrated.   It takes time to get proficient.   Remember to experiment constantly to find what works best for you.   The conditions are never exactly the same
  3. To the extent possible, try to get aligned directly downwind when you can.  I have a habit of paddling too close to shore where the waves are angling in to shore and this makes it hard to have an optimal run
  4. DEVELOP PROPER FORWARD STROKE TECHNIQUE:  I am convinced that this is extremely critical to being a successful downwind paddler.
  5. In downwind conditions you need to have a strong habit of spearing the blade and driving a powerful stroke versus slapping at the water.  In many cases you are in a position where you only want to make two or three strokes to get on the next wave so those really need to count.
  6. Strong technique will also make you more stable in your boat and give you the confidence to apply full power regardless of how unbalanced the boat may seem at any given point on a wave.
  7. Much easier said than done, but try to relax and not be tense.  Paddle offensively and not defensively.
  8. If you are dressed appropriately, have a good leash, and have a bullet proof remount, there should be no fear whatsoever of going for a swim

If you live locally and are interested in downwind paddling,  let me know and follow us on Facebook.  I’ll be trying to organize some runs on West Bay through Sept and October.