Archive for the ‘Canoeing’ Category

Canoeing is fun! It’s fun on your own, and it’s fun with one or two friends or family members. More than three people in a canoe, though, can be a safety hazard, because at 14 to 18 feet in length, three’s about the most a regular canoe can handle.

A beginner’s initial experience with canoeing should be on a calm pond or lake, or a calm stretch of river. If it’s especially windy, or the lake is crowded with powerboat users and jetskiers, the experience may not be as much fun and the beginning canoeist may become frustrated.
Don’t try canoeing the first time on your own, or with other novices. While piloting a canoe on on your own is easy enough once you’ve got some experience, it’s best to gain that experience with someone who already has it.

First Things First
A canoe is a fine method of inland nautical transportation and is a fairly stable craft, but it’s nowhere near as stable as some of the more popular, square-sterned craft like rowboats and fishing boats. Thus, it’s absolutely crucial that everybody in a canoe have and wear a US Coast Guard-approved life vest at all times when in the canoe. PERIOD!
When talking about canoeing, it’s best if we all talk the same language. The terms here are shared by a number of watercraft.
The bow of the canoe is the front, and the back is called the stern. The centerline is an imaginary line drawn down the center of the canoe – from the tip of the bow to the tip of the stern. Some canoes have a strip of the construction material – aluminum, wood, or whatever – along the centerline of the canoe on the outside. This is called the keel, and contributes to the canoe’s stability in the water. The left side is called port, and the right side is called starboard. The sides themselves are called gunwales (pronounced “gunnels”), and the things that look like seats that are attached to the gunwales are called thwarts. If I mention the canoe’s deck, I’m talking about the inside of the hull, which you might also call the floor.
In fact, in many modern canoes, the stern and bow thwarts are actually built as seats, but I recommend that beginners learn to paddle a canoe from a kneeling position immediately in front of the thwarts or seats, which provide support, before they start sitting in the seats. Why is this? Because a kneeling paddler has a lower center of gravity. The paddler sitting upright in a canoe seat has a much higher center of gravity, thus increasing the chances of the canoe tipping over [“capsizing”]. A beginner learning to paddle from a kneeling position will find it difficult, if not impossible, to capsize the canoe. Sitting in a seat, though, it’s far more possible to overextend oneself and upset the canoe’s balance, leading either to capsizing the canoe or the canoeist. Bring a sturdy cushion to kneel on – an old kapok flotation device is an excellent cushion for this purpose.
For racing, canoeists will use a racing position, kneeling on the paddling side’s knee, with the other leg extended out in front, with the foot on the deck and the knee bent accordingly. You can get a lot of power into your stroke when you’re in the racing position! Especially for beginners, comfort is important. There’s nothing wrong with shifting positions from kneeling to seated to the racing position to stay comfortable.
Somewhere in here, it’s appropriate to give a minute to a pressing question that often leads to disagreements, arguments, fights and, in rare cases, threats of divorce. Which end of the canoe is the bow? It would be easy to say “the front,” but I’m not known for choosing the easy way . . . Although there is a difference in the taper of the bow and stern in most canoes, an easier way to tell is to look at the thwarts, or seats – the stern seat will only comfortably accommodate a paddler facing the bow. You couldn’t turn around in the stern seat and face the stern – there’d be no room for your legs. Likewise, the bow thwart or seat will have enough room to accommodate a paddler comfortably, facing the bow. Thus, even if you can’t see a difference in the taper, the positioning of the seats or thwarts in the canoe will be a dead giveaway.
A canoe’s movement is controlled by the use of paddles. From the part you hold on to, to the part that goes into the water, the paddle has a grip, a shaft, and a blade. The part where the grip meets the shaft is called the neck, the part where the shaft meets the blade is called the throat, and the very end of the blade is called the tip.
Paddles are generally made from wood or a combination of aluminum and plastic, although other materials are used.

How to Grip the Paddle
A canoe paddle is designed to be held in two hands, with one hand on the throat of the paddle (where the blade and shaft meet), and the other grasping the grip from the top, with the fingers pointing downward, toward the blade. Grasping the shaft of the paddle like an oar, or like a baseball bat, will reduce the amount of power you can put into your stroke and may also increase muscle fatigue and contribute to blister formation. (Wet hands also will form blisters quickly; keep your hands as dry as you can!) To paddle on the port side of the canoe, hold the paddle with the left hand on the throat and the right hand on the grip, Reverse the position of your hands to paddle on the starboard side.

