Thursday, April 27, 2017

Strokes notes: Thinking outside the Box

If you've ever taken an introductory kayaking course, you've heard of the "Paddler's Box." The Box is one of those classic fundamental rules of kayaking, and it's generally considered critically important for protecting yourself from injury--particularly shoulder injury--while kayaking. Many of the most common errors of paddling technique can be ascribed to doing things outside the Paddler's Box. 

If you've somehow managed to avoid being introduced to the Paddler's Box, here's a link to a short but helpful videoAnd here's how the instructor in that video describes the Paddler's Box for those watching:
"The Paddler's Box is a rectangle that we create between our arms, our paddle, and our shoulders."


OK, so things are a bit clearer if you watch the video. But still, maybe we can find something a little more descriptive. How about this, from Jackson Kayak's paddle education site:
"The Paddler’s Box is the rectangle shape that can be traced from the hands, up the arms to the shoulders, across the chest and back down the paddle. It is the rectangle that is created by our upper body, arms and paddle shaft."

That's a little better, though we'll see in a moment that it's incomplete. Here's a simple diagram that might help, from the blogger and whitewater kayaker brthomas:

So we can kind of see where the rectangle is there. Its four sides are the shoulders, the two extended arms, and the paddle. Maybe it's more of a trapezoid than a rectangle, but that's ok. And from the video and a number of these websites we get the sense of how to maintain the Paddler's Box. Here, from
"The paddler’s box moves with you as you rotate your torso, and it is generally important to stay within the box as you paddle."

So the box always stays out in front of you, even when you rotate to the left or right. The idea behind the Paddler's Box is that it forces you to think about getting your body in position for a stroke--any stroke--by rotating your torso rather than reaching with your hands and arms. It's supposed to keep you from doing things with your hands that you just shouldn't do, like reaching behind you to place the paddle for a stern rudder. This is, without question, a good thing. So I can appreciate the desire to have a rule that communicates this important principle of good paddling. Unfortunately, I think that the Paddler's Box may not be the best way to achieve that goal. 

I've never been fully comfortable with the idea of the Paddler's Box, for two reasons. First of all, I find the Paddler's Box extremely difficult to visualize. The diagram and descriptions above, though pretty typical, provide me only with a Paddler's Rectangle at best. Here's a more three-dimensional attempt to describe the box, from a site called ThoughtCo:
"When the hands are on the paddle and extended out in front of the paddler, the paddler’s box can be traced from the hands, up the arms to the shoulders, and including the chest and paddle contained within these constraints. This shape should roughly approximate a square. Now, extend those dimensions and shape down to the boat and that gives you the paddler’s box...Maintaining the paddler’s box simply means not allowing the hands to extend past the shoulders on either side, but they can move up or down within this imaginary box."

So the Paddler's Rectangle gets projected down to the deck of the boat, and this forms the Paddler's Box. It's a rectangular cube, and I'm supposed to keep my hands inside of it. That's actually not bad, I can see what the box is and how I'm supposed to use it. But it wasn't particularly easy to get to this point. And it brings me to the second reason that I don't like the Paddler's Box: For many skills, even demonstration-quality skills, the kind that you'd want your students or fellow paddlers to emulate, I'm pretty hard pressed to say whether or not my hands are inside my Paddler's Box. In other words, even when I think I can visualize the Box, I'm still not really sure what I'm allowed to do with my hands. Think of a good sculling draw, for example. Here's an image of someone demonstrating the stroke from the Necky Kayaks paddling skills website:

Where's the Box? Is his upper (left) hand outside of it? It's certainly above his shoulder; it seems to be level with his forehead. What about his right hand, which appears to have moved outside the box to the right? Or has it? I'm at a loss to explain to someone whether or not this paddler has maintained his Paddler's Box. But I don't think he's clearly doing anything wrong. 

In short, I find the Paddler's Box complicated to explain, difficult to visualize, and nearly impossible to apply to many skills. So what's the alternative? Here's my proposal for a rule to replace the Paddler's Box:

Never, ever, ever, under any circumstances, allow your elbow to go either above or behind your shoulder. 

