Canoe Paddling/Positions

Firstly, I would like to say that I am a very good kayaker, but I really don’t know too much about canoeing. I do know, though, (as, granted, everybody else does) that a solo paddler usually sits in the stern. I also realize that the canoe should be trim, and that therefore a solo paddler would do better amidships.

To the question: If you have two paddlers of different size and paddling proficency, do you put the better paddler in the stern, or the heavier?

Would the circomstances change if they were going in a straight line vs. maneuvering? What would be faster?


quite a few different questions there
First, canoe paddlers don’t all or always sit, many kneel which affords greater stability.

When you say “a solo paddler usually sits in the stern”, I assume you are talking about a tandem canoe paddled by a single paddler. In that instance, several options are available.

In symmetrical tandem boats that don’t have contoured seats or a thwart placement that prevents it, many solo paddlers of tandem boats will sit on the bow seat (which is always closer to amidships) facing toward the stern of the boat and paddle the boat “backwards”, i.e, stern first. If that isn’t possible some will paddle from the stern seat and use some weight right up in the bow stem (polyethylene milk jugs filled with lake or river water work well) to trim the canoe. This allows one to paddle from a relatively narrow portion of a wide tandem boat.

Paddling from the rear station does not allow a solo paddler to utilize correction and steering strokes that are placed in the bow quadrants however, because the paddle won’t reach forward of the pivot point of the canoe. For this reason, some solo paddlers of tandems will install a seat, pedestal, or kneeling thwart just aft of amidships, or simply kneel just behind the center yoke or thwart.

Paddling a beamy tandem from near amidships can make it difficult to reach out over the gunwale and achieve good stroke mechanics with a relatively vertical paddle shaft, if the canoe is not heeled over. So some folks will paddle tandem canoes “Canadian style”, kneeling with both knees in one chine of the canoe just aft of amidships and heeling the boat toward their paddling side rather dramatically which makes reaching over the gunwale easy. This style of paddling precludes the use of cross strokes, however.

Where to place the paddlers is a whole other can of worms. Most tandem teams will place the less experienced paddler in the bow (regardless of size) since on flat water the stern paddler is generally responsible for maintaining proper heading so some knowledge of correction strokes is required.

But assuming that both paddlers have some knowledge of correction strokes and steering, many experienced tandem teams will put the stronger paddler (who is often the heavier) in the bow. The bow paddler can utilize most of his or her energy on forward strokes delegating steering and correction to the less powerful paddler in the stern. The strong paddler thus “wastes less time” on directional control and can apply more of their power toward propelling the boat forward which is almost always faster.

pblanc pretty well sumed it up.
I’d add one item.

Even though the paddlers may be of differing weights, the boat should still be trimmed level or nearly so. It is especially important the the boat not be trimmed, bow down. This may often be accomplished by tossing the day packs or other gear toward the end of the boat with the lighter paddler. If gear alone won’t do it use the milk jugs previously mentioned by pblanc.

Marc Ornstein

Dogpaddle Canoe Works

Custom Canoe Paddles and Wood Strip Canoes

Bow skilled and level trim
I think canoes should be trimmed level. In a tandem you can accomplish that by shifting gear or seat positions. Whitewater tandems (assuming they still exist) used to place the seats close together near the center of the hull – the so-called “Gemini position” for tandem seating. Gemini seating, in addition to enhancing performance in WW, can greatly minimize the effects of weight differences between the paddlers.

If you can’t get a level trim, a little bow up is better than a little bow down.

Where should the “better” paddler sit? If by that you mean the physically stronger paddle, I’m not sure I feel strongly about the issue.

If by “better” you mean the more technically skilled paddler, I think the more technically skilled paddler should be in the bow of a whitewater tandem team. The technical skills the bow paddler needs in addition to a strong forward stroke are: cross-forward stroke, kinetic draw, static draw, kinetic cross-draw, static cross-draw, static jam, kinetic pry, turning Duffek, cross turning Duffek, static drawing sideslip, static prying sideslip, and a very good feel for heeling the boat to the rail while crossing violent eddy lines and current differentials.

Bow up or down
Bow slightly up may be preferable for maneuverability but slightly bow down is preferred by marathon racers for a little extra speed.


Behind the center, Canoe Politics
The solo paddler should be just aft of center.

If you have two paddlers of different size and paddling proficency the larger and or more agressive paddler should throw the other paddler out of the canoe and paddle from just aft of center.

Two headed boats are for the birds.

Bow down for marathon racers?
I didn’t know this, not being a marathon racer.

Can you explain the physics or reasons why bow down would generate more speed than a level trim. I’m genuinely curious. And would this apply whether the canoe is going upstream, downstream or across currentless water?

Bow Down
I’ve seen it writen that marthon paddlers like the bow down so that as hull comes up to speed the stern squat is minimized and the hull paddles level or close to.

But a bow heavy canoe can be a bear to turn and to keep going straight. Many sections of the 90-miler, for example, are won or lost on ability to efficiently carve sharp turns both inside the oncoming bank, and your competition.

my $0.02
Oh, I think its all been covered by canoists much more experienced than me. But what the hay, it’s a web forum, so here’s my (somewhat redundant) input.

On trim, I agree with level or slightly bow up for flatwater paddling. On the otherhand, going INTO a strong wind, it can be useful to be bow heavy to prevent lee cocking. Ideally, the seats should be adjusted to accomodate the paddlers, not the other way around, so it shouldn’t matter whether the heavier paddler sits bow or stern. Adjustable bow seats help a lot with that. Or, in the case of paddling with a much smaller partner, such as a very slender lady or a child, one might simply turn the canoe around and paddle “backwards” to achieve level trime. Partners that paddle together frequently may adjust their seat locations perminently. Moving gear around as ballast to get the trim level is the finishing touch.

