Canoe Paddling Styles: Technique and Tripping Whitewater

An “S-ferry” or ‘S-turn’ is when the ‘ferrying path’ looks a bit like an ‘S’ seen from above. This is just the consequence of using very different ferry angles to compensate or minimize your downstream movement as much as possible:


In my experience a bit bow heavy is always dryer than stern heavy when paddling with touring canoes in whitewater waves. But I always try to minimize my downstream speed as much as possible then by paddling backwards against the current.

Yes - you’ve got it. Cab-forward paddling was perfected by whitewater slalom racers and works best in boats that will quickly lock into carving circles. My Outrage will lock in with a couple of strokes even on flatwater. My Wildfire, not so much. You can think of it as tdaniel’s “Uncle SAL” on steroids, because you are effectively paddling a series of different size circles to get you where you want to go without having to correct at the stern. Tripping boats won’t carve circles the way a solo whitewater boat will, but you still need “Uncle SAL” when crossing eddy lines and ferrying (either the traditional same angle ferry or Kanoniem’s S-turn ferry below).


If we take this out of the tripping context, I love tandem whitewater paddling in my tripping boat. I love solo paddling too, but there is a different level of satisfaction from working with a good partner to get that big boat gracefully down the river. I am fortunate to have a couple of great tandem partners. I’d rather paddle in the bow, but I usually end up in the stern because I am heavier. It is different in the stern because you have to take the lead from what the bow paddler is doing - if he is on his on-side we go that way, if he is on his off-side we go that way. When you are in the zone no verbal communication is required. You just have to have faith that your bow paddler knows what he is doing. And with paddlers at both ends, it is amazing how much power you have to surf or do upstream ferries, or to spin the boat around to catch eddies. We’ve done the Dead, the Deerfield many times, and a couple of other easy whitewater rivers. It is a blast.

And it is good to practice with the boat empty before you get out and try these moves with gear.

S-turn is great if you need to get from one side of the river to the other without moving downstream. It’s less effective if you are mid-stream trying to line up on a shoot, or pausing to give someone downstream time to move, or moving out to surf a wave. The more traditional “same angle” ferry is also important to know. Back ferry is the usual terminology around here, but people would know what you are talking about if you called it a downstream or backward ferry.

The S-turn is just the result of ferrying with partial downstream movement when your speed at some point is much slower than the current and you have to adjust your angle accordingly (wider).
I have often seen paddlers practicing it when it was in fact unnecessary, which can be a good drill anyway, but without realizing at all what en why they were practicing it.
In reality if you just consequently adjust your ferry angle according to the speed of the current, an S-turn should happen automatically when at some point the speed of the current is much faster than your speed against that current.

Back ferry is the usual terminology around here, but people would know what you are talking about if you called it a downstream or backward ferry.

Yes, I realize that now , although I stll find “downstream ferry” confusing.
And if there is one thing I learned when paddling tandem in whitewater, is to avoid confusion:
“No, I meant that other rock!” :blush:

To me, an s-turn isn’t a ferry in the traditional sense of the word. A ferry is holding the boat angle constant and with the right amount of paddle stroke so that the current pushes you laterally across the water. Done right you won’t move downstream.

The s-turn uses turns in two different directions to move you across the river without moving downstream (at least by the time you reach the other side). Effect if the same, but the maneuver is very different, even though it is often called an s-turn ferry.

I’m a lefty, so for me the s-turn in your picture starts with an off-side turn out into the current. About half way across I would switch to an on-side turn that will take me to the other side. The s-turn is definitely a cab-forward maneuver. Paddling figure-8’s on flatwater is all about practicing the transition from on-side turns to off-side turns, and vice versa.

Regarding S-turns, there are lots of reasons to do them.

An S-turn can be an excellent back up plan if during a forward ferry in very strong current a paddler realizes they can’t make their intended destination eddy directly across the river but can easily S into the next eddy below it.

