Who rules a tandem canoe?

I enjoy the heck out of paddling tandem, and I get confused by all these posters complaining about “divorce boats” and lack of coordination among the paddlers. It is my pet theory, taught to me by an 11-yr old, that the problem stems from the idea that the stern paddler rules the boat.

Let’s limit the scope to whitewater. On the lakes you can take your time and have a nice long discourse of who does what stroke. In whitewater, the team needs to react quickly in unison, suffer from the lack of shared vocabulary and they often can’t hear each other. By shared vocabulary, I mean a way to communicate what they are trying to do. “Go to the left of that rock,” for example, seems clear to bow and stern paddler, though they might be looking at different rocks. A moment’s confusion, and they’ve smacked that which they sought to avoid. And that assumes they hear each other over the roar of the river.

Little Katie was 11 and hadn’t paddled whitewater before our trip on the St. John. The rapids are mild for the first few days of that trip, and after we set camp we’d go out and practice. I taught her draws and cross draws, and we practiced eddy turns and peel outs. On the river I’d shout from my throne in the stern which strokes I wanted from her, and she learned quickly. Big Bear rapid is the first challenging rapid, called a Class III, and as we entered it I was calling out when I wanted steering strokes. But there was a time delay while I’d read the rapid, think what Katie needed to do, and then call it out, and I fell behind. Soon I saw that Katie was doing her own reading of the river and executing the steering stroke while I was still flubbering over the words. My job then became following Katie’s lead. She put her end of the canoe where it needed to go, and once I saw what she was doing I’d work on my end. We shot that rapid cleanly, and that was how we worked from there forward.

I later heard an older, very skilled and experienced paddler say, in a conversation of paddling rapids with novices, that he’d go into rapids with a novice as long as he was in the bow. His explanation was that’d he’d get the bow where it needed to go, and most times the stern would follow. Whereas, if the bow doesn’t go where it needs to be, chances are good you’ll be swimming.

I put this into practice with a novice on the Jones Falls. Carrie was a fit but smaller woman that I put in the stern after a little instruction about draws and prys. I can’t attest to what she did back there because I was mostly not watching. We did pretty well, colliding with a few rocks, but on the side after we were mostly by them.

So it is my belief that the bow paddler reads the river and picks the course. Further, the stern paddler should be able to figure out what the bow paddler is trying to do, and reading the river for context, react accordingly. There should be little need for verbal instructions.

What’s your opinion? And watch out for “that rock”!


after skippering from
the rear with Aaron in the front for a couple years, I’ve got to agree. It’s also hard to read the river from the rear.

I believe “divorce boats” is termed for tandem yaks especially, because those big tandem blades need to be in sync.

I wouldn’t paddle tandem in WW

– Last Updated: Apr-15-09 5:42 AM EST –

unless I knew my partner in which case we would have either known the river or scouted the stuff that was unknown and knew which way we were going so no words would be necessary.

When I am with my favorite paddle partner, (my wife), I (from the stern) will let her know which way I want to go, prior to an impediment just so we are both on the same track.

-Not too good if there is a big boulder, with a clear chute on both sides, and as you approach, you are thinking left, while your partner is thinking right!


pretty accurate
having enough seat time together also helps.

Bow rules - definitely
I’m sure that there’s a technical reason for it - bow rides higher, bow paddler is closer to the pivot point of the boat. Bow paddler is definitely in a better position to see what going on. When doing eddy turns and peel outs, its the bow paddler who sets the angle, initiates the lean and plants the duffek. Stern paddler is pretty much along for the ride. Given a choice – I’ll always take the bow seat. I wouldn’t mind doing some tandem paddling again.

I think of it as the macro and micro

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The stern partner sets up the boat for the "big picture" route (only really relevant on larger creeks/rivers) and the bow paddler does just as Chip described.

Last year I my wife and I were paddling some class II and she really wasn't taking charge of the bow of the boat. I tried explaining that I will follow her lead but she just wasn't really doing anything up there. I'm sure she was nervous having that much control.

Then I came up with a "training aid." I told her I was going to steer us straight into the rocks, and we will surely hit them unless she decides which side of the rock we are going to take and moves the bow to make that happen. I will then follow her lead and move the stern. Otherwise, we're going to hit them.

She knew I wasn't kidding and so she was forced to take charge of the bow. It worked great. After a half dozen rocks she quickly gained confidence and we had the best day yet.

Bow leads but…
The only time I was ever comfortable in a two headed boat was early in my whitewater days with my partner John.

The club we took instruction from liked to start folks in tandems with the idea that tandems were stronger. They paired John and I, and because we were local to each other and were pretty compatible in the boat we stuck together. At the time I didn’t realize how lucky I was to have a compatible partner.

Anyway after a good long swim on the West in VT we realized that

A)the bow paddler has no chance of being heard by the stern paddler.

B) the bow paddler can not see what the stern paddler is doing.

