Canoe Paddling

4 December 2011 On The Water
Canoeing at the Cottage

Paddling a canoe around the lake is becoming a forgotten pleasure and a lost art at the cottage.
Here are the basics you need to rediscover the joys of canoeing at the cabin.

Canoe Safety Equipment

As with a boat, there are regulations regarding the safety equipment that must be carried in a canoe:

Flashlight that is waterproof.

Sound-Signalling Device: Marine whistle, compressed gas horn or electric horn.

Floating Tow Rope: Minimum length (15 m) 50 feet.

PFD or Life Jacket for each paddler.

Bailing Container: The larger the capacity, the more water you can bail with each scoop.

Extra paddle(s): It is not uncommon to drop a paddle in the water – you know how the saying goes.

Cell Phone Protector Case: Not mandatory but a really good idea.

Special Safety Notes:
Always wear a PFD that fits properly when paddling a canoe. If the canoe tips you may be in big trouble. A flipped canoe is extremely difficult to negotiate – especially for novice or intermediate paddlers. In the event your canoe tips, you will likely have to swim to shore. Wearing a life jacket will make the ordeal much less dangerous.

Never try to stand up in a canoe.

How to Get into a Canoe

Place the paddle across the width of the canoe. With one hand on either end, use the paddle to maintain your balance as you slowly take your seat.

With two paddlers, the paddler in the front enters the canoe first while the paddler at the rear holds the canoe steady. The paddler at the back enters the canoe second and launches the canoe.

What Paddle Length is Best for Canoeing

As a general rule, the paddle should be no longer than the distance from the ground to your chin. A shorter canoe paddle allows you to paddle faster and makes it easier to steer. A longer canoe paddle provides more leverage for greater stroke power.

How to Hold a Canoe Paddle

One hand is placed on top of the paddle in the same way you would place your hand on the top of the stick shift of a car. The other hand is placed on the shaft of the paddle near the half-way point. Adjust the lower hand until you find your optimal position.

Normally, the left hand goes on the top when paddling on the right side of the canoe and the right hand goes on top when paddling on the left side.

How to Paddle a Canoe with One Person

When paddling a canoe solo, you should turn the canoe around and sit in the back seat. In windy conditions you will likely have to sit in the bottom of the canoe closer to the middle in order to keep the canoe moving in a straight line.

The National Film Board of Canada has a great video of canoeing legend Bill Mason giving instructions on how to paddle a canoe solo. The video was filmed in 1977 and remains an all-time classic.

How to Paddle a Canoe With Two People

When two people are in a canoe, the more experienced canoeist paddles in the back and is responsible for steering the canoe. The paddler in the front should only paddle on one side and is responsible for providing power.

The paddler in the back should paddle on the opposite side of the paddler in the front and try to paddle in tandem with the rhythm of the front paddler. Occasionally the rear paddler may have to switch sides to maintain consistent steering.

Everyone has one side that feels more natural than the other when paddling a canoe. It is a good idea to practice paddling from both sides. On windy days it is often necessary to switch to the other side.

Bill Mason also created a training video on doubles paddling strokes.

Canoe Paddling Techniques and Common Paddle Strokes

Always sit with your back straight when paddling a canoe.

Front Stroke
The front stroke is the basic canoe paddling stroke.
Lift the top hand to a level about equal with your eyes. Try to keep the paddle as close to a vertical position as possible. If the paddle is a bit too long, you will need to raise it higher. Reach forward with the lower hand and place the paddle in the water. Pull the paddle straight back parallel to the canoe with the lower hand while pushing the top hand forward and downward at the same time. To get the most power and efficiency, use your torso and upper body muscles to deliver most of the strength.

Repeat the process once the paddle stroke passes your position in the canoe.

The paddler sitting at the rear of the canoe is responsible for steering the canoe. To keep the canoe going in a straight line is often challenging, especially when constantly switching from one side of the canoe to the other. The use of the J-Stroke allows the rear paddler to steer the canoe in a straight line while only paddling on the opposite side of the front paddler.

The J-Stroke is the same as the front stroke until the very end of the stroke. To effect a turn or to compensate for wind, the rear paddler twists the wrist of the lower hand slightly and forces the paddle to push away from the canoe at the end of the stroke before removing the paddle from the water to begin the next stroke. (If the rear paddler is paddling on the left side of the canoe, he/she is creating a “J” pattern with the paddle). This has the effect of pushing the front of the boat to the opposite direction.

The trick with the J-Stroke is to only twist enough to maintain a straight line motion because the J-Stroke has a negative effect on the forward momentum of the canoe. The J-Stroke action should be used with just enough force to keep the canoe on course.

When steering the canoe it is helpful to pick a point of reference on land ahead of the canoe and attempt to maintain a straight line course toward that point. Ideally, the front of the canoe will not drift to the right or left of the target point.

Draw Stroke
If the canoe is sitting still or moving slowly and you want to turn the canoe you can use a Draw Stroke.

Instead of reaching forward as is done in the Front Stroke and J-Stroke, simply place the paddle in the water straight out to the side of the canoe and pull the paddle towards the canoe. As the paddle reaches the canoe, turn it 90 degrees before you remove the paddle from the water and repeat the stroke. Some experienced paddlers simply leave the paddle in the water and “slice” it back out before turning it and repeating the movement.

How to Paddle a Canoe in the Wind

On a windy day it can be very challenging to paddle a canoe. Paddlers should sit in the bottom of the canoe instead of on the seats. This spreads out the weight more evenly and makes it easier to navigate against the wind. For more comfort and a bit of extra leverage, you can sit on an extra life jacket. Shorter paddles, if available, are easier to use in windy conditions when you are sitting in the bottom of the canoe.

For a single person trying to paddle against the wind you should sit in the bottom of the canoe in the middle to front third of the canoe. This puts the weight in the front of the canoe which helps keep the wind from catching the canoe and driving it sideways.

When paddling in windy conditions it is essential to keep the front of the canoe pointed as directly as possible into the oncoming wind. If the wind catches the canoe sideways it becomes very difficult to stay on course and you will likely get turned around.

Canoe Trip Safety Concerns

When a boat passes and sends waves towards the canoe, it is essential to turn the canoe to meet the waves head on at a 90 degree angle to avoid being capsized. Once the waves have passed, you can assume you original course.

Watch the weather carefully. If a storm is coming, stay close to the shoreline to ensure that you can take cover.

Waves that are created in very windy conditions will potentially flip the canoe. In open water when strong winds start to create waves, it is normally best to head to shore and wait for the wind to calm down.

Canoe Trip Planning
Always tell someone exactly where you plan to go and how long you plan to be away. Never change the plans in the middle of the canoe trip unless you can notify someone of the changes. In the event that you get into trouble, someone must always know where and when to search for you.

Whether you are paddling solo or paddling the canoe with two people it is important to take the necessary precautions to ensure the canoe trip is a safe and enjoyable one.

You might also like to read our story about The Canoe’s History at The Cabin.