How to Paddle Like a Girl


Andria_Davis_31-100x100Andria Davis told you how female kayakers can learn from the guys (“Embracing Your Inner Dumbass“). Now, find out how paddling like a girl can help both men and women become better boaters.


I have a sticker on my raft guide paddle that states “Paddle Like a Girl.” There have been many teachings and theories over the years about how women paddlers are different than men because of our body shape and learning style. There’s no doubt that these schools of thought and the leader of that movement, Anna Levesque, have revolutionized women’s paddling and added to the increased numbers of women on the water. (Thank you!!) Lately, I’ve been looking at the subject from a slightly different angle: what can women and men paddlers learn from each other? I explored what the ladies can learn from the guys in my last article, “Embracing Your Inner Dumbass,” and now I’m wondering what it means to “paddle like a girl.”

As I said in “Inner Dumbass,” I’m not saying that men are always a certain way and that women are always a certain way. Many women have prodded me to find my inner dumbass, and I’ve seen many men walking rapids while women are running the shit.


What I am saying is that, yes, we are different: we are shaped differently and we learn differently, so let’s embrace our differences and appreciate what each sex has to offer to our sport. Women are really throwing down these days in all outdoor sports, and I’m amazed at what they’re accomplishing. It’s nice to see that young girls who are starting to paddle now will have these tough, yet feminine, role models to guide them. I remember when I was learning to paddle, I was afraid to show my feminine side out of fear that the guys would see it as a sign of weakness. I’m so relieved that this erroneous thinking is exiting the paddling world, and I can express my femininity proudly! However, I still hear and see a lot of sexism in this sport. It’s time we let it go and learn to appreciate what the other sex has to offer rather than let our differences be a source of condescending speech. So, leave your put-downs and your judgments on the shore, and let’s explore the heart of this issue. How can we all paddle like a girl?

I’ve been teaching kayaking clinics to women, girls and men for many years, and what I’ve noticed in beginners is how women naturally use the water more than men. A woman’s center of gravity is in her hips—down in her boat. A man’s is in his abs and chest—above his boat. Therefore, a woman’s center of gravity is down in the water, while a man’s is above the water. This causes a completely different reaction to the currents. When men are learning, they often try to fight the water; in contrast, a woman knows she can’t fight it, so she learns very quickly how to work with it. I’ve seen many women (myself included) excel at kayaking while hardly using their paddle! To the dismay of many of my paddling partners, I made it all the way to Class V by only wiggling my hips through rapids while holding my paddle over my head. (I didn’t want to take the chance that it would catch the water and get in the way!) Needless to say, we need both the hip control and the paddling.


Leland, my husband, and I put on a creek together on the first day we met. I was new to creeking, and he and some friends had agreed to take me out. I had some trouble initially, and Leland turned to me and said, “Put your bow on my stern,” and then he paddled off into the mank. I remember it being effortless to follow him. I remember noticing the grace in his paddling style. His attitude and his style were different than most guys I paddled with—it seemed more “feminine.” It was more of an agreement between him and the water—a dance rather than a battle.

I later found out that Leland learned to paddle from the girls. He used to paddle with a posse of legendary old school southeastern women. I love hearing his tales of them telling him to “strap on his balls” and such, but what strikes me the most is how their graceful style of boating rubbed off on him. From following them, he learned how to move his boat underneath him and how to rotate his strokes from his torso, instead of paddling with his arms.

This graceful style: boating with your whole body rather than just your arms, allows you to connect with the power of the water. All of a sudden, you feel the currents playing on your boat and make friends with them rather than fighting them. The water is much more powerful than you are, so you might as well use it. Let go of the tension and the grip, and learn to work with the water and dance with it.


Recently, I was attempting to explain running Metlako Falls (an 80-footer) to some non-paddlers. They asked me what I was thinking about when I was coming off the lip. I’m not an experienced big waterfall runner, and my decision to run this waterfall was pure instinct. I had practiced techniques on smaller drops for years, and I felt like I could handle Metlako. When I came off of the lip, I was thinking of becoming one with the water. I instinctively wanted to be enveloped in the waterfall. I found the spot where the water folded together, and it was an amazing experience of pure bliss. When I hit the pool, I was made aware of the force! I had a good run.

For years before I ran Metlako, I had been teaching creeking clinics to both males and females. We often ran small waterfalls with the students, teaching them how to boof, 45, and pencil. We’d try the different techniques off all the different falls. What I noticed is that men learned to boof more easily, and women learned to nose in their boats more easily. Men often boofed when they didn’t mean to, while women naturally were able to let go of control and feel the water off the lip. It was so fun to watch their excitement and confidence grow. If you think about it, these differences make sense—a man’s center of gravity makes it easier for them to separate from the water, and a woman’s center of gravity makes it easier to stay connected to the water. I’ve long had a theory that women can really excel at big waterfall running because we can stay connected to the water, which is very important off of big falls where boofing is not an option. My theory was solidified with my experience off Metlako. However, if you’re thinking about delving into big waterfalls, remember to practice and paddle with people you trust.


So here it is—how to paddle like a girl. Stop fighting the river and paddling with just your arms. Instead, try straightening your arms, so that you can get more rotation in your torso. This will free up the connection between the currents, your hips, abs, and paddle and make your whole body involved. Once your whole body is involved and you can feel the water, start to play with the currents. Like anything else, it takes trial and error, and you will learn what works and what doesn’t. Once you start understanding the currents, a whole new world will open up to you—a power way bigger than you—the river! Most important of all, have fun and laugh at the water and at yourself!