Paddling Basics - Canoe

 

 

If there is one thing Iíve learned, it's that most people that have a canoe have never learned how to paddle.  As a result, they are not very good at controlling the boat.  On a narrow river, they will hit the bank as they go around each bend or will weave back and forth rather then travel in a straight line.   They will never learn more than a forward stroke and to rudder (which is not a stroke).  With a lesson or two and a little practice, most paddlers could have a much more pleasurable experience. 

Note: For a more in depth explanation, refer to any of several books available on canoeing or sign up to take a lesson with a canoeing instructor. 

I took several canoe lessons growing up with the boy scouts.  As an adult, Iíve taken many more lessons to improve my skills. As with most activities you can never stop learning.   Letís start with the basics:0

The PFD

This is your single most important piece of equipment.  It floats, you donít, and it only works if you wear it.   Go to a good outfitter and ask to try on several PFDs.  Put them on, and adjust them.  Then check for your range of motion.  Can you lift your arms and is it comfortable?  Sit down in a canoe or kayak and pretend to paddle. Does it ride up?  Remember, you will only wear it if itís comfortable. Pay the price for that good Life Jacket.  It may just save your life.

The Paddle

This item, along with your muscles is the motor for your boat.  It needs to be the right size for the paddler.  And it has to be used properly.  The wrong paddle can tire you out and make it a very long tiring trip. 

To determine the proper size for a canoe paddle, place the grip under your armpit and hold your arm and hand as far down the shaft as you can reach. Now take the other hand and grab the shaft just below your fingers (thumb up position).  This is where your onside hand (or Shaft Hand) should be.  Marking this location on each paddle will help keep your stroked efficient.  The off side hand (or Grip Hand) will be placed on top of the grip.  Next measure the distance from the bottom of your onside hand to the top of the blade. This distance should be the same as from the gunwale of the canoe to the waterline.  This will provide you with the most efficient use of the paddle with the least effort. 

Note: always carry at least one extra paddle in your canoe.

The type of paddle you use depends on where you are. A beaver tail paddle has a long blade shaped like the tail of a beaver and is better suited for deep water.  A flat blade paddle has a short wide blade with a flat bottom and is better in a shallow river or white water. Bent shaft paddles are designed to increase efficiency of the paddle and paddler.

 

Paddling Tandem Canoes

Most people paddle tandem that is, with a bow paddler and a stern paddler.  There are a lot of  point of views as to who is in charge.  I always say, that depends. Sometimes itís the bow paddler and sometimes it the stern paddler.  If youíre in a rapid, the bow paddler is the first to see the rocks so they pick the route.  By the time the stern paddler sees an obstacle it may be too late.  If youíre crossing a large lake, the stern paddler has the best vantage point and can best keep you on course.

Paddling also requires a coordinated effort.  For this the bow paddler is again in charge by setting the pace. The bow paddler sets a cadence that will be comfortable for both paddlers.  The stern paddler paddles at the same rate but on the opposite side of the canoe. The cadence should be slow enough so the stern paddler can make any necessary corrections.  The corrections for the most part should be an occasional J-stroke.  This method means the only reason to switch sides will be so each paddler gets an even workout.

The Paddle Stroke Basics

All paddle strokes have three basic parts.  You start your stroke with the Catch, then go into the Power Phase, and end with a  Recovery.  Being able to identify each phase will greatly improve your learning curve and enable you to easily master most strokes. 

The Catch is the starting position for a stroke and ensures you are in the right place.  Where the paddle enters the water is where it should remain for most of the stroke. 

The Power Phase is the part of the stroke that propels the canoe. If the paddle remains where you placed it during the Catch, then what you are actually doing is pulling the canoe across the water to a new location.  The Recovery phase gets you back into position and ready to execute your next stroke. 

When covering strokes we will refer to your onside which is the side your paddle is on.  It is also the side which has your hand located on the paddle shaft.  Your offside is the side away from the paddle.  Your offside hand is the one on the grip.