I believe that this rule covers every possible violation of shoulder safety that the Paddler's Box is meant to cover, and I think that it's also simpler to understand and simpler to implement. Here are a few examples of things paddlers do that I think should never be done:

  • Finishing the forward stroke with the arms instead of using good rotation
  • Reaching above the head for a high brace
  • Reaching behind the back for a stern rudder instead of rotating
  • Reaching across the body for a draw stroke instead of rotating

In every single case, I think that following the rule above would prevent the paddler from committing these errors. A good efficient forward stroke should eliminate the pull-through with the arms that causes your elbow to go behind your shoulder. If your elbow goes above your shoulder for a high brace, you're asking for injury. The only way you can get the paddle placed for a stern rudder without putting your elbow behind your shoulder is to rotate aggressively toward the paddle. And the guy above demonstrating the sculling draw is just fine; he's rotated so that he can keep is right elbow in front of his right shoulder and his left elbow at or below his other shoulder. 

Unlike the Paddler's Box, which is so challenging to communicate that in five minutes of googling I managed to find at least four variations, this rule has the great benefit of simplicity. And, even better, to implement the rule I get to refer to things that actually exist. So instead of trying to figure out if the stroke keeps my hands inside some imaginary box, the limits of which are baffling to describe and literally impossible to see, I just have to look at where my elbows are in relation to my shoulders. 

The big remaining question is whether or not this rule does all the work that I want it to do. Can you think of an instance in which you'd feel justified in breaking the rule? Can you think of a movement that would put your shoulder at risk that wouldn't be prevented by applying it? If you can, I'd be interested to hear about it. If you can't, then maybe it's time we stopped worrying about the Paddler's Box, and started paying more attention to our elbows.  

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Strokes Notes: Hanging on the paddle

Cross-over paddlesports are more popular than ever, with many kayakers expanding their skills by moving from flatwater to whitewater (or vice versa), or by trying out stand up paddleboard or canoeing. Unfortunately, there is one sport that I rarely see mentioned in discussions of these alternatives: rowing. I suppose I can understand why this blind spot exists. Unlike kayaking, rowing is primarily aimed at mastery of a single stroke, which seems contrary to paddlesports in which the goal is more complete control over a much more maneuverable vessel. But I'd argue that rowing has a great deal to offer the kayaker. There is something to be said for millions of repetitions aimed at perfection of a single stroke; specifically, it tends to develop a deep feeling of connection between body, boat, blade, and water, a feeling toward which all paddlers should strive.

I think that there may be one particularly valuable lesson that rowing has to offer the kayaker. It centers on a key concept in rowing: “hanging on the oar.” Here is a quote from Todd Jesdale, onetime U.S. Mens' Junior National rowing coach:

"A rower needs to find ways to have the push and power of the legs go directly to the oar handle, with little interruption. Simultaneously, one must realize that every ounce of power applied to the oar handle must emanate from the footstretchers, that there is a one to one connection between push against the footstretchers and pull on the oar handle. So, when one pushes very hard with the legs and keeps various parts of the body from giving way or breaking, one moves the oar handle as well."

Replace "oar handle" with "paddle shaft" and "footstretchers" with "footpegs," and I believe this statement captures something critical at the heart of the kayaking forward stroke. It also explains many of the ways in which kayakers routinely fail to exploit the full efficiency of that stroke.

To get an idea of what Jesdale means, take a look at Figure 1. This figure presents a series of images from a video clip of Rob Waddell, a rower with multiple World Championships and an Olympic gold medal to his name. These images show the "drive" segment of a single stroke, from the catch in frame 1 to the release in frame 8. Notice that from frames 1 to 3, for the first half of his stroke, it's ALL legs; the angle of the back is constant, and there is no break in his arms. Frames 4 and 5 finally see the back swinging toward the bow (remember, as a rower he's facing backwards), and only in frames 6-8 do we see him finish with his arms.

Figure 1. The drive segment of the rowing stroke.