How to Enter the Canoe
From shore: extend the bow into the water far enough so that only a small portion of the stern is resting on the shore. The bow paddler should enter first and be ready to begin paddling before the stern paddler enters. Always crouch low to keep your center of gravity low, stow all gear before entering the canoe (this includes paddles!), and then enter one foot at a time, keeping your weight centered as much as possible. Likewise, kneel (or sit) centered over the canoe’s centerline – sitting to the port or starboard side will destabilize the canoe and make it more difficult to steer. Once the bow paddler is ready to begin paddling, the stern paddler should lift the stern of the canoe off the shore and walk it into the water a few feet until the water’s deep enough that the canoe won’t rest on the bottom when the stern paddler enters. Grasping both gunwales (port and starboard), the stern paddler should put one foot inside the canoe, on the deck, and push forward with the other foot before bringing it into the canoe. The bow paddler should do whatever’s necessary to maintain the canoe’s stability while this is happening. Once in the canoe, the stern paddler should immediately take the paddle and start paddling. (This whole process can be done in reverse, if it’s the bow resting on land – the stern paddler enters first and kneels facing the bow, and the bow paddler lifts the canoe off the beach and walks it into deeper water before entering.)
From a dock, the stern paddler should grasp the canoe firmly by the gunwale closest to the dock, preferably clamping it to the dock, while the bow paddler enters – sit on the dock with the feet in the canoe and, keeping low, place feet on the deck of the canoe and assume the paddling position (kneeling or sitting). Once the bow paddler is in the canoe and ready to paddle (that is, with paddle in hand ready to go), the stern paddler should enter the stern the same way, then take the paddle and start paddling. (Again, the order in which paddlers enters isn’t really that important, as long as the first paddler is braced and ready to start paddling when the second paddler enters.)
Paddling the canoe
Now comes the nitty gritty – make the canoe do what you want it to do – make it move where you tell it to. It’s really not difficult, but it will take a little practice and a little patience.
Remember that the stern paddler is the one whose strokes will control the canoe’s direction. The bow paddler contributes force while the stern paddler contributes force and direction. In general, unless there’s a need to turn the canoe quickly, the two paddlers will paddle on different sides of the canoe.
All the directions given here are for paddling on the port side of the canoe; to paddle on the starboard side, reverse the hands on the paddle.
Forward Strokes
The basic forward stroke is sometimes called a bow stroke. It can be done by either the bow or the stern paddler, but it will be used more by the bow paddler. All the directions here are for performing the stroke on the port – left – side of the canoe, but reverse the position of your hands on the paddle and they can just as easily be done on the starboard side
1. Lean forward slightly
2. Stretch your left arm forward and dip the blade into the water so that about 2/3 of the blade is submerged and the blade is perpendicular to the canoe’s centerline.
3. Pull the blade toward the stern of the canoe, keeping it as close to the gunwale as comfortably possible without banging it.
4. At the end of the stroke, raise the blade out of the water just enough to clear the surface
5. Turn the blade slightly so it’s parallel to the water’s surface and return it to the starting position. (This is called “feathering,” and is designed to minimize the effect of the paddle’s accidentally hitting the water while it’s being brought into the forward position to begin the next stroke, which would slow the canoe and alter its direction.)
Remember, like everything else in life, followup is crucial. The stroke isn’t complete until you’re ready to begin the next one – getting the paddle out of the water and ready to enter the water again is an important part of the process! However, of all the above steps, it’s #4 that’s obviously the heart of the stroke – drawing the paddle toward the stern – that is, pulling the canoe forward.
During this step – drawing the paddle back – the paddle’s shaft should be perpendicular to the water’s surface if viewed from the rear – that means that your upper body should be twisted somewhat to the paddling side (although not leaning, or leaning very little), and the right hand grasping the paddle’s grip should be directly above the line of the blade as it cuts through the water. If the paddle is at an angle – that is, if the grip of the paddle isn’t over the water, but it’s over, or inside, the gunwale, most of the force of the stroke will be spent turning the canoe, not pulling it forward. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing if your objective is to turn the canoe, but then the stroke isn’t a bow stroke, it’s called a forward sweep.
The second basic forward stroke is called the sweep. Those who read the foregoing section knew this already. In this stroke, the blade describes an arc with the paddler at the center, and the blade about 2/3 in the water. The only difference between the bow stroke and the sweep is the angle of the blade relative to the water (#3) and the direction of the blade through the water (#4):
1. Lean forward slightly
2. Stretch your left arm forward and dip the blade into the water so that about 2/3 of the blade is submerged, this time with the blade perpendicular to the water’s surface.
3. Keeping your left arm straight, move it in an arc toward the rear of the canoe. (Think of the hands of a clock – if the bow is 12:00, the blade would enter the water at around 11:00, then move from 11:00 to 9:00 and then leave the water around 7:00) Try not to let the blade go deeper or shallower than about 2/3 deep.
4. At the end of the stroke, raise the blade out of the water just enough to clear the surface.
5. Turn the blade slightly so it’s parallel to the water’s surface and return it to the starting position. (This is called “feathering,” and is designed to minimize the effect of the paddle’s accidentally hitting the water while it’s being brought into the forward position to begin the next stroke.)
Reverse Strokes
Okay, we’ve gone through the first two plain vanilla forward strokes. The next two strokes are meant to move the canoe backward, and are essentially the exact opposite of the bow stroke and the sweep. They’re called, not surprisingly, the reverse bow stroke and the reverse sweep!
1. Lean backward slightly
2. Stretch your left arm to the rear and dip the blade into the water so that about 2/3 of the blade is submerged. For the reverse bow stroke, the blade should be perpendicular to the canoe’s centerline, and for the reverse sweep, the blade should be perpendicular to the water’s surface.
3. Push the blade forward – as close to the centerline of the canoe for the reverse bow stroke, and in an arc from 7:00 to 11:00 for the reverse sweep.
4. At the end of the stroke, raise the blade out of the water just enough to clear the surface
5. Turn the blade slightly so it’s parallel to the water’s surface and return it to the starting position. (This is called “feathering,” and is designed to minimize the effect of the paddle’s accidentally hitting the water while it’s being brought into the forward position to begin the next stroke.)
The J-Stroke
The next stroke is called the J-stroke, and is the most useful stroke for keeping a canoe on-course and avoiding having to switch sides frequently. (Watching most beginners in a canoe, you’ll see them stroke only three or four times per side, and then switch sides to compensate for the turning of the canoe with each stroke.) Admittedly, the J-stroke is a forward stroke, but I’m segregating it here because it really deserves its own section, it’s that important.
The J-stroke is the bow stroke with one crucial addition – at the end of the stroke, give the blade a quarter twist so that it’s perpendicular to the water’s surface, and give a little push to the outside – if you’re paddling on the portside, your stroke will resemble a “J.” You’ll feel the canoe move a bit to the portside when you do this. When starting from a stop, the turning of the canoe will be more exaggerated, as will be the return swing from the “J,” but once the canoe’s underway and moving well, the swings from port to starboard and back will become less noticeable and the canoe will be moving more smoothly.
Some canoeists, rather than giving that little push at the end of the J-stroke, will just hold the paddle in the water with the blade turned, giving a rudder effect to the end of the stroke. This is useful, especially on long trips when you want to conserve your strength (code for “you’re tired”). The drawback is that by the time the canoe straightens out, it’s started to slow down.
The J-stroke should only be used by the stern paddler. There’s really no need for the bow paddler to use it because his strokes generally won’t be enough to turn the canoe away from his paddling side. On the other hand, the laws of physics rule that the stern paddler’s strokes will be enough to turn the canoe even if he’s much weaker than the bow paddler. Thus, even the weakest paddler, if paddling in the stern, should use the J-stroke to keep the canoe on an even course.
Another stroke that’s not so commonly used is the draw. This stroke is designed to move the canoe sideways toward the paddling side:
1. Reach the paddle as far out from the canoe as comfortably possible.
2. With the blade parallel to the canoe’s centerline, dip it about 2/3 into the water and pull it directly toward you.
3. Just before the blade strikes the gunwale, remove it from the water and, if necessary, repeat.
The reverse draw, also called the pry stroke, is designed to move the canoe sideways away from the paddling side.
1. Dip the paddle into the water as close to the gunwale as possible without striking it, with the blade parallel to the canoe’s centerline.
2. Push the blade away from you.
3. When you can’t push it any farther, remove it from the water and, if necessary, repeat.
Seem complicated? I know it looks that way, but it really isn’t – what’s complicated is putting the whole process into words. As I’ve said a few times, canoeing really is FUN!!

