Canoe Paddling Styles: Technique and Tripping Whitewater

Up until now, my primary canoe experience has been weekend to week-long tripping on Class I (with the occasional Class II) rivers. In an attempt to improve my paddle skills so that I can trip harder water (Class II streams) , this late spring, I went to NOC for two days of private instruction. Since then, I’ve been thinking about the different applications of the two primary styles of canoe paddling on rivers: faster than water/cab forward and slower than water/stern correction. Searching the archives here, I couldn’t find a thread in which the differences, overlaps, and applications were the main focus.

Tripping requires a more conservative approach, and even Bill Mason wrote that the canoeist should raise the rating of every rapid by one class if paddling with a load. As well, Cliff Jacobson has been critical of the current trend of whitewater instruction for its lack of focus on tripping technique, particularly the absence of back ferry instruction (obviously a slower-than-water technique). I’ve yet to see where Tom Foster or other innovators and practitioners of the cab-forward style address its application to tripping although I’m just beginning to study it.

What I’m primarily interested in is the mix and match of these two approaches when tripping whitewater. A good example that is often used is the eddy turn/peel out. It’s often stated that in a loaded boat the better approach is to catch the eddy further down with a back ferry and then to exit where the eddy line is weakest. With this adjustment to slower-than-water technique, the tripping canoeist doesn’t present the boat broadside to the strongest current and can avoid a potential fish count.

What other adjustments or blending do you make between the two styles? When you’re paddling a canoe laden with gear in Class II and above, what elements of the cab-forward approach do you use and when and what elements of the slower-than-water approach and when?


Well, I get more conservative with a week or two’s worth of gear in my canoe. Honestly, an easy class II that is easily scouted is the most I’ll run. I don’t mind a walk in the woods. That said, I also haven’t (and likely will not) take on the rivers that Cliff has. The toughest river that I’ve done is the Dog. That one did require running loaded in some class III+ drops in a loaded Dagger Rival. Generally though, I’m something like a MR Explorer or a Prospector or solo in the Rendezvous.

My WW training at NOC goes back to the late 90s - pretty much before or at the beginning of the short canoes that drove the ‘Cab Forward’ style. Personally, I mix it up & will often run slower than the current while sorting out where to go and then hit the power if/when needed. I’ve been known to back ferry on occasion as needed. I can’t say that I do what (I think) Bill Mason called 'Setting OIn". that is backing into an eddy rather than snaping an eddy turn although I can see several reasons to catch an eddy that way.

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AFAIK the American Whitewater Affiliation officially recommended that: “if rapids on a river generally fit into one of the classifications, but the water temperature is below fifty degrees Fahrenheit, or if the trip is an extended trip into a wilderness area, the river should be considered one class more difficult than normal”

Also I doubt if the “cab forward” style of paddling works with heavy loaded tripping canoes,
and faster than the current paddling just will then mean more water aboard and thus swamping…
And when you are ferrying you are “slower-than-the water”, whether you are forward or backward ferrying. Real whitewater canoes just have more room and maneuverability to quickly turn around for a forward ferry and often can take advantage of standing waves then.

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There are many ways to paddle in whitewater. There are also lots of different boats you can use. What you are trying to accomplish and the boat you are paddling usually dictates the approach you take.

To me, whitewater and river tripping are very different. A whitewater trip usually takes place on a single section of a river that happens to have the desired level of difficulty. The objective is to play around in the rapids, using the eddies and currents. We might spend an hour playing in rapids that we could run from top to bottom in a couple of minutes.

In river tripping the objective isn’t to play around in rapids. It’s to get from the top to the bottom without dumping your gear. The skills you need overlap, but you are definitely trying to do different things.

Boats are different as well. My current whitewater solo is a 12’ Mad River Outrage – big by today’s standards, but spins on a dime. Also has a pedestal and floatation. Fun for playing in rapids, but definitely not a tripping boat.

My usual solo tripping boat is 14’ Bell Wildfire/Yelowstone Solo (I have both). Long enough to hold gear for the week, but narrow enough that I can still paddle it in more of a cab forward style like my whitewater boat. Loaded with gear, I wouldn’t be playing around in rapids, but it is maneuverable enough that I can spin it around to ferry or get in and out of eddies.

Over the weekend I was paddling on some easier whitewater with guys in a Penobscot 15 and a Supernova – both tripping boats that are bigger than my Wildfire/YS, but they managed to move around in class I/II whitewater just fine.

