Who controls the back ferry angle?

When tandem back ferrying in a canoe, I was under the impression that the bow person is responsible for setting and maintaining the ferry angle and the stern person is more of the engine. This role reversal makes sense to me because, just like when paddling forward, the “leading” paddler is the engine and the “following” paddler maintains the course.

Now I see the opposite recommendation in “Canoeing: A Trailside Guide” by Gordon Grant, p. 149:


What do you recommend?

Thats the way it works best for me
but the stern can’t just sit there. Both have a job to do. Stern can be more engine with a stern diagonal draw to set the angle and then power straight. And adjust.

The bow moves the bow end…with reverse sweeps and Js.

The most pertinent writing I think is that back ferrying works poorly with too much weight in the rear… We have found that with the stern paddler coming forward as much as possible on kneels to unpin the stern things work much better.

I get a kick out of the sexist attitude toward the bow paddler…“her”…

Remembering our first serious backferrying lesson on the Snake River in the Yukon… There was a hill with Dall Sheep all in a line watching us. At the end of the lesson, before we left, the sheep knew the show was over. The sheep left on their six inch wide trail.

Which way?
you wrote: “Thats the way it works best for me”

I wasn’t quite sure from your post, but I understand you mean that “bow steers” works better for you than the Gordon Grant way?

downstream paddler controls angle

– Last Updated: Jul-11-14 11:43 AM EST –

So for a back ferry the bow paddler can most easily control the angle and for an upstream ferry the stern paddler can most easily control the angle.

The most common scenario during a ferry in strong current is for the upstream end of the boat to get blown downstream. If the upstream paddler attempts to draw their end of the boat back in an upstream direction, they are working against the current to do so. The downstream paddler on the other hand, has the current working with them as they draw their end of the boat in a downstream direction.

Is it possible to do it the other way around? I suppose so, but it is much more difficult.

I do not see that Gordon Grant is suggesting the opposite. He suggests that the stern (upstream) paddler initiates the angle, or executes a draw when more angle is desired, but in those cases a downstream movement of the stern is necessary. He does in fact suggest asking the downstream paddler to execute a cross draw when the boat is getting too much angle and going sideways.

Reasoning behind stern steering

– Last Updated: Jul-11-14 11:40 AM EST –

I think the reasoning for the recommendation, and I'm sure there is room for differing approaches and opinions here, is that the stern paddler is in a good position to see the angle of the boat relative to the current as well as the obstruction to be dodged. The bow paddler, whether going forward or reverse, can't see the angle of the boat as easily because they have very little of the boat in their view.

Doesn't mean that the bow paddler couldn't take the role of setting the ferry angle, only that they have a little less immediate sense of what it should be and perhaps the timing of when it should be. A good, experienced, bow paddler could easily overcome that slight disadvantage, but unless the stern paddler is blowing it big time, why?

Where bow steering is really essential in a tandem is when coming up on a close rock that might be lurking in haystacks or escaped the notice of the stern paddler for whatever reason. The stern paddler can see the backside of the bow paddler but not much else close to the bow. He/she in the stern hasn't a clue that trouble's a'brewin. The bow paddler sure does though.
In that case its the stern paddler's job to see and react WITH the bow paddler's corrections. Sooner is better than later for all involved.

Tandem paddling in swift water and rocks is tricky business IMHO. It takes an instinctive, almost telepathic, kind of teamwork that only comes with practice, experience, and, most likely, a few swims.

am I misreading GG?
pblanc sez:

I do not see that Gordon Grant is suggesting the opposite.

Well, it says in the bullet point section on p. 149:

1 Stern paddler, initiate the angle. Draw your stern toward the river right shore.

2 The bow paddler is the motor (again). Have your bow partner paddle backward strongly. You should too, when you can, but be sure that you are keeping your stern set at an angle toward the right shore.

3 If you need to increase your angle, draw more. If you are getting too much angle and starting to go sideways, ask your partner in the bow to do a cross draw.

To me that means bow paddler is the motor (again), stern paddler initiates and maintains angle, stern supports bow with motoring when possible, bow supports stern with steering when necessary. In other words, primary role of bow is motoring, primary role of stern is steering.

Back ferry
When a tandem team back ferrys, the bow paddler is in the best position to maintain the angle.


