I used to consider myself an accomplished waterman. After all, I once paddled from St. Petersburg to Key Largo in a sea kayak and, a few years later, paddled an outrigger canoe from Key Largo to Bimini.
But then I met Oscar Chalupsky.
"You've got it all wrong," the world champion declared after sizing up my technique. "But … you are not alone."
According to Chalupsky, approximately 99.9 percent of the kayakers in the world don't know how to properly paddle a sea kayak.
"Don't feel bad," he said. "I've been paddling for at least 43 years, and for the first 20, I got it wrong, too."
Chalupsky, the legendary South African master of the surf ski, has won the toughest paddling race in the world — a 30-mile crossing of the channel that separates the Hawaiian islands of Molokai and Oahu — a record 12 times.
"I've won it when I was 20, 30 and 40," said Chalupsky, the co-founder of Epic kayaks. "Hopefully I'll do it again next month again now that I am 50."
Chalupsky, who competed for the 1992 South African Olympic team, doesn't look like your typical paddler. At 6 feet 4 inches tall and weighing between 220 and 260 pounds at any given time, this bear of a man looks like he'd be more comfortable on the rugby field than atop a skinny surf ski.
"I eat too much, I drink too much, but somehow I still am able to win," Chalupsky said. "But while I may not be the fittest, or the fastest, I do think that I am the smartest paddler out there."
Chalupsky, who travels the globe teaching clinics for recreational paddlers who want improve their paddling technique, stopped at the Bill Jackson Shop for Adventure in Pinellas Park on Wednesday and offered pointers to this old dog who wanted to learn some new tricks.
"No arms," he said to me as I demonstrated my paddling stroke.
"No arms?" I asked. "Then how am I going to paddle?"
"Paddling is not about arms," he answered. "It is all about legs."
All about legs? Then how am I going to hold the paddle, I thought to myself. Then he grabbed the paddle, bent his arms to 90 degree angles and started twisting his trunk from side to side, like some schoolboy doing toe-touches in high school gym class.
"Power comes from the midsection," he said. "Not from the arms."
Chalupsky talks to thousands of kayakers every year, he said. Communities such as Tampa Bay are magnets for water sport enthusiasts. Paddling a canoe, kayak or standup paddleboard can be a lifelong activity, if you do it properly.
"How do you think an old guy like me can beat a 23-year-old in a 30-mile race across the open ocean?" he asked. "It is not because I am stronger. It is because of technique."
Not everyone has the time or money to attend a clinic offered by a world-class paddling coach such as Chalupsky, but people can benefit from his simple advice:
"Paddling is a full-body sport," he said. "Use your legs and stomach, not your arms, and you will notice the difference."
He recommends paddlers of all skill levels get some type of instruction. Proper technique allows you to paddle longer, faster and it helps to prevent injury.
"And remember," Chalupsky said. "The faster you paddle, the quicker you will get to the beer."