Maneuvering About
Although there are a few more strokes – bow rudder, cross-bow rudder and sculling, for instance, with the seven strokes discussed here you should be able to accomplish pretty much any maneuver you want to in a canoe.
For example, for a relatively straight path through the water, the bow paddler should use the bow stroke on one side of the canoe and the stern paddler, the J-stroke on the opposite side.
For a gradual turn, both paddlers should bow stroke on the same side of the canoe.
For a sharp turn, one paddler executes a forward sweep on one side of the canoe, while the other does a reverse sweep on the opposite side. Another way to execute a sharp turn is for both paddlers to do a forward sweep on the same side.
To back up, both paddlers do a reverse bow stroke.
When starting out, I earnestly recommend you limit your canoeing to simple stuff – paddle around for a while, try going in a straight line, experiment with the different strokes . . . but don’t immediately go on long overnight canoe trips with all sorts of gear in the canoe . . . and don’t try fishing from the canoe until you’re pretty comfortable with it.
As you become proficient, you’ll be able to enjoy a wide variety of activities, like whitewater canoeing, overnight camping trips and solitary fishing. If you find yourself enjoying a particular canoeing activity and spending a lot of time at it, you may want to consider buying your own canoe and associated gear.
Again, canoeing’s a lot of fun if you observe commonsense safety rules and take the time to learn how to do it right. It’s wonderful exercise without being too strenuous, and once you learn to paddle efficiently and silently, you’ll be amazed at how much more you’ll see and appreciate in the natural beauty all around us!