Thumb up, thumb down paddling?

Searched for answer to thumb up vs thumb down in the various paddling subjects. Need help understanding both techniques. All inputs welcome. A new comer to paddling with efficiency

you mean J stroke versus pry stroke?
I assume you’re talking about the position of the upper hand at the end of a forward stroke with correction. The forward stroke will tend to turn the boat offside (away from the paddling side), and you have to correct that deviation somehow. At the end of the stroke, when the blade is no longer driving the boat forward, you can push the blade away from the boat (outward) in order to kick the stern away from the paddling side, thus turning the bow toward the paddling side (onside) and correcting for the offside deviation.

Then the question is which face of the blade is facing away from the boat when you push the blade outward. It can be the power face (the face that was driving the boat forward a moment before) or the back face. If you choose the power face, you will have to point your thumb toward the water to make it happen. That’s called the J stroke because the blade moves (relative to the boat) smoothly backward and then outward, sort of like a J, or maybe an L with a rounded corner. If you choose the back face, your thumb will be pointing toward the sky. That called doing a (weak) pry to correct. (I’m talking about the thumb on the hand at the top of the paddle.)

So which to choose? The J stroke has the advantage that the same blade face is bearing the load throughout the forward and correction phases of the stroke, so you don’t suffer the delay and the water gurgle needed to fip the paddle around. On the other hand, the J is weaker than the pry and can feel awkward. When only a small amount of correction is needed (which is the case when going straight in calm conditions), the J is considered more efficient (I’ve never measured this, but it’s commonly accepted). When I need a correction, I usually J. The pry is much stronger; I use it when I need to change course (not just a correction).

There are ways to avoid having to do a push-away correction altogether. I’ll just list them, because I’ve run on long enough already: switching sides, leaning (heeling) the boat, correcting during recovery rather than between power phase and recovery, and finishing the power phase far enough forward that little or no yaw is created.

– Mark

Good explanation

– Last Updated: Dec-06-07 3:21 PM EST –

Watch the thumb in these vidoes.

Thumb up thumb down
Mark gave a good summary of the difference between thumb up (pry or rudder) and thumb down (J stroke). Understanding the correction portion of the forward stroke is only one component leading to efficient, and enjoyable paddling. If you want to get maximum enjoyment from your paddling consider a few lessons from a qualified instructor. For some of the best instruction around consider attending a canoeing symposium where instruction is the prime activity. La Lou Canoe (outside of New Orleans) this spring is such an event. You’ll leave as a much better paddler, a pound or two heavier due to the great food, and most likely will make some great friends. Check out

Marc Ornstein

Thumb and “J” stroke
Thanks for the info, very complete and understandable. Now all I need do is experiment and practice. Thanks again.


Thanks Mark appreciate it. Need all the help I can get.

Bill (AZ^^^man)

Thumbs down
Thumbs down meant kill the gladiator. Thumbs up was invented by Hollywood as the symetrical opposite to mean let him live. A tour guide at the Coloseum said the historically correct motion for “let him live” was a fist raised in the air.

A Canadian instructor once told me the “weak pry” thumbs up was a “river J” as differentiated from the J stroke.


Learning Time and Some Hints

– Last Updated: Dec-06-07 5:31 PM EST –

There's a reason thumb-up paddling is sometimes referred to as the "goon stroke". It's very easy to make it work in comparison to the J-stroke, so it's what virtually all inexperienced canoers do. It's also the method used by a lot of experienced canoers who simply keep using the method that "worked" when they got started. The J-stroke is more efficient if you want to make the most of each stroke, or if you want to go faster by increasing your stroke cadence. If you are cruising along at a slow easy pace, I doubt there's much difference between the two methods, but I prefer to do it the "right" way.

"Right" way or not, I found the J-stroke quite difficult to learn. I mean, I could "do" it right off the bat, but to do it well enough to move the boat as efficiently, and later, more efficiently, than by paddling the "wrong" way put me through a long and frustrating learning period. So, as someone already pointed out, lessons are a good idea, as are paddling books and videos, but ultimately, it's going to take time on the water to develop a good J-stroke. That is exactly what a few folks here told me a some years ago when I posted the comment that the J-stroke didn't seem to be as efficient or "natural" as I'd have liked.

Hint #1: If you choose, it's okay to use the gunwale as a fulcrum during the correction phase of the J-stroke. Bill Mason did it that way, and so does his daughter Becky. I don't like the "clunk" that this method makes on every stroke, so I put my lower hand against the gunwale and still get the same prying action. My hand isn't actually pinched between the gunwale and the paddle shaft, just resting on the gunwale so the crook of my thumb (where the paddle shaft sits) is lower than and outside the gunwale's edge.

Hint #2: There are actually two distinct methods for applying correction with the J-stroke. The first is to apply a little outward flip of the blade at the end of the stroke, just like all the books say to do. The second is to finish the stroke farther behind you, and then let the paddle drag for a second or two like a rudder. Though not as "proper" as the first method, it is quite efficient at slow to medium speeds (it is NOT as efficient at moderate and fast speeds, simply because the time wasted with that ruddering motion could be put to work on the next power stroke). Reaching back behind you to do this ruddering action reduces the amount of lateral force (and therefore, drag) needed to get the desired amount of correction, so at such speeds, it's every bit as efficient as a "proper" J. I don't use Method #2 very much, but I know plenty of people who do, and it is even endorsed on a solo-paddling video I recently purchased.

Thumb up pry is a lot easier to learn. Also easier to do when you put your lower hand on the gunwale to use it as a fulcrum (you can do that with either stroke, but it’s easier with the pry). As a practical matter, the properly executed J stroke is much more efficient and keeps the canoe moving faster. The pry is mainly useful if you’re just piddling along, or in gentle river current where it’s doing part of the work and you’re going just a little faster than the current.

Another thing that you can do, especially with a solo canoe, is a “C” stroke. You start out reaching pretty far forward and outward, and start the stroke away from the canoe and bring it in toward the canoe first, with the power face of the paddle turned slightly toward the canoe. Then as the stroke moves past you it becomes parallel to the canoe, and finally ends up in a J stroke. This has the most effect on short canoes. The beginning part of the stroke pulls the bow to the side you’re paddling, the middle of the stroke brings it back parallel and a bit to the off side, and the J at the end doesn’t need to be as strong to bring the canoe back to straight.

It all becomes second nature when you practice it. You’ll know you’ve got it when you can make the boat do whatever you wish without having to think about how.