Paddling Upstream

paddling upstream

– Last Updated: Sep-09-12 1:57 PM EST –

Short boats don't track worth a darn, but your main problem was probably eddies. They are subtle in a slow moving river, but you must learn to read them better.

try moving or weighting the end
a simple way to avoid having the bow pushed around when paddling upstream is to weight the upstream end of the boat. The people of the amazon paddle their dugouts by sitting in the very upstream end of their boats when traveling upstream. In a canoe move forward, in a kayak weigh the upstream end to avoid accidentely ferrying across the current.

Exactly the opposite.
Every canoe poler knows that. A heavy bow will get pushed into a ferry at the slightest deviation from exactly into the current. Current alignment changes constantly - so you need a loose bow to adjust for it before getting pushed into a ferry.

You’re inexperienced
You don’t know how to read moving water. You don’t know how how moving water influences your hull. You don’t know how to control your hull in the shifting water velocities and current differentials. You don’t know how to use these things to your advantage instead of disadvantage.

It’s all a learned skill.

You’re like a little kid on his first escalator.

You will learn steadily as your experience increases. Books and videos and explanations of moving water can help. But just keep at it for 100 hours or so, and it will all start to make intellectual and instinctive sense.

Bow light vs. bow heavy
Wait a minute!

There’s an important sub-debate here with diametrically opposed viewpoints, which is not resolved.

I can visualize how going upstream with a heavy bow could make the bow harder to be blown to the side. I can also visualize that it would be harder to recover a heavy bow onto course if it does get blown to the side.

I’d like to hear more arguments on this issue. Both opinions can’t be right. Or can they?

solo bow paddlin’ upstream
I believe them Amazonians know somethin’ about paddlin’ seein’ as they do it for their livlihood- fishen and such, that bein’ said, they probably ain’t much good at ridin’ esculators either.

How do you know he’s going upstream …

– Last Updated: Sep-08-12 8:38 PM EST –

... in that picture?

It's hard to say, but I think he's going across the river and possibly about to turn somewhat downstream. It looks to me that downstream is to the left.

gettin’ ready to mystery move
I’m pretty sure he’s gonna transition a bow squirt into a mystery move, them dugouts are good for that. All kidding aside, that’s how I saw these boys paddling upstream. A couple of them boys were nice enough to take me out but they didn’t trust me with a paddle. I got to bail with gourd, and sit real still in the middle. Dugouts are tippy and there wasn’t much freeboard with three of us in the thing. If baffles me how they could stand up and fish in them. It sure would be a pity if the next time you’re solo canoein’ upstream and your bow is getting pushed around by the current that you actually tried paddling in the bow and found it easier to go straight.

silly bow paddlin solo comebacks
If you’re gonna try this, you’re gonna get some funny looks- mumble about eddy resistant ends of the boat. Tell them its just the opposite of ferrying. On the upstream ferry the stern paddler sets the angle- his end encounters the least amount of resistance and thus can change the angle dramatically with each stroke. But you want the opposite effect if you’re solo paddling and inadvertently turning the boat in current when you don’t want too. By paddling in the bow you can forward paddle- thus make headway upstream but the resistance will make it more difficult to turn the boat. You are more likely to stay straight. True attaining in whitewater is a different deal. You want to be able to move the bow, to change angles, as you cross currents and eddies.

tdaniel, are you arguing this?
You go upstream easier bow heavy in smooth water current that has no obstacles (rocks, etc.) that require maneuvering, but you go upstream easier bow light if there are obstacles that do require maneuvering.

Is that what you are saying?

but I don’t think its just weight that makes the difference. By paddling on the most resistant end of the boat, the upstream end, they find they can keep the boat straighter, i’m pretty sure those brasilian bush boys didn’t know how to j stroke so they came up with their own solution. It’s really fun to bow paddle solo. You have an easier time going straight upstream and you can back ferry downsteam all day- which is nice way of saying its hard to control the boat going downstream in a straight line. Expect to go all over the place until you get the hang of it.

Something more to think about- probably 90% of the paddle strokes used on the whitewater salom course in the olympics were bow strokes . The racers were constantly weighting and unweighting the ends of their boat with their body positioning while paddling forward for speed. Just think what we could learn if we got the slovokians together with amazonians…sheer liquid madness!

