If you’ve never paddled a canoe solo it can be tricky, and even a tad daunting. In the next installment of her special series for Outpost, “A Beginner’s Guide to Solo Canoeing,” Tori Baird outlines some key techniques to help you get your paddling groove on!
By Tori Baird, Photos by Jim Baird and courtesy of Tori Baird
There’s something magical about watching a canoe glide across the surface of a calm lake. The paddle moving silently through the water as it propels the vessel forward, leaving nothing but a few ripples as the only evidence it was ever there at all.
I always find myself striving for that beauty and perfection when I paddle my own canoe, as though I’m creating a piece of art. Some days I can find that groove easier than others — but what matters most is making it to my destination with all my gear and without getting wet.
One of the biggest complaints I hear from beginner canoeists is “I just can’t keep the canoe straight!” which typically results in switching the paddle from one side to the other every few strokes, causing them to zigzag back and forth and therefore travelling a further distance than they intend to.
To paddle efficiently means to keep your canoe moving forward in as straight a line as possible while exerting the least amount of energy. When paddling solo, the bow of the canoe wants to turn away from your paddling side with every stroke you make. In order to avoid this you will need to do a “correction” stroke each time to keep from going in circles. There are a few different options to use, including the J-stroke, the stern pry, the C-stroke, and the Canadian stroke.
The J-stroke is the most commonly used correction stroke but can also be one of the most difficult to master. To complete a J-stroke, instead of keeping the blade of your paddle perpendicular to your canoe for the whole stroke, once the paddle is past your hip you want to twist it so that the blade becomes parallel to the canoe, and then pull the paddle away from the stern ever so slightly, as though you are drawing a “J” in the water.
When twisting the paddle, be sure to rotate your top hand so that your thumb points down and not up. Because you are essentially pushing the stern away from your paddle, this will bring the bow back toward your paddling side, keeping the canoe from spinning.
READ more Tori Baird’s “Beginner’s Guide to Solo Canoeing”
The Stern Pry
The stern pry works in a similar manner to the J-stroke but requires less skill. Instead of twisting your top hand down like you would with the J-stroke you can twist it upwards, which may feel more comfortable for some, allow the paddle to rest on the gunwale (pronounced “gunnel”) and pull inwards with your upper hand, prying the paddle blade away from the canoe and once again bringing the bow back towards your paddling side.
This stroke is not the most efficient for soloing on flat water because instead of maintaining consistent motion as in the J-stroke, you have to leave your paddle in the water longer to act as a rudder, which results in wasted time and energy. But, it will still get you where you need to go.
The C-stroke starts off with a draw towards the bow before continuing with a forward stroke and finishing with a J-stroke. The path of your paddle should draw a big “C” in the water. A draw is when you reach out and plant the blade of your paddle parallel with your canoe and pull your canoe towards the paddle. By reaching forward and completing a draw at the beginning of your forward stroke you are helping to pull the bow towards your paddling side.
The Canadian Stroke
The Canadian stroke is a variation of the J-stroke. The only difference is that instead of pulling your paddle out of the water at the end of the stroke, you slice the paddle back through the water while keeping the paddle in the J-stroke position, performing the correction on the recovery. This is an effective way to save energy, especially on those longer travel days.
There are plenty of strokes to learn but these four are a great place to start. And of course, like any new skill, it will take time and practice to master them all. Start off with whichever one feels the most natural for you and gradually you’ll find yourself utilizing all four without even realizing it.
And as important as the proper paddling technique can be, having your canoe trimmed appropriately will also be a beneficial contribution to saving time and energy.
What is “Trimming Your Canoe”?
The “trim” of your canoe means how much of the boat is in contact with the water and which end has more depth under the surface. Trimming your canoe appropriately will have a significant affect on how efficiently you can keep your canoe moving in a straight line. When paddling solo, you want to have your canoe trimmed almost perfectly level in the water, with just a little more weight in the stern.
Having your bow too low in the water will create too much resistance, and therefore force you to do more work in keeping the canoe straight, as the resistance from the water will want to turn your canoe. Having the bow just slightly out of the water will create less resistance, making it easier for the canoe to glide through the water.
This is why solo canoes will have a seat close to or directly in the centre of the boat. If you ever find yourself soloing a tandem canoe you will want to sit backwards on the bow seat, making the stern the front of your canoe, because the bow seat is closer to the centre of the canoe than the stern seat. Another option would be to kneel behind the centre thwart to bring your weight closer to the middle.
Another common challenge for all paddlers, new or seasoned, is wind. Wind can take what would be a short leisurely paddle and turn it into a high intensity workout if you don’t use it to your advantage.
If you think about the trim of your canoe and what point is sitting lowest in the water, that’s considered your “pivot point.” The part of the canoe that is sticking highest out of the water will then act like a sail. If you are paddling into a headwind and your bow is sticking out of the water higher than your stern, the wind is going to grab your bow and spin it around backwards, just like it would a weathervane.
The trick is to bring your weight further forward in the canoe so that you’re trimmed bow-heavy and the wind won’t spin you — rather, it will keep you pointed straight into it. If the opposite is true and the wind is at your back, simply ensure your weight is more concentrated in the stern, which leaves the bow to sit a little higher in the water and allows the wind to give you a much deserved boost.
Keep in mind that if the wind is too strong and you don’t feel comfortable paddling, the safest option is to wait it out on shore.
So, with time and practice will come the grace and finesse that some seasoned paddlers seem to produce with little effort. But for now, these tips should help get you moving in the right direction on the water. Whether you’re looking to go for a day paddle on a local lake or get deep into the backcountry, it’s never a bad time to start. ♦