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Indiana Department of Natural Resources

Outdoor Recreation > Trails > Indiana Water Trails > Paddling Techniques Paddling Techniques

One brief remark should precede this section. Basically only three sources of force are available to move a canoe: moving water, gravity, and your paddle. Frequently the first two forces tend to take the boat into some undesirable place and the only solution is to use that third force to prevent it from happening. Some basic yet very effective paddle strokes will be outlined here.

The first stroke to learn is the back stroke. Its purpose is to slow down the canoe relative to obstacles. Maneuvering is easier when moving slowly. The paddle is placed in the water toward the stern and stroked towards the bow. In large waves this is a good way to minimize the water splashed on board.

The second stroke to learn is the draw. It turns the canoe by moving one end of it towards the side on which the paddler is paddling. To execute this stroke, the paddler leans over the gunwale (side) and reaches out with the paddle. He places the blade in the water and strokes (draws) the paddle towards the canoe. This sweeps water under the canoe.

The third stroke is the pry. This has exactly the opposite effect of the draw. It moves one end of the canoe towards the side on which the paddler is not paddling. In this stroke the side of the canoe is used for a fulcrum and the paddle for a lever. The blade slides under the canoe and the paddler pulls the top of the shaft towards himself. Care should be taken not to pinch fingers. At this point, it should be obvious that there is no necessity for both people to paddle on the right to turn left. It should be possible to spin the canoe simply by having the bowman and sternman paddle on opposite sides and do the same stroke. There are few occasions when both paddlers would be caught paddling on the same side as this procedure invariably ends up in a spill.

Once the back stroke, pry and draw are mastered you may draw your attention to the forward strode. This is the stroke you will be using 90% of the time so you owe it to yourself to become proficient to avoid tiring easily. The lower arm should remain relaxed and the primary force should be applied by the top arm to the top of the paddle. Viewed from behind, the paddle should be nearly vertical, and at the end of its thrust it should be swinging in a wide arc parallel to the water. You should not lift the paddle, or you will soon become fatigued.

The forward stroke is fairly obvious. Even though the paddlers are stroking on opposite sides of the canoe at the same time (synchronized), there will be a tendency for the canoe to turn. This turning effect can be reduced if the sternsman will extend the paddle behind the canoe at the end of his stroke. By using a pry (as in a pry stroke) his paddle will act as a rudder to counteract the turning movement his forward stroke has created. This is known as ruddering. It will turn the canoe towards the side on which he is paddling. Ruddering is a commonly used technique although experienced sternmen will generally use a J-stroke, sweep or other stroke to steer the canoe. These other strokes should be learned as they give the sternman more options in navigating the canoe.

The bowman can also help to avoid sudden obstacles by ruddering. In this case he simply swings the paddle over the bow and ahead, placing the paddle almost parallel to the water. The canoe will move toward the paddle.

Inexperienced canoeists should practice the basic strokes in calm water prior to starting the trip. Canoeing is a skill in which each paddler must learn his part. A little practice allowing the paddlers to learn to work together will result in a more enjoyable trip rather than a long series of arguments.

A few last remarks should be made. The bowman is almost one full canoe length ahead of the sternman. For this reason the bowman has a better view of upcoming obstacles and can better chart the path of the canoe. The sternman should learn to follow the bowman. Cooperation is essential in tricky passages and nobody misses all the rocks. Everyone goes for a swim occasionally. Make the best of mistakes. Figure out what the mistake was (not who made it) and go back and try again. Finally if (when) the canoe hits an obstacle in the stream, lean downstream. This makes the upstream gunwale higher so the water does not fill the boat. Beware of stepping out of the canoe to dislodge it as a sudden shift in weight may cause an upset or find the unfortunate paddler in water over his head.

Water is a viscous fluid. That means that it moves more swiftly farther away from the banks and bottom where the forces of friction come into play. Another characteristic of a river is that it carries a relatively uniform amount of water regardless of variation in depth or width. Therefore, if the river is narrow or shallow in one place and wide or deep in another, the water will have to travel much faster where it is shallow or narrow.

When the path of a river bends, the water tends to attempt to continue in a straight line. This causes the river to move more swiftly on the outside of the curve and slowly on the inside. An eddy is a place where the water is either not moving or sometimes even moving slightly upstream. These are found either along the bank, particularly at the inside of turns, or behind obstructions in the current (like big rocks). Deep water is frequently found adjacent to the steepest bank of a river.

Few people are strong enough to overpower a river. With that in mind it behooves a prudent canoeist to learn to let the water do the work whenever possible. Learning to read the water is the most important step towards becoming an experienced canoeist.

Waves are a phenomenon which is characteristic of moving water colliding with water which is moving more slowly. Frequently quiet spots in the midst of turbulence indicate submerged rocks. Oddly enough, turbulent spots in the midst of quiet water also usually indicate submerged rocks. Generally speaking the majority of the water will go through the path of least resistance. This can usually be identified by a "tongue" or "v" in the water. Looking down on the rapids, the boat should usually enter the wide part of the "v" and go straight into the point. The waves below the point of the "v" are generally standing waves as described above and do not usually hide rocks. The importance of an alert bowman should be emphasized, as many canoes become hung up on rocks in quiet water that give no warning at all.

This section has been intended to only present the basics. Several good canoe books have been written. If canoeing gets "in your blood" you may want to do some additional study. Since canoeing has become a popular sport, most bookstores and libraries carry a variety of worthwhile publications. The American Red Cross also publishes basic canoeing and water safety books.