How to stop from turning backwards

When kayaking down rivers I sometimes end up being turned backwards. I think this happens most when trying to manuever around a bend, avoiding a downed tree etc. What am I doing wrong?

you are getting the nose of your boat into the slack water toward the inside of the bend. Most strainers tend to wind up at the outside of bends where trees get undercut by bank erosion or the strong current deposits floating wood.

The water toward the inside of a river bend, where you typically want to go to avoid such obstacles, is either moving downstream much more slowly, or is completely stagnant, or is even moving in an upstream direction (as in a recirculating eddy). If the nose of your boat accidentally gets into this slowly moving water, or upstream current as the case may be, it will be held by it while the rest of your boat remains in the stronger current and gets spun downstream.

caught in eddy
We don’t have much info (type of boat you are in, how much current in river, etc.), but with what little I can surmise, I am guessing you are getting caught in eddies. Eddies are spots where the current stops or changes direction.

just a guess
not being able to see you paddle, but these might be factors:

you might be turning backwards because the stern is breaking loose and you are not generating enough forward speed going into the turns.

If you stop, or slow up a lot, and are leaning backwards in your seat, the current will take hold of the stern and turn you around.

if you are using a stern rudder into the turns this will slow you down. Watch some ww kayak films and see how they use a bow rudder or a dufek to turn and maintain speed. This works very well on flatwater rivers too. Good strokes to learn.

Stop putting your bow into the slack water on the inside of turns. After a while you will be able to see this slack water (“eddie”) and avoid it without thinking.

You can also use eddies to intentionally spin the boat.

she’s in michigan
Recognize the name… iirc she paddles Class 1 and 2 in SW or NW Michigan. Short rec boat (not a ww boat). If that helps some w. the advice.

Dealing with eddies is not intuitive

– Last Updated: Jun-04-13 12:15 PM EST –

I paddled tandem canoes on a casual basis for a few years before figuring this out. I'd be in the stern, forcibly steering the boat toward the outside of the curve just to succeed in going straight (and to prevent being spun around as is happening to you), and I'd HEAR that the boat was basically skidding sideways a bit even though the boat was "going straight" relative to the landmarks all around me. Eventually I figured it out. As others have mentioned, you need to learn to "see" how the water toward the inside of the bend is going slower, is stationary, or even is flowing the backward. Even if the water on one side of your boat is moving downstream just a little bit slower than the water on the other side, your boat will get spun toward the slow-current side unless you correct for that with the right paddle strokes.

Once you can see those differential current speeds (generically, it's always called an eddy) at a glance and without thinking about it, you'll not only be able to avoid that water (as some are recommending), you won't actually need to avoid it because you'll be taking proper corrective strokes even before the eddy's boat-turning action starts to take effect.

Bow in slower water than stern
I’ll say the same thing others have said but point out that this phenomenon doesn’t only happen on turns.

A river surface is comprised of many “fingers” or “threads” of water moving at different speeds. Most easily noticed is that the water downstream of a midstream rock (an eddy or eddy tail) is moving much slower than the main current, and may even be moving upstream.

Whenever your boat is slightly angled and your bow goes into a slower thread of water than your stern is in, you may spin around backwards.

Another example, wholly apart from rocks and eddies, is in a straight section of river, where the water near shore is always moving slower than the water out near the middle. If you angle the nose of your boat into this slower water near shore, the faster water your stern is still in will swing your stern downstream. This is helpful when you understand and control it, for this kind of pivot is usually the best way to land your boat on the shore in current.

Opposite of your first instincts
As above, there are a few things that could be in play including one end of the boat being in stronger current than the other end. Or it could be a matter of what you are not doing. The way to manage current is to edge so that you are mooning the direction of the current with the hull of your boat, and paddle strongly to stay on a straight path while the water tries to turn you. If you fail to counter the current you will get spun around.

However, the above paddling response involves being able to put and hold a boat on edge, and having a boat that responds well to that input from the paddler. If you are paddling a short, wide rec boat with a hull designed for flat and limited or no thigh braces, you will probably have a hard time executing that plan. In that case, your better bet would be to learn how the current flows on that river and where the obstacles are, then pull out and portage around the particularly dangerous ones like downed trees.

good example & explanation nfm

Your simply just getting caught…
in the eddy current.