– Last Updated: Jul-11-14 3:20 PM EST –

I think what Gordon is saying is that if the stern needs to be drawn downstream, as it does when initiating or increasing the ferry angle, the stern (upstream paddler) is in the best position to do it.

If the bow needs to be drawn downstream, as it does when the ferry angle is too great or the upstream end (stern) is getting blown downstream, the bow (downstream paddler) is in the best position to do it.

Doing it this way harnesses the power of the current rather than working against it. Both paddlers are the motor and provide backward propulsion whenever they are not initiating or adjusting the ferry angle.

In my experience back ferries in moderate current are not terribly difficult but tandem back ferries in strong current are another matter altogether. Gordon says that failure to back ferry effectively causes more ACA instructor candidates to fail their ICE than any other maneuver and this does not surprise me in the least.

Although sometimes a ferry in strong current will "stall out" as a result of insufficient ferry angle, it is much more common to lose the ferry angle and have the stern blown downstream, especially as the stern of the boat crosses an eddy line or area of slack water into stronger current. In my experience, as this happens it is very difficult for the stern paddler in a longer tandem canoe to regain the ferry angle since they cannot execute any effective strokes in the bow quadrants of the boat.

When the ferry stalls out as a result of insufficient angle, the boat usually either moves downriver very slowly or hangs motionless relative to the river bed so that the tandem team has a few moments to take stock and correct the angle. When the upstream end of the boat starts getting blown downstream in strong current, however, the reaction of the tandem team need to be instantaneous and effective.

Not really
the stern paddler has a better view of the whole boat and can determine better if the ferry is working, as others have noted.

In any turn forward or backward both ends have a job to do jointly to get the entire boat past an obstruction…

Too many times going forward I have not been aware of the position of the stern… While my end passes the obstruction the boat hits it near the stern because the stern erred usually in misestimating the speed of the boat and tries to cut it too close!

In a forward ferry there is bow initiation into the correct angle for the ferry and then the stern keeps the angle going …with a view of the whole boat.

It seems logical that in reverse the same principles would come into play.

Stern paddler initiates and keeps angle

– Last Updated: Jul-11-14 5:47 PM EST –

I've paddled and raced a lot tandem in class 3-4 whitewater, almost always in the stern. I always called the ferry--i.e., made the decision to ferry and in what direction--initiated the proper angle, and was primarily responsible for maintaining angle. The bow was primarily a back paddling engine.

The exception was if, during the already-initiated ferry, the boat started to become too angled, my bow paddler (who was a better paddler than I) would intuitively sense this and provide his own assistive correction with a draw or cross-draw.

I can't see pages 148-49 of Grant's book, but this book says just about what my experience has always been:


Good description

– Last Updated: Jul-11-14 6:47 PM EST –

The author of your linked article used wording (the text for Photo #3) that shows he's aware of the fact that the boat is moving straight forward through the water in the normal way, not being "pushed sideways" as most people perceive ferrying action to be (but of course he recognizes the effect of that first blast of current encountered by the leading end of the boat when exiting an eddy). His wording indicates that once the ferry is well underway, he's focused on the interaction between his travel direction and that of the water, and chooses his heading based on that interaction, rather than being distracted by the movement of his boat relative to fixed objects and thus misinterpreting what's happening. Not every "expert" who writes about this stuff is this perceptive.

some other books

– Last Updated: Jul-12-14 7:45 AM EST –

"Path of the Paddle: An Illustrated Guide to the Art of Canoeing" by Bill Mason, p 85, Back ferry (setting):

"Since the canoe is moving back upstream against the current, the bow paddler does most of the steering with a reverse J or reverse sweep as required."

"Basic River Canoeing: Complete Instructional Guide to Whitewater Canoeing" by McNair, McNair and Landry, pp 26-27, Back Ferry:

"Let us examine more closely the fine tuning of this elegant maneuver. First, contrary to popular belief, the bow person should set and control the angle of the canoe to the current. When you are paddling forward, the stern person is in a more effective correcting position. When back paddling (on flatwater - or against the current) the bow person is in a more effective position. ...

It is not easy to master both these correction strokes and a good feel for the appropriate back ferry angle. For this reason, when there is a need to perform numerous back ferries, it is preferable to have the more experienced paddler in the bow. Although it is more effective for the bow to set the angle in a back ferry, there is no law against the stern helping."

