Paddling a Canoe

A canoe differs from a kayak in that it is paddled with a single blade paddle.  There are one man (C1) and two person (C2) canoes available.

The two paddlers in a two person canoe (C2) must coordinate, and unless something interesting is happening, make their strokes simultaneously. Have a look at some brief tips:

Paddling the open Canoe

The two paddlers in a C2 must coordinate, and unless something interesting is happening, make their strokes simultaneously. Normally, the stern paddler is in command, using clear, concise instructions when necessary, and controlling the boat’s direction. The bow paddler does more than propel, however. He or she is there to ‘read’ the water and direct through awkward bits where necessary. (In the days of the voyageurs bow paddlers were paid more because of their skills and experience in reading the water.) Sometimes each paddler simply paddles his or her end through the obstructions.

Should paddlers sit or kneel on open canoes? For most paddling, sitting is more comfortable, but for paddling among the snags and other obstacles the kneeling position gives greater stability and power.

The main difficulty with single blade paddling is keeping straight. Ideally, the blade should be under the centre of the boat – that’s not possible so we have to make do with the blade as close to the hull as practicable.

The Canoe Paddle

The paddle has one blade, with a T or other grip at the other end. The most accurate means for determining the correct length is to sit or kneel as appropriate in the boat: with the top arm horizontal the blade should just be immersed. The top hand goes on the T grip, and the hands should be about elbow width apart.

The forward paddle stroke

Several points must be emphasised: power must come from body, not arm muscles strokes must be close to the hull, but parallel to the centreline strokes should be short-the first 15-20centimetres of a stroke provide the most power.

Key Points

. Sit up, with slight forward lean.
. Hands correctly positioned.
. Rotate the torso and reach forward to place the blade squarely into the water.
. The arms are extended but not straight
. The top hand reaches right across the persons” body so that the shaft is held vertical.
. Make the stroke using power from body muscles: rotate the torso bringing the paddle back in a relatively vertical aspect, NOT a push pull with lower hand pulling, upper hand pushing.
. Slice the blade outwards (to the side) from the water as it passes the body.
. Keep the blade low on recovery – skim the surface.


. Bending arms.
. Top hand not over the side.
. Using arm, not body muscles.
. High recovery.
. Paddling parallel to gunwale, not the centreline.

Trail Stroke

Also known, disparagingly, as the ‘Squaw’ or ‘Goon’ stroke. Essentially, the stroke is a Stern Rudder tacked on to the end of a forward stroke. It is not as efficient for driving the boat forward, but it does give better control, and should be used only when necessary. 

Key Points

. At the end of the forward stroke, allow the paddle to remain in the water and trail behind the paddler.  Rotate the blade so that it is vertical by rotating your top hand away from you.
. Make sure you continue to rotate your torso so that you are facing sideways – Do not reach behind you.
. Push the blade away from the canoe to turn toward it, pull it in toward the canoe to turn away from it. This should be done through torso rotation rather than through pushing and pulling the arms


. Elbow bent – keep the lower arm straight.

J Stroke

So called, because of the path followed by the blade. As the blade passes the thigh, rotate the wrists outwards so that the top thumb points forward. Pressure is on the drive face of the blade throughout. In the older style of J stroke the paddle did not touch the gunwale: the modern trend is to lever the paddle off the gunwale to make the pry action more powerful. There are other variations of the stroke.

Key Points

. Roll the wrists away from the body: thumb of top hand points downwards.
. Use the drive face for steering.


. Insufficient or incorrect wrist rotation.
. Elbow bent – keep the lower arm straight.


Marathon paddlers don’t bother with the J Stroke, but after a few strokes call ‘Hut!’ and swap sides
As you lift the blade from the water at the end of a stroke, release the top hand. Lift the paddle across the boat and put the top hand beneath the lower hand: the top is now the bottom. Slide the new top hand up the shaft to the handgrip, adjust the bottom hand and make the next stroke.

For touring, change sides every 10 – 15 minutes.

The solo canoe paddler must be able to J Stroke fluently, and should be proficient on both sides. Crosswind, some boats are easier to paddle on the upwind side, others on the downwind: experiment to find out.

