Kayaker seeking canoe advice

-- Last Updated: Mar-21-12 9:08 AM EST --

Long time kayaker seeking advice on paddling a tandem canoe solo.

Scenario: Mad River Explorer 16, slow current rivers (1-2 mph) and considering the best method to paddle solo and/or with a dog to fish or camp.

I have searched the archives and read several articles online and am getting conflicting info. Should I add ballast in the bow such as water filled bags and paddle from the rear seat? Or turn the boat around and paddle from the "front seat" backwards? Or kneel in the middle right at the thwart? (Bad knees, might have to creating a seat!)

Lastly, should I learn the canoe strokes or use my *** 240 *** cm kayak paddle? (cannot type either!) Seemed more natural to use my kayak paddle, but that is my comfort zone.

Despite me being a true canoe rookie, I really like the flexibility to haul gear and fish. But sure is different from my long boats!

Thanks for the advice and tips, really want to learn to canoe....


seriously, I’d experiment
it seems to me so much “gospel” is preached that perhaps some people never really find out what’s best for them. You’ve got a few variables, size and hyperactivity of your dog, your size and strength etc…but personally, I’d take the boat out on a calm stretch, maybe even a lake, bring your double blade, grab a single blade or 2 in different lengths, and try various seating arrangements. I know Riverstrider has a sweet clamp on seat for his MRE, allowing optimal seating position. My buddy Beavertail, who goes off on 3 week solo adventures, was seen paddling his MRE from the rear seat. Another bud Jay was paddling my aymetrical Dumoine backwards from the front seat, definite violation of P-net mandates, but it kept him happy for 15 miles…

I would mount a kneeling thwart between the center yoke and one of the seats. A kneeling thwart is a board-like thwart typically about 3" wide that is suspended from the gunwales by a wooden (or aluminum) spacer or hanger and a pair of stainless steel machine screws on each side.

You will want to have the front edge of the thwart high enough off of the floor of the hull so that it does not impinge on your heels when you are kneeling and so that you can easily withdraw your feet from underneath. The kneeling thwart is used more to prop your backside against than to actually sit on, although some folks sit back farther on kneeling thwarts than others.

It will be more comfortable to use a kneeling thwart if you have hangers that suspend the thwart so that it is on an angle of about 10 degrees or so to the horizontal, front edge lower than the back edge. Most thwarts come wide and you will have to trim some off one side to fit it into your hull. If you have some rudimentary woodworking skills and a drill press, you can usually make a nice pair of angled hangers out of the wood you cut off to trim the thwart.

If you opt for a kneeling thwart, you will need to mount it far enough away from the center yoke so that there is room for your body between the yoke and the thwart. You will probably want to mount the thwart between the front seat and the center yoke. If you mount it between the rear seat and the center yoke, it might interfere with legroom for the stern paddler when the boat is used as a tandem. You will then paddle the hull backwards. The sheer line of the Explorer is a little asymmetrical (the bow is slightly deeper than the stern) but I believe the hull is pretty symmetrical below the waterline so that will work fine. I would also glue some foam kneeling pads into the hull bottom, or at least have a removable kneeling pad or mat. Some folks use knee pads they wear on their legs.

Your kneeling thwart will probably need to be far enough away from the center thwart that your center of gravity will be such that the boat will be somewhat bow light. You can easily trim it by having something in the opposite stem of the boat, or with your dog, if your dog is not too heavy.

You can certainly also paddle the canoe sitting backwards on the bow seat and paddling the boat stern first. This will put your center of gravity farther from center but that might work if you have a large dog on the other side of the center thwart. The Explorer is nice in that it does not have a thwart right behind the bow seat (as many tandems do) that would interfere with sitting backwards on the front seat.

Paddling the boat backwards from the bow seat will probably not allow you to get your paddle blade forward of the boat’s pivot point so as to be able to utilize bow correction and turning strokes like C-strokes, bow draws, and Duffeks. That is why I prefer a kneeling thwart closer to center.

In a canoe using a single-bladed paddle the tendency of a forward stroke to turn the boat towards the opposite side is not counterbalanced by immediately taking a stroke on the opposite side unless you switch the paddle back and forth from side to side. Some paddlers do exactly that every few strokes typically referred to as “sit and switch”, “hit and switch”, “the Minnesota switch”, or “North American touring technique”. You can try that method of directional control but the Explorer is quite wide and if you switch you will need to sit centered between the inwales and it may be difficult to get your paddle out over the gunwale and keep it vertical during your stroke. Otherwise you can utilize one of a number of power/correction strokes to keep the boat on course, the most common of which is the “J stroke”. Some folks paddle tandems by kneeling just behind the center yoke with their weight near one gunwale, healing the canoe sometimes quite dramatically, and using only on-side strokes (called “Canadian style”).

