Canoe Paddles – Does Size Matter?

canoe paddles
Canoe Paddles – How technical are they really?

For all the many, many years we’ve been selling canoes, renting canoes, and paddling canoes, we have had questions about paddles.   The paddling world seems obsessed with proper paddle lengths being very accurate.  When selling paddles, our customers will blow 45 minutes of their lives feeling the top handle of the paddle and swinging the paddle – air paddling.   I’m still not sure what anyone really learns by swinging a paddle through imaginary water while standing, but they do it all the time.   In our outfitting, it is safe to say that 70% of our rental customers do apply some strange methods for measuring their paddles.  It is usually related to a “technique” developed (and mentally imprinted) at a summer camp when they were a kid or something that Grandpa always said to do when selecting a paddle.

The measuring techniques that I usually get to witness include:

  • jamming the paddle on one’s toe and have the top handle touch one’s nose
  • jamming the paddle palm grip under an armpit.  If you look slightly in pain, that must be the one.
  • stand on one’s tippy-toes to shoulder height to accommodate the available selection
  • hold the paddle from ground to chin, nose, forehead, or other “high water marks”

Again, some people would be a bit obsessive with that straight shaft paddle length before heading out into the Boundary Waters.

Get a Grip

The other “deep” concern is the top of the paddle.  It can be a palm grip or a modified palm/T grip, or a regular T grip.  T grips often cause the greatest concerns.   When handing a T-grip paddle to the customer, I could see the aversion to the T grip about 98% of the time.  Consternation, concern, dread, etc.  There’s always a lot of gripping and handling of that T-grip paddle.   In many cases, there is a concern that the paddle will be the central focus of the Boundary Waters trip as if when seated in the canoe, the top grip of the paddle will be the center of focus for the next 7 days.    My 30+ years of experience with customers and guiding and paddling has easily proven otherwise.   Thirty seconds in the canoe and everybody completely forgets about that canoe paddle grip.   At the end of 7 days of paddling, I would ask if they had “issues” with the paddle and 99% had none regardless of paddle grip.  Some even touted how handy a T-grip was out there compared to a palm grip.   When a canoe tries to drift away, a T grip paddle can be used to catch the gunwale and bring it back in while one’s feet remain dry.   Why get wet if you don’t have to?   It sounds minor, but that  little convenience can brighten one’s day while loading the floating canoe (as it should be) with gear at the top of the portage which is usually next to the top of rapids.  A palm grip is worthless in this realm particularly if there is a strong current.

Critical Factors

So, what is actually critical in sizing a paddle properly?   Well, tt depends on a few variables.  The stern paddler has no canoe behind him/her so a longer straight shaft paddle would not be a problem.  Generally, a longer straight shaft paddle is desirable in the back because the stern paddler is in charge (and hopefully control) of all steering.  A long paddle aids in a more effective, smoother, J stroke.  At the end of each stroke -in the back of the canoe-, a longer paddle allows the ability to reach further behind the canoe which affects more leverage on the canoe like a ship’s rudder.  In the simplest terms, a ship always has the rudder at the very back of the hull. Swinging it one way or the other makes the bow of the ship correspond  by altering its course, as it should.  A paddle does the exact same thing as a rudder- in the stern of the canoe.   This is not to be confused with “ruddering” the canoe which is a very undesirable technique used by lazy stern paddlers who rely on their wives to provide power while they steer.  “Put your back into it, honey!”  (A blog post for yet another day)

In the bow of the canoe, that paddler is there primarily to contribute propulsion but not really steer.  For flat-water paddling, which the exception of maneuvering near shore, they should be paddling straight ahead, pulling the canoe forward in a coordinated effort with the stern paddler.  Does it have to be a coordinated effort?  Well, no.  Everybody can be flopping around and doing their own thing and the canoe will usually get to it’s destination, but coordinated paddling is most efficient and a future post in this blog.

Because the canoe that gets wider behind the bow paddler as opposed to the stern of the canoe which “pinches” off  behind the stern paddler, a “too long” paddle in the bow can be problematic.

