Paddling in a straight line

Could anyone give me advice on learning to paddle in a straight line? I keep spinning in even easy water… I did read about adding a small Stern Sweep at the end of a stroke but if anyone has any other suggestions, they’d be gratefully recieved!



here’s an excellent article …

Whitewater boat ?

– Last Updated: Apr-23-06 12:18 PM EST –

It may take some special attention. I believe if you look in the old list of weekly articles (link over on the left under features) there is a section on paddling whitewater boats and going straight.

Ah it is ...

Shorten your stroke?
You may be pulling your paddle blade past your hips which is causing the boat to turn a little with each stroke. Try lifting the paddle out when it reaches your hip.


If you are light for the boat, it may
spin more easily. Let us know what sort of boat it is.


– Last Updated: Apr-23-06 12:41 AM EST –

Sarah: a kayak compass mounted to the shock cords on your kayak can be a great aid. Find open, calm water, and keep your eyes fixed on that compass. Keep that compass needle as straight as you can. You will find that any asymmetry in your stroke will, to a large extent, remedy itself. Muscle memory will be developed by repetition, and then you can ditch the compass. :)

Paddle hard.

Paddle Length And Stroke
If a paddle is too long, you could be adding a sweeping component without being aware of it because the paddle blade is out there. You pull the shaft towards you hip and exit the blade, except with a long paddle the blade has already gone past your hip and thus the sweeping component added.

You want a paddle that will allow you to reach forward to plant the blade somewhere between your shin and foot. You want to be able to pull that blade, buried just to the shaft, right alongside the hull and then to have the blade (not the shaft) exit from the water right around your hip.

If you paddling a white water boat, more focus is needed than in a longer boat because of the “spin momentum” built into it. Really focus on short strokes as close to the hull as possible and to exit at, or even slightly before the hip. Once you can pull (think pull rather than paddle) yourself along in a straight line, then begin to vary length of stroke as well as blade distance from boat to figure how the boat reacts to those different strokes.


"then you can ditch the compass"
Can I have the compass when you’re done?

Other pieces of advice.
Look where you want to go rather than, say, at your grab loop. And push forward with your foot on the same side as you are paddling on. If your boat is a displacement hull WW boat then be aware that once it starts turning it is harder to correct it and a stern draw may be needed while you are learning. Most planing hulls are more likely to start turning initially but are trivial to correct. The faster you go in a WW boat the more spin momentum is developed. So initially, slow down. Current from the stern (like when going down river) also produces a turning force so you might want to do some practice on flat water.

I gave up
I used to just pretend I was going from bank to bank to look at stuff… “hey, look at this flower!”…“there’s some more over there, I’m going to check it out!”

Eventually, I learned that focusing on pushing forward with both feet helped me to go straight in my planing hull.

Misconceptions about river current …
… are so common. Regarding “Current from the stern (like when going down river) also produces a turning force”: If the current is of uniform velocity over large spans of distance your boat doesn’t care which direction you go. For any given propulsive effort, your speed through the water is the same, and handling is unaffected by direction of travel relative to current direction (just like air speed and handling of aircraft is not affected by wind direction). Though the effect of current on actual speed and direction is obvious due to your reference to the stationary shore, in a situation where you had no visual connection to stationary objects, you could paddle in a very strong current in any direction you choose, even laying out a trail of bread crumbs, and you’d have no way of determining the direction of the current, or your actual travel direction for that matter (this is a hypothetical situation that anyone who’s ever taken introductory physics had to analyze and describe - Physics textbook writers love this kind of problem).

Of course, anytime your boat crosses a boundary between currents of different speeds or direction, the effect can be pretty intense.

A little turning force from behind …

Yeah, that’s a bit different!
Even the relatively small lake waves I “surf” on will toss the back end of the boat to one side pretty quickly if you don’t keep your wits about you. I wonder what it’s like once you develop all that forward speed like in your photo?

Couldn’t disagree more.
All you have to do is float down a river and see what your boat does. The only stable position is perpendicular to the current. Point down stream and stop paddling, your boat will turn. Point upstream and stope paddling, your boat will turn. That is why it is easy, and advantageous, to move down river sideways.

