Canoe Paddling - First Time: Thoughts?

Below is a short video of what my first time in a “solo” canoe (an older model Loncoln double).

I’d be grateful if the canoe experts chime-in and tell me what I’m doing right, what can be better, what sucks!

Rather windy today, so I did not go out on the river.

This was my first time in this canoe (just bought it used this week) and only my second time canoeing overall (a 30 minute rental a year ago with 3 others in a canoe, being my first time).

The canoe is not outfitted, just threw in an old Yoga mat. So after about an hour going back and forth on the canal, my knees started to feel a bit uncomfortable… Hopefully, with some foam at the right places it will be more comfy. For some reason, I did not like much to just sit on the seat with legs forward…

I’ve used my canoe paddle occasionally in my kayaks and surf ski, but they track much better than this Lincoln does when paddled solo. Plus, in the kayaks, I use quite a bit of legwork - here, I feel anchored to the bottom of the boat and the best I could do was to twist/rotate my upper body a bit…

Thanks for any input!

a few things

– Last Updated: May-25-13 6:53 PM EST –

Spreading your knees farther will improve stability.

Paddler needs more torso rotation and to stop bending shaft arm elbow.

The bend elbow indicates the blade is carried aft of the body into a sweep, which requires more J correction.

Paddle stroke is directed along the rail rather than parallel to keel line, which introduces another set of sweeping force.

Top hand is not universally stacked over the shaft hand, causing further sweeping force.

Part of this is caused by an over-wide boat. The immediate solution is to paddle the thing heeled-down onside, Canadian Style, or get a proper, say 7-8" narrower, solo hull.

I've an electronic file of the canoe forward stroke if you are interested. Email me at for an electronic copy.

1 Like

How about pulling hand height?
Should the pulling hand be Under/at/above gunwale? Also, should a double be paddled from the center or is it fine to do it from the front bench backwards as I did it?

Thanks for the feedback so far - I noticed most of these too… Initially I found it hard to twist the paddle so much as to be effective in the J stroke (point the thumb down on the top hand), then it was more about getting an efficient angle and a clean take out from the water - that’s something I feel I expend too much energy on (lifting up, rather than slicing out and forward)…

This is supposed to be the “family” canoe, so I have to deal with the width (don’t have plans to get a solo or to paddle this one as a solo much). But before I took my daughter out, wanted to check if it leaks and if I can paddle the thing well enough… It has lots of stability and I tried a bit of edging, but it was cold-ish and I did not want to get wet, so I mostly tried to paddle it forward and control it against the wind gusts - the thing is very maneuverable and unloaded and with flat bottom and round edges slides around a lot…

But stacking hands improved over
the course of the video.

Following the gunwale really strikes me… So easy to do. Particularly as you are not sitting near the center and rather on the bow seat…you get a lot of sweep entering your stroke. Then you have to undo it with a J. Were you closer to the center the sweep vector would not be so pronounced.

Sure…hit and switch has no friction loss. Its the best way to get upwind. And its a two part stroke, rather than three and as you can see your cadence is much higher. Again…the no no is following the curve of the boat. You seem to have the timing down for when to switch pretty well.

Be kind to your knees. Get a real kneeling mat. Even if it is Lowes workshop flooring. No wonder you’re hurt.

All in all, I agree with Charlie but I think you did quite well. Most others might be ping ponging the banks.

Its not a heck of a lot of fun
to rap your knuckles on the gunwale… If you hold the paddle down too far toward the blade, the tendency is to lean over with each stroke.

If your head goes over so do you. Tandem paddlers can get away with this as when one leans one way, the other leans the other. But solo you don’t have a counterbalance.

When the term stacked hands is used, it means both are above the gunwale and outside the boat. This can help avoid jamming your thumb inbetween the gunwale and the paddle.

Yes there will be a bit of shaft below your shaft hand, but that is fine.

As you state that is your only boat for the foreseeable future, you can get closer to the water by getting to one side of the boat. The boat will tip a bit, but you should not. This makes vertical strokes in a wide boat a lot more possible.

I made a little T bench so I can kneel just in back of the yoke. Butt is on the top of the T. There actually is a bottom T on it too… a little T… I tuck my ankles around the stem of the T. It helps avoid the Pain of Kneeling that way… And you do need a good pad… Alternatively kneel around a saddle type of minicell if you can find a big block of it. You get a lot more control of the bow (I know its the stern!) if you are centered in the boat.

You’ve got the basics
What I notice is that you are holding the paddle in the rudder position too long after completing the power phase. You don’t need to hold a rudder to correct. You can take the paddle out of the water immediately after the power phase, slightly behind your hip.

To do this, you must provide the correction force, not by ruddering, but as you begin your recovery phase. You can do the correction by pulling the paddle sideways away from the hull (the bottom of the “J”). This can be strenuous on your shaft wrist and forearm. Hence, it is easier and more fluid to slice the blade forward in the water about 12" as you are pulling outward.

