Canoe Ponderings by Red Rock Wilderness Store
Solo Paddling from the middle vs. the ends
Q. I am a bit confused by your comments on paddling from the center, though. Why do solo canoes have the seat in the middle, if this is not the best place for a solo paddler? I was taught that you want to get as close to center as possible, which is why you sit in bow seat and reverse the canoe. But I realize that it requires a more-severe J-stroke to keep straight.
A. You can't use the leverage of a
J stroke to turn the canoe very efficiently when you are sitting dead center. All you can do is
paddle twice on the left, then twice on the right, etc. If you want to turn right, you have to
paddle 4 times on the left and once on the right or some varied combination of strokes. Personally,
I absolutely hate having to paddle this style which is called " sit & switch". With this racing
technique (if you can even call it a technique - I call it sloppy paddling), you need a straight
tracking solo canoe and usually a bent shaft paddle (not required, but since you aren't steering,
you might as well have one - they are more efficient for powering the canoe forward). You
also need to like to get your knees wet as you are slopping the paddle back and forth on both sides
all the time, constantly dripping water in the canoe. If one wants to be wet all day, one should
get a kayak. Much more efficient than a solo canoe but a worthless craft if anything other than the
paddler has to be hauled.
From the center of the canoe, you can't do a J stroke effectively. A hard J stroke (power thru the first part of your stroke pulling normally thru the water to push the canoe for 2/3's of the stroke. Then during your last 1/3 of the same stroke your top hand turning wrist down to rotate the paddle into a "rudder" blade and your bottom arm pushing out in that last third to form a lazy letter "J") at the enter of the canoe in a solo, works to push the canoe sideways, not turn. Turning is what we want, like the rudder on back of a ship. You never see a rudder on a ship that is mounted dead center and hanging off the side. In that position, it would do nothing except slow the ship down. Turning would occur when the rudder is turned, but the motors would burn a ton of fuel trying to make the inefficient thing travel forward while turning.
The main reason you paddle your canoe from the front seat facing backwards is to get more flat canoe surface underneath you. You can only do this by approaching the center of the canoe if you are the main weight source. To illustrate: if you were to stand up in your canoe on water, which would be more stable? Standing dead center, or standing on the very end of the canoe?
There is no law that says you can't paddle solo from the back seat of the canoe. From this seat however, in an empty canoe, you are placing all your weight on the "point" or end of the canoe, and the point pierces into the water much easier than the flat bottom. Notice that the rear seat is very close to the end of the canoe as well. Since there is very little canoe underneath you, the back of an empty canoe will sink in to the water and not be supported by the water. You ride a "wheelie" with the front of the canoe high in the air. Because you aren't supported by "wetted" surface, that is a flat canoe bottom sitting on top of water, your stability goes down the tube. When you paddle that canoe out into a crosswind, if it doesn't flip you over, it turns you with your back actually to the wind and the front of the canoe facing the wind's direction. Usually, most people flip in a struggling panic before they get to full " weather vane" postion and then they blame the canoe for being "tippy". There are no tippy canoes...only tippy people.
To sum it all up, I DO have customers who are very skilled paddlers and understand all aspects of canoes, who do paddle solo from the back seat . They load up the farthest front end with sufficient weight to level out the canoe, thereby maximizing wetted surface and getting all the stability the canoe has to offer. From this position, they can cruise at a top speed and make the canoe do the most maneuvering because their paddle ends up in rudder position at the utmost end of the canoe. They can do major power strokes with "J's" that are just a quick flick of the wrist instead of the longer drag of the paddle blade in rudder position that needs to gets longer and longer as one approaches the center of the canoe to be effective. The more one drags his paddle to rudder, the slower the canoe goes forward. The major drawback to paddling solo from the back seat is the need for all the ballast up front to prevent riding that wheelie. And, that's why we turn the canoe around backwards and sit in the front seat. Being closer to the center gives the paddler better stability due to more flat surface of canoe underneath him which means more bouyancy, which means less weight is needed up front to make the bow touch the water because of not having to counter balance all the weight in the back of the canoe. From this postion, the canoe still tapers off behind you and you can still exercise the necessary leverage needed to both propel and turn the canoe in one stroke, the "J" stroke.
If you ever get bored, try loading up the normal bow of your canoe with weight (enough so you are level on the water when you are seated in the back seat) and take it for a spin. Your speed will increase and the wind's ability to leverage you will also increase, so pick a calmer day.
Whew! Another long email. Hope you're still awake.
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