What Mom Didn’t Tell You About the Bow


I love paddling the bow of a tandem canoe! Whitewater, flatwater, racing-doesn’t matter. The most action can be in front. Since I’m a pretty big guy, it is difficult to find a partner to balance the trim when I’m in front. So I’m mostly stuck in the second seat of a canoe. Therefore, as a misplaced brother, I’ll share some tips for bow paddlers to better blend with the creature at the other end of your boat.


Know Thy Craft: The overall direction of a canoe is controlled by the stern end. Accept that; it’s just the way things are. That doesn’t mean that you can’t help with steering on occasion. In wind or current, there are times when a quick pry, a casual draw, or even a cross-bow rudder can help your buddy who is struggling to establish directional control. You should look for subtle ways to help out your partner, but consider yourself a temporary or situational helper; the overall direction is his responsibility. Let him steer the canoe and he’ll get good at it. That’s good for you!


Know Thy Cadence: Let’s agree that most effective paddling comes when both paddlers are in perfect sync. Let’s also agree that the primary responsibility of paddling in sync belongs to the stern. Why? Because she can see what her partner is doing. (With time, you will discover that both of you can feel the cadence through the action and motion of the boat.) Have you ever paddled with someone who takes a few strokes, then pauses to say something, look at the water, blow his nose, or reach for a snack? How about paddling a couple of quick strokes, then a slow one, then rest, and then another few quick ones? Drives you crazy in the stern if you are trying to maintain a consistent rate. I often visualize a metronome in the bow-a nice even stroke rate that is consistent and predictable-and that is what I appreciate in a bow paddler.


Know Thy Partner: Think about what the stern is doing at the end of her stroke. Probably a J or a ruddering pry-something to keep the canoe on course. If you quickly recover to the next stroke, she is hard-pressed to finish the job back there and still catch up with your stroke rate. Slow your recovery rate to compensate for the little bit of extra work she does at the end of her stroke and she’ll love paddling with you.


Understand The Effects of They Position: Have you ever wondered why stern guys yell so much? Some think it’s because they’re always frustrated, but that may not be the problem. Maybe they can’t hear you, so they assume a need to speak loudly to be heard. Think about it. When you speak from the bow of a canoe, your voice is carried away in the wind. When you talk, turn a bit so your partner can more easily hear your wise observations. He’ll love listening to you.


Appreciate The Relationship With Thy Stern Partner: Harry Roberts, a wise and beloved paddler and author, once observed that there is no room for blame in his canoe. It’s a team effort. Over time you will develop your preferences for how best to help each other make the boat work. Develop a good relationship by paddling some miles in the other guy’s seat. The more you understand what is going on at the other end, the better you will know how to handle your position in the boat. Stern partners are no more perfect than you are in the bow, and they’re the only alternative on board. No need to bow down; just apply some of these tips and they’ll love inviting you to paddle! Good paddling!


Contributing editor Steve Salins invites feedback on his column. E-mail him at steve@canoekayak.com.

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