What do you want from your bow paddler?

So after roughly 100 miles of solo paddling over the last couple months, I jumped in the bow of a friend’s canoe and realized that I wasn’t very good at bow. I’ve always been a stern or a solo. One thing we found out right away is that I like to follow the bubble trail deep into the curves and he didn’t care for that as much.

So, aside from communication and the basic strokes, what do you want from your bow paddler? What are your pet peeves?

1 Like

The bow paddler shall portage the entire outfit, and address me with reverence.


Solid ability to read water and a big hanging draw to firmly set the turn

1 Like

Thank you, your eminence.

1 Like

I can draw! I can also bow-steer! (Just waaay into the corner where the fun lives)

Primary requisites are someone who strives to avoid sudden, unannounced weight shifts, knows how to J-lean and doesn’t grab the gunwales when the canoe starts to heel, keeps their paddle blade in the water and avoids “air bracing” when things get tricky, and can execute a passable forward stroke.

If the bow paddler can do those things I can certainly control a tandem canoe on flat water and usually in moderate whitewater.

Bonus points if the bow paddler can execute a good forward stroke and maintain an even stroke cadence, execute a decent Duffek and cross-Duffek stroke, has a workable low brace, can read water and looks out for upcoming obstacles and knows how to avoid them.

Gold star if the bow paddler can control the ferry angle on a back ferry in strong current.

1 Like

They need to be a good companion first. They need to provide some foreword movement. They need to execute a few basic strokes like a sweep, draw, pry and cross draw. Some bracing. The hardest thing is get them to buy into having one captain on the boat.

I have taught plenty of people to paddle in a week on a river trip. Young people take instruction better than older people. I have had a 15 year old girl do a very credible job on a technical river like the Trinity in CA because she was a good listener and understood timing.

I will never forget the first time I had a really skilled bow paddler in my boat. Jerry Nyre of Colorado. He could easily control the boat from the bow seat. I have paddled in the bow much less than the stern seat, but learned a lot from Jerry.

A Dufek is a kayak stroke. It is hard on should joints. No one uses it except for advanced paddling and competition.


Calmness. Help with steering (bow draw, bow rudder). Gentle but continuous forward strokes (vs excessive effort followed by long rest periods). Enthusiasm for being outdoors. Bonus points: Ability to control the boat alone for short periods. Consideration of stern paddler when crashing through fallen trees so you don’t kill or maim them when you release a flexible branch. Knowledge of nature and keen observation skills.

My understanding is that stern paddler is in charge. That may be the part you need to practice. I have one friend that calls the bow paddler “bow meat” to help clarify their role.


As a bow paddler with something on the order of 8-10,000 miles on the water (Adirondack racing, Yukon racing, and training for all), I can say that communication with the rest of the crew (C2, C4, voyageur) is key. It doesn’t have to be verbal, and certainly can’t always be verbal on a windy day separated by 30 feet in a voyageur canoe. When I first started with a long term stern paddler (and crew) I felt I had to prove myself as being competent and that I knew what I was doing. Part of my job from way in the front of the canoe, having the best visibility, is to develop the feel of when to initiate a large turn with draws and eventually a strong post, and when to gently guide the canoe in a slightly improved direction with a power moving draw or a bow rudder, to assist the stern’s corrective steering function. When the stern paddler sees that i am initiating a major turn, he or she knows that they have to match my action right away. maybe it is an obviously seen major buoy or river turn, or maybe I am only adjusting to the side to avoid a rock or a log I see in our path up ahead. Am I actually turning, or am I side slipping the bow in an avoidance maneuver, and the stern has to match the action (or part of the canoe may hit the obstacle). Ideally my stern paddler (and any other crew on board) recognizes my immediate goal by observing my actions.