In other words, right after the power phase, correct by pulling the blade away from the hull while slicing it forward. This is called the Canadian stroke by Bill Mason.

I recommend you watch this entire video. Demonstration of the Canadian stroke begins at 6:00 minutes.

Mason also demonstrates the goon stroke/rudder, J stroke/rudder, pitch stroke, and palm roll Indian stroke.

The goon, rudder and J correct after the power stroke and before recovery. The Canadian and Indian strokes correct during recovery. The pitch stroke corrects during the power phase.

What Mason doesn’t specifically identify, and what many soloeists mainly use, is the C stroke. This stroke uses and blends two forms of correction: a slight preemptive bow draw at the beginning of the power phase (paddle entry) and a J or Canadian correction after the power phase. However, bow strokes are not going to be very effective sitting backward on the bow seat, because you are too far back to get your blade sufficiently ahead of the pivot point to get bow purchase. Therefore, the C stroke is more effective when you are centrally seated.

Once you learn, by autonomic muscle memory, how to correct at entry, during the power phase, at exit, and during recovery, you can blend all these forms of correction in various ways into fluid forward strokes that will keep the nose of your canoe straight as an arrow.

And you can do all those correction strokes with your carbon bent shaft, too, and for a lot less energy expenditure than swinging a beaver club.

looks pretty good to me …

– Last Updated: May-25-13 12:19 AM EST –

...... early on in your vid. you seemed to keep tossing the bow left or right when you reached out for the grab .

Towards the end you seemed to be getting the idea that your weight shifting during the reach was what may have been causing the bow to swing , and seemed to be compensating better for that . Also you weren't reaching as far forward with the carbon paddle but had increased cadence rate .

Early on you would rudder the canoe and just as it seemed to be gliding straight , you would go for the next stroke , and just as your paddle was in the mid forward reach position ... there went the bow . I believe it's a weight shift , ballance thing . Even lifting the paddle clear at the end of the stroke as you saidyou were doing , is a ballance thing . A clean paddle exit instead of an unintentional extra ruddering seems like it made a difference for you . My suggest is to keep the bow and glide going straight by concentrating more on your body weight shift as you begin the reach for the next stroke . Consider a slight heel (weight shift) when your paddle clears the water and you begin the reach , then ease off the heel during the stroke ... repeat .

Or just stay in a heel a go straight paddling one side only (mostly) .

But all in all I think you're doing just fine ... perfect it more if you want to , but I think you do pretty good all ready .

By far I'm no expert paddler but then again I don't care that much , yet I'm able to keep the bow straight away , plus I paddle mostly on one side only then switch sides for awhile to ballance the muscle usage . Works the same for me tandem or solo .

One other thought that may be a factor is your bow looked just a tad light , but only you would know that .

Link to Bob Foote forward stroke video.
If you’re tall like me, you don’t need to use quite such exaggerated torso and upper arm positioning as Foote does. Pay close attention to what he says about J correction. If you reach forward, use a firm catch, and end power rather early, you will eventually learn to paddle with no J or rudder correction at all on 80% or more of your strokes.

Chrome doesn’t load this link easily. Try loading it in a separate window.

You’re doing better than most

– Last Updated: May-25-13 2:16 PM EST – on blending the correction into the stroke instead of stopping and pushing out. Glen described it pretty well. And remember that the power portion should occur at the beginning and end just past the knee. A bit more torso rotation (NOT forward lean) would help. The power comes from winding up the torso for the catch and unwinding the torso for the power're doing a bit too much arm paddling. All in all not bad but I personally dislike the sound of the shaft/blade against the hull...elegance has its virtues.

Edit: after rereading Glen's post I have to say I disagree with trying to correct at the beginning ( C stroke). it is not efficient and not necessary once you get the feel of correction during the end of the power phase. Corrected forward power control in a solo is very much a "feel" sort of thing and there is no amount of discussion that will replace stick time if you're practicing sound technique. Enjoy!

That scraping :frowning:
Thanks all for the feedback!