Separating trim from paddler position
I find the Amazon upstream paddler a very interesting canoe physics issue.

Note that the paddler trims the bow down by moving his paddling position as far forward as possible. This means two things have happened at the same time:

  1. The center of mass or gravity (COG) has been moved as far forward as possible. Thus the paddler’s own weight trims the bow down.

  2. The center of lateral resistance, or colloquially the center of rotation (COR), has been moved as far forward as possible. This means the paddler is in the position where his forward stroke will have the least turning effect on the canoe.

    The issue is which of these two things is causing the (alleged) ease of upstream paddling: the bow down trim or the forward paddling position, or both.

    I propose we can test this issue with three thought experiments, and I need everyone’s help to think this through.

    Each of these experiments involves triplets who are paddling clones of each other. All three are in clone boats.


    This experiment keeps each paddler in the same bow position but changes the boat trim.

  • Paddler A is in the bow, which trims down X degrees.
  • Paddler B is in the bow, but weight is added behind him so the boat is in level trim.
  • Paddler C is in the bow, but even more weight is added so the bow is trimmed UP by 1/2 X degrees.

    Which paddler wins the upstream race?


    This experiment keeps the bow trimmed down the same amount but changes the paddler position.

  • Paddler A is in the bow, which trims down X degrees.
  • Paddler B is in the center of the canoe, and enough weight is added to the bow to trim it down X degrees.
  • Paddler C is in the stern, but even more weight is added to the bow to trim it down X degrees.

    Which paddler wins the upstream race?


    The winner of Experiment 1 races the winner of Experiment 2. Who wins?

    In evaluating this, I think it is useful to ignore the differences in the total weight loads in the boats, because I don’t want wave drag or friction to cloud the issue. Make believe we change to lighter hulls as we add more weight, so the total weight load on all canoes is the same.

    Again, the purpose is to try to determine whether the (alleged) ease of upstream paddling is facilitated by the bow down trim (shifting the COG forward), or by the minimization of the paddle turning moment (shifting the COR forward), or both.

    I think there is a right answer as to who wins the race. But does anyone here or in the Amazon basin know it?

Don’t need no experimenting.

– Last Updated: Sep-09-12 9:00 AM EST –

As a stern tandem paddler, I can control the angle on a backferry because of the location I am paddling from. It's a simple mater of leverage.

But that doesn't mean "bow heavy" going upstream will aid in controlling the bow. There's no new discovery to be made here. We trim bow heavy to fight against wind on a lake precisely because the pressure of the water against the hull overcomes that of the air. Doing so when going upstream subjects the bow to increased pressure from the water. If you were talented enough to have your bow perfectly aligned with the current and that current remained straight, you'd be fine. But that doesn't happen in the real world.

The heavy bow will be pushed to one side or the other by current differentials, and once the angle deviates from parallel to the current even a little, pressure against the hull will accelerate the deviation and put you into a radical ferry if not corrected by some means. With the heavy bow, correction is difficult - but with a light bow, correction can be as simple as edging the downstream side of the boat.

As I said before, canoe polers know all this and use it constantly. We're up and back and all over the boat - especially when getting to know a new hull - so we get a good comparison of bow-heavy vs bow-light on a regular basis. I imagine those (other) polers that have been reading the foregoing posts are scratching their heads and rolling their eyes.

For further exaggerated demonstration of the mistaken idea that bow-heavy will track easier, one may watch a freestyle demonstration by the likes of Karen Knight and see how easily the hull spins when the bow digs in. Skip to about 2:20.....

The books and video by Harry rock that I mentioned earlier in this thread cover the subject well, and the mechanics are not exclusive to canoes or poling.

I imagine that if you were fortunate enough to have a breeze that was at all times exactly parallel to the current, being heavy in the bow and light in the stern might "weathervane" in your favor - but we're dreaming here. More to the point, a short-fat boat like the one in the Brazilian photo (that will be slow anyway), paddled with a single blade from the bow, might work better than trying to paddle with a single blade from the middle - where it would likely be a matter of some skill to obtain good tracking even in a pond. But put a kayak paddle in his hands, and he would likely prefer the middle or just behind. Lengthen and narrow his boat, and I guarantee it.