Other than that, I am the navigator, quite literally having preplanned the optimum route from maps on unfamiliar perhaps very complicated rivers where I might have a GPS (or even two of them) mounted where I can see the display in front of me. On familiar routes I use a GPS as a speed monitor, as I determine the team’s overall effort, and if more or less is called for during a particular race. If all agree, I might increase my cadence (normally around 60 spm), or call for short bursts of sprints ( up to 80 spm). On long haul marathons, we might do sprints anyway, just for variety. Normally I try to keep a very consistent smooth powerful cadence at all times and to perform a quick and efficient clean hit and switch without losing a stroke in the process (losing the time of a half stroke is normal for the crew to resynchronize and to get back up to full power strokes)

The other thing I do, especially when on complex surface water and currents, is to carefully read what the water surface is doing. On rivers like the Yukon, a lateral displacement of only a canoe length might often add as much as 2mph to our speed. Then there are the current divides. As a fast but laminar flow approaches an island or gravel shoal, It will split into two directions. On the Yukon, this may happen as much as a half mile upstream from an island. One flow direction will get us downriver on the shortest course in fastest time, the other may take us on an extra 30 minute excursion. On the wide fast easy flow of the lower Yukon, you have to watch for helicoidal flow, wherein coming into a long sweeping bend, the surface current separates and rushes toward the outside bank of the turn, then returns along the bottom in a spiral flow down river. Get caught in the wrong side of the split current and you may go for a ride that adds miles and many minutes to your otherwise efficiently planned route. I look for the telltale ripples indicating where the current splits and attempt to stay on the short flow side of it, as I alert my stern paddler where it is.


The Duffek is a kayak stroke only? If Tom Foster heard that he would be laughing his butt off.

Yes, Milo Duffek was the originator of the stroke and paddled kayak. But Duffek (on-side and cross) have been used by open boaters for decades. I suspect that what I and many others call the Duffek and cross-Duffek strokes are what you call static bow draws and cross draws (or “hanging” draws and cross-draws), and sometimes the terminology is used interchangeably. In my teaching the Duffek strokes utilize a more vertical paddle shaft angle than the old fashioned static bow draws and cross draws which were sometimes taught with a very acute shaft angle, more akin to a bow rudder. And the term “Duffek” has been applied to these more upright canoe strokes for decades.

In the American Canoe Association “Canoeing and Kayaking Instruction Manual” edited by Laurie Guillion copyright 1987, the Duffek and cross-Duffek are on the list of strokes for both solo canoe and bow tandem canoe (pp. 37-38). Duffeks and cross Duffeks have been taught in every open boat clinic and course that I have participated in as a student and have been taught to me by people like Tom Foster, Ron Lugbill, Gordon Black, and Nolan Whitesell. The Duffek and cross-Duffek are part of the curriculum for the ACA course Level 3: River Canoeing:

and Level 4: Whitewater Canoeing:

And for those who might be unfamiliar with it, here are a few videos demonstrating that stroke that “no one uses”:


Semantics pblanc. Thanks for the update.
Draw and cross draw is the common terminology among rec paddlers that do not race or compete.
The other thing you want your bow paddler to do is have vision and spot hazards before you do.

1 Like

Excuse me, maybe you mean Olympic type straight line race competition. As a long time successful bow paddler, I often use draws, cross draws. and duffek strokes in competition. How else to maneuver a long boat around races that include narrow very twisting winding streams and rivers, such as on the Adirondack 90 miler? Making quick decisions guiding the boat into faster water channels on the Yukon are critical to racing in that environment. Making both subtle and major corrections from the bow often requires the paddler to make such maneuvering strokes before the stern paddler even knows of the necessity to do so.

1 Like

And of course, the stern paddler has to know the subtle yet important “ego stroke…”


And of course cute is more important than skilled.


For flatwater I want the bow paddler to be the motor. Lilly dippers need not apply. A good cadence, with short deep strokes. Endurance important. Someone who prefers paddling on their right so I can paddle more on my left.

For ww tripping someone that can listen and execute strokes. “Give me two draws, three forward stokes, drift, one back stroke”.

A really nuanced ww bow paddler spots rocks and then instinctively draws or prys to miss them. Once the bow clears the obstruction they understand the boat is a pivot so they then do the opposite stroke (draw or pry) to help the stern swing clear of the obstruction. They can set and adjust the ferry angle on downstream ferries. They are strong at backpaddling.

For big water the bow paddler times their strokes to pull through features, can plant a solid brace in/on features and understands “high siding”. Physicality helps- bailing, swimming, portaging often required but a large/heavy bow paddler makes the boat harder to pivot/spin and makes for a wetter ride.

In a raft someone who understands which side of the raft they are sitting on, left or right. Someone that can set the pace according to my voice intensity, “pick it up, pick it up, pick it up, forward on the left, back on the right, now all ahead, all ahead NOW!” Someone that picks themself up off the floor of the raft and is ready to resume paddling.