As the bow paddler finishes a stroke with a paddle that is too long, the paddle can hit the canoe bottom/side (chine) behind the position.  A long paddle also ends up catching waves as it is swung back forward for another stroke.  It also can end up reaching forward at an angle that has zero benefit for propulsion whereby the paddle waits for the canoe to catch up to it and then the paddler finishes out the actual stroke.

If anything, the front paddle can easily be a bit short with little detrimental impact on moving the canoe forward with reasonably good proficiency.

So, what determines paddle length for a “rule of thumb” sizing?  Two things:

  • Torso length
  • The canoe being paddled

Torso Length:  From seated butt to shoulders, that is the only part that matters when sizing a paddle.  Unless you are planning on standing up for the entire trip, leg length is relatively meaningless.  The goal with paddle sizing is to make certain that the entire blade of the paddle swings through the water while seated in the canoe.  If 1/3 of the blade doesn’t immerse on a stroke, that paddle is a bit short and the paddler is not getting the most bang for the buck in each stroke based on the natural body framework.  Sure, the paddler could drop their arms a bit to make sure that the paddle goes deeper, but that’s one more thing of which to be conscious, so a closer fit is generally desired.

The canoe: If you are in a narrow canoe that will be loaded down, the top of your shoulders will be closer to the water.  You will need a slightly shorter paddle.  If you need a 56″ straight shaft paddle and are in a Souris River Quetico 17,  you would need a 52-54″ straight shaft paddle in Wenonah MN II.  The Wenonah has lower seats in it and due to it’s narrow size, sits lower on the water.  Shorter paddles are the generally rule for more efficient paddling.
The Paddle Measuring Technique – Rule of Thumb Method

For general purpose canoes like a Souris River Quetico 17,  Souris River Quetico 18.5, Grumman 17 or an Old Town Discovery 174, sit in straight-backed chair and have somebody measure from the chair seat to the nose.   For a straight shaft paddle, add 26″ to that number.  So, if the distance from seated butt to nose is 30″, add 26″ and your straight-shaft paddle length is 56″   For a bent-shaft paddle with a 14-15° bend, add 20″ .

For a Wenonah canoe, measure from seated butt to chin (instead of nose) for your base measurement and you should be fine.

Summary- Does Size Matter?

So how important is all this for recreational, general purpose paddling?  If your straight shaft paddle is 2″ too long based off the Rule Of Thumb method, but it’s all that is available,  does it matter?  Nah.  If you were in an Olympic canoe race it “might” matter, but for regular paddling it doesn’t mean much especially with a well-designed, general-purpose, canoe.  Paddling specialty racing canoes – yes, it will matter more.  The more specific the intended use for a canoe designed for say, racing; the more an accurate canoe paddle length will matter.  And, this will be the case particularly for racing paddles AKA bent-shaft paddles.  Even then, perfect paddle length only applies to two, tuned paddlers, looking to shave seconds, (not minutes) off their time to win a race.  For all the rest of us, this is meaningless and a complete waste of mental energy in my opinion.   Over time, you may find a paddle length that most naturally fits you, but if the one you are presently using is off an inch or two, you’d be surprised at how quickly you’ll forget about the paddle in 2.5+ foot white caps.  At that point, you will be really much more concerned about the canoe and how IT handles rough water.  Again, a whole other blog post.

Want to Rent a Souris River Quetico 17 for your next BWCA canoe trip?  Click Here