This progression--legs, back, arms--allows Waddell to transfer every bit of the power that he is exerting on the footstretchers to the handle of his oar. Here's another way to view it: As his legs drive against his footstretchers and push his hips toward the bow, the strong back forces his shoulders to keep up with his hips, and his straight arms force his hands (and the oar handles) to follow his shoulders. This is most apparent in frames 1-4. Everything is tied together, and the result is that the leg drive is perfectly transferred into movement of the oar handle. Only after the power phase of the drive is complete do the arms come into play at all; by frame 5, the power of the stroke has diminished enough that Waddell can begin to effectively engage his arms to complete the stroke and release the blades from the water.

The connection you can see in Waddell's stroke, the unbroken transfer of power from the legs through the back and arms to the oar handle, is precisely what Jesdale refers to in his description, a description that is typically abbreviated with the coach's exhortation for the rower to "hang on the oar." Hanging on the oar is the way that the rower harnesses the power of the water pushing against the buried blade to move the boat forward efficiently. The feeling of hanging on the oar is similar to the feeling of hanging from a pullup bar; the weight of the body can be felt through the extended arms and down through the large muscles of the back (the "lats"). This is exactly where the power is felt in the upper body during the first half of the drive.

Now imagine, instead, that Waddell allowed the connection to break down. Imagine if the back was weak, and collapsed forward as the legs drove the hips back. The result would be a disconnect in the transfer of power; the legs would drive, but the oar handle wouldn't move. Or imagine if he tried to grab at the catch with his arms. Instead of transferring the power of his leg drive efficiently by using the biomechanical advantage of his extended arms, he would be trying to transfer that power through his contracting biceps--and even Rob Waddell doesn't have biceps strong enough to fully transfer the power of his leg drive. The transfer would break down. The result in both cases is a loss of power and a reduction in efficiency of the stroke.

What does any of this have to do with kayaking? Let's take a look at another world class paddler: Anders Gustafsson, a World Champion sprint kayaker. Figure 2 shows a series of video stills from one of Gustafsson's practice sessions. There are a great many similarities here to Figure 1. The most important for our purposes can be seen in frames 1 through 4. In these frames Gustafsson's right leg drives his right hip back in the seat and he uses the rotation of his torso to keep the shoulder following the hip. The extended right arm provides the connection that keeps the paddle shaft moving right along with the shoulder. The result is an unbroken connection between the leg drive against the foot stretchers and the movement of the shaft, a perfectly efficient transfer of power. Gustafsson is "hanging on the paddle" through this entire motion. By frame 5 the leg drive is complete, and the blade is nearing Gustafsson's right hip. At this point, nearly all of the power of the drive has been expended, and the remaining rotation of the torso and bending of the right arm is primarily serving to extract the blade cleanly from the water to finish the stroke.

Figure 2. The drive segment of a kayaking forward stroke.

The same opportunities exist here for the transfer of power to break down. If, for example, Gustafsson's torso rotation was weak, his leg would drive his right hip back but his right shoulder would lag behind and fail to move the paddle shaft. Similarly, if he were to grab immediately at the catch by bending his arms he would be asking his biceps to transfer the power generated by the large muscles of his legs and back, an impossible task. Only by hanging on the paddle, by maintaining the connection through his lats and extended arms, is he able to efficiently transfer the power needed to drive the boat forward at top speeds.

In thinking about problems that kayakers might have in maximizing the efficiency of their forward stroke, I have come to the conclusion that many of them relate to a failure to hang on the paddle. Consider the following, for instance. One of the best ways to cultivate the ability to hang on the oar in rowing is to take strokes using only leg drive. Since the back and the arms remain static, this allows the rower to eliminate (or at least limit greatly) the possibilities of breakdown in connection throughout the drive. The same drill exists for kayaking. It's called the straight arm drill. Just about every kayaker who has ever taken a formal class, especially one focusing on the forward stroke, has done the straight arm drill. And most people absolutely hate it. I have found that most paddlers have trouble doing the straight arm drill properly--almost everyone wants to break the arms. But what's really interesting is that even when people are successful at keeping their arms straight, they often can do so only by sacrificing nearly all the power in their stroke.

