Tips for a novice trying to solo paddle

I have a Wenonah Spirit II in rx. I’ve yet to solo paddle it and have never really solo paddled a canoe before. I’ve been tempted to get a kayak for going solo, but would like to try the canoe first. I wouldn’t call myself a beginner, but I am still working on my skills. My question is, is there any stroke or technique I should use with paddling a 17’ canoe solo? I understand my position in the boat will change and I currently paddle from the kneeling position. Just looking for some tips to aid as I attempt soloing. Thanks!

Bill Mason’s Path Of The Paddle
Solo basics an’ whitewater be a real oldie but goodie instructional films dat might interest yer.


Make up your mind to go
in the direction the wind is blowing.


If you are near the center of the boat
nearly all of your bow and stern strokes will work. Pick a calm day for starting out.

Just give-in and buy a double bladed
canoe paddle.


– Last Updated: Jun-25-15 9:51 PM EST –



Ditto on "Path of the Paddle"
There are newer books and videos, but it’s hard to beat “Path of the Paddle” for being concise.

Now, bear in mind that your Spirit II probably won’t dance the way Bill Mason’s Prospector and Pal canoes do. That would be partly due to Mason’s magic touch, and partly due to the difference in boats. If you are already considering getting a kayak for your solo paddling, and if solo paddling a big tandem canoe seems to reinforce that decision, remember that you could get a solo canoe instead of a kayak. There’s an enormous difference in ease of paddling between a solo canoe and solo paddling a tandem. Just look at the amount of real estate that’s required for one of Bill Mason’s solo eddy turns!

The double-blade paddle can be …
… something other than blasphemy. Training wheels!

Think “J” stroke
You won’t go fast, but you can stay on one side for as long as you want to

Jack L

As I often say about this, …

– Last Updated: Jun-26-15 7:31 AM EST –

... the J-stroke is not for racing (and Jack wins a lot of races) but it need not be slow. The trick is to do the correction as a momentary "flip" which doesn't interrupt the cadence. A person using the J-stroke who can match the cadence of their bow paddler when briskly paddling a tandem canoe will not find the J-stroke to be slow when used as a solo stroke.

To the original poster: I used to demonstrate this idea with some clips of me cruising quickly upstream, but I hate to do that too many times. There's one clip in the Path of the Paddle series that shows Bill Mason solo paddling that big tandem canoe much faster than most people would ever make such a boat go, using a J-stroke that has no pause at the end, and he makes it look pretty effortless.

Find an accomplished paddler to help

– Last Updated: Jun-26-15 9:35 AM EST –

You can get all the tips you want from reading about single blade solo paddle technique and viewing videos - some of which are excellent. Understanding the fundaments of canoe control concepts will help. But putting what you read into efficient use takes guided practice. Guidance from another paddler who has good technique and knows how to teach will minimize frustration and dramatically shorten the learning curve.

The J-stroke alone is good and essential to know, but is not the whole answer. Done properly, the J is a pleasant stroke, smooth and efficient without any hesitation pause to "rudder". Seek to make a continuous smooth stroke from catch to catch without hesitating at any point. It will propel your canoe quickly through the water with precise direction control. But efficient and enjoyable paddling is about using combinations of many different kinds of forward and control strokes linked together as needed to do the job. Like riding a bike, an accomplished paddler will do what is necessary at the moment without much conscious thought of which control motion it takes for the craft to perform exactly as you ask of it in any condition. You just do it.

If you are after speed only, racers almost exclusively use "hit and switch". Not very elegant, drips water into the canoe, and doesn't give you much of a sense of accomplishment or control (although winning helps). I race canoes. Most years I race between 200-400 miles, In some years (with the Yukon race) I will race well over 1000 miles, all of it plus team training done with hit and switch as the primary forward stroke. Necessary for competitive top speed, but I hate that stroke for other than racing. A good fast J-combination is not really much slower and is far more pleasant, but likely won't win a competitive race. I do not paddle recreationally with hit and switch. I feel the same about using a double blade "dip and drip" in a canoe. Dip and drip - not offering the best control or most pleasant experience.