So back to your original question when do you use faster than water/cab forward vs slower than water/stern correction. Personally, given my experience and my boats I am more of a faster than water/cab forward paddler. That doesn’t mean that a good back ferry is necessary to set you up at the top of a rapid, or to slow you down to give someone else room in front of you. But if there is a must make eddy to catch, I’m going to do and eddy turn rather than to try to back set with a back ferry.

Back ferries can be tough – especially in fast moving water, or when crossing strong eddy lines. If that is going to be your approach, you definitely need to practice. Cliff Jacobson is right that that the back ferry/back set isn’t something that gets a lot of attention during whitewater instruction. I don’t think that there is a right or wrong answer on which to use, just personal preference, but for me the eddy-turn and peal-out is easier.

All this assume solo paddling. You can also have the same discussion for tandem boats.


p.s. to my post above.

If you dump trying to do an eddy turn, there is a good chance that momentum will carry you over the eddy line anyway, and you will end up taking a swim in the eddy. If you dump trying to do a back set, or miss the eddy entirely, there is a good chance that you will still be out in the fast moving current.

Pick your poison…

Speed, angle, but not quite enough lean…

He did dump, but momentum carried him into the eddy


the confusing thing however, is that here is a contradiction assumed between the “cab-forward” technique and slower than water paddling, while the “cab-forward” technique is actually very useful for a forward ferry, which is inherently slower than the water…
The point thus is that “cab-forward” is only an alternative for going straight with stern-rudders or trailing J-stokes, and in itself has nothing to do with going slower or faster than water.

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Agreed - cab forward is more about carving using forward and cross forward strokes to minimize corrections at the stern. You can use it with the current or against the current.

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It really depends on the boat and the load.

A loaded boat of any design type is likely to carry a lot more downstream momentum, and that will only get worse if there is any water in it. That can make it much more difficult to use more proactive whitewater paddling techniques that require entering and exiting eddies, or spinning the boat and scrubbing off downstream speed for an upstream ferry. You might hit a smallish eddy high but the momentum of the canoe might be greater than the ability of the eddy reversal current to slow its downstream progress and retain it.

A longish river trip that involves some whitewater (the type of trip Cliff Jacobson has typically done) is often done in a longer canoe with a somewhat straighter keel line for the sake of downstream efficiency, particularly when the bulk of the trip consists of moving flatwater rather than whitewater. That type of boat will be much slower to spin into an upstream ferry, for example. With that type of boat a more conservative paddling style using back ferries and side slips is often the better part of valor. Those techniques are usually also used by downriver canoe racers as downriver boats often don’t like to turn too much.

My personal preference is to paddle a dedicated whitewater boat on any trip that involves actual whitewater. I frequently trip on rivers that have no rapids more difficult than Class I as I would rather retain whitewater maneuvering capability at the expense of some downstream efficiency. If the trip involves any rapids more difficult than straightforward Class II I will unload the boat before running them and will usually have a pump in the boat as well.

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It is not so much “downstream efficiency” – because going downstream is easy :wink: – but it is “upstream efficiency” one needs, whether ferrying forward (if there is time and room to turn around) or ferrying backward, and also “head wind efficiency”, as in a whitewater design paddling against a headwind and lake waves is much more difficult than with dedicated tripping canoes.
Also back paddling to go a bit slower than the water is much dryer than forward paddling and you have more time to avoid the rocks…
The whole problem though is that paddling backwards is difficult, reguires a lot of training and is not as spectacular:
some of my companions on river trips even described practicing it as dull and boring. :frowning:

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Great thoughts here. Be gentle with me, though. Isn’t the cab-forward style (basically carving) dependent on creating a bow wave (along with the J lean) which helps turns the canoe, thereby gaining the ability paddle on the same side toward which you want to turn? In that sense, doesn’t that necessitate going faster than the current?

It’s quite possible that I’m utterly wrong as I’m just starting out with these skills.

I totally get where Cliff J. and the folks at the NOC are coming from. The short answer is that they are both right and it is okay to mix the styles up.

Depending upon the situation, you don’t always drive the same speed or the same way on a road. The same is true with paddlecraft and ww.

The virtues of Speed
You want speed to paddle through holes, cross turbulent eddy lines, and jet ferry in an aggressive manner. You can even blast over some waves with speed. There are many places you don’t want to linger. This is particularly true on powerful rivers with big waves and strong eddy lines. The drawbacks for an open boat is that it decreases reaction time, you are more likely to swamp out, and if you hit something then the collision is likely to be greater and thus more dramatic. Once you cross over into the class IV realm,speed is a pretty key component. You can look at every move like my Uncle SAL does- speed, angle, lean (tilt).

