8 Basic Canoe Skills Worth Mastering

10 minute read

The humble canoe has served humans for tens of thousands of years and these days have evolved into a popular recreational craft.  However, trying to paddle one with two inexperienced paddlers and no instruction can feel more like torture than recreation. Let’s learn the basics and avoid that!

Getting In and Out of a Canoe

This is the place where most capsizes happen.  A canoe should always be floating in the water when you get into it.  It’s a good idea to accept that you’re going to get wet feet.  Tipping over can be easily avoided by bracing for each other.  This is easily done by placing the paddle across the top of the canoe and gripping it firmly to the gunwales (the side rails), and holding the craft while the other person gets in (or out). 

The best, and safest, method of getting in is to place one foot in the centre of the boat, then sit your bum onto the seat (keeping your centre of gravity low), and finally bring your other foot onboard.  Once in, you can brace the canoe for your partner by placing your paddle on the bottom of the water and holding it firmly against the side of the canoe while they do the same movement: foot-bum-foot into the canoe. 


Holding the paddle

We’ll keep the parts of the paddle simple by referring to them as the tip, blade, shaft, and grip.  The top hand goes over the top grip and the bottom hand should grip the shaft about shoulder width apart from the top hand.  If your paddle is the correct length there should be about 1 – 1 ½ hands-span between your bottom hand and where the blade begins to flare out.  Canoes should be paddled with finesse.  One trick to achieving finesse comes from the way in which you hold the paddle: loosely.  This quickest way to become rigid and fatigued is to grip your paddle with white knuckles.  


Understanding Steering

The centre of the canoe (underneath the yoke) is basically the central pivot point of the vessel.  With two paddlers on opposite sides, the stern (back) paddler sits further away from this central pivot point which means that they have more influence on the direction of the craft.  This is compounded by physics: as an aquatic vessel, the canoe has a “peripatetic” pivot point which means that its pivot point drifts forward when the canoe is put into motion.  This accentuates the influence that the stern paddler has on the direction of the canoe.  Because of all of this, they end up with the responsibility for steering while the bow (front) paddler sets the paddling cadence.  


Every time you take a stroke in a canoe, your paddle is some distance to the side of the centre line of the boat.  This causes it to turn rather than travel straight.  The closer you can get your paddle blade to this centre line, the better chance you have of travelling in a straight direction. 

The best way to do this is to aim to have a vertical paddle shaft when doing the forward stroke.  This can only be achieved if the top hand, the one holding the grip, is outside of the canoe.  This is what is referred to as having “stacked hands,” one on top and the other below.  Stacking your hands is made even easier by slightly facing the side on which you paddle – this helps you to get the top hand outside the boat.  When turning is desired, the paddler should aim to paddle as far away from this centre line and focus effort at the absolute ends of the canoe: the furthest place away from the central pivot point.  


Going Straight

Both paddlers should propel the canoe by performing the most-commonly-used stroke known as the forward stroke.  Also, there are a few “corrective” strokes that the stern paddler can use to fix the direction of travel. The stern rudder and the forward sweep are the two to master initially.

Forward Stroke

This is the stroke that you do most in a day’s paddling so it’s important to do it right.  The aim is to paddle in time with each other.  You twist your body forward, and with the paddle shaft vertical you aim to stab the blade into the water as far forward as you can reach.  Then you pull the blade along beside the canoe until it gets to just beyond your hip.  At this point, you can slice the blade out of the water to the side and rotate your body forward to plant the paddle again.

Canoe 1

Stern Rudder

The stern rudder is an addition to the end of a forward stroke and it is for the stern paddler only.  It is the corrective stroke that fixes the fact that they have more influence on the canoe’s direction than the bow paddler and it turns the boat back toward the paddler’s side. 

Essentially, you perform a forward stroke.  As the blade passes your hip you allow the blade to stay in the water and continue travelling back toward the end of the craft.  At this point you rotate your indicator thumb, the thumb on your grip hand, to point upward toward the sky.  This should allow the blade to be parallel to the canoe and slicing through the water.  By gently pushing the blade outward the canoe should steer back toward the paddling side.  A small push should be all that’s necessary and it shouldn’t make any noise.  Once the correction has been initiated simply return to your starting position and begin the next stroke.  

Forward Sweep

If you’ve over-corrected and need to turn the canoe away from your paddling side then this is the one that you need.  Simply reach the blade out to the side of the canoe, straight out from your hip, and plant it in the water there.  With a sweeping motion, push the water nice wide arc back to the end of the canoe.  

By performing a combination of all three of these strokes it should be possible to get going in a straight line on your very first outing.


Making It Easy

Paddling can be tiring, and fatigue is amplified with incorrect technique. Many people assume that paddling a canoe should be a good workout for your arms and shoulders. In truth, it should be a workout for the torso and the back muscles.  The best way to avoid arm fatigue is to straighten them and keep them this way.  A perfect paddle stroke can be achieved with the elbows nearly “locked” and a combination of torso rotation and wrist movement employed to apply power. Feeling good at the end of a day of paddling is important and good technique helps you do it easily when the conditions become challenging.    

Canoe Skills Worth Mastering

Words by Travis Frenay. Photographs by Mike Collister.

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Hailing from New York, Travis Frenay has called Australia home from the early 2000s. While accomplished across outdoor disciplines, he is most at home exploring wild places by canoe. An expert guide and instructor, Travis also imports elegant craft from across the world.


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