Which Way to Ferry?

The other day a fellow asked me why I favored a forward (upstream) ferry on the river. He pointed out that many canoeing gurus advocate back ferrying. I defended the benefits of a forward ferry by focusing on how each technique has its use; this is not a situation of good versus bad or right versus wrong. I prefer to teach a forward ferry first, mostly because I think it is easier for beginners to learn and keep under control. But let’s evaluate both.


A ferry maneuver, either forward or back, must account for canoe angle (to the current), boat speed, and canoe lean (See Salins’s article titled “Ferry on Home” in the March 2000 issue, page 30). When facing upstream in a forward ferry, the stern paddler is responsible for maintaining the angle of the canoe to the current, while the bow paddler primarily paddles to maintain boat speed and helps with the lean if ferrying toward their paddling side. In back ferrying, the canoe remains facing downstream, both paddlers backpaddle, and the bow paddler becomes the stern for steering purposes.


One advantage to an upstream forward ferry is that the stern paddler can easily monitor the angle of the canoe to the current because the whole canoe is laid out in front of him. Furthermore, both paddlers are paddling forward–a pretty natural stroke for most of us, and certainly one of our more powerful strokes. I’ve observed over the years that when back ferrying, both paddlers are backing up, which many canoe teams (and most solo paddlers) have a difficult time doing on flat water, let alone in moving current. The bow paddler, responsible for setting and maintaining the angle, does not have a very clear notion of the changing angle because she is facing away from the bulk of the canoe, having only the bow in front of her as a guide.


Though a back ferry has difficulties, it also brings a lot of value. For one, it allows a team to slow its canoe at the crest of a rapid or riffle, buying time to evaluate the best course. It also is an effective way of sliding to one side or the other to evaluate a rapid from different perspectives and then place a canoe in the chosen position to enter a rapid. If you want to cross the river, you can do so without having to spin your canoe around to a forward ferry. Here are some tips to make your back ferry more effective. Much of this preparation and practice can be done on flat water.


Learn to paddle backward efficiently. Check your backstroke technique. Do you lay the back face of your paddle on the water with the paddle out over the gunwale and both hands over the water? Do you use your lower hand and arm as a fulcrum and pull up with your upper hand? Do you rock back as you backpaddle, lifting the paddle shaft to a vertical position and pushing the blade out of the water in a straight line in front of you? Does your backstroke exit the water with a vertical shaft?


Learn to back up in a straight line on flat water. If the bow paddler (or a solo paddler) finishes a backstroke with a reverse J stroke, you can counteract the turning tendency of the canoe and keep it backing in a straight line. As you finish your backstroke, roll the thumb of your upper hand back toward your face and roll it downward. With your lower hand, push the blade away from the canoe. If necessary, let the blade drag a bit in the water to act as a rudder to hold a straight course as the canoe moves backward.


When back ferrying in current, use draws and pries to maintain the angle of the canoe. The bow paddler, now functioning as the stern, can also use a reverse sweep and the reverse J to control angle, but draws and pries work better for more dramatic corrections. If you have practiced your draws and pries on flat water, you should have an instinctive sense of which one to use. You may have to look over your shoulder to analyze how effective your angle is, although you will learn to judge by watching the little bit of canoe bow as you face downstream. Meanwhile, your stern partner, now acting as the bow, hopefully has an effective backstroke and isn’t adding unexpected and useless turning motion to the canoe.


If your back ferry isn’t working and you need to get across the river in a hurry, simply spin your canoe, using draws or pries, to position yourself for a forward ferry (See Salins’s article titled “Spin City on the Lake” in the August 2002 issue, page 32). It may take a few seconds to spin the boat, but once you have it turned around, it is easier to control the ferry. And what if your back ferry gets out of control, turns sideways, and begins to face upstream? Hey, this isn’t a problem; it may be unintentional, but you’re now forward ferrying. Simply begin to paddle forward, the stern takes control of the angle, and everything works. Develop the skills to do both, and you will find yourself in position to smile no matter which direction you are facing.


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

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