All this is not a matter of conjecture on my part. Upstream trips with various loads at various trim have proven it out. Slightly bow-light (but not so much as to induce excessive drag or excessively short waterline) is the way to go. But don't take my word for it - there's a whole slew of expert polers that can verify.

This is closely related to the current "Tracking" thread. Tracking upstream is more a function of the paddler/poler than the boat. Digging in the bow won't help you, it will just give you a constant fight. A loose bow makes it easy for the paddler/poler to point it where it needs to be.

physics, fat chicks, and rudders
I think through physics you have identified the key issues. Not sure who wins either. We as a group made some good suggestions- “change boats, keep practicing, learn how to steer.” I suggested that if he were canoeing he could change where he sat in the boat to his advantage. He probably can only move his kayak seat a few inches at best in his boat. His only viable option is to weight the end. Not sure if that will help him go straight or not but puttin’ a few rocks in the bow could be worth a try. For the original poster that’s the experiment that matters.

Much of boating is counterintuitive- the whole leaning up against the rock when its coming at you, bringing you’re head out last when trying to roll, and that a tippy canoe (low initial stability) may actually be more stable than a flatbottomed boat are just a few examples. That’s what keeps it interesting. I wonder how Verlen Kruger trimmed his boat when he ascended the grand canyon? I do know he used a rudder, so there’s another viable suggestion. Put a rudder on the kayak if it doesn’t have one already. Now if I could just figure out where to put the 300lb fatty in my leaky old raft? Dang, if physic can solve that then it really could be useful. I’m thinkin’ as far away from the valves as possible…


– Last Updated: Sep-09-12 9:19 AM EST –

"By paddling in the bow you can forward paddle- thus make headway upstream but the resistance will make it more difficult to turn the boat. You are more likely to stay straight." - tdaniel

If you try this, you will find out just how slow and squirrelly your boat can be. Paddling solo from the bow....shortens the water line, digs in the stem, and increases frontal resistance. Might not matter if the boat is shaped more like a coracle than a canoe, but a typical canoe or kayak will gain nothing by this.

This is all very interesting, but
the OP needs the introductory course. He does not need the advanced course yet. Also, he is paddling a Kayak, not a canoe.

My suggestion is that the OP get out in some mild moving water and mess around. Things will start to become clear. Have someone else along with your for safety and be sure you have a solid wet exit. You may dump a time or two as you experiment with things. But it will start to become clear. If you can, go paddling on class one water with an experienced friend or instructor. All this stuff about bow heavy or bow light is not important to you now. Ignore it. Watch the water as it moves and as it passes around obstructions in the river. Behind ever obstruction there is some slack water that you can use to move upstream with less effort. You can also use that slack water (eddy) to rest if you get tired. Eddies are your friends.

It’s very simple…
…and not a mystery.

Flowing water pushes on the sides of the bow. If the bow is heavy, there is more side for the water to push on. If - no, when the bow gets even slightly misaligned with the current, the water pushes more on one side than the other - inducing a ferry.

If the bow is light, less - or none - of the side of the stem (where leverage is high) is exposed to the pressure of oncoming water - therefore the misaligned bow is not as easily pushed into a ferry.

Additionally - realigning the bow takes less effort, because water is pushing less on the bow - or not at all. If correction is done early, it can be as simple as edging the downstream side of the boat. Doing so often swings the bow upstream with no other effort.

Basic stuff for those who go against the current on a regular basis.

Why ignore the basics?

– Last Updated: Sep-09-12 9:40 AM EST –

Canoe or kayak - bottoms of similar shape act the same in water.

Bow light for upstream travel in differential current. Simple. Proven. Basic.

Now go watch the water and learn. That's much more complex.

Key point is “differential currents”

– Last Updated: Sep-09-12 2:23 PM EST –

Okay, once again here's a sermon on frame of reference. Some get it, some don't.

The thing I believe most people lose sight of is the fact that it's CHANGES in current over small distances that cause control problems when going upstream. It is NOT the simple fact that you are going upstream. I think Steve might be aware of this based on his mentioning of this key point, and his spot-on post below about bow-heavy paddling, but at least one other person is not aware.

