An Introduction to OC1 Paddling

Filed in
paddler Thibert Lussia'a

Safety | Racks | Rigging | Carry | Stroke | Care | Storage | Fly Ama | Surfing

Introduction to OC1 (outrigger canoe – 1 person) Paddling

So you just bought your first one-man and after dropping $3,000 on a chunk of molded carbon fiber you’re wondering what to do with it.  Hopefully this introduction to one-man outrigger canoeing will explain everything you need to know so you can get out and start enjoying the most amazing sport in the world.  You have to be prepared to spend a lot of time on the water because that is the only way you are going to improve.  It will all pay off eventually because once you are competent on a one man, paddling becomes much more than just a way to stay in shape—it will become incredibly fun.  Imagine surfing nonstop ocean swells while on an endorphin fueled high, and you have an idea of what you’ll soon experience through paddling.

Safety first. Top

Paddling is not a contact sport and if you fall off of your canoe you won’t fall onto pavement, so there aren’t a lot of non-exercise induced injuries in paddling.  However, the ocean is not a friendly place for a stranded paddler, so if even one piece of your equipment (either canoe or paddle) happens to break you should be prepared.  Since anything can happen out in the ocean it is impossible to prepare yourself enough to ensure your complete safety.  Every time you leave the beach you are taking a calculated risk, but your chances of surviving will be extremely high if you are adequately prepared. 

Before you begin it is very important that you know how to swim.  You will often be a mile or more offshore while paddling, and although hopefully you will never have the need to swim in, if you cannot swim to shore you should definitely not be out there.  Swimming is great cross-training for paddling and could one day save your life; so incorporating it into your training routine would probably be a good idea.

Equipment failure while paddling is hard to prevent, but there are some things you can do to decrease the chances of something breaking and of that break being fatal.  You should inspect your canoe every time before you paddle.  Check the steering cables at the rudder and around the foot pedals for frayed or corroded wires to make sure they won’t snap (for more info read Rudder & Cable Safety).  Look for any cracks or soft spots in the hull or ama (outrigger) and make sure that it is rigged securely.  But, even if you prepare amazingly well and have a leash, PFD, rope, and signaling device, (all of which you should ideally bring with you) if you snap your iakos (spars), rudder cable, or even your canoe, you will probably not be able to fix the break well enough to make it to shore.  So the most important thing you can do to insure your safety is to not paddle in the ocean alone.   

Other than a paddling partner, the number one safety device you need for open ocean paddling is a leash.  You can attach the leash to your left foot and the front iako.  If you huli (flip over) and get detached from your canoe on a windy day or when you’re surfing a swell, I guarantee that you will not be able to catch your canoe no matter how hard you swim.  While lifejackets are uncommon in Hawai'i’s warm waters, they are often required in areas with more hypothermia inducing temperatures. Other recommended items, though non-essentals are: a signaling device like a mirror or a whistle, a paddle duct-taped to the iakos, a cell phone, and also some boating specific equipment like an EPIRB or a hand held VHF radio and a GPS.  Always remember to know the water conditions and your physical limits and take the appropriate safety steps.  Use common sense and you should be all right. 

For More indispensable safety info read “Outrigger Canoe Safety - What Every Paddler Needs to Know

Racks. Top

Before you can learn to paddle you have to get your canoe to the ocean (if you don't live near the ocean or some body of water with big open water waves, be prepared to take multiple vacations to Hawai'i every year).  First you need lumber or surf racks on your vehicle, preferably with a span of about 6 feet.  Most truck racks work great, but, if you have a tiny car you may want to invest in rack extenders.

Saddles, either homemade, Yakima, or Thule, expedite the loading process while providing flex during high speeds or high winds.  Their biggest drawback is that they tend to rub the gel-coat off of the bottom of your canoe.  However, this is easily remedied by placing or gluing a pad to the saddles; preferably foam but nearly everything works (shirts, car mats etc.). Center the canoe on your padded saddles and strap it down by putting the end of the strap through the bottom of the clip on the other side. Pull it tight, not as hard as you can because you'll crack the canoe, but just firm enough so the canoe doesn’t move freely.

If you don't have saddles, just make sure your racks are padded.  It’s best to load your canoe hull side up so it sits on a flat surface and since the hulls tend to be white, your canoe will be kept significantly cooler like this and less prone to sun damage. To strap the canoe down, throw the side without the buckle over the canoe, reach underneath and get the strap around the bar of the rack and back over the canoe.   Now you have both sides of the strap on the same side of the canoe, bring the buckle-less side under the rack again and then through the bottom of the buckle.  Keep the buckle off of the canoe or make sure any pressure points are padded well.  Again tighten firmly without overdoing it, it's very easy to pull a strap too hard and either crack the canoe or make nice little strap indentions on the hull as it heats up.  You might want to put a red flag or something similar on the back of your canoe if it goes more than four feet off of the back of your vehicle.  You probably don’t want the truck behind you to drive into your canoe (careful when parking!), and even more importantly cops in Hawai'i and California will give out tickets for canoes without flags or markers on them. 

