Canoeing for the average: How to handle a canoe on calm waters without
making an utter ass out of yourself.
During my trips with the Boy Scouts in my early teens, we spent altogether
too much time on the many and varied waterways of the Chesapeake Bay Drainage
Basin and surrounding areas. Without fail, every trip would have at least
one encounter with a laughably bad canoeist or two, either members of the
troop or a pair of day trippers who had obviously never laid eyes on a canoe
in their lives. Through trial and error, learning from the mistakes of
others, and the work done for Canoeing merit badge, I learned a great
deal about the fine art of the canoeist. If you’re one of the aforementioned
morons, or would just like to learn a bit about how to handle a canoe before
a recreational outing, here’s some advice for you.
You will need, at the minimum:
A canoe (duh). If you already own one, you probably don’t need
my advice. If you don’t, and don’t feel like shelling out $400+ for a decent
flatwater canoe (not to mention accessories), then you can probably rent
one. Check the travel guides for your destination to find a place that’ll
rent you a canoe, life jacket, and paddles. Be sure to ask what material
their canoes use; aluminum canoes are generally clunkier and more difficult
to handle than the newer synthetics, on land or in the water. They’re also
less durable; I’ve seen a good plastic canoe take a side-on impact with
a rock in a class 3 rapid, and
while it got a large and unsightly scratch, the impact would have holed and
sunk an aluminum model.
Treatment of the canoe is fairly straightforward. When moving over land,
lift it by the handles; there should be one at the bow and one at the stern.
If not, lift it by the gunwales. Whatever you do, don’t drag it. When it’s
on the ground, don’t rest it on any large rocks or other sharp objects. All
common-sense stuff, right?
Paddles (duh, again). One for each canoeist, one extra. Style
and materials for a paddle are largely personal preference; if you’re just
canoeing for fun, then a decent plastic and aluminum paddle is all you really
need. When picking one, there’s an easy rule of thumb for size; when one
end of the paddle is resting on the ground, the other should reach to the
general area of your chin. Anything longer will be clumsy and unwieldy, anything
shorter will gain you nothing but scraped knuckles and wet hands, a painful
combination when boating on salt water.
There’s only one main rule to remember when handling them on land, which
is not to let the blade touch the ground. Doing so may chip it, and a chipped
paddle is no fun at all.
, or, in the common parlance
, life jacket
. One per person,
one extra. They come in a number of different styles; choose one that lets
your arms move freely. Almost all will have instructions on how to put them
on, so I need not go into that here. If you borrow one, check it for any
Okay, so you have all the basic equipment ready for a pleasant jaunt down
the river. Now, you’ll need to know some basic nautical terminology to
understand the helpful instruction-shouting people.
- Bow, bowman. The bow (rhymes with pow, not crow) is the front
of the boat. The bowman is the dumb brute force of the canoe. His role
is to paddle as the sternman directs.
- Stern, sternman. The stern is the back of the boat, the sternman
is the one who gets to act self-important and yell at the bowman a lot. Oh,
and steer the canoe. The stern man is always the more experienced canoeist,
but if both partners are equal in skill, then flip a coin or play rock-paper-scissors
or something. It’s a thankless job, and the satisfaction of bossing others
around soon pales. You’ll be easily able to tell the bow seat from the stern
seat. Here’s a simple test: Sit in the seat with your legs towards the pointy
end. If you find yourself resting your chin on your knees, then you’re in
the stern seat. Turn around.
- Seats: One at each end. These have a nice ergonomic ass groove
on newer canoes.
- Gunwale: A complicated way of indicating the edge of a canoe.
Do not put any weight on these while the canoe is in the water. Seriously,
- Thwarts: These are the bars across the middle of the canoe,
level with the gunwales. They give the canoe lateral strength and bang many
a shin. Don’t sit on them; it’s bad for the canoe, your boat will be top-heavy
and prone to rolling, and you’ll look like a clueless idiot.
- Paddle: Long stick with a flat end. Also a verb, i.e. “Paddle
left/right” (paddle on the left/right side of the boat) or “PADDLE!” (You’re
about to ram something). You’ll use these to control the speed and direction
of the boat and to splash water on your fellow canoeists (this use is optional
and recommended mostly for juvenile males).
. From the top, we have:
- Grip: That’s the rounded handle-like thing at one end of the
paddle. It may be belaboring the obvious to state that it's the place where
your hand goes, but I’ve seen countless inexperienced canoeists who didn't
- Shaft: The long thin straight part. Nuff said.
- Blade: The broad flat end. This is the business end; all paddling,
steering, splashing, and whacking is done here. Interestingly enough,
people usually think of the blade moving through the water, but it usually
remains stationary during a normal stroke, the canoe being the only thing
Now you can talk the talk like a pro. Let’s move on to
Starting your trip.
Step 1: Pick a body of water.
Whatever you choose, be sure you can handle it. Still waters or slow moving
rivers are best for the novice canoeist. You should also be able to swim
it, or at least be able to keep your head above water if you should capsize.
Step 2: Launching the canoe.
Always have all your equipment prepped and ready before setting out. You
should have 1 PFD and paddle per canoeist plus one spare. This is all you
really need to have a fun time, but extras like water, sunscreen, lunch and
camera make the trip that much more enjoyable. Pack anything that would sink
or be damaged by water in ziploc bags, and load your cooler or backpack as
close to the center as possible. When picking a launch site, you should always
attempt to launch into still or slow-moving water. Shallow banks and docks
are the easiest, while a steep and crumbling riverbank presents a bit more
of a challenge.