There is also the S-turn through a mid-river eddy. The eddy is entered on one side using a more or less standard eddy-out technique but with a bit less upstream angle than would be used if the paddler intended to stop in the eddy. Boat momentum is continued in a graceful S through the eddy by eddying out the other side. This can be very useful when the rapid requires a quick shift from one side of the river to the other maintaining downstream momentum while doing so.

If you have mastered cab forward technique with circle carving the S-turn simply requires a smooth change from a circle on one side to a circle on the other. What is more, the accompanying change in boat heel from one side to the other that accompanies the change in circle sets your boat heel up perfectly for entry into the target eddy.

Here is what Tom Foster says about forward ferries and S-turns (taken from “Catch Every Eddy, Surf Every Wave” c. 1995):

"The traditional description of ferrying has you set your boat at a fixed angle to the current which you maintain from start to finish. That’s a lot of work! You fight the current when you force your boat to hold the same angle all the way across, because the current force on your bow is not equal to the current force on your stern; at first there is greater downstream force on your bow, then there’s greater downstream force on the stern.

When the boat is set at an angle to the current, the current is deflected off the boat, creating a lateral force that contributes to its movement across the river. This will work equally well whether the boat angle remains constant or changes a bit in the course of the maneuver. Carving two graceful, partial circles, you can easily maintain an upstream discipline with a varying angle, using the current’s lateral force to full advantage – but, you’re relaxing the traditional, fixed angle into a graceful, sweeping “S” as you cross the river."

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Well I quess the original idea of an “S” turn when ferrying is then just lost in the mist of time :frowning:

Based on the descriptions in books like ‘Canoeing’ from the American Red Cross and ‘Basic River Canoeing’ from Rober E. McNair (et al), in my view an S-Turn is a move done by a ferry across the river, where the movement downstream of the canoe during a part of that ferry causes the path of the canoe to look like a sort of S from above – hence the name?

In the picture I made (based on the illustration of the book ‘Canoeing’ from the American National Red Cross 1977 page 308) there is no real turn involved in this move, even while this is often called an S-turn because it can look that way from above.

So this S-turn is just the result of ferrying with partial downstream movement when your speed at some point is much slower than the current and you have to adjust your angle accordingly (wider) and smaller again when the speed of the current becomes lower than your speed against the current.

Also a ferry done right, may also mean you move downstream – but as minimal as possible of course. And the current does not push you laterally but downstream while you compensate for that more or less by paddling with an angle against the current:
although a ferry may look like a sideways movement, it actually involves little sideways movement through the water:
when you stop paddling while ferrying you will be moved downstream in no time and not sideways.

Not in my books:
If the current is or becomes faster than your paddling speed when ferrying, you need to increase your ferrying angle up to a maximum of 89.99 degrees for minimal movement downstream. The S-turn is based on that theory.

But this probably shows the huge difference between paddling whitewater with touring canoes and with whitewater canoes.
And while I have taken a lesson from Tom Foster it was interesting, but not really applicable for touring paddlers – even when we did not “count fish” as he expected…

"Too soon oldt. Too late schmart. "


“In regards to that, I realize that now , although I still find “downstream ferry” confusing.
And if there is one thing I learned when paddling tandem in whitewater, is to avoid confusion:
“No, I meant that other rock!” :blush:

Do you find the term “upstream ferry” confusing? Do you call it a “forward ferry” that would make sense if you refer to the other as a back ferry? Perhaps “sideslip” is a better term but you are still going to have to reference which way you are oriented or the direction (forward or back) to achieve a distinction. Is it really any less confusing to a beginner to call one ferry “upstream” and the other “back”? I think it is all about what you’ve heard and gotten used to. I use “downstream” and “back” pretty interchangeably. “Setting” is another term commonly used.