As for paddle choice, if you really want to learn canoeing use a single-bladed paddle. There is nothing wrong with paddling a canoe with a double-bladed paddle but is your kayak paddle really only 140cm in length? That is just a little over 4 1/2’ if it is an overall length. Hard to imagine unless it is a Greenland storm paddle. If you meant to say you have a 240 cm kayak paddle it might work in an Explorer, although it is again a wide boat and it might be difficult to reach out over the gunwale sitting centered amidships and achieve a reasonably high angle stroke without an outlandishly long (and heavy) double-bladed paddle.

I prefer paddling my Explorer from the bow seat, heeled strongly to my on side, with a single blade paddle.

If you have not used a single blade much, give it some time and try to learn some technique. In the mean time keep the double handy. IMO 140 cm is pretty short in a wide canoe like the Explorer. You’ll need a sliding stroke.

As Matt said there are as many ways to paddle as there are paddlers. So long is it makes you happy go for it.

middle knee thwart
Here are some pics of an MRE, rebuilt with new wood, and middle paddling position.


I’ve done all of it -

– Last Updated: Mar-21-12 5:40 AM EST –

but I think the method I like the best is to sit in the stern seat and stick a big heavy rock way up in the bow.

I should say this is probably not really the recommended way to do this because that rock could take your boat to the bottom - but I take that chance and do it anyway! If you have a way to do a bag or water tight bucket of water that is probably smarter.

couple pix/explorers
Striders clamp on seat


Robin in the back, though, knowing Robin, the seat position has been modified…another idea you could consider.


Paddling from rear

– Last Updated: Mar-20-12 8:27 PM EST –

Look closely at that "Robin in the Back" photo, and you can see that he's actually sitting backward on the front seat (the MR logo is on the bow, and you can see that the empty seat is packed tightly into the end of the boat, so the empty seat must be the stern seat). Looks like it's working for him, in any case.

yeah, you’re right
my bad…hey, trims nice. I was just figuring Robin had modified the seat location…'cuz this guy seems to spend more time building and rebuilding boats (though mostly wood.canvas) than paddling. I remember him having 8 hulls stacked inside each other, awaiting wood…and that was just one pile…

Anyway you want
The MRE is a symmetrical boat, meaning the hull shape is the same in the stern as in the bow. So one quick and easy adjustment that can be made for paddling solo is to turn the boat around and sit in the bow seat, facing the the stern, and then paddle it stern first.

I had an MRE and set it up with a center seat. A disadvantage of that was removing the carry thwart, and I then used a strap to carry the boat. A second disadvantage is the width of the boat in the center, which makes cross strokes uncomfortable. I also liked to paddle the boat on edge, and I was always having to move from one side to the other. Get a wide seat if you put one in the center, my ass was always hanging off one side.

Paddling from the stern seat is entirely possible. True, you loose many bow, static, and sculling strokes. But, you can dominate the stern, which is an effective way to contorl a canoe. The canoe is narrower, too, so cross strokes are easier.

Trim is very important, and if you are not paddling the center of the boat you are going to have to do something to even out your trim. Above poster uses a large rock in the bow. Some people carry water bladders or buckets they can fill and place to adjust trim, and they can be dumped when not needed. Trim is especially important if it is windy, as the light end of the boat will want to blow away.

If you will regularly be carrying gear, use the gear to help even out the trim.

I suggest you do noting to the boat, get a step stool, and go paddle. Sit on the stool, try out paddling from different positions in the boat. See what works, and then outfit accordingly.

Regards your kayak paddle, longer paddles will work better. 220 and up. Paddling center, with the width of the MRE, 240 or 260 might work. You may want to downsize your blades because of the additional leverage.

I find kayak paddles of limited use in the canoe. If there’s a head wind, a kayak paddle is nice. But, with side winds, you end up paddling mostly on one side anyway, so the double blade doesn’t buy you much. With a tail wind, you are doing a lot of ruddering, and a single blade works just fine. Double blades also dump a lot of water in your lap and in the canoe. A useful tool, but I just end up not using the double that much.

So, grab your boat, your paddles and your dog and go put the boat in the water. Experiment and see what works for you.