"Paddle Your Own Canoe: An Illustrated Guide to the Art of Canoeing" by Gary and Joanie McGuffin, p 162, Tandem Back Ferry:

"The roles of the two paddlers are reversed as soon as you paddle backward. The difficulty for the bow paddler, who now has the responsibility for setting the canoe's angle, is that he cannot see the canoe's angle in relation to the current."

and on p 159 of the same book, A Note about Resistances:

"In all ferries, the canoe's descent is slowed or halted. Since the canoe is traveling slower than the current, the greater force against the canoe is on the canoe's upstream (frontal resistance) end. The downstream end of the canoe has the least resistance. It is the eddy-resistance end. If you remember the discussion of resistances in Chapter 4, you'll recall that propulsion strokes are most effective in the frontal-resistance end, and corrective strokes, in the eddy-resistance end. This means that the upstream paddler maintains the canoe's position in the river, while the downstream paddler adjusts the angle if it is needed."

"Canoeing: The Essential Skills and Safety" by Andrew Westwood, p 107, Tandem:

"Moving backward in the tandem canoe presents some challenges for you and your partner because neither of you can easily see where you want to go. Patience and good communication are the keys to your success. In the tandem canoe be prepared for the role reversal that accompanies back paddling. For reverse paddling, the bow person becomes the one responsible for steering the canoe, and the stern person focuses on providing backward momentum."

And here is a pretty good Paul Mason instructional video on the tandem back ferry:


At 1:17 in the video Paul says: "As you back across, the downstream person, the person in the bow, is going to control the angle of the canoe."

In the comments for this video the tandem back ferry is described as "one of the most difficult skills to learn if you don't know the basics." In his book, Gordon Grant notes that failure to back ferry is the most common reason for ACA whitewater instructor candidates to fail their ICE. Most of the authors I cited above emphasize the difficulty of maintaining the back ferry angle due to the difficulty of accurately judging the angle while facing downstream as well as the role reversal that accompanies back ferries.

I mention this because back ferries are often suggested to relative novice paddlers on this forum as a means of avoiding obstacles on the river. A back ferry often is a good means of avoiding an obstacle, but back ferries are not all that intuitive for many, and not that easy to execute in stronger current, especially for tandem teams that have not practiced them.

A tandem team that loses the back ferry angle in stronger current and gets swept downstream sideways towards a strainer would have been better off trying something else instead.

Eyes in back of head
would help with the back ferry maneuver. It is more difficult than the forward ferry, not only because of the role reversal, but also because neither paddler can easily see the small change in angle that leads to the stern being swept downstream. Once the current takes hold, the game is almost over.


In the video I referenced, Paul Mason (paddling bow with Mark Scriver in the stern) demonstrates good rotational torso flexibility, looking back over his shoulder to judge the angle while performing his correction strokes.

Something else occurs to me too

– Last Updated: Jul-12-14 12:51 PM EST –

I think a main reason the backferry is more difficult is that most people don't have much practice applying power and/or maneuvering strokes while going backwards. It's not JUST more difficult when in reverse, but making the correct decisions on how to adjust what's happening is not as automatic when padding in that unfamiliar way. I "understand what to do" when maneuvering in reverse in a canoe, but I'm only about 1/1000ths as good at making it happen as I am when paddling forward. I think that makes sense, considering that I've taken about a million times as many forward strokes as reverse strokes.

I personally have no trouble judging the proper reverse angle while looking downstream, and honestly can't imagine why others would, but supposedly they do. Why that might be more difficult for others, or most, may be just a matter of individual variation in strong points and weak points, but I suspect that when they reverse their perspective they simply are not "seeing what's there". Put me in a rowboat in rapids and you can install a shield to totally block my view in the upstream direction, for all I care. I'd point the front end upstream and row in that direction while looking downstream, ferrying to control course and speed. The view over the trailing end of the boat tells exactly the same story about your heading and relationship to the path of the current as the view toward the leading end does.

Different variables and contexts

– Last Updated: Jul-12-14 12:25 PM EST –

A little more "battle of the authorities" and then some contextual comments by me.

My interpretation of Bill Mason in Path of the Paddle is that stern paddler sets the angle (after preferably moving forward to lighten the stern), and the bow paddler then helps keep the angle.

