Tips to get a canoe to track better?

I recently got a used Easy Rider Raven 17. It’s a Royalex canoe from maybe the 1980’s. The reviews I’ve found online say this boat is supposed to track well, but that was not my experience.

The first time I paddled it was with my family in low-wind conditions in still water. We had about 480 pounds in the boat including 160 pounds of kids in the middle. Other canoes I’ve paddled want to turn opposite the side I’m paddling on, which I correct with an occasional J-stroke. This boat did not turn that way predictably. Sometimes it would turn that way, but sometimes it would turn to the same side I was paddling on, causing me to have to make wide sweeping C-strokes to correct. It’s like it wanted to go sideways, but couldn’t decide which way to go. Very frustrating!

Does anyone have any advice for how to improve the tracking?

I’m considering making a template of the stern out of cardboard, and using the template to make a shallow skeg out of a 1x4 and gluing it on. Anyone ever try that? Any lessons learned? I suspect even if it improves the tracking it will just rip off the first time I pull it up on the beach.

One more thing: the paddles felt too long. Could that have caused this behavior somehow?

Thanks in advance for any advice / wisdom!

This may be an outlier question, but how stiff is the hull with those bodies in it? My husband and I used to paddle an ancient Royalex canoe at his uncle’s place. The hull flexed some and it did not always respond to rational inputs. The boat was past its prime in a big way.

Did you check the trim in the loaded boat? If a boat is trimmed bow heavy it will often behave unpredictably and become hard to steer. Occasionally wind conditions and boat trim are such that the boat wants to steer toward the stern paddler’s side. In a tandem, the easiest thing to do is just have both bow and stern paddle on that same side.

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Thanks for the replies Celia and pblanc. I did not notice any flex in the boat. My dad bought a new rotomolded plastic canoe in the early 2000’s where the bottom of the hull would collapse when I shifted my weight. Brand new boat! It definitely didn’t behave like that. But that’s not to say this boat is not past its prime.

I did not think to check the trim. I think one kid was behind the thwart, and one was ahead, and they both weigh about the same. My wife was in the bow seat and she is 30 pounds lighter than me. Seems like we should have been OK on trim? Next time we’ll try with both kids behind the thwart.

Hoping to take the canoe out today with a mind for your suggestions. Weather looks great!

Next would be wind or current. If you are not actively paddling both of those can make surprising inputs. “Tracking” is a dynamic thing. It happens when the boat is moving through the water without other forces working on the hull.

Are the other folks paddling in the canoe?Perhaps the bow paddler is paddling with the contours of the gunnels rather than parallel to the midline, or making a turning c sweep, or extending the paddle entry to the very tip of the boat. Smaller paddlers sometimes sit on the side of the boat to help with reaching over the gunnel. All of those things could make the boat harder to paddle straight. Is the weight centered along the midline, or are folks and gear shifting about? You might even try shifting your own weight to try to correct veer…and yes there are some canoes that are just “pigs” (low glide, lots of veer) to paddle, especially when weighted down. Add some wind, waves, or current and it can be frustrating.

“pitching” or “pitch strokes” can be more efficient than a full j stroke in canoe that is hard to track. Changing where the paddle enters the water, adding a slight diagonal draw or finishing with a slight pry are all strategies I’ve used to help with unruly boats and unruly bow paddlers.

Great replies here! I think you might have hit on it, tdaniel. Kids were not paddling, but my wife was paddling in the bow seat on the opposite side as me. It’s very possible she was paddling with the contours of the gunwales, and that was pushing the bow toward the side I was paddling on. She is very strong but has little experience in a canoe. She used to be a competitive rower, and has firm opinions about what a catch should feel like. In retrospect I now recall the kids’ heads whiplashing a bit when she’d catch.

Mostly likely a combination of things. I’m still hoping to get on the water this afternoon and will report back.

The bow typically has little effect on the direction the boat is going in. They are closer to the pivot point than the stern. A little error in the stern is magnified much more than the bow.
However it is a rule that everyones paddles should remain parallel to the keel line. Hence she starts the catch farther away and ends the stroke at her hip ( no further back ) next to the gunwale.
You should start your catch near the gunwale and end by your hip further out. Carrying the stroke too far back inevitably results in yaw.

