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McConks SUP fundamental skills – stand up paddle board pivot turns

Next to actually paddling in a straight line, and having an understanding of what you should be doing with your blade during each stroke, the other skill to have with SUP is (arguably) the pivot turn. (Or step back turn as some call it). It’s a move that can be employed in all manner of situations; from flat water to waves, moving rivers or general recreational paddling environments. It’s supremely practical as both a safety move and functional for positioning in equal measure.

Centre line

The first thing to get your head around (or rather across) is the centre line of your board. Intuitively you place feet inboard as you pilot in straight lines – particular as you pass those early learning stages. If you didn’t you’d be in the drink as weighting each rail is the quickest way to unbalance and take a dunking. Consciously, however, you should be thinking about the board’s centre line and realising this is how to affect your SUP’s behaviour and manoeuvrability. Being pro-active along the board’s centre line (nose to tail) and left to right (rail to rail) can also be referred to as trim. Board trim is a separate topic in itself but worth keeping in mind none the less.

Keeping with the SUP pivot turn theme it’s that stepping to the tail, and back again once the move’s complete, that we’re focusing on here.

The step back

‘Walking the plank’ (or board in this case) is an age old skill that longboard surfers have used to great effect throughout wave sliding’s history. Transferring this to SUP and the goal remains the same. Walk back towards the tail, efficiently foot over foot, to lift the board’s nose and sink the rear. This reduces the wetted area of your SUP and gives a nimble and loose feel ready to pivot.

If you need to use your paddle as you move then by all means do so. Note that it’s better to ‘step’ quickly and without adding a brace stroke, however. Practised pivot turners will use the step back part to swing their paddle forwards ready for the next part.

The pivot and sweep

Reaching the tail of your board knees should be slightly bent with your head and upper body looking at the raised nose and jutting in a forwards direction. With greater nose height comes a more exaggerated form of this movement. Weighting the tail too much will result in a fall whereas bending the front leg, as well as keeping across the centre line, should result in balance and poise. But don’t hang around…

During the step back phase reaching out wide with the paddle, across your chest, the blade should hit the water forwards of where your front leg is positioned. As the board’s nose lifts draw the blade through the water in an arced sweeping fashion. The blade’s power, with you perched on the tail, will cause the SUP to turn quickly, or pivot.

The recovery

In time with the sweep stroke finishing paddlers should be aiming to step towards the nose of the board, keeping across that centre line still, and level it off. (Experienced paddlers can do this in one movement). Head, shoulders and trunk are still forward and knees bent.

As the board returns to a planted, flat platform riders will have completed the pivot turn and be back in their usual paddling stance, or thereabouts.


For anyone falling off the tail try and pivot in a less extreme fashion at first, gradually increasing the angle of attack as your skills grow.

If there’s a kick block on your SUP’s tail pad then use this to wedge you back foot against during the pivot turn’s initiation.

Keep your head forwards and over the centre line – it’s the heaviest part of your body and accurate positioning will yield best results.

Submerging your paddle’s blade fully during the sweep is best course of action as this is power, resulting in movement, which equals stability.

Wear warm attire to start with – particularly if you’re learning to pivot turn. You’ll probably end up wet during practise so better to be safe than sorry.

Pick a calm stretch of placid water to start with. Avoid flow, chop and waves as this won’t do any favours during the learning phase.

Thanks to Nick Kingston for the pics.

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