Lots of things have multiple terms for the same feature: “standing waves, haystacks, wave trains, rollers” or “holes, stoppers, keepers, and backwash”. In regards to holes, if it has a name in my neck of the woods then you really really need to pay attention- “big nasty, greyhound bus stopper, recyclatron, strippers, teachers pet” are all to be respected, and “pillows” are not at all soft! Different terminology was spread by different guidebook authors in different parts of the country. I totally agree, that the important thing is to communicate effectively. To get on the same page with others.

"Lean and “tilt” are used interchangeably as well. In general, you want a flat boat when ferrying but that changes if you lose your angle. Long boats are easier to ferry (assuming you have enough room) than short boats. If upstream ferries are the most effective way to get from point A, to point B on the other side of the river, why even back (downstream) ferry?

Think about driving down a road very fast. Now put a bunch of boulders in the road. Do you still want to drive fast or do you want to go slow to avoid the hazards and pick your way around them? That is exactly why a “back” or “downstream” ferry is useful even to a decked boat.

To use current effectively while drifting you need to think about where your stern is pointed. Let the river do the work for you. That awareness comes from “downstream” ferry angles even though only correction strokes (ruddering) are applied.

One final thought, the Nantahala ( or as I call it the “nanta-hell-ya”) is a dam released river. Most of the rocks are covered up. Water levels are consistent. Heck, they even have a road sign for “the bump”. The boats are either decked or fully bagged out. It makes sense to use a cab forward aggressive style that Bill Mason’s son Paul called the “go for broke” method. Bill employed multiple methods. Like Mason, Jacobson was boating all different kinds of water at all different levels in a wilderness setting, without the benefit of a fully bagged out boat. It makes sense to have some other tools in his toolbox. You can call it a “downstream ferry”, “back ferry”, or simply “setting” but it is a handy skill to learn. Sometimes you just don’t want “to go for broke”.

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Ok - point taken. There is a combination of forces - downstream current, upstream paddle stroke, and angle of the boat - that results in the boat moving laterally across the current. Don’t know how you can say the boat doesn’t move sideways - that is the purpose of the maneuver. Take away one of these forces, like stoping paddling, and the boat will do something different like move downstream. There may also be some movement up and down in the process, so it could resemble the “s” in your picture. If you drew a picture of an s-turn, that is also what it would look like, hence my confusion.

Lots of ways to do the same thing on the river.

It’s all relative. In a forward (upstream) ferry directly across the river and observer hanging from a balloon above the canoe would see the boat move directly laterally from one side to the other with no upstream or downstream movement.

Relative to the water that the boat is in most of the “movement” of the boat is “forward” through the water with relatively little sideways movement. It is the movement of the boat relative to the water, or the movement of the water relative to the boat that counts in effecting whitewater maneuvers.

Yes, very, because it suggests there is also downstream ferrying.

I am used to call it a forward or a backward ferry, depending on the way it is done:
paddling forward against the current or backward against the current.

Perhaps “sideslip” is a better term […]

No, because that is a different move, which can be done without a current too.

Is it really any less confusing to a beginner to call one ferry “upstream” and the other “back”? I think it is all about what you’ve heard and gotten used to. I use “downstream” and “back” pretty interchangeably. “Setting” is another term commonly used.

Yes. Given all the confusion already here about what a ferry is, it shows that it is important to use terminology that causes the least confusion.

If upstream ferries are the most effective way to get from point A, to point B on the other side of the river, why even back (downstream) ferry?

In some situations there is not enough time or room to turn around and later back again. Then a back ferry is better. Because of their maneuverability and shorter length for whitewater canoes turning around is usually not such a problem.

The advantages of back ferrying are also that you don’t have to turn around upstream, you can easily see what is downstream, and it is much faster to change back to forward paddling – although when tandem paddling, that change does require the right communication of course :wink:

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In the drawing I made you can clearly see an upstream movement first and then a downstream movement and then a little upstream movement, which could be described as an ‘S’ move from above.

Tom Foster was an innovator who pushed the envelope of whitewater canoeing back in the 1990s. But his methods have now gained wide acceptance in the whitewater paddling community.