How very unusual to have to make corrections if the canoe is yawing toward the stern paddling side in calm water. I agree that it may be a combination of things mentioned above. I’d focus on trim first, but you seem to indicate that it is ok. You should not have to make sweeps on the stern paddle side to track straight unless there is a strong wind. The bow paddler can have an effect on straight travel, but not normally if she is paddling parallel to midline. She would have to make a significant and noticeable effort to overpower normal correction strokes made in the stern to make the canoe turn toward stern onside. As a bow paddler myself, I often make subtle helper corrections with draws or bow rudders when the stern has difficulty holding track, say in the wind or when approaching a turn or bend. When in the stern or solo, I too prefer to use variable pitch strokes as a faster power application of continuous correction stokes rather than the J. Try to avoid modifying or ruining the canoe with external attachments.

If your wife is strong maybe she is overpowering you from the bow. You may have to ask her to paddle more gently to make sure you two are matched in power. Also remember that you should both have “stacked hands” when you paddle…meaning that your upper hand should be directly over your lower hand. If your paddles are too long it can be more difficult to keep your hands stacked so you may be doing sweep strokes which turn the boat. Another thing your wife can practice from the bow (as mentioned) is a bow rudder…just have her stick her paddle in front of her on the side you want to turn towards with the blade at about a 20 degree angle from centerline of boat and hold the paddle firmly without paddling and the bow should just turn towards the paddle.

Don’t add a skeg, just practice basic strokes.

I have had this problem. She would grab an
oversized paddle then end up paddling sweeps since she couldn’t get the " stacked hands." position.

If your paddle is too long, you may be dragging it behind your hip and overcorrecting with a J or rudder. You don’t necessarily need to do the J on every stroke, use it only when needed to maintain track. Don’t try to use it on every stroke. Paddle length: There are a multitude of ways people will tell you to measure a paddle on dry land. Some work, some don’t. On the water, with stacked hands, your top or grip hand should normally look like it will smack you in your nose at the beginning of your stroke. if it is at the top of your head level, it is definitely too long. Sometimes stern paddlers especially when in squirrely currents prefer a longer paddle to give them better control with draws and pries as the current swishes the boat around.

There isn’t such a thing as a bow paddler overpowering a stern if the bow paddler is using correct technique. That is why you see mixed marathon teams with the guy in the bow. The bow has a job; the engine. The stern paddler however can be strong and lacking in technique and then things WILL go awry… The stern job is overall heading and steering.

This myth of bow overpowering stern persists. If you believe it contact a canoe instructor. Five minutes of coaching will prove otherwise.

Update: took the canoe out this morning. Much better experience. Strava says 3.8 mph (3.95 miles in 1 hour 4 minutes. There were at least 4 minutes of messing about on the beach, so 4mph is probably closer to true speed. I was able to keep a pretty straight course:


Regarding the problems we had on our first outing: it was probably a combination of things, and we just need more practice time. Adding a skeg is off the table (thanks to those of you who talked me down from that course of action). Instead we’ll work on our technique in different conditions.

Since you all have been so helpful and willing to offer advice, I have a few more questions:

  • The bottom of the boat did buckle a little when I bounced up and down in my seat. Maybe 1" total. It always bounced back. Is that a problem? A sign that the boat has seen better days?

  • We are considering paddling this boat in a 70 mile race this summer. Our goal is not to be competitive, but just to finish and have fun. We need a lot of practice time before that. Also new paddles. This race is in deep water (not a river), so paddle durability is not a primary concern. Anyone have paddle recommendations and/or know a good shop in the Seattle area?

What a helpful community you all have here. I look forward to gaining enough experience to contribute some day.

Most helpful for your race preparation will be to get plenty of paddle time on the water several times a week during the weeks before the race. Go out in calm and windy conditions. Focus on efficiency and technique rather than speed. Paddle along with experienced others when you can. Figure out and practice how you will manage hydration and food energy intake to keep energy reserves up for many hours at a time. Get good paddles to use. Other than that I can’t help much from here in northern NY State.

