J- and Canadian strokes are usually unnecessary

Kevin Callan’s recent video about the J-sroke and Canadian stroke prompts me to respond that neither of these strokes is necessary when paddling tandem except in two situations.

First the mechanics of the forward stroke:

There are two ways to do a forward stroke in the bow. One is the typical beginner’s method, where the paddle follows the contour of the hull, usually with the blade perpendicular to the gunwale. This induces an offside yaw (away from the bow’s paddling side) because the paddle is offset from the center of the canoe, and because of the slight sweeping action of the angled paddle blade. The other way is more advanced, placing the blade perpendicular to the line of travel and the catch a foot or so away from the gunwale. This enables the bow paddler to pull the paddle straight back. It still contributes a bit of yawing because the propulsion is off-center, but it eliminates the sweep effect. This method is thought to be more efficient.

If the stern paddler’s stroke matches that of the bow paddler, there is no need for a steering correction when traveling straight. But does this happen?

In the stern, doing a straight forward stroke consistently is exhausting. I’m an ACA certified instructor with decades of paddling under my various hulls, and I feel confident that every stern paddler I’ve seen, and nearly every forward stroke I’ve taken, follows the gunwale, usually also angling the blade perpendicular to it. In this way, an offside yaw is induced by both the paddle offset and a slight sweeping effect.

The first method of doing a forward stroke in the bow matches the usual forward stroke in the stern, and they balance each other as long as the paddlers are exerting equal power. Doing a straight stroke, however, causes the bow paddler to produce less yawing, while the amount produced in the stern remains the same. Thus, the stern paddler creates the need for the correction. If the stern paddler coaches the bow to do the “beginner” type forward stroke, it will be immediately apparent that the J or Canadian isn’t needed.

The two situations where a J- or Canadian stroke is needed are:

  1. Turning to the offside, e.g., to follow the course of a river; and,
  2. In windy conditions where the bow paddler does not adjust the amount of sweep to compensate for wind-induced yaw.

Before calling for burning the heretic at the stake, please think through these paddling dynamics, and maybe even try it yourself.
But considering how likely this is, I’ll sit back and wait for the brickbats to fly.


Your right you can balance the strokes in a tandem. The j and knifing j come into their own in a solo canoe.

Well, I would like to believe you are correct but that has not been my experience. There will always be a tendency for any forward stroke, no matter how well executed, to yaw the boat, unless that stroke could be taken down the exact center line of the hull, which is impossible. Theoretically, the yaw effect of two very evenly matched paddlers using excellent mechanics would balance out exactly, but the relative seating positions of most tandems results in the stern paddler’s stroke tending to have more yaw effect.

Gene Jensen was an innovative and experienced marathon canoe racer. He designed many racing hulls and invented the bent shaft paddle. I would like to believe that he knew a thing about proper stroke mechanics and that if there was a way for a tandem team to paddle straight without correction strokes or switching sides, he would have thought of it. But he didn’t. He and his partner, Tom Estes, developed the “Minnesota switch” or “hut” stroke in which directional control was maintained without correction strokes by periodically and simultaneously switching paddling sides.

I have seen some tandem teams nearly eliminate the need for correction strokes by placing the stronger paddler in the bow, sometimes with a paddle with more blade surface area, so that the bow paddler’s stroke had more nearly the yaw effect of the stern paddler’s stroke. And there is no question that good stroke technique will greatly reduce the number of correction strokes needed, if the paddlers do not switch sides.

Your suggestion for the bow paddler to introduce some “sweep” in their forward stroke might serve to balance out the yaw effect, but then it ceases to be a forward stroke. And the bow paddler has a harder time appreciating the exact orientation of the hull so would not be in a good position to judge just how much sweep would be needed. Even if they could, I seriously doubt that it would be as efficient as either switching sides, or the stern paddler executing an occasional correction stroke.

This discussion illustrates the inherent advantages of using a two-bladed paddle when paddling a canoe, or paddling a kayak. You get twice the stroke rate, and the ability to correct your course as necessary with each stroke.

Good comments, so far. I take issue with pblanc’s comment that introducing a bit of sweep would make a forward stroke no longer a forward stroke. It would be a combination stroke, with much more of it being forward, and only a little being sweep.

I might have been more correct to have said that the paddlers can adjust the power of their strokes to even out the yawing. In any case, I did this on a Boundary Waters trip - I was in the bow - and found that it worked very well, including as a way to compensate for oblique headwinds.