Books like “Canoeing and Kayaking”, the American Canoe Association “red book” edited by Laurie Gullion c. 1987 or “Canoeing”, American Red Cross c. 1997, were written at a time when tandem canoes were much more common than solo canoes for whitewater paddling in many parts of the country. Since then, kayaks have become much more common than canoes on whitewater rivers and solo canoes more common than tandems in many areas. And whitewater canoes have become much more “specialized” being now largely divided into “playboating” and “traditional” categories.

That’s is not to say that traditional techniques such as back ferries, side slips, and setting into an eddy, have no place in modern whitewater canoeing, especially whitewater tripping. These techniques are often preferable when paddling long, heavily-loaded tandems on whitewater. But in some instances the more modern cab forward style of paddling can also be applied, even in whitewater tripping.

As I said, I often paddle what many people would consider a specialized whitewater solo canoe on downriver trips even if a more traditional canoe would be more efficient and require less overall effort. I would not usually run Class III rapids loaded if there was a reasonable means of portaging the gear around the rapid, unless doing so would be more dangerous than just running the rapid. But cab forward techniques could certainly be utilized running an unloaded whitewater boat through such rapids.

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Well I am not denying the techniques applicable to specialized whitewater canoes, but I am just too much aware how you (have to) deal with loaded touring canoes through rapids, and that there obviously now is a huge difference between those way of doing things.
For me the bad thing is that people unaware of that, assume that what they learn from real whitewater paddlers is also applicable to touring canoes, while it hardly isn’t.

But in defense to whitewater instructors, I must say that most people attending a whitewater course my be very disappointed with tedious lesson about ferrying. The main reason for that is that it takes a lot of practice/training and knowledge/experience to do it well. Especially back ferrying is very difficult: you really need to be able to paddle straight with good speed – and we all know how difficult that can be with a single blade-- and then doing it backwards… And learning all that, is not exactly what most people expect when signing up for fun whitewater instruction day?!
Because what you need to successfully back ferry loaded touring canoes are:

  • Good paddling skills:
    being able to go straight forward and backwards and to quickly make course directions
    needed for keeping the right angle against the current.
  • Setting the right kind of (bow heavy) trim of the canoe when doing a back ferry.
  • Good teamwork with your paddling partner when paddling tandem…
  • Setting the right angle into the current:
    takes a whole lot of experience and regular training to get that right.
    Some theoretical knowledge about angles when ferrying is very helpful, but
    with the lack of measuring equipment at your boat you just will have to
    learn how to estimate the right angle based on your observations (while paddling…)

Yeah, I pretty much agree with everything you said there. Particularly regarding the difficulty of executing a good back ferry, particularly a tandem back ferry in which paddler roles are somewhat reversed, and the bow light trim that many tandem paddlers adopt, whether due to boat design or the bow paddler being lighter than the stern paddler, really works against controlling the boat during the back ferry.

I have been a bit taken aback by paddling gurus, including Cliff Jacobson, who strongly advocate the use of back ferry techniques, seemingly without emphasizing the potential difficulties and possible adverse consequences of a blown back ferry angle, which almost always sends the canoe broadside into the obstacle the back ferry was intended to avoid.

The mechanics of a back ferry are relatively easy for most people to grasp conceptually, but putting the theory into practice can be much more difficult and I have always strongly emphasized the need to practice back ferries in easy current with no obstacles of consequence before attempting one “for real”.


K that is a really good list. My biggest tip for improving an upstream ferry is very simple. Look where you want to go. Lots of folk minimize the importance of “Focus”. If you want to improve your paddling improve your focus by getting your core (shoulders) pointed toward your destination. Focus implies that you are not looking at your paddle blade or even the angle of the oncoming water, but looking at the end goal and making adjustments with a kinesthetic feel. I know that seems very simple but that simple tip has helped me the most. Look where you want to go. Unfortunately this doesn’t work with back ferries.

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