The “bounce” in a royalex boat is pretty normal & ~1 inch is pretty good for a 17’ canoe.

Paddles - if you are planning on 70 miles on flat water in a day you will want to get a light as you can afford. You will be lifting them 40 - 60 times a minute for 18 hours or more. ZRE (Zaveral) paddles are used my many racers and also recreational paddlers like myself. The 12 deg bent shaft is the norm but they will make anything from 0 deg to 15 deg (for an additional cost). Mine is a pretty standard ZRE Rec paddle - 8.5" X 51.5" with a 12 deg bend.

Royalex canoes are much “floppier” than composite boats so some visible flex of the hull bottom is not necessarily an indication of a problem. This will vary with the length of the boat, the contour of the hull bottom, and the thickness of the Royalex sheet that the maker speced for the hull. A hull with a more rounded bottom will have more inherent rigidity, like a cylinder has. A hull with a flatter bottom will tend to flex more.

The specs that I found for that model list a weight of 72 lbs. That would be a fair bit for a composite boat, but for a 17’ Royalex canoe with a center depth of 14.5", 70 lbs is really not all that much.

As for racing tips, any racer will tell you that the key is paddle cadence. In other words, keep your strokes short and do more of them. The shorter your paddle stroke, the more you will be able to keep the paddle face perpendicular to the surface of the water for maximum efficiency. The farther back you carry your stroke, the more energy will be wasted by trying to lift water with the paddle, and the more yaw your stroke will tend to introduce. For most paddlers, this means taking the paddle out of the water considerably sooner than you might do naturally.

You and your tandem partner might want to try the so-called Minnesota switch or “sit and switch” technique. This is the most efficient way to propel a tandem canoe. The canoe is steered basically by both partners switching paddling sides simultaneously before the canoe has yawed significantly to the on-side. In tandem paddling, the on-side and off-side are defined from the perspective of the bow paddler, so if that person is paddling on the left side of the boat, the port side is the on-side and the starboard the off-side. The boat will ordinarily want to steer toward the on-side for reasons that have already been mentioned.

Any corrective strokes used to steer the boat will detract from maximum efficiency whether that be a J-stroke, Canadian stroke, pitch stroke, or whatever because anytime you are applying the correction, you are not providing maximal power for forward propulsion. So with the sit and switch technique, both paddlers do nothing but forward power strokes, unless some sudden unanticipated maneuver must be undertaken to avoid hitting something, or to make a tight turn. The stern paddler is far and away in the best position to judge the heading of the boat, looking down its entire length, so the stern paddler generally calls the switches and each paddler might do something like 5-10 strokes on each side (and you don’t necessarily do the same number on each side) before switching, depending on boat design, wind conditions, etc.

Traditionally, the stern paddler calls “hut” to indicate a switch and both paddlers switch sides simultaneously upon the recovery phase before the next full stroke. And yes, bent shaft paddles will be more efficient, especially for seated paddlers.

For more on race technique, find some youtube videos of racers in action. Check out the various links to tips on Kevin Olson’s website at
Kevin is a very accomplished Central NY racer and has lots of information on the web page.

As pblanc says above, expect a “hut” at 5-10 strokes per side as common. I prefer more like 12-16 strokes if conditions and the specific boat and padders’ skill can do it. The way I see it, each hut robs as much as 1/2 to a full stroke, and the first stroke after a hut is not always the most coordinated at full power as the rest in the set. So if you hut every 10 or fewer strokes, that’s as much as a 10% loss of power.
Hut for steerage as needed, not for paddler comfort. When paddling very long marathon races (Yukon) in a very stable straight tracking voyageur canoe with a very good stern paddler, we would stay on each side for as much as two minutes, (that’s around 120+ strokes, or more if the stern forgets to call it) without the need to hut. Note that the stern paddler need not stay on the same hutted side as the bow (or mid-ship) paddler 100% of the time if a quick correction needs to be made on their opposite side.

I use a (long) double blade paddle on my canoe.