When paddling a canoe the paddle is placed in the water in a stationary position.  It is then used to pull (or push) the canoe and paddlers across the surface of the water in the desired direction.

The Paddlers Position

 While most strokes can be executed from the sitting position, there are some very good reasons, why you may want to consider a kneeling position.  Sitting in most canoes give you one main point of contact with the seat in your boat.  Your feet, while on the bottom of the boat are not secured, meaning they can slide around.  As you apply power to your paddle you will tend to move around on the seat as you absorb the force against the paddle. Installing foot pegs can help minimize the loss of power.

The kneeling position gives you three points of contact.  Each knee is on the bottom and pressing against the sides of the canoe, while you lean back against the seat or kneeling thwart.  This position dramatically increases the amount of power developed with each stroke and is a much more efficient way to paddle. In moving water it is recommended that you use the kneeling position. In addition to providing more power, it also lowers your center of gravity making the canoe more stable.

Whether sitting or kneeling, good posture is also needed and will help with the body rotation, which is used to increase the power from each stroke.  Body rotation allows you to use power from your back muscles rather than just your arms. 

The Right Stroke

With tandem canoeing it is very important to know when to use each type stroke and when a certain strokes would not be appropriate.  A good tandem team may spend hours practicing their strokes to see what works best.  Before planning to go on a wilderness trip, you need to paddle together locally.  It may save you from a very long and painful wilderness nightmare.  As the saying goes, practice makes perfect.  Please note, there is no Rudder Stroke in canoeing.

The Forward Stroke

The forward stoke is not only the most used stroke, but also the basis for all the other strokes. This stroke is the same for both paddlers.  Your paddle needs to be held at an angle of 90 degrees to the water or almost straight up and down. 

The Catch Phase: Rotate your body and paddle (onside) forward reaching out and setting the blade in the water as far forward as possible.

The Power Phase: With the blade in the water, Rotate back while bringing youíre paddle straight back until even with your hips.

The Recovery Phase:  Lift the paddle blade out of the water and return to a neutral position and ready to begin the next stroke. 

The J Stroke (Stern or Solo ONLY)

This stroke is used only by the stern (or solo) paddler to correct or compensate for the direction of travel.  Because of the design of canoes tandem paddlers tend to track to the onside of the bow paddler. The J stroke allows the stern paddler to make a correction while maintaining forward momentum. 

The Catch Phase: Rotate your body and paddle (onside) forward reaching out and setting the blade in the water as far forward as possible.

The Power Phase: With the blade in the water, Rotate back while bringing your paddle straight back until even with your hips. At this point, use the grip hand to rotate to a thumb down position, while continuing the power phase behind your hips.  For additionsl correction you can pry slightly off the stern gunwale.

The Recovery Phase:  Lift the paddle blade out of the water and return to a neutral position and ready to begin the next stroke. 

The Reverse or Back Stroke

For the many times when you will need to back up your boat, the reverse stroke will come in handy.  It is just the opposite of the forward stroke in some ways. It is the same for both paddlers.

The Catch Phase: Set the blade of your paddle in the water slightly behind your hips. The Power Phase: With the blade in the water, rotate your body forward while pushing youíre paddle straight forward.

The Recovery Phase:  Lift the paddle blade out of the water and return to a neutral position and be ready to begin the next stroke. 

The Draw Stroke

The draw stroke is a multiple purpose stroke and can be used in several ways.  The bow and stern paddlers can use it on opposite sides to turn a canoe.  Both paddlers using it on the same side will slide the canoe sideways.  A bow paddler can use the draw to start a turn or change directions. While doing a draw stroke, the paddle should never touch the side of the canoe.