Rigging. Top

Now that you've driven safely to the ocean, lake, river, or reservoir, you're ready to begin the least fun part of paddling— you’re ready to rig. Take the straps off and go to the back of the canoe and slide it back until you reach the seat, then lift the nose off of the car and the canoe should be perfectly balanced with the seat on your shoulder or the hull in the cradle of your arm.  Find a flat grass or sand area to put your canoe down on while making sure that there are no rocks or roots that can scratch or ding your canoe.  Hopefully when you bought the canoe they told you how best to rig it. The general basics for all canoes is the more you slide the iakos into the hull, the more tippy it gets, while the more you slide the back iako into the ama, the more stable it gets. So, since you are just beginning, keep the ama as far out from the canoe as possible, and push the back iako into the ama as far as possible.  There will be a little more drag on the ama this way, but it’s better to be safe than wet when you’re first starting. If you've already been out a few times, you have to start lightening up the ama some when you rig it—remember, the lighter it is the less resistance there will be and the faster you will go. Eventually you'll be able to show off and paddle with it in the air, but for now, you're going to want to concentrate on learning how to paddle without worrying about huliing.

Carrying your oc1. Top

There are a few different ways to take the canoe into the water. 

The easiest way is to stand facing towards the stern on the side without the ama. Grab the back iako with your left hand and put your right hand under the hull right where the seat is.  Lift the boat up, bring the ama over your head and put the seat on your shoulder while your right arm is cradling the hull and your left hand is in the middle of the back iako and you're standing between the iakos. This should become extremely easy, but you have to experiment with it to find the way that's best for you. You can carry your paddle and water in whichever hand is available, this will most often be your right arm but it varies depending on the wind and your mood.

You can also carry your canoe by facing forward between the hull and ama, then getting your right arm cradled beneath the hull and lifting the canoe up to shoulder height without letting it roll onto your shoulder bone.  So the canoe will be cradled in your right arm and the ama either in the air (if the canoe is dry) on your left side or at your feet (if wet). 

When you get into the water make sure that the rudder is not hitting the ground or close to hitting the ground, you wouldn't want to put a crack in your new canoe as soon as you sit in it.

Taking your first stroke:  The basic idea & technique. Top

Now that you're finally in the canoe, the hardest part awaits you. You have to take that first stroke. If you're around other paddlers and this is your first time in a canoe, make sure you have the paddle the right way, because that’s the easiest way to make a fool of yourself. Hold it not like you think you should—the angle of the blade faces towards the front of the canoe. Try and paddle with your blade flipped around and you're only going to be pulling your canoe down with every stroke, paddle the right way and you should be lifting the boat with every stroke. If you're starting on the left side, put your right hand on the top of the paddle, and your left hand about six inches above the blade.

Power comes primarily from two motions, the twist and the lean, and secondarily from the drive of your shoulders.  Your arms should not be involved at all except to hold the paddle. In order to keep your arms from trying to help out with the stroke (though you may think they are huge, your biceps and triceps are teeny muscles compared to your lats, lower back, and core), you should try and keep both arms straight throughout the stroke until the recovery.  To begin the stroke, reach out with straight, but not locked, arms, and make a triangle (with your arms as two sides and the shaft of the paddle as a third). Your body should be leaning forward and in a complete twist, with your back facing the side you are starting on.  As you begin the stroke, drive down relatively softly in order to not cavitate (turbulence around the blade—try to keep it silent) and waste energy.  You want to bury the blade completely in the water by leaning into it and by driving down with your top arm. Without breaking your bottom arm, drive down with your top shoulder, keeping your hand about level with your forehead, drive back with your bottom shoulder, and unlean and untwist till your paddle reaches your hip, then take it out.  Take the paddle out any way you like, but the best way seems to be to take it out sideways with straight arms rather than breaking your arms and bringing it forward—but use whatever motion feels comfortable. Return to your starting position slowly, letting the canoe glide, get your body coiled, and drive again.

Before you go out and paddle make sure you either watch an experienced paddler or at least watch some video clips. You will never fully perfect your stroke, but it will rapidly get better with time. The most important things to remember are: keep your arms relatively straight, power comes from your core through twisting and leaning, and, in my mind most importantly, DO NOT CAVITATE. Make your stroke as silent as possible, any bubbles or any noise in the stroke is wasted energy.  Everybody has vastly different strokes and there is no such thing as the perfect stroke.  Different water conditions, different canoes, and different body types all call for different strokes.  By getting out on the water as much as possible you’ll learn a variety of strokes that you will instinctually be able to apply in different situations. 