Lot of good stuff…but in watching…

– Last Updated: May-25-13 2:43 PM EST –

you have one SERIOUS error... Hey, it looks good...BUT is a basic thing you want to clean up. Your shafthand wrist movement for a J is fine...but not enough twist. Your left(grip)hand is somewhat of a beginner's tandem grip...right over the top...limits amount of twist. A grip tilted slightly towards the outer corner will help, especially with your J, in that it'll be simply more of a wristflick with a lesser twist(just my $.01 option!!..but will help). The MAIN ISSUE is in a "basic" correction the forward-edge of the paddle needs to be "twisted" so it ends up pointing straight-ahead or a little inward, towards the keel...however much needed( choice), BUT your J is so's, as CE mentioned, initiating a it's behind the canoe's axis(innaccurate wording I know). Really does show how much one's position inside can help with the physical motions. I think that's what brought on your decision to exit (pull) the blade (up/out) from the water so early...cuz the J is so incomplete it's twisted outward. In the clip there's no correction from your blade at all...and the blade's 99% out of the water that the initialized-sweep barely affects your speed...but the fact is that it isn't aiding your speed (& direction). A J comes at the very end, and doing it quickly helps = allows no interruption of the waterflow so one gets more hull accelleration, but the amount of pull and length of the stroke is really up to you...within positive limits..
As far as where the blade should be in respect to the keel...let the blade do the work and make the pull phase of the blade be close to straight, whether you do some sort of "C" or whatever = but that's all insignificant in comparison to what your blade is doing to affect the pulling of hull through the denser water. Sorry for the ramble, but hope this helps a little. $.01.

There is one thing that I was taught

– Last Updated: May-27-13 2:17 PM EST –

and I see it in much (but not all) of Bill Mason's standard forward paddling (see video above) that few people do. I think it makes a significant difference in the power of the forward stroke and the avoidance of weariness in the arms.

Most folks these days paddle in a fashion like the OP reaching forward with the arms AND the upper body to plant the paddle and then pulling back with the upper body and arms to the end of the stroke. I was taught to paddle differently. I reach forward after a feathered recovery with a straight lower arm (my lower elbow does not bend) and plant the paddle with my upper body still in a vertical position. I do a small stomach crunch to push my top hand forward - my body does the work, not my top arm. There may be a very slight upper body rotation as well. At the end of the stroke (straight or J or pry) I recover with a feathered paddle and as I finish the recovery my upper body returns to a vertical position and then I do it all over again. I find that this method significantly reduces arm fatigue by involving the big muscles of the trunk in the stroke more than the more commmon method. I find that this method reduces back pain on a long trip. You will see this "crunch" method of forward paddling used often by many skilled Greenland kayak paddlers (something I am not!). When I was taught to paddle, this method was considered to be a basic and important characteristic of a good forward stroke with a canoe paddle.

I don't see many people using this method in recent years and I wonder - for those of you involved in teaching - is this something that is taught in the modern era? What is the thinking on this method these days?

see this video - I use this same technique also with a canoe paddle

see also here -

You’ve got part of it “right”

– Last Updated: May-27-13 5:13 PM EST –

The biggest thing you are doing right is going at this with the idea of focusing on your technique, and even asking for advice before you've developed permanent bad habits. The other good thing I saw is that you sometimes practice with a very slow cadence. I think that's good because trying to paddle too fast, too soon, will only encourage bad habits.

What's Applicable to Your Boat and What's Not:
I would modify SOME of the advice provided so far, just to keep everything applicable to the current situation. C-strokes and Bob Foote's highly specialized method for minimizing J-correction aren't appropriate at this time, because neither does any good when paddling from the paddling station you are using, and also not when tandem paddling in the stern position. Along those same lines, when at that paddling station, there's a lot less that you can do to automatically fine-tune all the various parts of a stroke, since any attempt to side-slip the whole boat or to swing the bow one way or the other will fail. Your stroke repertoire is thus a lot more limited. Keep all that stuff in mind if you ever get yourself a dedicated solo boat, or if you put a center seat or kneeling thwart in the boat you have.

I'm not a sit-and-switch paddler, so maybe others should comment on whether or not you should feather the blade during recovery. The first time I ever paddled a canoe on an extended trip (which was when I was about 14) I figured out almost right away that feathering the blade is helpful. Does the fast-and-choppy method used by sit-and-switch racers preclude the usefulness of feathering? I don't know, but it appears to me that lifting both arms to make the blade clear the water would be less efficient than swinging the blade low and keeping it feathered. I guess I should watch some racers and see what they do. Since you are making a good attempt during your traditional stroke to swing the blade forward while feathered, I'm guessing that you are attempting to emulate proper technique for sit-and-switch as well. Bottom line, I don't know which recovery style is proper for sit-and-switch, but since I noticed the difference, I thought I'd mention it.

Traditional Stroke:
I can't add much to what was said about your J-stroke technique. However, when paddling so far behind the boat's center, you really do have to be a lot more careful not to "follow the rail" with your lower hand than with a solo boat. It's important in both cases, but the degree of error in your stroke due to following the rail will be a lot greater when seated along the strongly tapered back end of a tandem canoe than when situated at the center section of a solo boat.