Steve also talks about poling upstream, which is a completely different situation from paddling because now the boat is connected via the pole to the bottom of the river (a fixed object), rather than its only connection being with the water itself (the same material which supports the boat).

Ignoring poling, which is completely different than paddling, here's a thought problem I have used before. Imagine your boat is floating in a swimming pool, and imagine what it's like to paddle around within that pool. Any direction you paddle feels the same as any other. Okay, now imagine that this pool is has flotation tanks around the edges so that it can be floated within a lake instead of supported on all sides by soil. Now the pool forms a walled-off section of water within the lake. Paddling around inside the pool is the same as before, right? Now pull that floating pool with a tugboat. Once up to speed and traveling smoothly, what's it like to paddle in that pool? Answer: The same as before. Any direction you choose to paddle within the pool will feel the same as any other. It's just like walking around on the floor of a moving ship (on calm seas) or the floor of a bus that's traveling at constant speed (on a smooth road). As long as the speed or direction of the tugboat does not change abruptly, you will feel like your are paddling around on still water, just like when not moving, and if the pool has a fence around it so that you can't see the water of the lake going by all around you, you will have no way of knowing that the water that supports you is moving. NOW, float that pool in the Amazon and let it drift with the current. How is paddling your boat on the water within the pool any different while it drifts with the current than when it's being towed? It's exactly the same, no matter whether you paddle "upstream" or "downstream" or "cross-wise" to the direction the current, and your swimming pool, are moving. If the pool's perimeter fence is in place, you won't be able to tell the difference, no matter which direction you paddle within your little enclosure. NOW, as the pool drifts with the Amazon's current, eliminate the walls which had enclosed the pool's water but keep the flotation tanks and perimeter fence in place. The big parcel of water on which you have been paddling STILL drifts with the current as before (as do the flotation tanks and perimeter fence). You would not know that anything had changed. Paddling your boat within the fenced-in parcel of water looks and feels the same as before, as it continues riding the same current that carried it when it was enclosed by the swimming-pool walls. Now in real life, the river would not have perfectly steady current, and now that your parcel of water is not walled-in, you would begin to see boils on the water's surface that were not there before. This should make it clear that it's variations in current that you notice while paddling on a broad river, not the current itself. Within broad areas of steady current (extremely rapid currents on the open ocean would be the best example), your boat is just a toy boat floating in an aquarium, among a huge truck-load of aquariums all being carried together in the same direction. Only when those individual pockets of water all around you are nudged into moving in all sorts of different speeds and directions (turbulence) does the current have any effect on the handling and "feel" of your boat.

This usually brings up the subject of ferries, but as to effort needed to control a ferry, that's only different from regular paddling during that initial phase of shoving the boat into a fast stream of current, before the boat's inertia has been overcome so it's not actually drifting with that current. You can feel the effect of this "jet-ferry" action fade away the farther you go, until you are simply paddling (note that the initial ferry action rockets you off in the direction you wish to go regardless of how fast the current goes, but in an extremely fast current, pretty soon you find yourself moving downstream as you move across). When ferrying across a broad river, you are just like an airplane flying at an angle to the wind, with water streaming evenly down the length of the boat and your wake trailing straight behind you, and you can NOT ferry straight across a broad river who's current travels faster than you can paddle (you could ferry straight across in that situation IF you could maintain that boat-against-current force that was initially provided for a few seconds by inertia. To maintain such a force for an extended period of time, you'd need to apply it via an outside connection (something other than the water), like poling off the river bottom, or by stringing a cable from bank to bank and attaching the boat to that cable with a pulley).

More pix of real Amazon paddling
This woman is paddling bow down in calm water with her kid. Why? Note there is a seat positioned behind center. Maybe this is the Amazon Freestyle Championship and she is the Amazon Karen Knight doing nose enders. Maybe she wants to do the least amount of correcting. Maybe she wants a loose stern. Maybe she doesn’t know how to correct. Maybe this facilitates something she wants to do in the canoe such as picking water lilies.

No wait! They paddle bow light up the Amazon.

No wait! Their paddling positions and trim are all over the place.

Those Amazonians may be in serious need of pnet.