So what do you do when the bow paddler is not near as strong as the stern paddler? This is my common experience in canoes. I’m sure the strokes we’ve been using aren’t in line with the direction of travel, but man do I ever have to work my J-stroke to keep that boat going straight! Have I just not had a really experienced bowsperson with me in the boat yet?

@birren said:
Good comments, so far. I take issue with pblanc’s comment that introducing a bit of sweep would make a forward stroke no longer a forward stroke. It would be a combination stroke, with much more of it being forward, and only a little being sweep.

I might have been more correct to have said that the paddlers can adjust the power of their strokes to even out the yawing. In any case, I did this on a Boundary Waters trip - I was in the bow - and found that it worked very well, including as a way to compensate for oblique headwinds.

Yes, it would be a combination power/correction stroke. But I do not think it would be more efficient for the bow paddler to make every stroke a partial correction stroke than to have the stern paddler execute an occasional correction stroke. Maximum efficiency is to switch sides which virtually every single-bladed solo marathon canoe racer or marathon tandem team does.

But paddling is not all about maximum efficiency unless you are racing. If a tandem team finds it more relaxing to paddle that way, go for it I say. There are lots of ways to skin a cat. Sometimes I find it most comfortable to have the bow paddler just pick a side and stick with it, and as the stern paddler, switch sides as need be. Or have the bow paddler use a double-bladed paddle and the stern paddler switch sides as need be.

Well, I for one, try to make my stroke as parallel to the keel line as practical. However, paddling at the stern, it is awkward to do that to a really accurate degree, and even harder when experiencing the need for J-type correction. I may follow the gunwale a very small amount because of that, but I can’t imagine ever keeping the blade perpendicular to the gunwale in the process. Even when not really thinking about it, I’ve always concentrated so much on keeping the plane of the blade perpendicular to the keel line that I wouldn’t be that clueless, and I bet I’m hardly the only one.

As to two paddlers with equal power being perfectly balanced, I’m certain it doesn’t work that way. The mere fact that the stern paddler can easily yaw the boat in either direction with very little effort and the bow paddler can only produce a small fraction of that kind effect bears this out. All strokes are off-center, but off-center strokes delivered from the back of the boat suffer from the effect of this problem more than those delivered from the front, and I’m sure it has something to do with the much lower ‘confinment’ pressure that’s present at the stern than at the bow when underway, which also is related to the shift in the boat’s neutral point to a more-forward location as speed increases.

Put a solo paddler in the bow or a solo paddler in the stern, and compare what happens when the paddler does a sweep, or to a lesser degree, even a simple forward stroke. More yaw occurs with the same stroke when it’s applied at the stern. You will see the same difference in yaw affect in mounting a trolling motor off-center at the bow compared to off-center at the stern, even on boats which are not canoes. The effect of the motor being off-center at the front is hardly noticeable, but when the motor is off-center at the stern, you often don’t even have to look closely to see the slightly crab-wise motion that results. There’s just too much evidence out there saying that the negative effect of off-center power is more pronounced when applied at the stern than when applied at the bow, for me to believe in a working hypothesis that seems really “neat” as only a thought problem, but which fails in practice.

The fact that no tandem racing team is so perfectly balanced that they can avoid the need to call “hut” for more than a dozen strokes in a row says something about this as well, as does the fact that racing teams usually try to improve their overall “yaw balance” by putting the stronger paddler in the front.

Oh, I might add that I’m not discounting every idea you put forth. When paddling at the stern (and the same is true when I paddle solo), I often paddled predominantly on the side that makes it easier to counteract the effect of wind without using correction strokes, or wording this more accurately to keep in mind what Pete said, by taking advantage of the off-center nature of the stroke, or sometimes increasing that off-centerness with a very slight sweep, in lieu of standard correction strokes.

As I final note, in my experience, the “efficiency loss” of the J-stroke is often over-stated because of the way most people perform them. The loss of efficiency can be reduced to an almost-unnoticeable degree if the correction is applied as a brief “flip” as the paddle is pulled from the water, as this does nothing to delay the recovery stroke. Most people leave the paddle in the water for an extra half-second or longer (for most people, it’s much longer) for their correction phase, reducing their cadence in the process, but that’s an easy handicap to eliminate, with practice.

Yes, Eric makes a good point.

