Why didn’t the strongest team win the Final at the Gorge Sprints? — A conversation that took place in Victoria between Vicki Hansen and River Spirit Coach Nick Hindle
Vicki: Know-it-all Coach, how did the Gorging Dragons manage to beat the Navy in the last race. The Navy had a bigger, stronger, younger team. So how come they didn’t win?
Know-it-all Coach: It’s a good question Vicki. I suppose the easy answer would be to say that the Gorging Dragons are better paddlers. But I know you won’t be happy if I leave it at that. So let’s start by saying they are more efficient or, more effective, paddlers.
Vicki: OK. But what does efficient or effective mean? They’re just words to me. They don’t explain what really happened out there. And please tell me in plain English. Don’t wander off into all that technical jargon about boat dynamics. I can’t understand any of that.
KC: Well Vicki, I’ll try to explain why I think the Gorging Dragons won the last race. For a start, I think you’d agree that whether you’re running a 10K race or paddling a dragon boat you’d like to make the most of the strength you have. Right?
Vicki: For sure. But that doesn’t tell me how Gorging Dragons beat the Navy. I suppose they must have had better paddlers. It’s really hard to tell what’s happening when you’re watching because it all happens so fast. The Navy looked really strong, they paddled hard, but they just couldn’t catch up.
KC: I’d say the Navy had the ‘stronger’ paddlers, but because the Gorging Dragons won, they must have paddled better. You saw for it for yourself. The best team won, not the strongest.
Vicki: Yes they did, but I still don’t understand how they did it.
KC: Well, you see similar things happen in all sports. It’s not always the strong guy that hits the ball farthest and it’s no different with paddling. You can take your paddle and really attack the water, straining every muscle in your body and you won’t make the boat go faster. Good dragon-boaters paddle smart. They make every stroke count. They slip their paddles into the water smoothly, anchor them solidly and then, using their full body, they pull the boat quickly though the water.
Vicki: Well all that sounds just dandy, but I’ve still no idea how Gorging Dragons do it. It must take years of practice to get the technique right.
KC: It takes practice for sure but there’s no real mystery to how they do it. In fact, once you understand how the boat moves through the water, you’re halfway there.
Vicki: Well, I think it’s fairly obvious what makes the boat move. It’s just the paddlers pulling back hard on their paddles and that pushes the water back and moves the boat forward.
KC: No, that’s not what you’d like to happen at all, and it’s here where novices get it wrong. They believe if they pull hard and push back a lot of water, the boat will go faster. Usually it doesn’t. Instead what you see is a team killing themselves to churn the water.
Vicki: Well then, how does it work?
KC: It’s quite simple really. Instead of thinking of it as pushing the boat forward by pulling back hard on the paddle, you have to imagine you’re pulling the boat forward with your paddle.
Vicki: Pulling the boat forward? I’m having a hard time with this. How can I pull the boat through the water when I’m sitting in it? I’m not pulling on a rope.
KC: Well, it’s almost like grabbing a rope to pull yourself up, except instead of holding a rope you use a paddle. In the dragon boat you simply reach forward with your paddle, anchor it in the water as far ahead as you can, and pull yourself toward it. In so doing, you effectively pull yourself and the boat through the water.
Vicki: I have a problem seeing this. Water isn’t something solid; it’s a fluid. As I pull on the paddle it’s bound to move through the water toward me.
KC: No, that’s where you’re wrong. The paddle blade won’t move much. At least it won’t if you’re a decent paddler. If you set the paddle blade into the water cleanly without splashing, you’ll have a fairly solid anchor to pull against. That’s why I tell you not to attack the water as though you were harpooning Moby Dick. If you disturb the water you won’t get a good anchor and you’ll feel the paddle slip. That’s why a clean, smooth entry is the foundation for any good stroke.
Vicki: That’s a lot to keep in mind and I haven’t even made my first stroke.
KC: No, but if you begin correctly the rest becomes easier. Now you’re ready to take your first stroke. Remember what I said. Think of it as pulling the dragon boat forward; not pushing the water back.
Vicki: OK. But what about the stroke itself?
KC: Here are a few things to be going on with. We can discuss them in detail later.
First, you must put as much of the stroke as possible up-front. You do this by hinging forward and by rotating at the waist. Reach forward with the paddle as much you can and still feel strong in the torso. In other words, don’t let the body collapse.
Then, extend your lower arm and get the paddle in the water cleanly. Your lower arm should be almost straight but not locked. As you bury the blade, try not to lose the good reach. Many paddlers have a great reach with the paddle out of the water, but then they lose it when they bury the blade. It’s how good your reach is with the paddle in the water that counts.
Next, feel the paddle lock in the water and then quickly engage your whole body as you begin the pull. Most paddlers are all arms. They try to get all their power from the relatively small bicep and tricep muscles rather than using their much-larger core muscles.
As you pull against the paddle try to feel steady pressure on the blade. With steady pressure the boat will glide forward smoothly. When your paddle reaches mid-thigh get it out of the water quickly. If you let the paddle hang past mid-thigh it slows the boat and you’ll lose the glide.
As you bring the paddle forward try to let your whole body relax to make the most of this half-second of ‘air time’. Now you’re ready for the next stroke.
Vicki: So you think the Gorge won just because their technique was better?
KC: I’m sure of it. I know I’ve talked about paddling as though it is a very simple thing and in theory it is. But when you consider that the team has to paddle completely in sync, that takes some doing. All the Gorging Dragons must be good individual paddlers but I bet the team practises every day to keep its edge. You up for that Vicki?