Bottom line, if you can find a friend or take a lesson from someone who has good single blade technique, you will learn fast, enjoy your accomplishment, and go far.

That was Bill Mason
Us average lilly dippers can’t match the best paddlers !

Jack L

forward stroke

– Last Updated: Jun-26-15 9:09 AM EST –

Learning the J stroke properly is important, but mastering a nearly perfect forward stroke is more important. A perfect forward stroke requires minimal correction and everything else becomes more efficient and easier. Very few folks master either one without some instruction, or at least some mentoring.

There are various sources of instruction though most seem geared toward white water or racing. Exceptions are the various Canoe Symposiums hosted by the freestyle community.

The Adirondack Canoe Symposium is in less than 2 weeks and registration has been extended (without late charges)until the day of the symposium.

Information and registration materials, for all of the Symposiums is available at

Incidentally, these events are great places to meet other paddlers and form lifelong friendships.

I’m average
I’m also very skinny and not nearly as strong as most guys I know. I know a couple of people who can paddle at a good clip while always putting that pause at the end of their J-stroke, but I’m slow if I do it that way. All I had to do to develop speed that’s comparable to the double-blade paddlers and sit-and-switchers that I paddle with was to learn to eliminate that pause at the end of the J. Learning to do the J-stroke correctly (with no pause that slows the cadence) needn’t be beyond the aspirations of average paddlers.

yeah a little mentoring is good

– Last Updated: Jun-26-15 11:37 AM EST –

find some other folks that are already paddling canoes- maybe a club or meet up group in your area.
Understand that if you're paddling a tandem boat solo that its different than if you were paddling a boat designed for one. A bit harder to reach the waterline, more effort to swing the front of the boat around.
My j stroke changed on its own over time. It became a forward stroke with correction coming at the very end as the paddle was lifted out of the water. There are a lot of terms out there- modified j, canadien j, pitch stroke, indian stroke- I'm not the one to break them down for you because I wasn't taught these variations- it just evolved for me with time in the boat and watching and talking to folks. I also found that where you start the stroke in relationship to the hull has a huge effect on where the boat goes. I do marvel at some of the freestyle moves and the technique involved. They've taken "messing around" in boats to a whole other level.

My own paddling started out as mostly tandem "tripping" then took a curve into solo ww canoes, then ww c1s, and finally as my knees gave out I'm now a kayaker. I like the Mason Books and films. My own strokes ended up being shorter, cab forward to match the ww boats I was paddling. Its all good stuff just modified to fit the boats and environments that we paddle in. We all had to start somewhere. The great thing about paddling is that you get to set your own goals but getting a little help at key moments was a factor in my successes and perhaps for others as well. Usually that feedback came from buddies who were just a step ahead of me. Struggling a bit is sometimes part of the process as well. Go out and have fun and experiment.


I stumbled onto the “cab forward” stroke
while paddling ww c-1, and my correction strokes became delightfully infrequent.

strokes are strokes no matter what the
size of your boat…just have to ease into the “pull” and give it a little more time than a solo boat.

Learn the strokes and you should be all set…

So there you are in your solo canoe…
Air bag up front, air bag in back with spiderweb lacing. Foot pegs and thigh straps. Then you add a cover. What’s it look like?

Well, my butt is not in the bilge water

– Last Updated: Jun-27-15 12:05 AM EST –

What would I call it? As long as I'm in a high-sided boat and positioned up high on my knees, I'll still call it a "canoe". It is, after all, the position of the paddler that lends itself so well to using a single-blade, and not simply the name that's applied to the boat. But when playing your game, with boats I actually have, that's how it would turn out. Do the same with a pack canoe that has traditional pack-canoe seating arrangements (on the floor - rather awkward to make good use of a single-blade in that case), and I could give you the boat name you are looking for.

This is rather far off-topic, since the choice between canoe and kayak includes differences that your comparison glosses over, but you are the one who made the leap, and you did direct your question at me, so there it is.