The virtues of Going Slower
Going slower than the current increases reaction time to work through rock gardens, gives the bow time to rise up over some waves and thus often leads to a drier boat. Going slow also makes impacts less severe, and allows you to slide into eddies facing downstream for boat scouting. By setting into an eddy the canoe doesn’t have to swing sideways and thus you are less likely to hit rocks broadside.

In general, strong powerful rivers require speed while technical rockgardens demand a slower approach. Going slower can also keep your boat drier in long wave trains assuming you can keep the boat straight but this can be difficult to do. If tandem paddling, it is far easier for the bow paddler to set the downstream ferry angle or time the backstrokes to allow the bow to rise up.

The two approaches don’t have to be mutually exclusive. Sometimes even in my kayak I’ll go slower than the current to increase reaction time or use a downstream ferry angle to get where I want to go. This is very useful for lining up at the top of drops or if I want to see what is downstream while in an eddy (setting in stern first). A couple of years ago I forgot my sprayskirt on the bluestone river. I just switched to slow mode to minimize the # of times I had to empty.

You would think that ww rafts would be all forward paddling. Yet if you carefully watch them they employ a lot of downstream ferry angles to get lined up and get where they want to go in the current. Once they are on their line then they apply power to punch through features. You see this a lot with oar frames as well. Often they are downstream ferrying facing the rapid and then apply the power.

… and yes, sometimes it’s okay just to drift. You can have control assuming you understand downstream ferry angles and use the current to your advantage. Lots of folks think of ferrying in terms of just power or going against the current. For me, I think about a “smooth ride”, and my uncle SAL- speed, angle, lean. Kayak wave surfing is less about the power and more about the angle when catching waves, generally a few quick strokes at the right moment is all it takes to catch a feature. Speed is just one aspect to ww boating.


Your speed related to the water is about the same whether going upstream or downstream.

Yes, the cab forward technique requires one to paddle faster than the current speed and attempts to minimize strokes taken in the stern quarters to the extent possible by using a combination of forward and cross-forward strokes. In order to be effective, boat momentum must be kept up by minimizing strokes that kill forward speed. Hull carving is not absolutely required to use a cab forward technique but it greatly enhances efficiency be minimizing the number of side switches that are required.

As for your speed relative to the water, it would be much greater paddling upstream on a strong forward ferry than it would be paddling downstream during a back ferry. In the latter example your speed relative to the water would be negative. In the former instance it would be strongly positive even though your speed relative to the bottom of the streambed or bank might be close to zero.

Another technique that can sometimes be used in whitewater that is not too technical is to simply float sideways at current speed. In this situation, obstacles can be avoided by either using forward strokes or backstrokes to move the boat laterally toward one bank or the other. This technique has the advantage of the paddler always having an effective low brace on the downstream side of the boat if needed.

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If you are paddling downstream, you are not ferrying.

Let me first set the language ‘variables’ first to avoid misunderstandings:

  • a backward ferry is ferrying by paddling backwards upstream;
  • a forward ferry is ferrying by paddling forward upstream.

you all are confusing me-
the type of ferry is determined by the way you face, if you are facing upstream then it is an upstream ferry, typically some forward paddling is required

downstream ferry, you are facing downstream, typically some back paddling is required

in the case of the upstream ferry, the bow of the boat points to where you want to go

in the case of a downstream ferry, the stern points to where you want to go

in the case of an upstream “jet ferry” you gain momentum before blasting out of an eddy to do an upstream ferry and rely on an initial burst of speed and aggressive angle to move you quickly across the current, often it ends in a peel out (if you are still in the current or could turn into another eddy turn if you make it all the way across the feature). S ferry related to this as well

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You said that your speed “related” to the water is about the same whether “going” upstream or downstream. I took that to mean that your speed relative to the water that your boat is in is the same whether your boat is moving in a downstream direction, or whether you are paddling in an upstream direction. Clearly you would not be “going” upstream in current unless you were paddling.

The point is that your speed relative to the current is markedly different whether you are executing an upstream ferry or a back ferry. And when I used the term “paddling downstream” I was referring to the direction that your boat was going, relative to the stream bed or bank, while executing a back ferry. Yes, I realize that a back ferry requires the use of backstrokes to slow the velocity of the boat relative to the water that it is in.

