Does "drafting" work in water?

I’m doing a mass start race later this summer that includes a fair amount of flatwater at the beginning, and probably will have tandem canoes, solo canoes, and kayaks all mixed in on the water.

Will I be able to draft off other boats the way one does in bike racing? If so, how does it work? Do you sit directly behind the lead boat, or do you sit off to one side and sort of surf their wake?

not worth the effort
I don’t think it works at all. Surfing on a canoe, or kayak wake would be useless also. In any case you would be better off keeping a little distance from other boats so that you don’t end up interfering with them and vice versa.

wash hanging/riding
as it’s called can be effective at least in a kayak. You position yourself a bit to the side and behind the other’s bow (i.e. not behind their stern). Not sure how folks feel about doing this but it can make a difference.

Yes, drafting works in water, at least as well as it does in air, but there are lots of factors toward making it work for you.

Effectively, when two vehicles (or boats) are close enough to each other, you are lengthening the hull. The effect is as though you are now in a single hulled boat that is the combined length of the two hulls.

Now, finding the spot where you have to be, and to stay in that spot without colliding with the lead boat, is the big issue. It may not be very easy to execute and it will probably piss off whoever is in front of you to no end.

Swimmers draft each other all the time and they work really hard to hold a spot for greatest benefit (particularly in breaststroke events where the turbulence is greatest due to the wide powerful kick). Conversely, the lead swimmer will generally place himself in the lane so that he provides the least about of drafting for the closest competitor.

For boats, however, the rules cited here are less likely to work since boat hulls are less turbulent than swimmers and their bodies. It is possible that the flying V formation used by geese applies here or the bumper-to-bumper formation used by auto racers, but I can’t tell you which, especially since each hull design will have a different optimal draft point.


Yes it works …
Different principals at work but you can exert less power directly behind the stern of fast moving boat. Also can cut win drag. Works well in chop but don’t rear end your competitor.

Likely to piss the heck out of the boat in front, if it is a distance event you can work together just as in cycling and take turns.

Taking unfair advantage
One of the canoe-racing enthusiasts here once commented on this. I think it might have been baldpaddler but I’m not sure. Whoever it was, he said that if someone was really blatant about following too close (presumably with no intent of “sharing” duties over a long distance), the stern paddler of the leading boat would usually just start scooping water at the end of each stroke, splashing it into the other boat. He said the follower takes the hint when that happens.

Kind of like…
…using your windshield washers when somebody’s tailgating you!

Wake Riding / Riding Wash
"Wake riding" is essentially surfing the stern or side wakes of a canoe or kayak. Knowing how to use this skill is crucial if you want to win. A group of canoes or kayaks employing wake riding (and rotating the lead) can move faster than a boat traveling alone, with less work.

A great resource, that I recommend for kayakers too, is “Canoe Racing” by Peter Heed and Dick Mansfield.

According to the authors, riding the stern wash of a competitor can save you 10-20% of the energy normally required to maintain the same pace. The side wake doesn’t give you as much “boost” but tactically it is often a superior position as you can better defend against being “dropped”.

Greg Stamer

aka wheel sucker
In bike racing, drafting a small group without taking fair pulls at the front is called wheel sucking or sometimes shit hooking. Tolerance varies for this depending on the situation. Countermeasures can include repeated attacks, if you think the person is hiding in the back because he/she is weak, setting up the echelon to put the rider in the ditch for crosswind sections, or even repeated weaving and braking - though the last method can result in a physical confrontation.

I’m not really interested in being the paddle equivalent of a wheel sucker…

Mass start
Drafting works but with a mass start your priority should be getting out fast with the lead paddlers to stay in clear water. Further back in the field the interacting wakes will make it very choppy and you will immediately lose speed.

After the field spreads out you will be able to find someone paddling at a similar speed who you can wash hang with.

It works great. That is while we practice it weekly. With two bows you can almost tow a tired paddler.

But the advice to get in front early is good advice. Then find your group and start working together.

Certain races do not allow drafting and some other racers do not want a draft partner so mind your sportsmanship.

I find it most useful on long touring days. I’m slow for the first couple hours and usually stronger at the end of the day.