Beyond that, if you are moving down river and pointed down river, then if you paddle (move faster than the current) then you develop spin momentum and the boat tends to turn. The faster you move the more the tendency. Then current from the stern simply adds to the tendency.

If that happens, you are catching eddys
Does a hot air balloon being blown by the wind also turn to face a certain way? No. The flags on the side of the balloon only respond to little variable gusts, not to the overall wind. Your boat is no different, and it’ll be stable in any position if the current is uniform at all locations around you. Try that on a really big river on a windless day. Believe me, I’ve logged hundreds of miles the last three years on our local big river (1,000 feet wide, on average), and I’d have noticed this by now, even if the physics of the situation weren’t obvious enough.

I once had a similar discussion with somebody else here regarding ferrys, and it became clear that felt there was some force holding the boat relative to the current. If there is wind, that’s true, but if there’s no wind the boat is moving with the water and thus responds according to the water it moves through, or if stationary, it is stationary relative to the water as the water moves along.

Current variations and even tiny amounts of wind tend to camoflauge what is happening if one is not fully aware of the boat’s action in the water. I’d encourage you to try the old breadcrumb experiment if you don’t see this.

Your “physics” is much too simple.
A boat is not a uniformly shaped object. And I do know what my boat does and how it performs and whether it is in an eddy or not.

Here’s an illustration

– Last Updated: Apr-24-06 11:05 AM EST –

You are correct about the example being simplistic, but incorrect in interpreting what's causing your boat to turn.

Here's a way to picture what's happening.
First an over-simplification to set the stage, and then some fine-tuning of the example to make it more like a real river.

Imagine a conveyor belt carrying Jello. This moving band of Jello represents a river with nothing but a straight downstream current with no turbulence of any kind. Now put your boat in that Jello, in any position you like, and see what happens as the coveyor belt moves the Jello "downstream". Nothing happens - the boat stays embedded in the Jello in the exact orientation in which it started, and it moves downstream at the exact same speed as the "river" flow. In this case, the Jello is just like water except that it "grips" the boat better, illustrating what the water does in a magnified way that's easier to picture in one's mind.

Now, let's make it more like a real river. We'll divide the conveyor belt into a large number very skinny conveyors, all lined up side by side and traveling in the same direction. The belt in the center moves the fastest and the two belts at each edge move the slowest, and the actual speed difference between any two adjacent belts is extremely small, but the difference is there. Now we'll put a different flavor of Jello on each belt, and watch what happens. Overall, all of the Jello is moving "downstream", and if you only watch for a few seconds, it looks like it's all moving together. Watch for a much longer period of time though, and you'll see shear zones developing between the different flavors of Jello, so that that farther the Jello travels downtream, the farther "behind" any band will become in its postion relative to the adjacent band which is toward the center, and the farther ahead that band will be relative to any adjacent band which is closer to the edge, or the "riverbank". This comes closer to representing what happens in a river. If you place your boat in the Jello now, different parts of the boat will be embedded in bands of Jello traveling at slightly different speeds, and yes, the boat will change its orientation as it moves downstream because some of the Jello incontact with the boat is moving faster than average, and some of the Jello in contact with the boat is moving slower than average.

In a river, things get even more complex, and it is absolutely impossible for the boat to be exposed to simple "downstream current". If a simple downstream current were the case, it would be just like the single conveyor carrying Jello, and the boat would never pivot unless you provided the paddle strokes to make it happen. In straight-line portions of a real river, not only does the current get progressively slower as you approach the bank, but every little irregularity on the bottom creates turbulence, so there are micro-currents flowing in directions other than the main flow. There is no way a totally unpowered boat will remian in the same orientation for long. On curves, the current actually flows in a corkscrew pattern, not simply around the bend, so surface currents tend to be on a diagonal in one direction and deep currents are diagonal in the other, and there are vertical currents on each edge of the main flow.

