Downwind with Oscar Chalupsky ** Video **

Tuesday, 04 January 2011 07:43 | Written by  Dale Lippstreu
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Millers run with the Big O Millers run with the Big O

The ski tilted forward and I felt an overwhelming urge to accelerate my cadence so that we’d catch the run, but “Timing!” growled the big man up front.  “Take it easy!”  I was paddling with one of world’s greatest downwind paddlers and it was proving to be a fascinating (and surprising) experience.

Last week we had uninterrupted South Easters ranging between 20 – 45 knots which afforded us 7 great Millers Runs in 7 succeeding days. I was fortunate enough to do 2 of the runs in the back of my Fenn Elite double with Oscar Chalupsky.  It was an interesting learning experience and I was very surprised to see how different his approach is to what I have been working at for the past few years.


When setting up the ski Oscar insisted that the rudder pedals were inclined forward aligned with the face of the footplate and not vertical as I am accustomed to. I have tried this before but found myself stabbing at the rudder pedals with my toes in order to get sufficient rudder deflection but Oscar's explanation is that the trick is to use very little rudder in any case. It’s worth becoming accustomed to such a set up because there is a second and material benefit in that forward inclined pedals greatly reduce rudder deflections due to rotation and leg movement although I must admit I haven’t tried it yet.

Oscar Chalupsky Dale Lippstreu

Oscar and Dale setting up

Easy going

The most notable aspect of Oscars approach is how easy going it is.  To start with he has (to me) a painfully slow cadence.  It took my very best efforts not to wind up my stroke rate at the hint of a run and even then after 2 x 12km paddles I was only starting to get it right.  Clearly cadence is a matter of style and preference (there are many great paddlers with high stroke rates) but paddling with Oscar highlighted how inefficient my stroke is. Oscar maintains he does stroke drills “at least once a week” and regards it as absolutely essential.  If he finds it necessary after 30 years of paddling I guess I might benefit from adding them to my routine as I don’t do any!

Oscar has essentially 3 downwind modes:

  • an easy freewheeling stroke between runs; 
  • occasional (very occasional) bursts of explosive energy when chasing down or linking runs and 
  • paddles-down between runs.  

We all do this, of course, but the ratios between the modes and his approach to each is very different to what I am used to.  The first thing I noticed is that Oscar is very unfussed about chasing down runs.  I was very surprised to how many runs he was happy to let go: his point is that there is always another one behind so rather wait for a better one.  The next notable feature is how quickly he stops paddling once he is onto the run.  I kept wanting to take a few additional strokes just to make sure we were properly on but Oscar pointed out that all it does is push one down the face.  The trick is rather to sit on the crest of the wave because this preserves potential energy that can be exploited when required.  It also avoids burying the nose of the ski and the resultant energy loss.

Tracking across the wave

Once on the run Oscar immediately begins to track across the swell: so much so that I found myself stomping on the footplate pressing an imaginary rudder to try prevent the ski broaching off the run.  The explanation is that a ski tracking across the run has far higher speed (and therefore kinetic energy) which can be exploited as and when required.  The trick is of course to use this energy to link the runs and this is where the ability to read the water comes in.  The object is, as any downwind paddler knows, to drive the nose of the ski into “holes” and the art is to anticipate where these will develop.  Very often runs are accompanied by a cross chop which causes peaks and troughs across the swell and one can exploit these to ‘thread” the runs together.  I have done this for years but what really struck me about Oscar’s technique is the extent to which he works across the run and weaves back when opportunities to present.  To do this effectively the ski must be positioned at the top of the run and going fast enough to retain positive steering at all times.

Coming off the runs

Oscars approach to coming off runs is about as easy going as it is to catching them. My approach has been to hang onto the run as long as possible and this generally involves paddling straight ahead as hard as possible.  Sometimes it works but often I wind up stalling off the back of the run with a flooded footwell.  More often than not Oscar makes no attempt to hang onto the run and in fact continues tracking across the run as he falls off it.  This is completely counter-intuitive but the result is that he seldom stalls off the back of runs and momentum is maintained placing him in a far better position to pick up the next run.   Someone once said to me that maintaining boat speed is the key to downwind paddling and my conclusion is that the key to this is about how you manage the transition between runs.  Looking at my GPS traces afterwards I noticed that our speed never dropped below 14.5 kmh and the reason is that its because Oscar avoids stalls.

2 Instructions

If I found Oscar approach to leaving runs strange what followed between them was even weirder.  I only got 2 instructions from him during the paddles and they were “timing!” and “take it easy” and there was a lot of the latter.  I have no good explanation for this other than it leaves you ready to put in bursts when required.  Oscar did put in a few explosive bursts (it was about the only times I was really comfortable with his cadence) but it was very selective and I cannot in fact recall an instance when we did not catch what we were going for.  To give you an indication of how easy we took things my average heart rate during the 2 runs was below 140 compared to my normal racing rate of 170+.  Despite this our times were 42:20 and 43:12 compared to my personal best of 48:12 with an average heart rate of 182. Part of the secret is of course that Oscar spends so little time paddling: the accompanying video will show how long he manages to sit on the runs and you need to know it was not because of the conditions.

So what are my conclusions?  In summary:

  1. When catching runs start paddling early and stop paddling very early
  2. Once on the run start tracking to the side to maximize speed through the water.
  3. Keep the ski on the crest of the run and avoid launching down the face until you need to exploit this energy to link through to the next run.
  4. Constantly scan ahead looking for developing holes and runs. Be especially aware of opportunities created by a cross chop and exploit the peaks and troughs that it causes.
  5. When the run loses energy or starts pushing up in front of you use the remaining energy to slip off the side and only turn in the direction of the runs once the peak in front has moved ahead of the nose of the ski.
  6. Keep up boat speed by paddling smoothly and evenly between runs.
  7. Be patient.  The next run will be along soon and, if it’s not to your liking, there is another behind that.

So how easy is all of this in practice?  On my 2 subsequent downwinds I made a determined effort to employ all my learnings.  I quickly found that I could track across runs at more extreme angles than I had used in the past and I have no doubt that I linked a few runs that I would have missed previously.  Letting runs go has proved a lot harder but with several months of summer left and hopefully many South Easters there will be lots of time to work on my technique.

Dawid Mocke and Oscar Chalupsky

Dawid Mocke and Oscar Chalupsky on their way to paddling the fastest Millers Run of all time...


[Editor: I paddled with Oscar on the second of the four days that he paddled – and had a very similar experience to Dale.  At first I found it extremely difficult to stay in synch with Oscar, but finally managed to slow my cadence down enough to match his stroke.  It seemed to me that the power then generated was out of proportion to the effort we were putting in.

At any rate, it was a truly extraordinary experience – even Dawid Mocke was left shaking his head in disbelief the next day when he paddled the fastest Millers Run of all time with the big man.  But that’s another story…

Here’s the video.]

Downwind with Oscar Chalupsky from Rob Mousley on Vimeo.

GPS Track

Here's Oscar's GPS track from our run. Max speed 25kph. We made a slight navigation error, heading for Glen Cairn, the bay to the left of Fish Hoek.  

Video - sans Music

For those who don't like the choice of music...  here's a version without!

20101228 Millers with Oscar no music from Rob Mousley on Vimeo.

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