Why? My theory is that many kayakers’ forward strokes involve engaging the arms immediately after the catch. Instead of hanging on the paddle and allowing the extended arms to transfer power efficiently from the leg drive to the paddle shaft, this approach relegates all power to the biceps, which means that the stroke is limited to what the biceps can bear. (Interestingly, this limitation can exist even if the paddler appears to be rotating well with the upper body, and in some cases even if there is drive on the foot peg. In other words, it’s difficult to diagnose this problem with the standard markers that we use for a good forward stroke.) The problem is that in this case the leg drive and the rotation are being compromised by the instinct to initiate the stroke by grabbing at the paddle shaft with the arm. For anyone that paddles this way, the straight arm drill is crippling. Since power transfer for them normally depends on engaging the biceps, removing that muscle group from the stroke eliminates virtually all power. In contrast, a paddler who consistently hangs on the paddle should be able to paddle at nearly full power with the straight arm drill; any limitation would be associated only with the mechanics of the release, which involves bending the arm to cleanly extract the blade from the water.

What is the cure for this problem? First and foremost, the paddler must cultivate the feeling of hanging on the paddle shaft. Some visualizations might first help to illustrate the technique. Imagine, for instance, that you're trying to pull-start a reluctant lawn mower. You don't just lean over, grab the handle, and pull the cord with your biceps. You'll never get enough power doing it that way. You put your foot on the lawnmower and you bend your leg to get leverage; you extend your arm fully, reaching your shoulder down toward the mower; and when you pull, you drive that shoulder back up with a strong push on your leg and rotation of your torso, and you let your extended arm do the work of making the cord handle follow along. That's the only way you'll get that rusty old thing started, by hanging on the handle and using the big muscles of your legs and your torso instead of your biceps. When people know they need to efficiently apply power, they instinctively apply every available biomechanical advantage. The challenge is to transfer this instinct to the forward stroke.

The easiest way to develop this feeling in the boat may be to take strokes in conditions where the resistance of the stroke is great enough to prevent grabbing with the arms. The most convenient place to find that resistance is in the first few strokes from a dead stop, overcoming the inertia of a stationary boat. If the paddler prepares appropriately for the first stroke--one hip forward, knee raised and foot placed firmly on the foot peg, torso rotated and on-water hand extending out with a straight arm, blade planted fully at the catch--and then takes a full power stroke by driving hard with the leg and torso rotation, it will be nearly impossible to grab with the arm and bend the elbow. The paddler should feel the power transfer from the big muscles of the legs and core, through the lats, and down the underside of the extended arm. This is the feeling of hanging on the paddle that the paddler should seek to replicate with every stroke. The paddler can repeat this exercise simply by letting the boat come to a full stop after every initiating power stroke; or, if there's a willing partner, by having that partner stand behind the boat in shallow water and simply hold onto the stern to keep it from moving. Other ways to find the kind of "heaviness" that reenforces this feeling is to paddle hard in very shallow water or to engage some kind of artificial drag or anchor, possibly by towing another paddler.

The other worthwhile exercise, obviously, is the straight arm drill itself. If you look at frames 1-4 of Figure 2, you'll see pretty clearly that Gustafsson's regular forward stroke is basically a straight arm drill for the entirety of this power phase of his drive. The biceps are not generating power, they are simply finishing off the stroke and facilitating a clean release. The straight arm drill will be most effective, obviously, once the student has cultivated the feeling of hanging on the paddle (perhaps with resistance drills as described above); that feeling can then be carried over into the straight arm drill until the paddler can move the boat efficiently throughout the drill. (The other challenge with the straight arm drill is that eliminating the elbow bend in the last third of the stroke makes it extremely difficult to achieve a clean finish. There is, fortunately, a very simple solution to this problem: just shorten the stroke. Simply extract the blade earlier, before you would normally begin your finish by bending the arms (say, just after frame 4 of Figure 2). Do the straight arm drill using only a half stroke, slicing the blade out early enough that you're not tempted to break the arms to get a clean finish.)