I mentioned that the yaw effect is greater for the stern paddler’s stroke because of the relative position of the two paddlers in the canoe. It would have been more accurate to say that the stern paddler’s yaw effect is greater because their stroke excursion occurs at a greater distance from the longitudinal pivot point of the canoe, which moves forward of center as the canoe is underway.

Regardless of how you paddle, assuming both paddlers are using single-bladed paddles, in the absence of confounding winds or currents, the canoe is going to tend to turn to the onside (toward the bow paddler’s paddle side) if both paddlers are using forward power strokes. In order to go straight, one or both paddlers is going to have to execute some type of correction stroke at least intermittently, or else change sides.

For the same reasons that the stern paddler’s power stroke has a greater yaw effect, the stern paddler is generally in a better position to execute effective correction strokes that have less power loss.

I suppose both paddlers could use double-bladed paddles, but a tandem canoe would not be easy to steer that way unless equipped with a rudder.

I agree with very little in the OP, and adopt the comments of pblanc, which I will restate in my own way.

  1. In the typical tandem seating positions, the stern is further from the center of lateral resistance – loosely called the pivot point – than the bow. Therefore, other things being equal, simple leverage principles of physics will dictate that the stern’s uncorrected strokes will overpower the bow’s, producing a collective boat yaw away from the stern.

  2. Moreover, the somewhat controversial concept of the “peripatetic pivot point” will move the pivot point even further forward once the canoe has forward velocity, thereby increasing the stern paddler’s yaw leverage.

  3. The least efficient way to compensate for the imbalance of tandem yaw forces between bow and stern paddlers would be for the bow paddler to try to induce more yaw into his forward stroke by incorporating a sweep component. By doing this, a lateral vector force is introduced into the bow stroke at the expense of forward vector force. This is inefficient for two reasons: (a) it tries to “correct” yaw at the shorter leverage arm end of the canoe vis-a-vis the pivot point; and (b) it diminishes forward velocity. It is simply incorrect paddling technique for either the bow or stern paddler to follow the curve of the gunwale, thereby introducing a sweep component into their forward strokes, rather than pulling their forward strokes parallel to the keel line.

  4. The most efficient way to compensate for this imbalance of yaw forces as between the bow and stern has been proved empirically by generations of tandem canoe racers, probably a thousand years before Gene Jensen: Minnesota side switching, aka per Harry Roberts, “North American Touring Technique”. The regular side switching allows the more powerful stern yaw to be distributed in rapid successions on each side of the hull – while each paddler executes maximally efficient keel-parallel forward strokes.

  5. For touring tandem paddlers who don’t want to side switch, the most efficient way to compensate for the imbalance between bow and stern paddler yaw is for each paddler to paddle parallel to the keel line, with the stern paddler doing one of the various single-sided correction strokes such as the J.

These points apply to straight ahead paddling with no wind, waves or turns. Those conditions require adaptations of technique.

Just to add some points and let what has been said stand
1.Because of the pivot point moving forward the yaw arm of the bow paddler is shorter, Anything wrong the bow paddler has little effect. The stern paddler has a more pronounced effect and anything done with yaw back there is magnified… Even a little error… That is why modern mixed racing teams put the "engine " in front. If it has a mis paddle the effect is not noticeable… A weaker misstep in the stern has a lesser effect than a stronger paddlers error.

  1. Almost all new paddlers take too long a power phase… I am not referring to the correction of a rudder or J but the tendency to carry the oomph part of the paddle stroke back behind the shoulder, which results in an automatic sweep component. This can be rectified by ending the power phase well ahead of the body… We call it cab forward. Yes in a solo boat this eliminates a lot of zig zagging with out any j or rudder stroke. Those do have to be used ( or hit and switch) once in a while.

So no the premise of the OP is not possible. I would like to see a video of him demoing his principles. I would be happy to be wrong.

J Stroke and Canadian Stroke are usually needed. In a perfect world they would not be needed. The only time I found that I didn’t use them is when I was racing with marathon canoes, where we switch sides (hut) to help maintain tracking.

Great discussion!
kayakmedic said, “So no the premise of the OP is not possible. I would like to see a video of him demoing his principles. I would be happy to be wrong.”

If you’d seen me and my friend paddling in 1972 you might think otherwise. That’s when I learned about balanced paddling. All I knew at that time was ruddering, sweep, J-stroke, and backstroke. She knew even less. On the Whitewater River in SE Indiana one weekend I learned that if both paddlers follow the gunwale the boat crabs slightly to the offside but travels straight unless one person overpaddles the other. By changing sides once in a while we could keep the boat in the middle of the river.