The old guys do it

– Last Updated: Jul-25-12 9:02 AM EST –

Im no expert as ive only started racing this year but the old guys do it as much as possible. There is a noticeable boost from wake riding. There are 2 different places to do this. One is directly behind the boat as others have mentioned. The other is the side wake. On the side you should position your boat so that your bow is at or just behind the middle of the boat your riding and about 3-4' to the side. The side wake will want to push you away initially or will suck your boats together if you get too close so thats something to watch for.

You will feel a noticeable boost when you're in the right spot and noticeable drag if you get behind the wake. If you get behind the wake you either need to drop back and accept youve lost the wake or sprint paddle for several strokes to try to get over/in front of it.

The bigger the wake the more the boost so look for a fast boat with big guys in it. Or less race oriented hulls produce bigger wakes too.

In my novice experience this year it is fairly difficult to keep your boat right where you want it. Ive tried to wake ride both solo and tandem. Solo was fairly hard to keep it right where i needed to be. Tandem is easier as the bow paddler can constantly incorporate small draws or pushes into their stroke to keep the bow where it should be. (obviously you need a good stern guy too to keep you straight too)

One thing I did to practice wake riding was I took my solo out on a local lake here in MN popular with water skiers/tubers. Id wait for a boat to go by then try to ride their wake. Its not quite the same feel as a canoe wake but its similar enough to practice with. It helped me gain a feel for riding and I would recommend it to those trying to learn.

THe beginning of races can get hairy with all the side wakes combining. especially if you're in a tippy pro boat. The advice to get ahead early is good. Best to slow it down if you need to than try to catch the lead pack.

As for riding etiquette, at the Paddle derby races here in the twin cities it is the norm to ride as much as possible. If you dont like someone riding your wake go cry about it. If you dont want them getting a free ride, dont paddle in the lead. Hang back and let someone pass you. Otherwise you can try to sprint for 10-15 strokes and try to ditch them. If you can get them off your first wave on to the 2nd wave there is less of a draft to follow so if you're the stronger paddlers you can usually shake your tail. If the boat in front of you does this you immiediately need to pick up the pace to keep with them. I cant blame anyone for drafting off me. Its just the smart thing to do (work smarter not harder). This is one of the skills that makes experienced racers great. Anyone who denies the benefit of wake riding has no idea what they're talking about.

If trimmed right
and in control riding wake if very effective. It takes training and practice,practice,PRACTICE.

You also have to pay attention at level most paddlers

are in capable of when they are gasping for breath.

Only you can decide if it is worth the effort for the advantage gained. With some partners (if in a tandem)

it is ineffective. Jeff and Sam just go for the clean water and are always in the lead group of paddlers. Canoenut rides wake and wins at the nationals…

It works

– Last Updated: Jul-25-12 9:17 AM EST –

To varying degrees, and can be highly dependent on the characteristics of the lead boat. I have drafted (wake riding) and been drafted in voyageur, tandem, and solo canoes.

It is a common practice in some races, but as mentioned, you don't want to do it for very far without sharing unless you want to tick off the lead boat. Especially if you are unfriendly competitors in the same class, or there is competition in dissimilar classes for an overall lead finishing time.

I don't mind during the 90-Miler if a kayak or solo canoe is riding my voyageur or tandem canoe wake. We are in different classes and in no way competing overall. I do mind very much, as did happen on the Yukon 1000, when a kayak hangs on our tail for hundreds of miles and we are in a competition for overall finish time, especially when part of the strategy of such a race is doing homework and making crucial navigation choices that may save dozens of miles (and the trailing boat "lost" their map - but that is a another story).

Some boats make great side waves and stern waves. Get behind one of them and I figure the rider can scale back to 80% of the power needed for that pace. But there are many variables in addition to ethical.

Whoever you decide to hitch a ride from, ask them as a favor (vs cut-throat competition), you need to make your presence known and ask if they mind. Don't tag along the same boat for mile after mile unless you are positive they don't care. Canoe racers often know one another and being friends before hand helps.

You need to find a boat that is going only slightly faster than you would on your own, otherwise it makes no sense to draft. The lead boat needs to be going relatively straight with good steerage control, not wagging it's stern all over the place.

You need to find a boat that is throwing sufficient wake to ride, and you can't always tell until you see them underway. Some tandem and even voyageur canoe designs surprisingly throw very little rideable wake, while others do.