Once you've cultivated the feeling of hanging on the paddle shaft, it becomes something that can be easily employed as a "self-check." A paddler hanging on the paddle will feel the tension running like a cable that stretches along the underside of the extended arm, through the lats in the upper back, down the muscles lining the core and into the driving thigh. This is a proprioceptive marker just as effective as any visual marker of good forward stroke technique. It is a marker that is used constantly to gauge stroke efficiency when rowing, but I think its value has not been appreciated by kayakers. As a former rower and current kayaker, I frequently check myself to make sure that I'm hanging on the paddle, and it has been a critically important component in the development of my forward stroke. I highly recommend that you give it a try.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Strokes Notes: Why I feather

(This is the first in what I hope will be a series of entries describing my take on some issues related to kayaking technique. It is a series aimed at others like me: strokes nerds. You know who you are. You've watched that Roger Schumann bow rudder video 13 times, and you've spent days trying to figure out if the inside or outside edge works better on your hanging draw. Pretty much all of my decisions about paddling style involve an agonizing analytical thought process. That's just how my brain works. So if you're a strokes nerd like me, maybe you'll find something interesting or even useful in these entries. And if you're not a strokes nerd... well, you've been warned...)

To feather, or not to feather? That is the question. As far as I’m concerned, you can pry my feathered paddle from my cold, dead hands. And in this entry I'm going to tell you why. I expect not everyone will agree with this position, so I invite counter-arguments, objections, and general rebuttal in the comments section. Or maybe someone will be moved to write a similar blog entry defending the unfeathered paddle. So here, in no particular order, are the three primary reasons that I feather my paddle.

1. I feather because it just feels right. 

Once I made the decision to feather, it took me about a week or so to develop a feel for a feathered paddle. That was a pretty miserable week. Switching from unfeathered to feathered is an awkward experience, and it takes some dedication until your strokes feel normal again. The good news is that once you've gotten a few weeks of feathered paddling under your belt, you'll forget why it felt so weird to begin with. The bad news is that you can easily remind yourself how weird it felt by just unfeathering again. At this point I've been paddling with a feather for over 3 years, and I hate, hate, HATE going back to unfeathered paddling. 

The point here is that there is nothing "natural" about an unfeathered paddle. I'd wager that my feathered paddle feels every bit as natural in my hands as an unfeathered paddle may feel in someone else's. And this goes for just about every important aspect of paddling. After 3 years of feathering I'm convinced that my body knows instinctively where my hands are on my paddle and how my blades are oriented at all times. I have no reason to think that the feather ever causes me to misapply a stroke, or to miss a critical brace or a roll. This, of course, is a common argument against the feather, that it introduces uncertainly in bracing because the two blades are oriented differently with respect to the water. I'm willing to concede this point only in a very limited sense. I believe the notion that a feathered paddle makes bracing more difficult applies primarily to "practice bracing." Here's the scenario: You're in a class, sitting in a good low brace position with your elbows up and the back faces of your blades perfectly parallel to the water's surface on both sides. In that position you're ready to do your "demonstration quality" low braces. But if your paddle is feathered, one of your blades will always be angled awkwardly toward the water, setting you up to miss a brace on that side; you've got to keep adjusting your blade angle every time you switch sides for another brace. The problem with this argument is that bracing almost never works that way. Here's the reality: You're paddling forward in rough water, you've just finished off a stroke on your right side, and you're hit with a surprise wave that throws you over onto your left. Quick!--how is your left blade oriented with respect to the water? Feather or no feather, your body has to know without thinking how to shift the angles of that left arm--shoulder, elbow, wrist--to position the blade for a good, safe, solid brace. There's nothing automatic about this but that practice makes it so. 

So I paddle with the feather because it just feels right. Calm water or rough, paddling straight or carving turns, high brace or low brace. It always feels right to have my paddle feathered, because 3 years of practice have made it so. An unfeathered paddle--not so much. In fact, I'm willing to bet that if I went out in rough water right now with an unfeathered paddle I'd be VERY prone to miss a brace when I needed it. No thanks.

