tracking for novices

My girlfriend and I (both novice kayakers) just bought a used canoe (Old Town camper) - great price…we couldn’t resist. We’ve been out a few times, but have had a bear of a time getting it to track properly. Of the two of us I’m much stronger, and it seems that the boat has only been responding to my strokes. Also, I’ve been sitting in back. I’m thinking the stronger paddler would be better suited in front…is that correct? Are there any general comments for ways to make a canoe track well with two paddlers of very different strengths?


Some advice
If you look at the side of webpage there is a link called guidelines, look at “Paddling a Tandem Canoe”. The Stern Paddler which is usually the heavier person, is going to be in charge of steering, in a canoe this means doing an occaisional rudder stroke, you should learn how to paddle by yourself, paddling on oneside only making the boat go straight, with small rudder strokes, once you can do it with just you in the boat you can do it with two people in the boat. Then you can work on Teamwork and Cadence.

My wife and I are tandem canoe
paddlers and after many years and even some tears on her part we now paddle perfectly in sync.

We were told years ago that the stronger paddler is supposed to be in the bow, but that just didn’t work for us, and then we found out that there were a few of the top notch tandem mixed racing teams that had the guy in the back, so we went back and each year get better and better at it.

  • Naturally I am like yourself, a much stronger paddler than she is and here is how it works for us.
  • I am in back.
  • Assuming that there is no current or wind, we will start to turn on about the third or fourth stroke, so I call a “hut” (switch) just a I sense the boat is going to start its turn.
  • It is important that you stay in sync. and it is your responsibility since you are in the rear and can see her stroke to keep yourself in synch with her.
  • For gentle turns all I have to do is stay on one side for a little longer and naturally the boat will turn until I call a hut, and then we can straighten it out.
  • For hard turns she has learned to do a draw, or a post. For instance if we want to turn hard left, I will hut to get her on that side and then she will do a draw stroke which naturally will turn us to the left. If we want to turn even sharper she plants the paddle firmly and just holds it like a rudder. Then if she still needs help I will do sweeps on the opposite side.

    Normally I am still doing straight on power paddling stokes.

    On windy days or on rivers with currents, you might not do a hut for eight to ten strokes, and there are times with strong quartering winds when you might both have to paddle on the same side or even do sweeps with both of you on the same side.

    All of this is not accomplished over night and might take a year or more to get really good at, but I highly recommend that you stay with it.

    From experience: not only will you fine tune your love for paddling, you will fine tune your love for each other. (hopefully no C-2 same gender paddlers will read that)

    Good luck and



Old Town Camper
is not a particularly hard tracking boat.

You most likely will need to learn some correction strokes such as the J the pry and the draw.

Bill Masons “Path of the Paddle Quiet Water” video is a good one for learning that stuff if you don’t have someone who can show you.

The hit and switch technique that Jack is talking about has the advantage of ballancing the stress on your shoulders. If you still have trouble going straight you can add in the corrections.

IMO tandem paddling is an advanced art due to the communcation required. Be forgiving and encouraging of each other and you might be as lucky as Jack.

“not a particularly hard tracking boat”
… meaning it is somewhat hard to keep on track, or, it is not hard to get it off track. Confused?

what he said!
on meanders and winding shallow water JackL and His Bride whomp me all the time!

The advantage of the stronger paddler in the bow is predicated on teh stern paddler having the stregnth to keep the boat straight and in control. If that is not possible then put the stronger paddler in the stern!

JackL’s advice is terrific
In addition, you may want to go out with a couple that already know how to paddle and are willing to give you pointers.

I used to teach canoe-ing to kids, and had them able to handle the canoes with only the forward stroke, “J” Stroke, the sweep, the draw, and the rudder. There are many more strokes, but if you can learn those five (actually four because the J stroke is just a combination of the forward stroke and the rudder) you can control a canoe on still or slow moving water.

Get the basics down pat, and then as you’re comfortable move on to more advanced techniques.

All of the books and videos mentioned above are good.

  • Big D

"not a particularly hard tracking boat"
Yes to the 1st part of your ?. His answer is right after making that statement…having to learn correction strokes.

A hard tracking boat
Boats designed to hold a straight line will lend themselves better to the hit and switch style of paddling. These are typicaly Marathon racing or fast cruising canoes best suited for open strtches of flatwater.

The Camper is a more general use sort of canoe that will tend to more easily turn away from the (stronger)paddler. That’s where the correction strokes come in handy.

The upside is that it will be relatively manuverable and stable.

On the “J” stroke…
I didn’t mention it and I should have.

It is a great stroke for you as the stern paddler to know, (if you don’t already know it.

I’ll bet for twenty years that is what I would use to keep us in the right direction.

The only problem was when we finally decided to add racing to our canoeing enjoyment, we both had to basically start all over again and use the proper sit and switch method.

The “J” stroke is wonderful and I use it all the time when she is playing shutterbug in the bow, but no matter how suttle you make it, it is going to slow you down a bit, and she will never learn the proper correction strokes while you do the power paddling.

With all that said, as she is learning it won’t hurt for you to sneak a few J’s to keep the boat where you want it.



seating position
A stronger, heavier paddler is better up front if you have the boat trimmed. On the other hand if you have a heavy paddler up front and a lighter female paddler in the stern and you don’t trim the boat, the boat will probably sit bow heavy. If this is the case, the boat will be hard to control. If it starts to go to the right, it will want to go to the right and vice versa. If you don’t bother to trim the boat then it is better to have the heavier paddler in the back. The boat will be stern heavy and slower, but it will be easy to control.

Learning to hold a straight course
If you want to learn traditional tandem paddling (as opposed to sit and switch), take the canoe and your girlfriend out on calm flatwater. You both should learn how to paddle stern. Lets say you put her in the bow and you in the stern first. For the first 20 to 30 minutes, you will be the only one paddling. Paddle on your strong side - if you are right handed that will be paddling on the left side of the canoe. Experiment with J strokes, forward strokes, and sweeps to see how the canoe responds. Then pick a landmark a quarter to half mile away and try to hold as straight a course as possible heading toward the landmark using a combination of these strokes. Do this several times. When you can hold a decent straight line course with just you paddling, have the girlfriend start paddling on the opposite side of the canoe at about half throttle. After you get used to the added bow force have her paddle at her normal strength and see if you can still hold a straight line course. After that its practice, practice, practice. Repeat the above on the opposite side to learn to hold a straight course on your weak side. Be sure your girlfriend takes her turn in the stern also.