Before tackling hard whitewater, some basic kayaking skills need to be mastered. In addition to the paddle stroke, it is important to be comfortable exiting the kayak in the water in case you overturn and can't roll back up. The Eskimo Roll is the key component of all kayaking. At some point, you will flip upside down, and if you haven't mastered the roll, you'll have to do a wet exit and swim for the shore.
The wet exit is a term used to describe exiting the kayak when you are upside down in the water. You should practice this technique either in a swimming pool or in shallow water in a lake near a shoreline. When practicing the wet exit, have someone standing in the water next to the boat who can help you get out or rotate the boat back up if you fail to get out. Flip the boat upside down in the water by rotating your upper body toward the water. Wait for the boat to settle, then grasp the sides of the boat and pull your legs toward you and push your hips out of the cockpit. After getting out of the boat, surface and grasp the tow loop at the bow of the boat. When doing a wet exit, you should always hang onto the boat so you don't lose it.
The paddle stroke may seem simple, but there are several things you can do to improve it. First, make sure you have a paddle setup for your dominant hand. If you are left handed, you will want the main pull stroke to be done with that arm. Sit with your back straight and keep a firm but relaxed grip on the paddle. Put the blade of the paddle into the water at a 90 degree angle near where your feet are, then pull back toward you. Don't reach with the paddle; the stroke should be a comfortable pull in the water.
Practice reverse paddling as well. With the reverse paddle stroke, put the blade into the water near you hips and push out at the water. Again, keep a firm but relaxed grip. Also, keep your elbows bent at a 90 degree angle.
Next, learn the draw stroke, which is used to pull the kayak to one side. Rotate your shoulders so that they are in line with the side of the boat and reach the paddle out from your shoulder, putting it into the water in a vertical dimension, then pull the blade of the paddle toward the boat.
The Eskimo roll is the most important skill to master to become comfortable with kayaking. It is also somewhat counter intuitive. There are two methods of doing the roll. One is called the brace roll and one is called the sweep roll. With the brace roll, you reach the paddle out at a 90 degree angle to the boat, approximately in line with your hips, and with a firm rocking motion of your hips roll the boat upright. With the sweep roll, you start with the paddle held at the side of the boat, then place it in the water at a 45 degree angle to the boat and pull the blade of the paddle backward while rocking your hips upright.
One of the main difficulties with learning the Eskimo roll is proper head position. While it may seem that you should tilt your head in the direction you want to go, you want to keep your head against the shoulder that comes out of the water last. Lifting your head too soon will result in the boat sinking back underwater.