It was mentioned that the correction phase of your J is too long, more like a ruddering action than it should be, and also that the blade's profile when viewed in-line with the direction of travel isn't vertical at the finish. In a more-tippy boat, you'd quickly learn to finish with the blade having a vertical profile, because that canted profile you were ending up with would tip the boat toward the paddle side. I'm hardly an expert, and various parts of my stroke are far from perfect, but I do have a pretty good "flip" for my J-stroke's correction. I played around with shooting video of that once when I was paddling upstream against a brisk current:

Find the videos among the photos on that page (Note that the under the new format of Flickr, old videos are totally demolished as far as quality goes, but if you select the viewing mode represented by the two diagonally opposed arrows, a portion of the original quality will be restored and the frame size will be much smaller than the default. Sometimes even then the new Flickr plays video as mostly just a mish-mash of skipping between frozen frames, so hopefully Flickr will be having a good day if you take a look at this). Note that ruddering action is a good thing at times, but for most strokes, the correction phase is so quick that it doesn't cause much of any delay in recovering for the next stroke. In other words, a succession of J-stokes can have nearly as fast a cadence as a succession of uncorrected strokes (not counting super super-short strokes of racers). Also, you can see by the position of the upper hand that the blade is very close to vertical during the "flip" at the end of the stroke.

One last bit of advice that I found helpful for reducing stress on the forearm during the correction phase was to practice both the stern pry (that's what the vast majority of paddlers do instead of a true J-stroke) and the J-stroke together, and notice that your lower hand during a stern pry tends to end up in a more comfortable position for an outward push than is naturally the case with the J-stroke. During your J-stroke, try to make your lower hand be positioned more like what happens with the stern pry, and it will feel better. In my case, my joints are still more "fragile" than those of most people so using the gunwale as a fulcrum helps a lot. But I hate the noise that makes, so I put the heel of my hand against the top of the rail, and that provides enough contact with the boat to eliminate stress on my elbow and forearm. For some specialized strokes I'll even slide the lower hand along the gunwale (rather than slide the paddle shaft on the gunwale like the old timers used to do), and that's my only reason for wearing light gloves - slipping a bare hand along a vinyl or aluminum gunwale can "burn").

ok that was cool
Informative yes, but also for the entertainment value (for this extreme novice anyway). Well-filmed and narrated.

Nice videos -

– Last Updated: May-27-13 7:43 PM EST –

but - sometime give my alternate method of forward paddling a go and see what you think. It does take a bit of an adjustment. But well worth it. Much more powerful strokes can be had and you will not tire out nearly as quickly.

Of course - then there are the sprint racers to watch! Completely different than I am advocating - man do they get those "canoes" moving over the short haul!!

I think I’ve done it your way.

– Last Updated: May-27-13 7:43 PM EST –

I have a very old book on outdoor skills published by the Boy Scouts of America, and if I recall, it recommends a very similar method. There's very little arm movement except at the shoulder joint, as it's generally just swinging the whole geometric shape composed of arms and paddle in a downward/backward motion (the backward motion is due to what happens to that "geometric shape" as the arms pivot downward via the shoulder joints, and it's clear to me that a bit of "hunching" of the torso would amplify that motion). Yes, arm strain is virtually zero with this method. The path of the paddle blade is not ideal, but it's not nearly as far "off" from ideal as what a lot of unskilled paddlers do anyway. I sometimes fall back on that method, for a few strokes at a time anyway, when I'm very tired and bucking a stiff headwind. It generates a tremendous amount of power via very little use of smaller, strain-prone muscles. The only reason I don't use it more is the downward, steadily-tilting motion of the blade, but as mentioned, blade positioning isn't THAT bad.

Big things to go away and play with
Stacked hands on the paddle for forward stroke, so one hand should be on top of the other throughout the forward stroke. So if you find your forward stroke is coming in over the gunnel, then obviously you need to rotate your torso more.

J stroke is for forward stroke without changing the blade face you are using in the water, from the video angle it was actually hard to tell if you were actually doing a J at all. It’s not strictly speaking required, but it is a great skill. I would focus on forward stroke stacked hands vertical blade on the water, refilm and then review.

Some other things I haven’t seen
mentioned. When paddling in a kneeling position, less bend in the shaft is better. For sitting, you want maybe 12 degrees. For kneeling, about 5 degrees max.

I’d like to see you kneeling farther forward, with your thighs stuffed under the center thwart. That way you can put the blade in up partway along the bow, where it is narrower. By the time your stroke reaches your hip, the blade has been below the boat, so the vertical shaft is near the gunwale.

I can’t tell if your catch is prompt and firm, but it should be. You should be done applying power by the time your lower hand is opposite your hip, and your J correction (if needed) occurs promptly with the paddle shaft still vertical. The J correction is done by twisting the thumb out, not by twisting it down.

If the J correction is done with the paddle dragging behind you, it will cut the speed of the boat just as much as if you did a rudder or “goon” stroke, maybe more.

You’re paddling better now than I did when I first soloed back in '73. But I’ve had 40 years to improve.

Practice. After 1,000 hours it will be natural.

Since this thread is more than 8 years old, I’m assuming they’ve had plenty of practice by now.