I paddle both canoes and kayaks and
if it was me, I would put some ballast in the bow, (some bladders of water) and paddle from the rear seat.

Also why not learn the basic canoe strokes and become a well rounded paddler

Jack L

Good comments…
especially about experimenting and finding what works for you.

I put a kneeling thwart in my Penobscot 16 to paddle solo, but the knees have become so bad I can’t really do that anymore. Now, I mostly paddle from the bow seat, and use the dog (35lbs) as ballast for trim.

I do like the drop in seat idea. Matter of fact, I just ordered a “saddle seat” for my 1954 Old Town HW to be able to paddle it solo.

Lastly, like others here, I’d suggest trying to learn some of single blade techniques. It has helped me be more paddle “aware” even when paddling my kayak.

Canu canoe?
Turn the canoe and paddle from the bow seat. I carry a 5-gal bottle of water, which is for camping use, and put it in the bow. Paddle is personal preference, I use both single and double blade depending on fatigue and wind or water conditions. Since you are seated much higher and in wider boat, kayak paddle will be way too short. I use the Bending Branches Glass Slice 240cm Touring Canoe paddle. Works great.

If you want to learn canoeing
so that you can paddle solo or tandem in either bow or stern positions, you will want to learn a repertoire that includes both bow and stern correction and steering strokes.

If you want to canoe in moving water you would also be well-advised to learn some cross strokes.

The problem with paddling a tandem solo from one end is you will not have the opportunity to learn bow steering strokes and cross strokes serve no purpose at all.

Stern paddling
One of the guys who was very influential to me when I started paddling advocated sitting somewhat behind center of the canoe. An excellent paddler, he believed that the solo paddler needs to be able to dominate one end of the boat, and sitting dead center in a tandem, you can not dominate either end.

In 2007 I attended a week-long ww class at Madawaska. My instructor took me aside and told me to quit doing bow strokes. He argued that while they worked for me then, in heavy rapids where the water was more forceful, bow stokes do not have the power needed to control the boat. He taught sweeps, draws and pries from the stern. And he emphasized cross forward strokes.

The cross stroke that is useful from the stern is the cross forward stroke. It is used to accelerate the off side of the boat, either to get the boat to turn, or, in combination with your forward stroke, to accelerate the boat without loosing power to correction strokes.

So, I disagree with Pete. It is more fun to use all the strokes, but stern paddling can be very effective in moving water.


Well this is a topic for another thread
but there has been a definite shift in recent years in whitewater open boating toward driving the boat from the bow (“cab forward”) using strokes in the bow quadrants on and off side and carving circles whenever possible.

Tom Foster was one of the early proponents of this technique.

I will agree that stern correction strokes, especially the stern pry, are very effective in heavy water and sometimes necessary. But I think it would be as foolish to throw away the bow control strokes as it would be to say the stern correction strokes are never needed.

And the bow paddler in a tandem is certainly not going to be able to utilize stern steering strokes.

Both the bow and the stern correction and steering strokes are useful. That’s why it is best to learn them both.

Agree, agree, agree
And its the first I heard of cab forward, but like all the strokes, too. ~~Chip

new thread
I doubt many others will find this topic of great interest but I started a new thread discussing the merits of steering from the bow versus steering from the stern in a solo canoe.

Paddling tandem solo

– Last Updated: Mar-22-12 12:41 PM EST –

I find I usually have the best response for turning a rockered tandem canoe solo from just behind center and using a longer-than-conventional paddle such as the ottertail. With that, I can reach either end enough to employ those turning strokes. With no need for carrying extra weight as ballast, the boat doesn't take as much leverage to turn - but it helps to be limber.

OTOH - paddling a 16' canoe with no rocker from the center is more difficult. If the water is flat and straight-ish, sitting in the stern with ballast in the front works just fine. I use a large dry-bag filled with water for ballast. If you leave a little air space in the top of the dry-bag so that it has more than neutral buoyancy, it will not sink your swamped canoe to the bottom of the lake.

Leg room
If you put a kneeling thwart between the stern seat and the center thwart, there will be at least as much leg room as there is with the usual rear thwart ahead of the seat in a 16’ tandem. The kneeling thwart in this photo is mounted using the original holes for the thwart that was ahead of the stern seat, with the other two bolt holes drilled forward from there…


Notice that there is still lots of room for standing with a pole between the bow seat and the yoke (another option you might want to consider).

This photo shows another option - permanent center seat with removable yoke…