The Catch Phase: reach out to the onside of the canoe as far as possible and setting the blade in the water. The Power Phase: with the blade in the water, draw the paddle in toward the side of the boat. The Recovery Phase: lift the paddle blade out of the water and return to a neutral position and be ready to begin the next stroke.  Alternate Recovery: Turn the paddle blade (feather) to 90 degrees from the gunwale and slice the paddle blade back away from the canoe as far as possible.

The Pry Stroke (or Push Away)

Much like a draw stroke a Pry stroke has multiple purposes.  Both paddlers prying on opposite sides cause the canoe to turn. If both Paddlers pry on the same side, this will move the canoe sideways. Why not just do a draw stroke?  There are times when it may not be safe or you may not have time to switch the paddle from one side to the other side of your canoe.  Depending on which way you want to move the canoe without changing sides you will determine if a pry or draw is the correct stroke to use.The Catch Phase: set the blade in the water as close to the gunwale as possible. The Power Phase: with the blade in the water, push the paddle in and away from the side of the boat.  You can also pry the paddle using the gunwale as the focal or pivot point.The Recovery Phase: lift the paddle blade out of the water and return to a neutral position and be ready to begin the next stroke. 


The Sweep Stroke

The sweep stroke is another turning stroke that can be used in place of the draw or pry strokes.  It is extremely important to end this stroke in the correct position. Continuing the stroke will have a negative impact on the maneuver and waste energy.

The Bow Forward Sweep (tandem) starts as close to the bow as possible.  place the paddle in the water then with a wide sweeping motion; bring the paddle back until it is at a 90 degree angle from the gunwale.

The Stern Forward Sweep (tandem) starts at a 90 degree angle from the canoe.  place the paddle in the water then with a wide sweeping motion; bring the paddle back as close to the stern as possible.

The Bow Reverse Sweep (tandem) starts at a 90 degree angle from the canoe.  place the paddle in the water then with a wide sweeping motion, bring the paddle forward as close to the bow as possible.

The Stern Reverse Sweep (tandem) starts as close to the stern as possible.  place the paddle in the water and bring the paddle forward until it is at a 90 degree angle from the gunwale.

Solo Forward Sweep starts as close to the bow as possible and continues  as close to the stern as possible. Solo Reverse Sweep starts as close to the stern as possible and continues as close to the bow as possible.

The Low Brace

The low brace is used to support the paddler when the canoe is leaning to the paddlers onside and is in danger of tipping over.  A brace will give you a short period (1 or 2 seconds) of support for you to re-gain your balance and bring your canoe upright while you shift your weight over the center of gravity.

Take your paddle and put it out at a 90 degree angle from the canoe.  Make sure you grip hand is knuckles down facing the water. Your paddles non-power face should be outstretched and facing the water.  At the same time, you will need to lower your head and body.  Your head should be close, if not on the paddle grip.  Using the paddle for support (remember the 2 seconds), press down with your offside knee to level the boat and at the same time pull your head and body in over the center of the canoe. This maneuver requires additional training and lots of practice.

The High Brace

Much like the low brace, the high brace is used to save you from flipping over toward to your offside.

A good strong draw stroke on your onside should bring the canoe back into balance.  In some cases, if your paddle is already in the water, a good pry stroke will also work.  This maneuver requires lots of practice.

Ferrying

Ferrying is used to get from one side of a river to the other side without slipping downstream.  It also allows you to maneuver between obstacles in the river when in rapids.  In most cases you start with the canoe heading directly upstream, and then turn using a slight angle in the direction you want to go. By paddling into the current you can avoid being carried downstream, while the slight angle will cause the current to push on one side of the canoe moving you in the direction you want to travel.  The slower the current the more of an angle you use, while with a fast strong current you use less of an angle.

When starting a ferry from an eddy, you should be as close to and parallel to the eddy line as possible to avoid a downstream peel out.

Ferrying takes lots of practice to figure out just how your canoe will behave based on the speed of the current.  Too much of an angle and you just get washed downstream. Too little and you wonít make it to the other shore.