steering from bow vs steering from stern

Chip and I started to hijack another thread by discussing the merits of bow vs. stern quadrant steering strokes for solo open boaters.

I suspect that if this is of interest to anyone it will be those who canoe in current and possibly freestyle paddlers. Most folks who restrict their paddling to flat water can often get by with forward strokes, some type of power stroke/correction combo (like a J stroke), forward and reverse sweeps and possibly the occasional bow draw or bow cross draw.

I think there have been 2 schools of thought regarding the most effective way to control the attitude of the boat in current. The more traditional approach, and still advocated by prominent whitewater open boat instructors such as Bob Foote, is to correct from the stern.

The second school of thought, which seems to be gaining in prominence in recent years, emulates whitewater slalom C-1 and OC-1 boaters who tend to keep their weight forward and steer from the bow quadrants as much as possible. This technique also emphasizes carving circles on the on and off side whenever possible. Tom Foster and Charlie Wilson were early OC-1 proponents of the circle carving technique.

The advantages of the so-called “cab forward” technique is that it keeps the power strokes short and forward of the hip, and does not waste the time required to take the paddle to the stern quadrant(s) so it is inherently more efficient. Keeping the body weight forward also frees the stern up and allows it to skid and quickly tighten the radius of the carved circle which can be advantageous when maneuvering in tight quarters.

The disadvantage is that for most of us, steering from the bow quadrants is not as strong as well-executed stern correction strokes. It also doesn’t work too well when bow surfing waves. Poorly executed bow correction strokes like static bow draws and cross draws can also dramatically slow the boat.

The logical (or absurd) end-point of the cab forward technique is the notion that all boat control can be accomplished with only two strokes, the forward stroke and the cross-forward stroke, coupled with 4 other elements that effect and modify the effect these strokes have on the particular circle being carved at any given moment. The 4 other elements are:

  1. Stroke cadence,
  2. Stroke position relative to the knee and hip (planting the paddle further forward also shifts body weight toward the bow),
  3. Paddle shaft angle (dropping the shaft angle and allowing the blade to come out from the hull a bit introduces a little “sweep” into the stroke,
  4. Boat heel (or lack thereof).

    Noted canoeing instructor and author Andrew Westwood has dubbed this technique the “2 x 4 technique” for carving the inside circle:

    I think it is a far stretch to say that Andrew “developed” this technique. Tom Foster and Charlie Wilson have been saying the same thing in other words for decades.

    Chip related an experience at Madawaska Kanu Center in which his whitewater instructor suggested he give up on bow steering strokes and concentrate on correcting from the stern. Although this was a few years ago, it is not the only time I have heard this advice. I was rather surprised to hear a noted ACA instructor recently declare that “all correction should be done from the stern” (of a solo canoe).

    I have also heard the other extreme suggested. That all steering can be accomplished from the bow quadrants and that correction or steering strokes in the stern quadrants are only necessary to correct a mistake. I have heard paddlers that resort to taking the paddle to the stern quadrant to steer dismissed as “paddle draggers”.

    My own feeling is that both techniques are useful. Increasingly I try to control my boat in current carving circles and correcting from the bow, but have no reluctance to use a good stern pry or draw in big water or when I have “fallen off my circle”.

    There was a recent discussion over at cboats dot net regarding this issue:

    I found it interesting that Paul Mason (who posts there as pmp) suggested that beginners can actually learn the 2 x 4 method more easily than they can stern correction strokes (which he frequently calls “stern rudders”). This would seem to be the exact opposite tack as that taken by Chip’s MKC instructor.

    But I found it significant that Paul admitted in the last post on that thread that he had plenty of occasions to resort to “ruddering” when paddling an unfamiliar boat on the Tellico last spring.

more tools
do both and be happy.