From a good ridable boat, there are side wakes coming off left and right forward areas of the lead forming a broad "V". It is relatively easy to stay on one of these, best position is to have the rider's bow somewhere near or just ahead the lead stern paddler (friendly communication is important).

There is often (but not always) a substantial wave directly astern of the lead. There will be a little short "hump" wave directly behind attached to the lead stem, followed by a deep broad valley wave trough. You want to get in this trough, as you will be effectively "surfing" on the downhill side. Your bow may be only 2 inches away from the lead stern, or you may have a foot or more to play with - it just depends. That little stern hump wave actually can help to hold you from making contact, which you want to positively avoid at all costs. It is more difficult to hold this astern position unless the lead boat stays on a relatively straight track without tail wagging. Some predictable anticipation of when the tail wag is about to occur can help you counter this effect.

Sometimes it is simply more work to hold position behind the lead boat, not because you need a lot of forward power, but because turbulence (or tail wagging) causes you to expend too much energy staying in any advantageous position to be worthwhile.

Once again, be sure you either share the load by taking turns being lead, or that there is direct friendly communication on what you are doing. Do not be a pest, a parasite, or a leech!

Drafting aside, be very careful during a truly mass start if you have no experience with doing so. If boats are very close together at the start, there is a strong tendency to get "sucked together" during a rapid start once underway. Even if you think you have sufficient side to side spacing before the start, you can easily bump gunwales or strike paddles, and try as you might, it can be impossible to draw away from the strong venturi forces tending to knock you together. Many boats have capsized during the frantic confusion and turbulence. The solution is to either keep your distance before the start (not always an option), be very fast and pull out strongly ahead, or drop back behind the mess.

Me shaking my head no while saying yes.

It takes practice and is most effective in high energy races. It isn’t always frowned upon, but you would need to take the lead at points.

In a mass start I can’t imagine how this would work. It seems its always too confusing at first. You don’t know anybody’s pace or intentions in the beginning.

Ryan L.

You should try it at some point

– Last Updated: Jul-25-12 10:09 AM EST –

... even if only to see how difficult it is.

I tried it in the one-and-only-race I've done (hey it was a kayaker so I didn't feel bad). It was hard to maintain and I quit pretty quickly.

Glad I tried it though.

I prefer the clean water
It usually just takes too much effort to stay in the sweet spot of the stern wake or side wake of the lead boat. This is especially true if the lead boat(intentionally or otherwise) is yawing all over and changing course with every “hut”!

drafting is awesome, both wake and tail riding.

Lots of good info. Peter Heeds book on Marathon Canoe Racing has a whole section of techniques. Some good youtube videos too.

A good wake rider can reduce stroke rate by 50% in some cases.

Very Good Explanation
That is a very good explanation. In a race last year I was the lead boat and you can definitely feel the difference when someone is riding your stern wake. It actually pushed the back of my boat down and bow up. I was trying to be nice because I figured I would lose the guy after a couple of miles, but six miles later he passed me, we exchanged words and he then proceeded to win the under 12 foot category. He knew what he was doing since he literally sat one foot off my stern.

Now that I am in a larger boat, I don’t think it works as well, but drafting can definitely be done in smaller boats that throw a larger wake.


– Last Updated: Jul-25-12 11:49 AM EST –

Thank you for the detailed replies. Looks like I'll need to find someone to practice drafting off of if I want to attempt to use the technique.

The race I'm doing is a "run what you brung" homegrown event with a 3/4 mile reservoir crossing, a half mile portage, and 4.5 miles of narrow class 1/2 that ends in a couple of whitewater play features. I don't expect many, if any, hard core racers there - the event is a river festival, not a canoe marathon.

I'll be in an Argosy, which is the only non-whitewater boat I own. My goal is to get off the line fast enough to avoid getting sucked against other boats or knocked over by less skilled paddlers capsizing, then hopefully have enough strength/skill to catch a ride behind one of the tandem teams who will surely pass me. I doubt I'll be fast enough to draft a race boat if any show up, but I might be able to get behind one of the stronger corporate teams who will be paddling Disco/Explorer/similar plastic boats.

A friend who raced last year said one tandem team showed up with an Olympic sprint boat and blew everyone away on the reservoir crossing, only to wrap/destroy their kevlar rocket in one of the rapids. I'm hoping that most of the faster flatwater participants will have a similar lack of skill in current.

Regardless of how it goes, it should be good fun.