In the case of most back ferries you need not slow your boat more than 1 or 2 mph relative to the speed of the downstream current. In stronger current your boat is likely still moving downstream although at a slower pace than the current. But your speed relative to the current must be negative for the ferry to work.

very rarely when back ferrying do I ever completely neutralize the current by back paddling. The goal is to move left or right while increasing reaction time. With upstream ferrying I am more likely to neutralize the current, without even getting pushed downstream. In terms of power, the upstream ferry is the stronger of the two ferries and easier to learn since you can readily see where the bow is pointed. Also most boats are set up to be somewhat bow light and stern heavy.

I won’t pretend to understand the concept of “resistant ends” but as a practical matter, the stern can set the angle far easier than the bow, in an upstream ferry. In a downstream ferry, the bow sets the angle for the stern. It is safe to say, there is the least resistance from the current in this tandem scenario when the paddler at the opposite end of the boat from the majority of current is tasked with setting the angle. This applies directly to tandem paddling and also how you want to trim the boat if solo. It might seem counter intuitive but some weight in the bow is a good thing if you are executing a lot of back ferries although it might interfere with how much the bow can ride up over waves. Pick your poison.

To elaborate a bit (probably unnecessarily) on what you just said, on any ferry it is usually easier to set the ferry angle than it is to try to restore your ferry angle when the upstream end of the boat starts getting “blown” downstream by the current. This is why the bow (downstream) paddler is best situated to control the ferry angle during a tandem back ferry. It is relatively easy to increase the ferry angle on any ferry because the current is working with you.

If the ferry angle is too great it is much easier for the bow paddler to pull the bow back into alignment since the current is assisting in this instance. The stern (upstream) paddler would have to draw or pry the stern against the force of the current.

And that is what makes tandem back ferries tricky, in my experience. In addition to the bow paddler having difficulty seeing exactly where the stern is pointed, all too often the bow paddler is the less experienced member of the team. I’m not saying tandem back ferries are not useful, but they need to be practiced in mild current where there are no downstream obstacles of consequence by any new tandem team before they are needed to avoid an obstacle in stronger current.

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So back in the early 80s as a college student I worked for the boyscouts in Maine for six summers. We were paddling grummans, alumacrafts, oldtown roylex trippers and later discoveries. during those same years when school was in session it was bluehole tandems and occasionally an explorer or grumman eagle. Later on, we got dedicated solo ww boats- me, flashback. Then after college it was about buying our own decked boats- c1s and kayaks.

In Maine I preferred the eastbranch of the penobscot and webster brook to the lakes on the allagash. The Moose and east outlet were also personal favorites along with roll dam (west branch). We would hit up the moose, east outlet with and without crews . The dead and the bottom of the kennebec gorge , and southbranch on days off with added flotation to tripping canoes.

With the boyscouts, we were always carrying gear if we weren’t on a day off. Weekends With the college scene, not much gear, mostly day trips. Adding flotation really changed the style of how I boated and allowed me to boat more thrilling water with less consequences. It was more about power moves- busting holes and larger waves.

The challenge of getting a loaded tandem tripping canoe down a “wilderness river” was just as thrilling as the day trips on the yough, big south fork, and emory-obed system in those dedicated solo ww canoes. It was all good.

Teaching a “new scout” to effectively pry and draw was a challenge I embraced. Getting the bow paddler to listen and understand that the boat was a pivot was a lot of fun. There is room in my world for both types of paddling. Hey, I’ve even embraced rec boating!

I’ve damaged a few tripping canoes- pretzeled an aluminum boat on wassataquook stream and also an aluminum canoe at roll dam (slades rips) on the west branch. Stuff happens, and you learn to unpin boats and stomp them out. Now my knees don’t work so well, but it was a lot of fun. I totally understand the appeal of running ww in tripping canoes. The biggest drops I ran solo and empty. …ah the good ol’ days back when I could kneel. Maybe that’s what did my knees in? So worth it though! On my recent texas trip my brother announced he’d pinned his boat. I thought, “oh goody” now we get to have some fun.


As I suspected, there are some misunderstandings here because, as I see it, there is no such thing as a “downstream ferry”, and I should have written my view about that better:

  • a backward ferry is done by paddling backwards upstream, thus against the current;
  • a forward ferry is done by paddling forward upstream, thus against the current.

Calling a back ferry a “downstream ferry” only adds to the confusion, because when ferrying your movement related to the bottom of the river can be upstream or downstream, depending on your speed related to the water:
if your speed when ferrying is slower than the current you will be moving downstream and you will have to adjust your ‘ferry angle’ accordingly (wider) to minimize that downstream movement as much as possible.