C) Tommy has trouble finding his words when he’s under pressure.

D) John finds the bow a bit intimidating.

So we settled on me in the bow and John in the stern.

I had heard that the bow should lead. So mostly I did. But John had a better eye for the water.

We would discuss our route in the eddy’s then try to make them happen.

For the most part I would lead from the bow. But every once in a while my sternman would throw in a big honking pry or draw away from my intended course. If I felt that I immediately changed course to follow my stern paddler’s lead. I had more faith in John’s river reading skills than my own.

That worked for us for as long as we paddled tandem. I kind of miss that unspoken communication.

The other but.

I know more than a few boatmen.

I call someone a boatman if he can take any novice who comes along, put them in the bow and show them a good time on the river. Doesn’t matter what the novice does or doesn’t do. The boatman is in control.

All the boatmen I know paddle stern.

Me? I stay clear of two headed boats these days.


Stay clear of two headed boats?
How about this one:


You must be a boatman, because you’re in the stern, although I wouldn’t call your bow paddler a novice.

Ist time in a long time
No reason to think it won’t be the last.

And no I’m no boatman. Jim KR (bow) had to use all of his skill and experience to keep us out of trouble on that sweet little class II. I just weigh more than he does so I got stern.

Now Jim Michaud, he puts cute kayak girls in the bow seat of his C2 and runs the Dryway (Cl III-IV). He’s a boatman!


When I paddle tandem in whitewater,
I am always paddling with people who have much less experience and ability. So, it is necessary to manage the course from the stern, and to give occasional instructions to the bow paddler.

Ideally, the bow paddler would be experienced and able to choose the course, and I would follow. But I’m mainly a solo paddler, and my occasional bow paddlers, usually family members, are not able to fill their role. It could be a disaster if I just sat back there following their lead.

I am tall enough, and have enough strength, that I can manage the boat from the stern, as long as the person in the bow is ready for occasional instructions.

Tandem is my favorite

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Tandem whitewater paddling has given me my most exciting paddling experiences. A good partner goes a long way. So much power in the canoe opens lots of doors on the river.

With the experienced paddler up front, the stern paddler can literally follow the bow paddler down the river.


bow person

my sentiments exactly
I almost never get to WW tandem with someone who knows what they are doing. Best I usually can hope for is an experienced kayaker who understands strokes and edging, so I stay in the stern.


– Last Updated: Apr-15-09 12:44 PM EST –

On flatwater, the stern paddler can more easily steer the boat.

On flatwater, the stern paddler can get his or her paddle closer to the end of the boat where correction strokes are more effective, and has a much better view of the angle that the canoe is making relative to whatever is the target.

Also, the correction strokes that are available to the bow paddler (Duffecks, draws, bow jams, and the complementary cross strokes) have more tendency to slow the boat's progress than stern prys and draws, or J strokes done by the stern paddler with his or her paddle well back and nearly parallel to the keel line.

On whitewater, an experienced bow paddler can make immediate course corrections around obstacles and facilitate crisp eddy turns with Duffecks and the proper boat lean, and a novice paddler will not have the confidence and ability to lean out and plant the paddle against a turning current. But I have found it very difficult to pilot a tandem canoe from the bow on whitewater with a complete novice in the stern, and would always prefer to pilot the boat from the stern in that situation. I find that I might hit some rocks that I don't see from the back, but I can generally get the canoe into an eddy or read the water and hold the chosen line through a rapid.

Experienced tandem teams often place the stronger paddler in the bow in whitewater, as that paddler can then use his or her strength primarily for propulsion and waste less energy on correction. If the canoe has to bridge a sizable hole, the bow paddler will be in the better position to dig into the greenwater and pull the boat free. A reasonably experienced stern paddler can maneuver their end by simply watching the bow paddler, and doing the appropriate complimentary stroke at the right time. But a novice paddler in the back won't be able to do that.

Another situation in which one paddler has definite control of the directional attitude of the canoe in whitewater is when doing a ferry. In an uspstream ferry the stern paddler has to set and maintain the ferry angle. They are in a much stronger position to draw the "eddy resistance" end of the canoe downstream with the current when the boat is in danger of losing the ferry angle and getting blown downstream.

In a downstream ferry, or back ferry, or when "setting" around a bend in the river, however, just the opposite applies. Here the bow paddler can more easily adjust the ferry angle as the canoe is going back upstream relative to the current, and the bow is the "loose end".

When I took my young children on class II to III whitewater I found that the best solution was a relatively short tandem boat with both paddlers situated near the center (think Dagger Caption or Caper). This keeps the ends light but allows the stern paddler to get their paddle in front of the center of the boat so that they can do bow correction strokes as needed.

I do know a very good paddler who used to teach tandem whitewater canoeing to relative beginners who said that he always put the stronger or more experienced paddler in the bow, and taught the stern paddler to follow the bow paddler's lead, however.