Gently sloping bank or boat ramp: These are the
easiest launches. Push the canoe out into the water, keeping one end on land.
One partner should go sit down while the other pushes it off. Keep in mind
that the canoe will sink slightly when all your weight is in
it, and see the section on moving around in a canoe. If on a river, paddle
out until your bow is facing downstream and you’re all set for fun.
Dock launches: These are easy too. Set the canoe in the water next
to the dock, pointing the bow downstream if there’s a current. One partner
should climb in and hold on to the pilings while the other first hands him
the gear then climbs in himself. Once both are seated and ready, away you
Steep banks: These are a bitchx1.5. If the water isn’t moving
too fast, follow the same basic procedure for a gentle slope, but be aware
that whoever is stuck doing the final push-off is going to get wet. If, by
some huge stroke of ill-fortune, your only possible launch site is in fast-moving
water, then follow the same basic procedure as for a dock, but be prepared
to climb into the water and hold your canoe steady if you must.
Okay, you’re in the canoe and headed in something like the right direction,
but you realize that you have no idea how to use the paddle that you’re holding.
I probably should have covered that earlier...
Get a good grip on the paddle. One hand goes on the grip at the top (I
repeat myself, but do NOT hold the shaft below the grip. You’ll look like
a moron and paddling will be much more difficult). The other hand goes
somewhere on the shaft slightly above the blade. Everyone’s grip will
be different, so experiment to find the proper one for yourself. You should
be able to put the whole blade in the water without scraping your knuckles
on the side of the canoe. Now you’re ready to start on the various strokes.
Keep in mind that as with any other physical art, you can’t really learn
these by reading about them.
Basic power stroke: Keeping both arms straight (not locked), place
the business end of the paddle vertically in the water as far in front of
you as you can comfortably reach. Move the paddle towards the back of the
boat by rotating your shoulders and upper torso. The muscles of the arm don’t
come into this at all. When recovering for the next stroke, lift the paddle
out of the water and swivel it back into start position in the same manner.
Reduce air resistance by feathering the blade, turning it edge-on into the
J stroke: This is the standard sternman’s stroke. Why is it necessary?
As anyone who’s ever tried to handle one alone knows, the bow of a canoe
will tend to turn away from the side on which the sternman paddles. Why,
I don’t know, but it’s something you’ll have to deal with. Anyway... To execute
the J stroke, start as in a standard power stroke. At the end, twist the
wrist of your top hand slightly downwards. This will angle the paddle parallel
to the direction of motion and the resulting drag will compensate for the
canoe’s natural tendency to turn. It’s not necessary to do this with every
stroke, only when the canoe is heading off-course.
Steering: Easiest of the sternman’s strokes and the one which incites
the most complaints from an inexperienced partner. “Quit dragging your paddle!”,
he shouts, not understanding that dipping your paddle vertically in the water
edge-on to the direction of travel steers the boat. Dipping on the right
(sorry, the “starboard”) will turn the bow in that direction, while dipping
on the port will turn the bow the other way.
Draw: This is a pure maneuvering stroke, which either the bowman
or the sternman can execute. To do it, reach out to the side as far as you
comfortably can (oops, not THAT far; remember, canoes are unstable) and
dip the blade parallel to the gunwale. Pull it towards you to turn your
end of the boat in that direction. If the bow- and sternmen draw on opposite
sides, the canoe will spin like a top. The bowman can also use this stroke
to avoid hidden rocks.
Pry: Essentially, the opposite of a draw stroke. Dip the paddle
in the same fashion, only this time start right next to the hull. Using your
lower hand (not the gunwale) as a fulcrum, push the blade outwards. This
will have the exact opposite effect of a draw stroke.
Backpaddling: Useful both for maneuvering and for moving backwards.
It’s the same as a power stroke, only reversed. If one partner backpaddles
while the other paddles forward, the canoe will turn towards the backpaddler’s
side. If both backpaddle, the canoe will move backwards.
Weeny-arm-dipper Stroke: Few things anger canoeists more than
a partner who uses this pathetic excuse for paddling. Using it will get you
wet or clouted on the head with a paddle. It looks just like a power stroke,
but instead of exerting any force, the weeny-arm-dipper lets the forward
momentum of the canoe move his paddle. Don’t do this, period.
Basic rules of safety
Wear your lifejacket. It may look stupid, and I'm sure you know how
to swim, but it'll save your life someday. Canoes are unstable and tip easily.
Don't stand in your canoe and don't put any weight on the gunwales. If
you must move around, keep a hand on each gunwale and keep your weight low.
Beware low-hanging branches or "strainers" when canoeing on rivers. Splashing
is fun, but I've seen bloody lacerations inflicted by a paddle glancing
off the water and striking someone's ear. Rocks won't kill you in slow-moving
water, but it's damn embarrassing to get stuck on one. If you fall out of
your canoe in moving water, always stay upstream of it. Finally, remember
that common sense will prevent 90% of all accidents.
Now you know all the basics for the weekend canoeist. Get out there and
enjoy the wild scenic beauty of your local rivers and lakes before they’re
all developed and subdivided over. I'll cover some of the more advanced stuff
(fast water, swamped canoes, fancy strokes) in a later writeup.