If you could let your boat remain uncontrolled for long enough, it would not only turn to be broadside, it would turn again and again, and not always in the same direction and not always the same amount or the same speed. Non paddled canoes on that really wide river I referred to in an earlier post pivot slowly this way and that, sometimes a little, sometimes a lot, sometimes one pivot after another, sometimes without any pivots at all for minutes at a time, sometimes a never-ending spin. It all depends on the effects of turbulence and non-uniform current speeds which for practical purposes are "striking" the boat as the boat moves along at the same speed and direction of the "average" current.

The bottom line is that the boat doesn't "care" which way the river is moving. If the river had uniform flow everywhere and the boat were stationary relative to that current, it'd be just like sitting in a pond as far as the boat can tell, and the shape of the boat would have no effect. Boat shape only matters to a boat that is moving *through* the water that it floats in. It's the fact that no part of the boat is sitting in water that is moving at the exacly the same speed or exactly the same direction that causes the boat to pivot. You could duplicate this situation with a boat being stationary in a pond by directing little bursts of water toward it from various directions using a paddle or electric trolling motor - it would be the same thing from the standpoint of what is actually happening to your boat on the river when it drifts.

When drifting along on a small river it's common to see a boat temporarily *appear* to reach an equilibrium betweeen the slower current toward shore and the faster current toward the center and take on a diagonal (relative to the river) orientation, but it won't stay in that position forever, though it might seem like it would during that brief observation window available before the next river obstacle forces you to get your paddle going again.

Another thing to be careful of when observing this stuff: If you just stop paddling, the average boat will turn roughly 90 degrees or so even in calm water because there is lower pressure against the sides of the boat toward the stern than at the bow, and the stern is naturally less stable about maintaining it's position in the water (that's why steering corrections are easily perfomed from the back, and why no boat ever has a rudder on the front). Hard-tracking boats will drift a lot farther and turn a lot slower, but they will eventually veer off course and end up about 90 degrees to the original direction of travel by the time they stop moving. Highly rockered boats will do this immediately, and might spin so quickly that their spin momentum carries them around even farther before they stop.

Hope this is clear enough. I did the best I could for a short burst of typing.

Leaned turns
Leaning your kayak to correct is one of the easiest ways to paddle in a straight line. Some kayaks are also just very rockered making straight line paddling a bit of a chore without a rudder of skeg.

Check this article “Kayak Leaned turns”

it may shed some light on course correction by using your boat and your body rather than the paddle.

A river is not a conveyor belt or…
air currents or jello. No offense meant here, but to get a newbie running straight your opus work might be a bit dissuasive on further pursuit of the sport.

Sarah, somewhere near you there is a professional or semi profesional paddler that would love to help you out. You can figure alot of this stuff out on your own, but honestly, the kayaking pro’s are usually pretty inexpensive and can often open doors more fully and quickly. It may make the sport more enjoyable. Have fun and stay safe!

Augustus Dogmaticus


You sorta missed the point

– Last Updated: Apr-24-06 6:41 PM EST –

That analogy was just an illustration of a very basic aspect of rivers that you can look up in any book that covers the subject. I just did what I could to relate how it's the turbulence and differential current speeds in rivers that does this stuff. Even Bill Mason addresses most of the stuff I related in one form or another (though if I remember accurately, he got one minor aspect wrong, or at least one small part his current-speed illustration doesn't make any sense and doesn't agree with what's in the river-geology section of any basic geology text), so I'm not just making this up.

What about what I've seen drifting boats do on that wide-open river I spoke of? When river partiers drift along drinking their beer, sometimes for a couple of hours at a time without ever dipping a paddle, they drift along at 3 mph or more with no tendency of their boats to align cross-wise with anything except the wind. To align cross-wise with the current would require the current to push the boat against some opposing force, and without wind, there is no such external force available. All I've ever seen unpropelled boats do on that big river (but only on calm mornings and evenings when the wind effect disappears) is random pivoting, totally unpredictible as to its direction, magnitude or frequency. Would a boat drifting on ocean current align itself the same way as you suggest (many ocean currents are much faster than a fast river), and exactly HOW does this happen? You haven't explained what force is responsible for such an apparently predictible action.

Hey, I'm not wanting to be rude or anything. I just love discussing the way things work -- as if nobody can tell :)