The choice of boat makes a difference
Pete, I never paid much attention as to whether I was steering from the bow or stern until I tried that little yellow Dagger OC1 of yours. I was trying to steer from the front and had very little control. I consider myself a mediocre paddler and I was out of my league in that boat. lol. My solo boats all carve well with an offside lean and bow strokes and that is my normal way to paddle.


Bob Foote’s routine correction is the J
stroke done so “early” that it really can’t be called stern quadrant correction. His power is “off” well before the hip, and if he needs correction, he exerts a quick J before a normal blade extraction.

Cab forward control in slalom c-1s and swedeform OC-1s (or symmetrical) may require one to sit up or even lean back a bit to unload the bow and make a pivot of the stern. Or, catch the boat when it is perched on a wave. Older Millbrooks, such as the Hooter, are like slalom c-1s in that the bow is narrow and chiney, so if one tries a marked steering move while leaning a bit cab forward, the bow is settled in the water and doesn’t move easily. Lean back and the bow can be moved.

Millbrook’s newer fishform boats are designed to be easier to control while paddling cab forward. The bow is a bit broader, and steering strokes will horse it to one side or the other without problems from chines catching. If one wants to just make speed in these fishform boats, one can sit up or sit back a tad, and the narrower stern helps the boat run straight.

Since very few people use fishform ww boats, the unwashed masses must get used to leaning back to unload the bow if a marked correction must be done with bow strokes. Or, use a stern correction, but I would still sit up enough to release the bow.


– Last Updated: Mar-21-12 8:44 PM EST –

The stern pivot turn, as popularized by C-1er extraordinaire Jon Lugbill is sort of the exception that proves the rule with regard to cab forward paddling in C-1 slalom racing.

Bob Foote uses both a quick J and has also been a proponent of the pitch stroke as a routine correction stroke, but he also has been a big proponent of the stern pry (and draw) as a stern steering stroke as he shows here:

In this blurb Bob weighs in on the use of relative merits of the cross forward stroke, as used in the 2 x 4 technique relative to using stern steering strokes such as the stern pry:

I think you can appreciate that Bob Foote is not sold on the idea of bow steering and correction replacing stern steering in all instances.

cab forward
I like the feel of it because it puts me in an agressive posture and frame of mind. I try to stay out front as best I can. But sometimes a stern pry has to creep in.

Wow, Nice write up
Thanks for writing that. After reading, it helps explain why some paddlers often almost seem to lift the stern as they paddle. Not sure fully understand, but I’ll sure be thinking about it and watching for it on the river.

Now that fella with his MRE… I could never carve my MRE, at least not carve the rocker. It would carve an outside edge if you lean it that way, but it didn’t carve like my Encore or Appy. People say the MRE will do it, but never did it for me.


Nor am I. Now, on that stern pivot,
when I took pictures of the Nationals back in '85, lots of c-1 paddlers were using stern pivots on upstream gates. By the '96 Olympics, it was rare to see a stern pivot. Paddlers had learned that the stern pivot was great as an emergency measure, if you came into an eddy too low, too fast, or in the wrong place, but it wasn’t really efficient.

In '85 all the c-1s were like pumpkin seeds, with their bows spreading to sharp edges at the seam line. By '96, the bows were fuller, with actual chines that extended just back behind the cockpits. Most c-1s were getting to be cab forward. The chines or sides contributed to tracking and speed. And in an upstream gate, those chines acted like rails, enabling the boat to retain some of its speed as it turned up toward the gate. The flat, knifelike stern didn’t plunge deep, but cut under the water as a control surface, managed by the paddler’s lean and paddle work.

One way to learn more about steering at the bow is to get some Olympic or World Cup film and watch and watch and watch. You won’t see many strokes at the stern, but they’re still there. And I recall Bill Endicott talking about when Lugbill and Hearn quit using the little “ear” toward the rear of the c-1 cockpit (actual purpose, to meet width requirement with a narrow boat) to pry in executing the J stroke. Instead, their strokes were finished farther forward, without a J unless it was needed.