Reverse Paddling

All reverse paddling strokes use the back of the blade and depend, as always, on body rotation for power. To begin, rotate the torso to the side of the stroke and with arms straight, put the paddle flat on the water. Keeping the arms straight, twist in the opposite direction, driving the blade towards the bow until it is near vertical. Lift the blade clear and wind up for the next stroke.
When paddling in reverse, the bow paddler will be controlling the direction. Reverse J strokes will be needed. Make the reverse stroke, then as the blade passes the hips, rotate it and pull the top hand across, levering off the gunwale.

Key Points

. Emphasise the trunk rotation
. Sit upright
. Keep the arms straight, paddle clear of body
. Look behind


. No torso twist
. Bent arms
. Not reaching right back

Emergency Stops

Use short, hard, quick reverse strokes.


Sweep strokes are made in a wide arc, with the paddle near horizontal, the arms straight, and with power from the body, but in the C2 are through 90° only.

Key Points

. Use maximum body rotation
. Use some fore and aft lean to extend rotation
. Working arm straight
. Paddle near horizontal
. Blade just immersed
. Push on the footrest

Draw Stroke

Draw strokes are used to move the canoe sideways or to turn it for rafting and approaching jetties and other landings.

Key Points

. Turn the body to ‘face’ the water.
. Shaft vertical, with top hand over the gunwale.
. Lower hand at full reach at right angles to canoe, blade immersed, parallel to hull.
. Pull the blade towards the boat, top hand steady.
. Keep the boat level.
. Before the blade touches the hull, lift the wrist, rotating the blade 90°.
. Slice the blade away for the next stroke.


. Top hand too low or close- lift it past the gunwale, and apply outward pressure during the stroke.

Pry Stroke

This stroke is equivalent to the Draw, but in the opposite direction. (Bow paddlers could use Cross Bow Draw in its place.)

Put the paddle vertically alongside, and hold the shaft against the gunwale. With the blade at 90° to the hull, push the top hand outwards so that the blade is under the hull. Rotate the wrists, and blade, and pull with the top hand. Feather the blade and push to swing the blade under the hull for the next stroke. The top hand does all the work, with the lower hand simply holding the shaft in position against the gunwale.

Key Points

. Blade must start under the hull
. Top hand must be right across
. Shaft held against gunwale
. Pull the top hand
. Feather to recover


. Letting shaft drift from gunwale
. Feathering the confusing

The movement is somewhat jerky. Make a series of short strokes rather than try one long stroke. Keep in time with the Draw at the other end. Be careful of this one when there are obstructions below the surface, especially when the boat is under way.

Experiment with combinations of Draw/Pry, Pry/Draw, Draw/Draw, Pry/Pry and part sweep strokes to move the boat sideways and/or rotate.

Bow Draw

The Bow Draw is used to turn the canoe, by drawing the bow to the paddling side. An initial sweep will often be done by the stern paddler.

Key Points

. Rotate torso to the side the stroke will be taken
. All of shaft should be on the paddling side, near vertical when viewed from ahead
. Top hand high, lower arm flexed
. Wrists flexed
. Drive face towards bow by unwinding the torso rotation


. Wrists not flexed (back of blade used)
. Letting blade be forced out of position
. Paddle not vertical

To turn the opposite way, there’s the Overside or Cross Bow Draw. Rotate the body and lift the blade across to the other side of the boat. The pressure is still on the drive face of the blade, and control is with blade position and wrist angle. If the blade strikes an obstruction let go immediately with the bottom hand.

Support Stroke

The solo paddler will normally be able to support on one side only, and will often need to decide before entering some areas of water on which side to paddle for better support. Paddlers in C2 will be able to support on both sides at once. Support strokes depend on body movement, not brute force applied to the paddle.

Key Points

. The back of the blade is used, shaft low, and over the side of the canoe.
. Use the blade to stop the tipping movement.
. Pull the boat back under your head by using a ‘hip flick’ to bring the boat in under you.
. Do not drive down on the blade, use your hip movements to bring the boat upright.
. Drop the wrists to slice the blade out.