Tom Foster in Recreational Whitewater Canoeing says, "Tandem paddlers will note that it is easiest to maintain lateral motion by having the upstream paddler set the initial angle and the downstream paddler correct for an unfavorable angle." This necessarily means that the downstream paddler will simply be an engine if there is no unfavorable angle. My experience is consistent with this Foster description. There was rarely an unfavorable angle in my tandem back ferrying experience.

Let me give the context of my experience and why it may be different in some aspects from some of the other authors' descriptions and the Mason-Scriver (M-S) video.

Some of the authors say the "role is reversed" in the ferry. I'm not sure what is meant by this since I don't know their context. My tandem context was in class 3-4 whitewater. The role of my bow paddler was to make the immediate tactical and directional decisions on moving left or right when descending high gradient or technical rapids. In the stern, I followed his lead with appropriate complementary strokes. For slower, more general and more strategic maneuvers, such as aiming for an eddy or beginning a back ferry, I made the decisions and set the initial heading or angle from the stern.

We were paddling in a highly rockered canoe, usually a Millbrook Kevlar ME, in the close together Gemini position. There really wasn't a significant "current end" or "eddy end" to the canoe. Either of us could spin the canoe over 100 degrees with one stroke, so either could set angles on ferries. Back ferries were a matter of convention, based on the fact that I in the stern had the better total view of the boat and river, and more leverage for the initial angle.

The M-S video says something to the effect that the loaded tandem canoe is like a "freight train", which can't make a lot of "sporty" moves. Au contraire. My context was a highly maneuverable slalom canoe, which was the sportiest boat on any river we paddled. We did backwards eddy turns and peel outs, backward upstream attainments, multiple reverse S turn eddy-outs, and all sorts of side, front and back surfing. A back ferry was an elementary and easy maneuver.

My context was fast, lumpy water, full of rocks and ominous holes--not the flat, smooth and slow water shown in the M-S video, and which I assume some of the authors were talking about. We did NOT slow the boat first before setting the initial angle, as the M-S video shows. We usually set the initial angle while going at our normal velocity of faster than the current, which is easier for the stern to do. It's not clear to me that when we were back ferrying we were always going slower than the current; we sometimes were just going "less faster" than we typically did. Again, we are doing this in hard whitewater, not slow water where it was completely unnecessary for us.

Finally, both of us were experienced class 4 whitewater paddlers, further experienced together in the ME and Hydra Duet decked tandem. Less experienced paddlers often have an inexperienced paddler or total novice in the bow. That bow paddler is not going to know how to steer or change angles from the bow during a back ferry. In such a situation, an experienced stern paddler has to do all the work of controlling angle. Often, all he can do, as a practical matter--as I did with an old friend in Alaska last summer--is to instruct the bow paddler to start and stop back paddling at given times.

In summary, I think that, regardless of the experience of the bow paddler, it makes sense for the stern paddler to set the initial back ferry angle. If the canoe is a highly maneuverable one or if the bow paddler is a novice, the stern paddler can or must take the primary role of maintaining a good angle. If the bow paddler is experienced, and especially if the boat is not maneuverable, then the bow paddler is best situated to make corrections to an unfavorable OVER-angle during the ferry. The stern paddler remains in the best position to correct an UNDER-angle -- a difference which all the authors seem to ignore.

My context was Arctic and northerntravel
boats loaded for three weeks. Seating rather stock as in PakCanoes for flight in and out… with gear in the middle.

Backferrying was used in heavy wave trains…some six feet high ( as in Five Finger Rapids) to slow down to avoid the bow punching the wave and at lesser heighted ones at the end of each gravel bar.

To simplify the whole thing
If you have two reasonably competent paddlers, here is what I think Grant means, and with which I agree.

  1. The stern generally sets the initial angle. It’s easier for the stern than the bow to do this if the canoe is going faster or at current speed, and it’s no problem for him to do it even the canoe is going slower than current speed.

  2. The stern corrects for more angle if the angle is too shallow.

  3. The bow corrects for less angle if the the angle becomes too great. (The stern can even do this too in a highly rockered canoe.)

Maybe novices can’t tell angle, but …
… any experienced bow or stern river paddler knows exactly what angle the canoe is at and how fast, if at all, the angle is changing. Experienced paddlers will make the angle correction instinctively and pre-emptively before it goes too far, even in the swiftest water.

The upstream ferry in raging, rocky, holey whitewater is when you need eyes in the back of your head.

I always suspected you were crazy.
I’m crazy, too, but I set and control the back ferry angle from the stern.