With time in the boat, you’ll learn where and how to paddle to avoid it.

jack L

Thanks for the info
So to answer a few questions, I bought an Old Town Loon 11’ a few? couple? of years ago with the idea of kayaking as a way to see wildlife, birds. Was all over here and got lots of good info but of course actual understanding of all that info comes first hand:)

I took a basic safety class and river class. Have done some limited kayaking. I have found that I get sort of tense on rivers. And I’m talking straight recreational rivers where liveries although they aren’t bad. I did kayak a small stretch of river in Albion MI that I know people canoe but there were a couple of poential and actual obstacles that I got by fine but cause me some stress . Honestly I’m not sure I’m enjoying it that much. Its not so much that I’m a scardey but I don’t like the idea of having to get out in the river when I can’t see the bottom and don’t have a good place to get back in. At least thats part of it.

I appreciate the info and understand it although I’m not sure exactly how to control the boat by using the water. I’m from MI and go there but am living in SW Ohio. Both places rivers are rife with trees hanging in the water, inside and outside along with humps/islands to go around, rocks, sticks, basically a lot of obstacles.

Edging and all that, uh no. I do tend to use a stern J stroke to steer all the time. The instructor told me it would slow me down too much. A bow C stroke just doesn’t seem to get me there. It probably doesn’t help that I’m overweight/heavy and so there is a lot of weight in the back.

So, basically…go faster around obstacles and watch for steering the bow to far into slower water?


I figured it out…
Are you sure that all of you is turning around? It might just be your head.

Faster isn’t better

– Last Updated: Jun-04-13 8:12 PM EST –

Actually, if in danger of colliding with an obstacle when your maneuvering skills aren't so great, slowing down is far better than going faster. Back-paddling can be even better.

If all you do is slow down when approaching an obstacle, turn your boat so that it aims WELL to the side of the thing you wish to avoid, even straight sideways is fine (at this point you'll be drifting the same speed as the current, rather than going faster than the current). If you paddle straight sideways while drifting, your actual course relative to the river bottom will not be sideways, but diagonally "off" from the direction of the current. Because of this, don't aim the boat where you want it to go, aim the boat so that your actual direction of travel is what you wish it to be, and that means you must aim much farther to one side than you would if the current were not there.

You can also back-paddle, and angle the stern of the boat in the direction you wish to go, and this is called back-ferrying. This buys you even more time to get clear of the obstacle because in a typical "recreational river" as you call it, you can hover in place while actually moving straight sideways, all because your boat is angled to the current and going backward fast enough to keep you from approaching the obstacle. Try this when a "really easy" obstacle is in front of you. Instead of steering to avoid it, back-paddle and just keep yourself hovering with the obstacle in front of you as the current passes you by. At first, just practice keeping yourself directly upstream of the obstacle with your bow pointed right at it, and learn to control the boat in that position. Once you can do that, back-paddle a little harder on your left and note that the stern swings right, and then keep applying even reverse power on both sides (with your boat at this new angle) and note that your whole boat shifts sideways, as long as you keep your reverse speed such that it cancels-out the current. Do it again, but switch which side you initially back-paddle harder on and watch what it does to your boat's angle, and learn to hold a particular angle once you've achieved it, all while going backward at such speed that you don't drift downstream at all. Learn THIS simple skill, and you will be so much more comfortable about your risk of crashing into obstacles, and then other parts of the learning curve are bound to become easier as a result.

Forget that stuff about edging or tilting the bottom of the boat to face one way or another. You only need that when suddenly transitioning between currents of differing velocities, and the explanation failed to include the most important part, which is current that the "direction" is only relative to the boat itself, not absolute direction, when transitioning between current streams, but again, just forget about that for now. When moving about within a steady stream of current your boat behaves the same, relative to that water that floats it, as when in still water. This gets pretty complicated to explain, but there's no need to understand it. The main thing is that maneuvering in gentle current can be done with very basic skills.