You may have noticed that this isn’t so much an answer to the question “Why feather?” as it is an answer to the question “Why not feather?” Fair enough. But I’m not done yet… 

2. I feather because headwinds are a drag. 

You've probably all heard this argument: With a feathered paddle, the off water blade is conveniently angled to slice through a strong headwind. This claim is pretty obviously true, but it almost always invites counterarguments. For one thing, the beneficial effect of the feather would obviously be most pronounced with a 90 degree feather, and hardly anyone paddles with a 90 degree feather. For another, the feather is only reliably helpful in a perfect headwind. In any kind of crosswind, a feathered blade may be just as likely to catch the wind as an unfeathered one. In fact, it’s possible that a strong crosswind on a feathered blade might even have a destabilizing effect by pushing the paddler over sideways. And wouldn't an unfeathered paddle actually give you an advantage in a tailwind? This is also all true. But if that means it's all a wash, then why am I just so happy to have a feathered paddle in my hands when that wind kicks up in my face?

While it's obviously true that the wind can come from anywhere, wind resistance will have its most pronounced effect countering your forward movement. And the thing moving forward most is your off-water (top) hand; not only is your boat moving into the wind, but that hand is moving forward relative to the boat. If you haven't thought a lot about how headwinds affect you on the water, it's worth checking out this short Wikipedia article on "apparent wind". Basically, if there's a 10 mph wind blowing in my face and I'm paddling forward at 3 mph, I'm feeling a 13 mph headwind. If my off-water hand is moving forward at another 3 mph relative to my boat (just a random estimate, I'd guess it's probably quite a bit faster than this, depending on cadence), then my hand is pushing against a 16 mph wind. That’s a lot of resistance on the off water blade if it’s squared to the wind. (Based on the surface area of my Werner Cyprus, it works out to about 0.43 pounds of resistance with every stroke.) In contrast, if I had a 10 mph tailwind in the same situation, my off water hand would only feel a 4 mph wind pushing it from the back. Headwinds have a whole lot more effect on you than tailwinds. The result is that having your blade squared to a headwind will not only slow the boat down, the blade effectively acting as a mini sail, but that it will also put significantly greater strain on your shoulder as you attempt to push that blade forward into the wind. Half a pound of resistance doesn’t sound like much, but try doing 10,000 reps. That’s a workout you probably don't need. 

So yes, how much a feather helps you does depend on where the wind is coming from and how your blade is angled relative to it. But the feather provides relief when you MOST need it, when the wind is right in your face. It could prevent your trip from becoming a very prolonged and potentially exhausting set of shoulder presses. 

3. I feather because I don't want to break my wrists.

This one is a bit more complicated.

Try this experiment. Grab a two-piece paddle, ideally one with a loose ferrule that allows you to easily rotate the two halves of the shaft relative to each other. Sit on a bench, stool, or chair, something that will allow you to get into a catch position with your paddle. Now lock the paddle in the unfeathered position (zero degree feather angle) and hold it like you’re ready to paddle. Your hands should be out in front of you, with the power faces of both blades facing toward you. Maintaining a firm grip on the paddle shaft with both hands (don’t let the paddle shaft rotate in your hands), move yourself into the catch position on your left side, with the left blade down toward the "water" and the right blade up in recovery. Now look at your top wrist. Unless you’re some kind of freak of nature, it will be bent. In fact, if you have a high angle stroke, it may be bent uncomfortably. Now, separate the two halves of the paddle so that they are still connected but free to rotate relative to each other, with the ferrule unlocked. Do the same thing, coming to a catch position, but keep both of your wrists locked in the unbent, neutral position. You will notice that as you move to the catch, the two halves of the paddle shaft rotate relative to each other. Stop again at the catch position; your top wrist should be unbent, but now your blades are feathered. That angle between the two blades is your natural feather angle--it is the angle you should feather your blades so that you don't have to break your wrists on your forward stroke.

