By Johna Till Johnson
Photos by Vladimir Brezina
Even though I’ve now passed the BCU three-star exam, I’ve decided to spend this summer working on boat-maneuvering skills. Truth is, while I’m pretty strong at some aspects—like group management, comfort in wind and waves, and basic navigation—I could use some improvement in boat-handling.
So a few days ago, I was practicing sculling for support in the Pier40 embayment.
Sculling for support entails putting the boat on edge, leaning out over the water, and staying upright by slowly sweeping the paddle blade back and forth parallel to the side of the boat.
My friend Adam is fantastic at it—he can lean out almost horizontal to the water. Me, not so much. But I’m learning.
Part of the challenge is that to do it correctly, you really need to send the boat off-balance. As one of my coaches put it succinctly, “If you want to know whether you’re doing it right, stop sculling. If you capsize, you were doing it right.”
It’s kind of an interesting maneuver, because it’s strictly intentional. Unlike bracing, turning, or rolling, you don’t do it as a reaction to a particular incentive, like being about to capsize, needing to change direction, or having actually capsized.
You have to make the choice to scull for support.
And when do you choose to scull for support?
On our recent Manhattan circumnavigation, I found myself wondering exactly that. We had just passed the Battery and were in the lower East River, where the shift in currents, combined with the wakes of ferry boats and other commercial vessels was making the water exceptionally choppy, as usual.
“Hmm…” I thought to myself. “When would I actually use sculling for support?”
Obviously, the purpose of the stroke is to stay upright while stationary in treacherous water. But when might that particular scenario arise? As a sea kayaker, I’m usually focused on moving forward.
And that goes double in treacherous water. Momentum equals maneuverability—my natural response to instability is to paddle the boat faster so I can get maximum maneuverability.
When would I possibly want to simply remain upright in place?
Just then, Vlad called called out, “Hold up! Let’s wait until the ferry docks!”
And there I was, attempting to remain stationary in three-foot waves.
The lightbulb went off. When, indeed?
I immediately started in with my newly-practiced skill, and stayed comfortably upright while the ferry did its thing.
Funny: All these years I knew in the abstract what sculling for support was for. But it took until that day to recognize when to use it!