It sounds to me like you are on edge (no pun intended) about things which would not concern you at all once you've had more time to get accustomed to all that's happening. Paddling with others, preferably some folks that are a lot more experienced, is the best advice I can give. From them, you can learn a lot about how to maneuver in current, and then you can begin to trust yourself a lot more. But be sure to work on that back-ferry exercise described above. It's guaranteed to improve your comfort level in moving water.

By the way, back-ferrying is also a good way of rounding sharp curves having strong eddies and maintaining control, all while keeping you ready to avoid problems ahead. When your skills improve you won't need to do this on the kinds of curves you describe, but even experts will fall back on this in extreme situations (very swift current, sharp curve, obstacles), depending on their style of boat of course (some boats maneuver so easily that the paddler eschews ferrying).

How long did all that figurin’ take?

I’m thinkin’ you need some boatin’
buddies to help ya out. In sw ohio you got the Cincipaddlers on yahoo groups and in Dayton you got the Whitewater Warehouse crowd and the OAC. The Columbus crowd also gets out, I see their COPS boats here WV, and wonder if they’re gonna hassle me and then I realize that’s just the initials of their group. Haven’ good paddlers around that can give you advice, help with rescues, will add enjoyment and confidence to your trips. The trick is finding the right group to blend into.

article on eddy turns
There was an article on Eddy Turns in the Fall 2010 issue of California Kayaker Magazine. Learning how to do these may help you also learn how to avoid doing them. Can be read online for free at (link goes right to the article).

Michiana paddlers
they have a facebook page. From the pix it looks like many of them enjoy rec boats on the rivers, too. They are mainly in NW Indiana and SW Michigan.

Pay close attention…
to Guideboatguy’s post just above, and forget about all that other stuff. I’ll try to explain it a little differently than he did, but I agree with him totally.

The typical way you get turned around, I’m sure, is when you’re paddling a bend with fairly fast water, and probably some obstacles on the outside of the bend that you want to avoid. Let’s say you’re entering a bend that turns to the right. The obstacles you want to avoid are on your left, so you’re padding harder on your left side to turn the boat to the right and thus avoid the obstacles, and follow the right-bending channel. But…as others have pointed out, the faster water in any bend is on the outside of the bend, in this case on the left. And you’re turning the boat to the right, which means the boat is at an angle to the current, with the back end of the boat in the faster current and the front end in slower current. So the faster current keeps pushing the back end of the boat on around.

Not only that, but this can be very dangerous if there are obstacles like strainers (trees down in the water with the river running through them) on the outside of the bend, and what you’re doing is actually making it more difficult to avoid them, because once your boat is angled like that on that right turning bend, the current is hitting the right side of the boat and pushing it leftward, right toward the obstacles. If it pushes the boat into the obstacles, the boat will hit the obstacles sideways and most certainly flip.

So here’s what you WANT to do. You’re entering that right turning bend. Give the boat a hard backpaddle on the left, which will angle the boat so that the stern is farther right. Then keep backpaddling on both sides to MAINTAIN that angle. The stronger current will be hitting the front end of the boat, and wanting to straighten it back up. It will also be hitting the left side of the boat, and helping YOU to push the boat to the right, which is what you want to do to avoid the obstacles on the left. Keep backpaddling, maintaining the angle, until you’re past the obstacles or around the bend. Don’t forward paddle at all, at most just let the boat drift, until you’re around the bend, but KEEP THAT ANGLE by backpaddling as necessary. Once you’re clear of the obstacles or through the bend, a couple of forward strokes will straighten the boat right up. As you’ve gone around that bend, maintaining the angle, your stern will always be in slower water than the bow, so you should never be in danger of turning around and once you get used to it, you’ll always feel you are in control because you’re going slower than the current.

Practice this in an easy bend with no obstacles and plenty of room until you get the hang of it.

For control in moving water…
there is no alternative to understanding how to use the water and how it is working on the boat if you want full control. You’ll have to figure out what further education you want against how often you have this issue.