I encourage folks to give it a try. A competent bow paddler - which I was by the time I did it in the Boundary Waters - can make such effective adjustments that the stern paddler rarely needs to correct course. It isn’t about speed, so those considerations are simply moot, as far as I’m concerned. It’s about finesse and teamwork, as well as developing a more refined awareness of how to work with the boat’s natural dynamics.

here’s my two cents, and that’s about what it’s worth, just 2 cents, seein’ as my idea of yaw is ya’ll, now if you’re talkin’ “boat wiggle” or “veer” that’s something I can at least relate to.
I’m “pitchin” in the stern, catching just a bit of water with the edge before the stroke leaves for the recovery phase. I find I pretty much have to do that to make a canoe go straight be it solo or tandem. All the canoes I’ve been in want to naturally veer away from the side the stern paddler is paddling on. Less pronounced in tandem but still a thing.

I used to be a pretty nice guy, so I actually would paddle in the bow while newbie folks work on a stern correction stroke.

I learned I can overcome a lot of veer from the bow. For me I begin with diagonally draw and then shift into a power forward stroke. Nothing at all to do with sweeps. but everything to do with where the bow paddler places the paddle initially to begin the diagonal draw/forward power stroke. In other instances, the stern paddler would over correct so I’d throw a little pry in on the end of the power stroke.

When I started c1in’ in ww it all just melded together-mostly bow strokes like a diagonal draw, cab forward strokes in the rapids. Stern pitches on the flats.

The boat is easiest to turn if strokes are near the end of the boat itself. Typically a stern paddler is a good bit closer to the end of a canoe than the bow paddler. That accounts for a lot of the “veer” and need for correction by the stern.

In terms of following the gunwales of the boat, and how parallel you are with your strokes- I find a lot of that has to do with the boat, its width and seat placement. There’s a tendency for newbies to want to follow the contours of the boat rather than paddle a stroke parallel midline. So paddling the contours is not a good thing in my book. A very real problem in a ww raft where the folks up front are unintentional “sweeping” as the follow the contours of the rounded ends of the inflatable.

@castoff said:
Your right you can balance the strokes in a tandem. The j and knifing j come into their own in a solo canoe.

I’m just as likely to keep my solo boat going straight with a series of forward/cross-forward strokes, or simply switching sides, as I am to do a J stroke. Like everyone, I’ll do J strokes when I have to, but it’s not my favorite - especially if I need to cover ground.

In a tandem, I prefer to take the bow and let someone else worry about correcting from the stern. I’d say that a good tandem team can minimize the amount of correcting required from the stern, but you can’t eliminate it entirely. The physics around the shape of the boat and the placement of the paddle as described by Glenn and Pete can’t be denied. With uncorrected forward strokes, the boat will eventually veer to the onside in a tandem, and the offside in a solo. I guess you can impact it a little with subtle changes in blade angle in the bow, but you do so with a lose of power and efficiency. To each his own, but I’d rather just be the power in the front and let the stern worry about keeping us going straight.

As a marathon bow paddler, I trust my stern to do what is necessary for gross course maintenance. Depending on what canoe we are in, the stern calls the huts anywhere from 8-16 strokes in a tandem, to staying up to 2 minutes (could be 120-130 strokes) on the same side in a well tracking voyageur canoe. Occasionally the stern will switch sides on his/her own when necessary, without hutting the entire crew.

When I notice a slight course correction may be needed, I will sometimes put in some effort to effect a slight bow draw or sweep depending on which side I am on, for a few degrees of heading change, . The bow and stern paddler must understand each other and what is being done so as not to work against one another and waste energy. When approaching a major river or buoy turn, the stern sets me up in the bow before the turn and I initiate the turn with a strong forward draw and post.

When I paddle tandem stern (rarely for me in a race), in addition to the usual huts, I sometimes will throw in a slight J as needed rather than waste a stroke during the time it takes to hut. When paddling recreationally (not racing), tandem or solo, I can usually keep excellent directional control with a near constant pitch or Canadian stroke, which I much prefer over constantly changing sides.

When teaching neophytes, I explain that the stern paddler will always overpower an equal or lesser strength bow paddler, as the reason for the canoe wanting to turn toward offside the stern paddling side. Primary reason is as discussed above in this thread, due to the nearer the end of the boat position of the stern paddler. The farther from the center or effective pivot point of the boat that a force is applied, the more effective is the off course turning moment.