Canoe care. Top

Once you get back to shore, if you value your canoe and plan on keeping it for awhile, spray it down, especially the metal parts like the top of the rudder and the hinges on the foot pedals, and then, most importantly, wipe it down. Wiping the canoe every time will not only allow you to foster a personal bond with it, but you will keep it clean and notice any dings, scratches, or holes as soon as they appear. If you find a crack or soft spot you'll want to take it to someone as quickly as possible who has a good reputation for fixing canoes.  If it is really small you can tape over it with some clear packing tape. If the repair job is ugly, or if you don't want people knowing that you're cheap and covering your cracks with tape (which I don't recommend doing too often), you can put on a nice big sticker of your favorite beer or surf company.

For more info on repairs see: Gel Coat Cracks, or search the forums.

Storing your canoe. Top

Since canoes are designed for the water, virtually all dents, scratches, dings, and holes on them occur while trying to maneuver your canoe on land.  Therefore, it is vital that when choosing a spot at your home or canoe club to store your boat, that you make it easily accessible.  Also, make sure that the spot that you choose is out of the sun, and, if possible, on the leeward side of the house.  Whenever your canoe is on land you'll want to have pads down underneath it.  If not, your canoe will soften up in the spots that are always touching ground.

What's next? Get comfortable, fly your ama, do long runs! Top

After a few times of paddling in the flat water you'll begin to want to get more serious about the sport, and the first step to getting serious is to do a long run (shuttle cars and paddle downwind point to point). However, before you do this, you should learn how to fly your ama, or at least how to protect yourself from huliing. If you're comfortable on your canoe, stop rigging it as stable as possible, and rig the ama a bit lighter. Get in your canoe and spend a workout figuring out the ama. Sit in there and bounce around, leaning back and forth and finding the limits of your stability. Now you're ready to begin your first ama flying lesson. To simulate being on a wave, get up as much speed as you can, then paddle on your right side, now stop, put the paddle on your lap or hold it right above with the blade upside down, right above, and parallel to the water.  Experiment with putting the blade on top of the water and applying pressure to it; keep on doing that until you have found the right angle so that you can put it in the water, push down, and have it stay on the surface. Once you're comfortable with putting some weight on the blade— you're going to sprint again and lift your ama out of the water by putting your weight to your right side. Do it slowly or you will huli. You need to get the ama out while balancing your weight on your paddle that is in the water off to the right. Do this over and over again until you are comfortable in the flat water with flying your ama. It's a little tricky, but it'll get easy. The point of learning this before you do a run is so that you feel comfortable with your ama coming up. Now, when a wave hits your ama and pops it up, instead of panicking and flipping over, you will casually, no matter where you are in your stroke, put your blade out and catch yourself. As you get better and more comfortable with catching yourself and flying the ama, and more comfortable with the ocean, you'll begin to want to fly the ama when you're on a wave. You will get rid of all the drag the ama is creating and give yourself a little more control when you're on the wave since you're new ama, the paddle, is completely in your control.

Surfing.  Get addicted. Top

Pretty soon you're doing long runs all the time and sick of paddling in the flat water.  Great, that's what the sport is all about. From here it's up to you to learn what makes paddling fun; surfing!  Every wave can push you from 20 to more than 200 yards; you can rest for much of this time and gain massive amounts of ground on whoever you're racing against. Then as the wave begins to die you start to sprint with all the energy you just saved and drop in on another wave. You can only learn to surf by being in the ocean as much as possible. But once you start to learn, nothing in the world becomes more fun. Going out on a big day and zigzagging across the ocean catching every swell that comes your way is priceless. There is no such thing as a line up and no crowds, just you and the ocean working together to get you from point A to point B the fastest.

Now you're a paddler and your life will never be the same. Wind doesn't mean your favorite surf spot is blown out anymore, or that you'll have to clean up your neighbors leaves that blew into your yard; wind now means that you are going to have a great day because the ocean will have some action. There are downsides to the sport, the hours of training on the flat days and the fights with your significant other about why you have to spend every Sunday doing a run, but you're going to just have to paddle through them because it will all become worth it once you connect a minutes worth of waves together on an epic day.  Have fun and be safe.


-Written by Luke Evslin when he was having paddling withdrawals while living in Southern California’s Inland Empire. 

-Edited by Keizo Gates.

-Thanks to Kelly Foster, Nathaniel Evslin, Al Bowers, and the others who have given input for this article. Please leave comments and ideas below or feel free to contact (

Posted by luke on Sat, 07/16/2005 - 12:59am

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Thanks Luke! Really nice job with that.

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