The ergonomics of the forward stroke are such that the off-water wrist will tend to break at the catch; again, this is more dramatic the higher the angle of the stroke. An unfeathered paddle combined with a firm grip on the shaft are thus a recipe for unnecessary strain on the wrists. If you paddle this way with a very low angled stroke, the bend in the wrists may not even be noticeable. But with a higher angle stroke, this approach could result not only inefficiency, but also tendinitis.  

There are actually two solutions to this ergonomic problem. Mine, as you might have guessed, is to feather my paddle. I've found that a 45 degree feather is a pretty natural angle for my typical stroke, which is relatively high angle. I maintain my right hand as my control hand at all times during the forward stroke; my right hand holds the paddle in place and my paddle shaft just rotates freely in my left hand. With this arrangement, whether I'm catching on my right or my left the blade is always in a good solid catch position while my off-water wrist can stay safe and neutral. The remarkable thing about this is that my wrists and hands don't have to do anything to position my blade for the catch. The rotation of my body and the movement of my arms on the recovery is sufficient to put my blade right where it needs to be, on either side.

The second solution is, I imagine, almost universal among kayakers who don't want to feather their paddles. You simply forget about the firm grip--or, more precisely, you switch the control hand with every stroke. With this approach, the hands are held loosely on the paddle shaft (usually a good idea in any case), and with each stroke the on-water hand becomes the control hand. This allows the paddle to remain unfeathered and the wrists to maintain a neutral unbent angle, and still enables effective catches on both sides. It will work with any angle stroke, though the degree to which the hands must work to shift blade angle is more pronounced with a high angle stroke. (If you want to see a good demonstration of how this control hand switching approach works, check out this video. It's a good explanation of what many kayakers probably do without thinking about it.)

Why do I prefer the feathered paddle solution? My reasoning is based on a simple premise: Every sprint kayaker in the world can't be wrong. If switching control hands is a viable option, why wouldn't world class sprinters adopt it just as frequently as the alternative? My guess is that the answer has something to do with the challenges associated with finding the catch efficiently, especially at high cadences. With an appropriately feathered paddle the hands don't have to do anything to put the blade in a strong catch position, everything is determined by the ergonomics of the forward stroke. In contrast, if you're alternating control hands the hands are doing lots of work, with every stroke, to find the catch. Obviously this is doable, but what would happen if one adopted this approach at 120 strokes per minute? During a sprint the first inches of drive are absolutely critical, and there is very little room for error at the catch; the paddler must have confidence that the blade is entering the water at exactly the right angle to apply pressure immediately. I suspect it could be very difficult to accomplish this by alternating control hands at very high cadence. And maybe this is why kayak racers appear to be one group that is unanimous on the “to feather or not to feather” question. They just cannot afford even slight uncertainty at the catch. And what better way to eliminate that uncertainty than to make the catch position automatic? Just "set it and forget it”: determine the right feather angle for your stroke and you'll have a perfect catch every time without your hands or your blade needing to do any work at all. 

So I feather because it gives me confidence in my catch, at any speed and any cadence, without having to worry about poor ergonomics. All I have to do is focus on my forward stroke form, and my feather takes care of finding the catch for me. 

These are my reasons for sticking with the feather. It should be clear from what I've said above that these reasons depend quite a bit on my own paddling style. Since I adopt a high angle stroke, the ergonomic benefits of the feather are considerable and, at the same time, I can employ a large enough feather angle that it makes a significant difference in a headwind. If you use a low angle stroke, you will have an entirely different set of criteria on which to base your decision. I'm sure that there are plenty of other arguments both for and against feathering that I've not addressed here, and there are also lots of details that I've left out of the above account, since I figure not many people want to read a 12 page treatise on paddle feathering. In the end, of course, your decision to feather or not to feather is yours. But as with all such decisions related to paddling skills, I recommend that you make it for good reasons, and not simply because someone told you there's a “right” way to do it. So if you’ve been wondering about why someone might feather a paddle, I invite you to think about the reasons I've laid out here. And then think about the reasons not to feather. And then get out on the water and practice, practice, practice until you find what works best for you.