Sea kayaking is a lot like martial arts. The judo principles of “balance, leverage, and momentum” are needed in ocean adventure kayaking. In judo, you want to keep your balance while your opponent loses his. While kayaking, you definitely want to stay up and not fall over. Right?
Leverage is used in judo to obtain mechanical advantage, as seen in chokes and joint locks. Kayakers leverage by proper use of the paddle and rudder for speed and ease of maneuvering.
In judo, aikido, tai chi, and other martial arts, the opponent’s momentum is used to throw or manipulate him. Likewise, kayakers use the momentum of breaking surf to get a good ride. In martial arts and kayaking, the three judo principles used in concert should produce maximum effect using minimum effort.
Body, Mind, and Spirit
Common among all martial arts is the building of a strong and supple body through the physical act of practicing, lots of practicing. In execution of techniques, typical martial arts are more anaerobic and explosive, and typical sea kayaking is more aerobic in that a person may paddle several miles at a given pace. However, paddling in waves and rocks is more like a martial art in that quick, agile, and aggressive moves follow stillness.
Control of one’s mind is essential in martial arts and kayaking. In tai chi, yi (the mind) pushes chi (energy) through the body as desired. I do the same thing when kayaking in ocean whitewater. Occasionally, while kayaking, I need to perform an almost superhuman feat, and my calm mind directs my energy to burst through a huge breaking wave. My mind dissipates fear and concentrates force in martial arts and in kayaking.
But without shin (spirit), mind and body would be adrift in both martial arts and kayaking. Shin is fighting spirit. It’s the spark that motivates the Muay Thai boxer to rally and win after taking a beating. It’s the impetus that impels a kayaker who loses his boat in storm surf to keep swimming to safety when his body wants to surrender. Advanced martial artists constantly work on upping their spirit. We kayakers should work on this more. A strong spirit imbues you with courage. Without courage, kayakers are afraid to take risks—afraid of surf, storms, and rock gardens.
Techniques and Equipment
Techniques are usually emphasized in martial arts. For example, in jujitsu, there are myriad ways of throwing someone, choking, or locking joints—or combining these. In the jujitsu system I study, we have over 20 lists with about 20 techniques on each, with numerous variations for each technique. Even something simple like karate’s forward kick has dozens of ways it can be done. You can kick from your front or back foot and can aim high for the head or chest, low for the knee or shin, or anywhere in between. You can snap your kick for impact or thrust your kick to push your opponent backwards. You can forward kick once or multiple times with one leg or both legs and contact with the heel, the instep, or the ball of the foot. And the list goes on.
Kayaking, in contrast, has fewer techniques. We have forward and back paddling strokes, sweeps, pries, sculls and draws, and a few others. But in ocean whitewater, you combine these into ninja strokes and constantly switch from a forward power stroke to a hanging draw to a quick pry to a bow rudder—and that’s just to stay in one position behind a wash rock for five seconds. We also have rolls, rescues, and navigation methods, but in general martial systems are more comprehensive than kayaking.
Many martial styles have uniforms (e.g., a judo gi), protection (such as pads, mouth guards, and kendo armor), and weapons (which range from samurai swords, knives, halberds, staffs and sticks to iron fans and throwing stars). Kayaking is even more equipment dependent (boats, paddles, life jackets, protective clothing, and ancillary gadgets and gizmos). My personal belief is that if you are a dedicated martial artist or kayaker, technique is more important than equipment. Otherwise, if you want to stay safe on the streets, carry a machine gun. Why practice kicks and holds for decades? If you want to stay safe on the water, ride the ferry. Why tire your body in a tiny boat?
The Main Advantage of Each Discipline
The biggest advantage of martial arts is that it permeates every aspect of your life. Good martial artists pay attention in all situations, are ready for action at any time, and apply martial principles to everyday situations. “Wax on, wax off, grasshopper.” For sea kayakers, taking up a martial art (hwarang do, krav maga, wing chun, iaido, bagua, silat—any martial art) in earnest will vastly improve your kayaking. You will be more disciplined, more in command of your body, more alert, and braver. The force will be with you.
The main advantage of sea kayaking in perilous conditions (as the Tsunami Rangers do) is that it is life and death. On the mat, though we practice dangerous techniques such as neck breaking, we are v-e-r-y careful. Training partners are so expensive. Even “no holds barred” contests have safety rules such as no eye gouging. But the sea cares not for your safety. It will come up behind you and wham! It will hit you again and again, even after you have expired. Every instant you kayak in cold, turbulent water with rocks sticking up you risk your life. Only you can save it.
And that is why whitewater sea kayaking is a martial art. It gives practitioners a chance to act with abandon in dangerous circumstances. In today’s world, you can’t just go out and engage in a real sword duel to prove your mettle. But you can test yourself on the water. It’s still legal. For martial artists, taking up whitewater kayaking or another dynamic life-and-death activity (e.g, bull riding) in earnest will let you experience the fear and thrill of living on the edge. You will no longer doubt if you can defend yourself in a real situation. You will know you can.
(Thanks to martial sea kayakers Wayne Hanley and John Kirk-Anderson for their thoughts and inspiration, and to Troy Shehorn, a consummate martial artist and a heckuva river rafter).
If you are a martial artist or sea kayaker, please post your comments or questions on this column by pushing the comments button directly below and sharing your thoughts.
I merely skimmed the surface of martial arts, so please feel free to add in whatever I missed or messed up on.