How to Paddle a Canoe – the Sweep Stroke

The Sweep Stroke 

by Red Rock Wilderness Store

This is the stroke I’m going to cal l# 2.5 with #1 being the J Stroke and #2 being the Draw Stroke. This stroke is more helpful to the stern paddler if the bow paddler actually knows how to sweep right or sweep left. Critical to this stroke is the hand placement, namely how far you slide the paddle out for leverage and the depth of the paddle blade. This stroke was impossible to photograph with my digital camera, but at least I can describe and show what it’s supposed to look like. The end result of a Sweep Stroke is to push the bow away from the paddle and pull the stern towards the paddle. As you’ll see in the pictures below, I would be causing the stern of the canoe to be dragged towards the paddle. As a stern paddler in a fierce wind, I would request a sweep left or sweep right from my bow paddler to force the bow the direction that I wanted to go. Also, in conjunction with my bow paddler who is sweeping on the the right, I would do a hard J Stroke on the left at the stern. This would cause the canoe to turn to the left quickly and with good power. Because the Sweep Stroke only dunks half the paddle blade at an angle in the water and more or less “sweeps” with a large arc (accompanied by splashing sounds of water getting shoved out of the way of the paddle as it skims on top), the bow paddler may need to perform several fast sweeps. This is possible to do because the paddle is not deep in the water like with a regular stroke.


1. For a stern Sweep, slide the paddle out in your hands and reach forward with the blade to putting it half way in the water. See that red and yellow arc? That’s where I would sweep. Note that my bottom hand now halfway up the shaft and much closer to my top hand. In order to produce an effective sweep, you need to get out there. Since leaning out there is ill-advised, you want to extend your paddle out instead. Notice that I crouch down a bit as I lean slightly forward and prepare to pull that canoe stern over. . (Incidentally, the canoe is not leaning as much as it appears – that’s camera lens distortion.
how to paddle a canoe - sweepstroke

2. With paddle half-way in the water, sweep across the water’s surface following the great big arc. Remember that the red arc won’t be there on most lakes so memorize this stroke.
how to paddle a canoe - sweepstroke
3. Continuing on the same sweep rotation. Note that in an action shot, you’d see a big splash arc much like you see on TV when a jetski is making a hard, banking turn at high speed. Who’d ever thought that I’d use reference to a jetski to illustrate a paddle technique?
how to paddle a canoe - sweepstroke

4. The final phase of the Sweep Stroke ends up way back at the stern of the canoe, thereby dragging the canoe to the same side as the paddle is located.
how to paddle a canoe - sweepstroke

From the Bow: Note that the bow paddler would execute the same maneuver from the front of the canoe by sliding the paddle forward as in Step 1, reaching out with a vertical blade right up next to the bow of the canoe, and sweeping in several big arcs. At the same time, the stern paddler applies a strong J Stroke with good forward power on the other side of the canoe and the canoe turns wherever it needs to go with relative ease unless it’s a Brand X kevlar canoe.  You can do backflips and somersaults in a Brand X canoe and it won’t turn in a wind.  But they sure do paddle straight and ride low in the water!  The lack of control combined with the non-existent freeboard in a huge wind is SO comforting!

How to paddle the Draw Stroke

How to paddle the J Stroke

How to Paddle a Canoe – J Stroke

The J-Stroke

by Red Rock Wilderness Store

With all the “How to paddle a Canoe” books out there, I’ve decided that they really don’t hit the spot when it comes down to teaching somebody how to handle a canoe on flat water(AKA lake, pond, slow moving river). We don’t want to learn how to paddle in whitewater, not in screaming rivers or 5 foot waves, just on a lake – basic paddling techniques to allow one to go from point A to B in a straight line. You can’t find this easily in any books or at least I can’t. Most paddling books have so much extra info including advanced techniques (cross bow rudder, post and draw, blah, blah blah) that I think the gentle reader walks away from all that worthless learning a bit dazed and confused. So, this is my attempt to illustrate the TWO basic strokes that make a canoe go – a J Stroke and a Draw Stoke. There are lots of variations on these two strokes that tend to be explained ad nauseum in most canoe books, but I think everybody makes them a lot harder that they really are. Oh, and yes, I know there are several folks out there who have their own personal interpretation of the J-Stroke and they do all sorts of goofy things that ARE NOT the J-Stroke. For a proper, efficient and smooth J-Stroke, the top hand on the palm grip of the paddle ALWAYS ends in thumb-down position at end of the stroke – not thumb up, not thumb sideways, or any other derivation of the thumb. It’s thumb-down and push out with bottom arm, nothing else. Avoid the goofy variations your buddy developed in Nam, stick to the basics and remember this one simple fact: the canoe is steered from one side at a time by either pushing the stern to the right (J-Stroke) or pulling the stern to the left (Draw Stroke) and vice versa on the other side.

1. First part of the stroke. Observe my upper body. I’m sitting straight and once my paddle blade touches the water, the shaft is almost perpendicular to the water and NOT across my chest. Notice my upper arm and how far beyond my face my top hand is during the stroke. This is critical to good technique. If you are paddling with the top of the paddle in front of your chest or body, you are in a sloppy sweep stroke and you are now creating more problems for yourself and preparing to blame the canoe. Think I don’t know what I’m talking about? Guess again – you can’t believe how many times I’ve seen people flopping around with poorly executed sweep strokes and then blame the canoe or the bow paddler for navigational difficulties.

Paddling the J stroke

2. In this phase, the paddle is pulled through the water propelling the canoe forward. If you just pull the paddle straight back the canoe bow will automatically turn to the side opposite of the side the paddle is on. You need to implement a correcting phase at the end of your stroke and this is where we put the J in the stroke. Again, observe my top arm and the almost straight-up paddle shaft. Note that my hand and the palm grip of the paddle is well beyond my face NOT across my chest. If I were new to this, the outside muscle on my upper shoulder would start to burn after prolonged paddling. That’s normal. Paddle thru the burn and you’ll be less wimpy in the future.
How To Paddle a Canoe

3. Still in power phase of trhe stroke but watch my top hand as I move into picture #4. Upper body still straight and I’m looking straight ahead through the whole phase of each stroke. I’m actually lining up the head of my lovely wife Annette with a target on the horizon. This is how I determine how hard to push my bottom arm out for the “J” part of the stroke to correct for the canoe’s natural desire to turn to the right as I paddle on the left. If I were paddling on the right side straight ahead the canoe would turn to the left. To correct that anomaly and maintain a straight course I would need to push out a J Stroke with my lower arm on the right side.
How To Paddle the J Stroke

4. The final phase fo the J Stroke. Notice my top hand. From my perspective (as the stern paddler), my thumb is turned down and my bottom arm now pushes the paddle-now-turned-into- a- rudder outward. The paddle is now in the verticle postion and ends up at the back of the canoe as the stroke nears completion. Just like a rudder on the stern of a ship, the paddle exersizes leverage on the canoe pushing the stern in one direction and causing the canoe bow to move in the opposite direction. If you were observing me from a stepladder directly above, you would see my paddle stroke form a lazy letter J.

How to paddle a J Stroke

A “J Stroke” is a blend of two paddle maneuvers. The first half of a J Stroke is the power portion followed by the rudder portion which occurs in the last phase of the completed stroke. Sometimes you’ll just need a flick of the rudder part of the stroke and other times you’ll need to do a hard J. Watch your bow paddlers head as you look straight ahead to see what effect you are having on the canoe. If you watch your paddle, you’ll have no refined control over the canoe. Gotta sit up straight. look straight ahead and paddle like you mean it. If you’re a “paddle-dipper” you should maybe just get a room at the Holiday in and rent a movie. To paddle a J Stroke on the other side of the canoe, everything mirrors the picture about. Your hands switch but you still go thumb down and bottom arm out. It’s the same maneuver on the other side of the canoe.

Observe the background in the photos above. Notice the trees in the order of the photos. We travel from small hill to large rock as I push the back of the canoe over to my right. If I wanted to, I could push out really hard with my lower arm forming a more normal J and cause the canoe to turn very hard to my left which is the same side on which I’m paddling. I do not have to switch over to the other side of the canoe and paddle straight to make the canoe turn hard to the left. The key to efficient paddling is NOT switching sides every two strokes. As a general rule of paddling I recommend that you complete 15-30 strokes on the same side and both paddlers generally should always be on opposite sides. When either paddler gets tired of that particular side, they call out to switch and you both switch over to the other side at the same time in a nice smooth switch. Ideally, you should try to match your paddle cadence to your partner’s stroke up front to get a rhythm going. You’ll cover more ground with less effort as a result plus the canoe doesn’t wobble from side to side with all the activity. I find that it’s best for the stern paddler to match the bow paddler’s pace because it’s pretty hard for the bow paddler to match the stroke of the stern paddler unless they have their rearview mirrors in place.

When the wind grabs you or hits you at a 45 degree angle, the paddler in back (the person who’s totally in charge of the canoe’s steering control) may say to switch to maintain control over the canoe. For instance, if the wind is hitting the canoe on the right side, the stern paddler may find it advantageous to paddle on the left side and without a J-Stroke – just paddling straight ahead. The stern paddler calls a switch and paddles to match the strength of the wind to hold the canoe in position. If the wind is strong, the stern paddler might have to paddle really hard. You will always need to adapt to the elements and only a seasoned paddler will have the most control so practise without the panic. If the canoe is not going where you want, stop going forward, force the back to the direction it needs to go via Draw, Sweep, or J Stroke and then start again. Also, too, in all of these photos, I’m paddling an exceptionally well-designed canoe (Souris River Quetico 17) that provides the right amount of tracking and turning and actually is affected by a J-Stroke. A lot of Brand X kevlar canoes will not even budge for a properly executed J Stroke so you end up at the mercy of the wind and need to go around the whole friggin’ lake to turn around. Canoes that can’t be turned are a total waste of time and money unless you are a canoe racer.


Here’s another shot of me paddling a J Stroke on the other side of the canoe. You can see the smooth water that is the result of the canoe turning on the paddle side. Notice the undisturbed waves on the non-paddle side. The smooth side is akin to the contrail of a jetliner flying over. By observing the length and path of the smooth water you can get an idea for the speed that the canoe is traveling. We’re gliding right along and I’m actually holding the rudder portion of the J Stroke longer than usual for photo purposes. Dang digital camera is an older design and it’s really hard to paddle a complete stroke without making the canoe zip along at a rather fast clip. Camera takes forever to reset between shots.
How to paddle a J Stroke

How to Paddle a Draw Stroke

How to Paddle a Sweep Stroke

Red Rock’s Excellence in Paddling


Red Rock’s Excellence in Paddling
You may have noticed that on this sight, I have a tendency to “toot my own horn” a little here and there about Red Rock’s Excellence in Paddling-related Subjects.   It’s either with our superior quality Souris River Canoes, or our common sense approach to canoe handling, tie-downs, eating northern pike, crating canoes for shipment, etc.    Well the bravado never ends and I’m now going to show you the absolute BEST bent shaft paddle combination for moving any canoe.    As of April 14, 2005, there is absolutely no other canoe shop on the planet who recommends this paddle combination and I’m pretty sure they’ve never even considered this before, ever. So, here goes – this is the very best you can get to move your canoe faster if you are a recreational paddler.

If you’ve ever used a bentshaft paddle, (and you held it properly) you undoubtedly noticed that the canoe moves faster forward than with the use of straight shaft paddles. That’s because a 14 degree (most common bend) paddle is all about “push” in the water.

How a bentshaft paddle works
How a bentshaft paddle works

In a bent shaft paddle, because the handle is bent forward, it clears the paddler’s upper torso as it’s drawn through the water. The bend allows this paddle to be pulled through the water with BOTH arms for a shorter, but powerful stroke. (“A” represents the water being pushed (or “pulled through” resulting in push “C” to the canoe) That’s all a bent shaft it really does well. Because of the bend, more blade pushes water more effectively without lifting water as you’ll see on the next page. Doing a J-stroke with a 14 deg. paddle requires that you really do a swing-over-with-the-top-of-the-paddle-handle-maneuver to make a J in the water with the paddle on it’s side in rudder position. It’s clumsy and inefficient so a lot of what you gained in a powerful stroke, you give up while paddle wrestling.

Bent shaft paddles are really made to paddle using the sit-and-switch racing technique which means that two paddlers are located on opposite sides of the canoe. They paddle with short, fast, synchronized strokes, usually three each, and then one paddler says HUT and they switch simultaneously to the other side without breaking stride. I can paddle like this for about a mile and then my shoulders start to ask what the heck I’m doing that for, anyway? If you like marathon paddling, that’s one thing. Otherwise, marathon stroking is kinda dumb for BWCA travel for regular folks. Instead of blowing out all of your ooompf on a race down the lake, my paddle combination will help you improve your present paddling power so you may not be as tired when you finally get there.

The Straight-shaft Paddle
It’s been around since the dawn of canoe time and the straight shaft canoe paddle isn’t ever going to leave. There’s nothing wrong with straight shaft paddles but there’s nothing wrong with improving either.

Straight shaft paddle stroke
Straight shaft paddle stroke

Because the straight shaft paddle does not clear the body of a paddler like a bent shaft paddle does, the paddle-swinging dynamics change. The paddle gets lifted higher into the air before it’s dunked in the water. Then, as it is pulled through the water by the blue arm, the green arm ends up actually pushing forward. This makes the blue arm point of contact act like a fulcrum or the “pivot point on a see-saw”. As the paddle is being pulled through the water, the shoulders of the paddler drop with is and pull it through the water. The result in this stroke is that in the Total Stroke length, only about 1/3 or 33% of the entire stroke is “push”. Starting at stroke-point “E” above, the paddle is not pushing water back but instead lifting water. Instead of effectively pushing the canoe forward, the lifting force of the paddle is actually pushing the paddler’s butt (and the canoe) down into the water.

But, this paddle does a J-stroke beautifully. Just by dropping the shoulders at the end of the stroke and rotating the shaft downward by the top of the paddle (thumb on the hand of the green arm turns down thereby standing the following-through paddle blade into a rudder at the back of the canoe). The end result is that a straight-shaft paddle is more about steering than about push.

14 degree bendtshaft paddle
14 degree bendtshaft paddle

The 7 Degree Bent shaft Paddle
This is the compromise paddle. As I type, I hear the drums beating in the distance by the “experts” on both sides as they eschew the sins of compromise, but to them I say “beat it”. Yes, a combination paddle (called a combi paddle) doesn’t do it’s best in either world.   It doesn’t give maximum push and it doesn’t give maximum steering.   But, just like combi skis for cross country skiing which do a pretty good job of skating AND classical skiing, the 7 degree bent shaft offers two great improvements in power and steering over both of it’s brethren paddles.  If you’re not a racer and not a slacker, you’ll probably really love this combi paddle!  We have many, many, many paddlers who would agree.

7 degree bentshaft paddle
7 degree bentshaft paddle

The 7 degree paddle does a great job because it gives more push from it’s total stroke than the straight shaft paddle. Yet, because it’s flatter (in the amount of bend) than the 14 degree, you can effectively make a good J Stroke with it. The result is about 1/3 more power per stroke over a straight shaft paddle. This allows the guy in the back to really kick it down if he needs to do so when maneuvering the canoe especially in the wind. And, if he needs to do a draw stroke, there’s less accommodation of the larger bend of the 14 deg. paddle.

I feel that this is by far the best combination of paddles for any “not-being-raced” canoe. Put a 14 deg. bent shaft in the bow and a 7 degree bent shaft in the stern. You’ll notice that your canoe’s speed will increase yet your effort will remain the same. Short of attaching a rocket engine to the stern, there’s not much more you can do to kick up your speed for a small investment. It works very well. Note: If you are paddling a heavy, floppy, plastic canoe made by a company that makes camp stoves and coolers, use of this paddle combo will elicit stares. You really need to upgrade your canoe before the paddles.

We have our 7 degree bent shafts custom built for us by Mitchell See them Here

How to size a 7 Degree Bent shaft Paddle: Over 6′ Tall = 56″ Under 6′ tall = 54″  More refined: Long torso shorter legs, use the 56″.  Shorter torso, longer legs, use the 54″.  Torso height is what determines paddle length. All that crap about putting the paddle on you toe and sticking the end under your armpit, or up to your nose, or up to your eyebrow – that’s all BS.  From the bottom of your butt, how high the seat is in the canoe, how low the canoe sinks into the water, and your shoulder height, and whether or not you are seated in the bow or stern,  pretty much determines the paddle length.  I’ve seen so many wives tale, made-up, ridiculous ways to measure a paddle, and then they want to argue with me after asking “What size?”.    If you know the answer, why bother to ask?

Paddling a Canoe in Wind

Canoeing in Wind
by Red Rock Wilderness Store

canoe turning
Turning a canoe like you mean business

I’ve been in the outfitting business since 1976. I learned how to paddle from my dad when I was about 9 years old. He learned from his dad (my grandpa)who moved to America from Slovenia in 1922. My dad showed me the only two strokes one really needs to use and the affect they have on the canoe. Back then, 40 years ago, we didn’t know the names of the strokes. We just knew what they did. So, he’d put me in the stern of a 17 foot Grumman square stern handed me one of the only few paddles we owned back then – it was big for me. Then, from the front of the canoe he instructed me how to move the back of the canoe with a J Stroke and a Draw Stroke. He taught me how to line his body up (he was in the front of the canoe) with a distant tree or rock and watch how my J Stroke affected the direction of the canoe. I had been shooting BB guns since I was five and got my first .22 caliber semi-auto rifle when I turned nine, so lining him up with a target was a very easy thing to do. However, holding the canoe in position with my dad in the front and little me in the back was a bit more difficult, because in the wind with the stern of the canoe up in the air (heavy guy in front, light kid in back) the canoe wants to weather-vane into the wind all the time. As a result, it was easy for me to turn the canoe but a LOT harder to hold it straight in any position in anything other than directly into the wind. But after some tries and practice, I got the hang of it and developed an ability to “finesse” the canoe even when it was improperly loaded as it was with me in the back. As I got bigger, it got easier. And, over time I could hold any decent canoe (canoe with sensible rocker built into the hull) in a laser straight line or make it go in anywhere I wanted to go.

One other thing my dad taught me was handling the canoe in the wind. Heading a canoe straight into the wind makes your life more difficult. It’s like walking a tightrope with the wind forces requiring you to balance between left and right. This constant balancing and correction will wear you out unnecessarily. Instead of paddling straight into the wind, if you are on open water and going a distance, angle against the wind slightly. Make the wind work for you. If you use the wind to lay up at a slight angle against the canoe the stern guy, won’t have to use as much of a J stroke. In fact, the stern guy could paddle with powerful straight-ahead strokes on the right side of the canoe which makes a normal canoe with a wind from the left bow side, try to turn into the wind. If you match the wind strength, no J stroke is needed and you’ll paddle in a straight line, slipping against the wind. If you exceed the wind’s strength, you will turn into the wind. If the wind is too strong, you will lose ground as the wind pushes you to the right and then completely broadside. At some point, you will need to change the canoe and your paddling sides to aim the canoe to the other way as you run out of water with the shore approaching. Just reverse the paddle positions and do the same wind-slipping thing. More or less, you are “tacking” which is how a sailboat sails into the wind. It’s a big, controlled, zigzag pattern down the lake.

Notice the green bars: They indicate the position of the paddler as it is pulled by you through the water.

Paddling straight in wind
Avoid paddling straight into the wind whenever possible. It’s like walking on a tightrope. Now sometimes, you can’t avoid paddling headlong into the wind especially if you are in a really narrow bay, so common sense must apply.

Paddling into wind
Paddling into wind

Do this: Instead of going straight into the wind, use the wind to your advantage. Stern paddler paddles straight ahead and matches the strength of the wind that lays up against the other side of the canoe. The stern paddler doesn’t (or may not) need a J stroke to hold a straight line depending on the strength of the wind. Bow paddler on the opposite side of stern paddler, paddles straight ahead as well. When you get close to the shore on the right side, switch canoes sides and paddling positions and “tack” with the wind on your right side. Just reverse your positions.

Paddling straight into wind
Paddling straight into wind

To turn into the wind: If the wind is stronger, tell the bow paddler to switch to the non-wind side. Stern paddler then switches to the wind side and employs a J stroke with enough forward power and rudder (the “J” part) to match what is needed to turn the bow into the wind. The stern paddler uses the bow paddler as a “front sight” to see how much “j” is needed in each stroke to make the canoe either hold against the wind or turn into the wind. By having the bow paddler on the non-wind, right side (in the diagram above), a normal canoe’s natural tendency is to turn to the left. Add a stern paddler who is forcing the stern of the canoe to the right with the J stroke (in the diagram) and the canoe turns into the wind if the stroke is a hard J. You are seeing kind of a lazy “J” above which means the canoe will not turn too hard. You determine how hard the canoe needs to turn from the stern, so watching your paddle will tell you nothing. Watch the bow paddler and the shoreline to measure your effect on the canoe.

How to steer a canoe
Turning into the wind

Paddling Positions for turning into a strong wind
If the wind is blowing hard on one side and you want to turn into the wind, have your bow paddler move to the non-wind side of the canoe and paddle straight ahead just as you see the little green paddle stroke postions above. This automatically puts canoe pressure against the wind because the canoe wants to turn opposite of the bow paddler’s stroke. The stern paddler moves to the same side of the wind and uses a hard “J” stroke as indicated by green line at the stern of the canoe for your paddle position as you push it through the water.    This “power-forward-then-fluid-rudder” J stroke pushes the back of the canoe to the opposite direction which forces the front of the canoe into the wind. Teamed up with the bow paddler naturally forcing the bow into the wind, you can efficiently make the canoe turn under your control without losing a lot of speed. If the wind is ridiculously strong do the next maneuver you’ll see below.


How to steer a canoe
Paddling canoe in wind

Turning the canoe like you mean it
This maneuver will work for repositioning a canoe. A normal canoe can be turned into a stiff wind with ease doing this maneuver. Note: at the risk of sounding like I’m picking on Wenonah, this is about the only way you can seriously turn a loaded down MN II and it will be difficult as well. The MN II is a rockerless racing hull – it only wants to go straight no matter what your do with your paddles. The next maneuver is an effective way to try to move the MN II beast even when not in a wind. For other canoes that are more suited to John Q Public who are not “elitest-minded” paddlers (Note: I didn’t say anything about “elitest ability” because I’ve witnessed many MN II owners who have very limited paddling abilities and shouldn’t even be in that hull design – I’ve been watching them for years, now – I’m so underwhelmed.), these canoes will turn as they need to turn and this next maneuver will do a very bold reposition of the canoe in a really stiff wind. Basically, the bow paddler draws to the right and the stern paddler draws to the left (or vice versa) Follow the little green bars to see the paddle position of the complete stroke as it is pulled through the water. You pull the flat blade to you and turn the paddle and push back. This drags the canoe in the direction you want to go for the first part of the stroke and follows up with the power part of the stroke to propel you forward. It’s important to remember that propelling forward in a stiff wind keeps you from losing ground. If you stop going forward to just turn the canoe (which a common, easily-observed occurence with many paddlers in MN II’s and Spirit II’s), you MAY lose a LOT of already-paddled ground. So, draw to yourself, turn the paddle and then continue to push yourself (and the attached canoe) forward; in one fluid stroke.

Practice the draw stroke. It’s easy and effective on both ends of the canoe. Your bow paddler, (regardless of gender) should know how to use a draw stroke. If there is ONE technical stroke they need to know, it is this one! You call to them is to ” DRAW LEFT” or DRAW RGHT” when YOU need it. When not using a draw stroke, the bow paddler just paddles forward normally. The guy in the stern is responsible for ALL steering of the canoe ALL the time. Be warned: I never want to hear how “the wife (or other bow paddler) didn’t paddle the bow of the canoe properly”. If this is said in my presence, I will embarrass and humiliate the stern paddler (who said this) into the ground and without mercy. And I don’t care how big you are… Repeat after me: The stern paddler is in charge of the directional control of the canoe, period.


 Happy Canoe Steering!