Youkon paddler pretty much covered it in detail. He’s one of the more experienced long distance canoers on here.

I raced for a few years, probably 60% bow as the less experienced paddler (older guy in the stern) and 40% in the stern as the more experienced paddler (with a less experienced bow paddler of any age - 16-70). Here’s my list as a perspective from both seats. This assumed a tandem canoe. 3+ seats defer to yukon’s advice, but its all kinda the same.

In the bow

  1. You are the motor. Put the power down.
  2. You set the cadence (mostly). This is typically because you have the best view and can often tell when is a good time to put in a short sprint when in a pack. Know when to relax. Know when to go. When you hit the shallows you need to know when to Pop it.
  3. You’re the lookout. If something is immediately in front of the boat the stern paddler cannot see it. (logs, debris, rocks, sand bars, etc)
  4. Steering assistance, especially when in a pack. When you’re in a pack it is sooooo nice to have a bowman who knows when to put in 1 strong draw or push to keep the boat parallel with the pack. Steering from the rear alone while in a pack is much harder if you do not have help from the bow. The main 4 things a bowman needs to know is a strong draw, push, static post, and cross bow.
  5. Balance synergy with your sternman. In 3x27 racing boats p[articularly, you need to lean to turn. Synergy with your partner means you’re leaning in sync, the right amount, and not freaking out that one of you is going too far and over correcting. A good team can keep the gunwale on the waterline on a buoy turn.
  6. Related to balance, #6 is a good brace. When stuff gets hairy or you lean a liiiiitle too much around a turn, having a partner with a solid and fast brace will keep you upright and is an asset instead of liability (read that as anyone who cannot brace well is a liability in less than ideal conditions)
  7. Able to feel the cadence or commands of the stern paddler without instruction. After you paddle a long time with a partner, you learn to read their intentions. Go fast, slow down, wait, spring, pop, ride the wave, cut to the inside, etc. A good bowman can feel when the sternman picks up the pace or makes a sudden correction. A good bowman is aware of the feel of the boat, line, cadence, etc and makes the necessary adjustments without a verbal command from the sternman.
  8. A equal level of desire to get somewhere. Want to make your partner hate you? (bow or stern) Lilly dip when they want to go fast or vise versa. An equal speed desire makes for a harmonious team

That’s my list :slight_smile:

1 Like

You didn’t give enough details for a specialized answer. So this is generic.

In a regular C-2 the bow paddler is the engine and the count( ten strokes per side, hip is to get ready, ho is to switch.

After that it depends on the details, how technical is the river, are you going fast or slow, how long is the boat, and so on.

18 ft. boats turn differently than 16 ft. boats. OC-6’s are a whole other world.

A part of the bow paddler’s work lies in the view, don’t run into things. Another is dependent on the current, you have to pull the now away from the inner corner of a turn, the slack current will pull you into that corner.

There is a lot more, but i have to wonder about following the bubbles first. Bubbles float along the current, they are never where they started, so they are misleading to start with. With only 100 miles on the water, I think you need to ;earn currents and tell tales most.

Of course I am biased, but in those times when drafting or wake riding will help you along, the bow paddler gauges and adjusts his power input and makes directional corrections that the stern cannot possibly accomplish. Inches of location position when in the wake matter and make all the difference in holding position or dropping back and losing the energy saving ease advantage. No matter if in the port or starboard wake or the direct stern wake of a leading boat, power force adjustment strokes and slight draws or instantaneous briefest touches of onside or offside bow rudders are often necessary to keep within the sweet spot behind a leading boat resulting in reduced energy output to maintain speed and position with a lead boat. Depending on a well controlled (not fishtailing) lead boat’s wake characteristics, a 2 inch stern to bow separation is not uncommon (you never want to make actual contact). Saving energy by drafting for a time can make all the difference in an eventual race passing sprint to pull away from a worn out or mentally discouraged opponent.

On the size of streams I’m paddling, the bubbles are the telltales. They show the flow. They avoid the eddys and upwellings. This is flatwater with intermittent ww1-2.

Non-competition setting. Just recreational canoeing. Tight enough turns that if you’re in their wake you could T-bone them.