On paddler proficiency, I agree that for most flatwater paddling, by and large, the bow paddler is the “engine” and the stern paddler is the “driver”. Its better for the more experienced paddler to be in the stern to control the canoe. Assuming that both paddlers are experienced, or at least both are proficient at correction strokes, than its better for the stronger paddler to be in the bow. The exception to that rule might be if the team is using a sit n switch style. In that case, it doesn’t matter where the strongest paddler sits and neither paddler is really steering. Either paddler could call the “hutts” to “steer”, but I find it easier to do that from the front.

Got it
Ok, that’s a lot to think about! thanks everyone, I’ll keep it all in mind.

Not that simple

– Last Updated: Jul-23-12 10:12 PM EST –

"The exception to that rule might be if the team is using a sit n switch style. In that case, it doesn't matter where the strongest paddler sits and neither paddler is really steering."

I don't really agree with this. As a veteran of many years of canoe racing, including 15 90-Milers and 3 Yukon River races, there is a lot more to steering than just doing a "hut". Both bow and stern paddlers actively participate in steering, the stern paddler more generally for keeping a straight line or setting up a line to track and simple huts may go a long way for that purpose in straight no-wind no-current conditions, but in difficult sections both bow and stern MUST understand, know, anticipate and participate in what the other is doing. As I am more often the bow paddler, I count on the stern caller to "hut" me to the proper side to effect an upcoming turn of substance. Meanwhile the stern paddler sets himself up for draws and/or sweeps as needed.

Sometimes only a couple of running draws are needed from the bowman to assist in course correction, particularly in current or wind, but more aggressive turns require much more aggressive action from the 'bow engine". Huts alone don't do it, and on multiple rapid "S" turn sections the bowman may need to act completely independently from huts, and switching calls are suspended as the best line is drawn around the curves left and right. The stern paddler reacts as necessary to what the bowman sees ahead. Of course that takes a lot of highly practiced teamwork (understanding, knowledge, anticipation, and participation) from both ends of the boat.

Not that simple in whitewater
My earlier comment was in the context of kneeling tandem in whitewater (not hit 'n switch).

I stand by my belief that the better paddler should be in the bow. This has nothing necessarily to do with being the “the engine” or supplying power. It has more to do with being “the brain” and tactician.

The stern paddler may control macro and strategic movements when running a rapid, but the bow paddler must make the more instantaneous tactical decisions and employ a greater menu of technical strokes. The stern follows the bow’s tactical decisions just by observing the moves.

Stern paddlers who have never paddled with an expert in the bow may be completely unaware of what I am talking about because they never have experienced it. Believe me, if you had my former expert bowman in your canoe, he would very clearly explain the chain of command to you.

Of course, in the end both paddlers have to work together, and after a while most moves are anticipated by both. My greatest technical paddling thrills were tandem whitewater dances with an expert bowman.

thanks for the clarification
I was thinking more in the context of general recreational paddling and simple tripping, not racing. Intead of writing that neither paddler steers, I should have wrote that neither paddler is primarily responsible for correction strokes and either paddler can “steer”.

I’ll comment on “steering” in the context of non-hit 'n switch recreational tandem on flat or slowly moving water.

The stern paddler can steer by pivoting the boat, like a compass needle, using a a rudder stroke or a big sweep stroke. These two strokes are very easy to learn and are almost intuitive. The stern should also possess, at a minimum, the more difficult to master J-stroke and low brace.

The bow paddler can’t steer the boat by pivoting it, as the stern can. The bow changes direction by more abrupt paddle techniques, which essentially yank or push the nose of the boat quickly left or right. The bow may do this, for example, when a slightly submerged stump or rock comes into view, of which the stern has no knowledge.

To move the bow quickly on-side, the bow paddler should be adept with a the dynamic (pulling) draw stroke. To move off-side, there are more weapons at hand. The bow should be adept with the on-side static jam, the on-side dynamic (or kinetic) pry, and the off-side cross-draw stroke.

Cross-draw strokes are often best followed up by some cross-forward strokes, which also have bow paddling applications in other contexts such as peeling out of an eddy.

If the sideways movements of the bow need not be abrupt enough to warrant one of the above strokes, the bow may choose to begin a more relaxed sideways slippping movement by using a static draw sideslip to the on-side or a static pry sideslip to the off-side. When the stern sees these moves being begun, he too can mirror those sideslips if he knows the technique. With both paddlers using a sideslip, the boat will not turn like a compass needle but will stay parallel to its original course and slide smoothly sideways around the rock or stump.

In moving water the tandem team should be practiced with the back ferry move. This requires knowledge of reverse strokes. While back ferrying, in a sense, the stern paddler has to know some bow strokes in reverse and the bow paddler has to know some stern strokes in reverse.

If the recreational team wants to eddy out behind a rock or to land pointing upstream at the shore, the bow must know how to employ a turning high brace (Duffek stroke) on the on-side and a cross-Duffek on the off-side. The stern meanwhile, will employ a complementary forward sweep or reverse sweeping low brace in the stern.

I consider all these to be basic recreational tandem moves. In Minnesota switch paddling, which is not my forte, there are the additional responsibities of pacing and hutting.

So, once you work out the trim thing by moving the seats in the canoe and/or shifting gear, who’s better suited for these different roles for the bow and stern. I have no idea. I do know that whoever is wherever has to learn a lot of strokes and moves that are not intuitive and are best learned by instruction, or at least from careful study of books and videos. And then lots and lots of practice, some of it wet.

It’s worth it.

You may want to start with these two canonic tandem videos by the canonized Paul Mason:

worth reading
…and just possibly the best answer I’ve seen on this forum…:slight_smile: