How to Paddle a Canoe

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.

How to Canoe How to paddle a canoe how to canoe paddling a J stroke in a canoe
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. 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. 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.

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.

To get the effect of the stroke watch my top arms and hands as you sweep your eyes from the left to the right. Just like a movie!

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.


How to Paddle a Canoe
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.


Here's the Second Paddle Stroke that you need - Draw Stroke: Click Here

Here's the one other Paddle Stroke that you might find useful-Sweep Stroke: Click Here

Here's where you can go to buy great paddles online

Learn about Bent Shaft Paddles here

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