Sit-and-Switch Canoe Paddling

If you’re planning a long flatwater trip, it’s time to consider the most efficient way to move a canoe-using bent-shaft (elbow) paddles. I hear arguments for not using bent-shaft paddles, but once you’ve used them a time or two, you’ll fall in line. Some time ago, a friend asked how to train his new partner to paddle stern. It’s worth a review.


With bent-shaft paddles, recall that paddlers regularly switch sides both to stay fresh and, more importantly, to control the canoe’s course. Since a canoe turns away from the side of the stern paddler, something must be done to restore the proper course. Changing sides is simplicity itself – using our natural inclination to steer the canoe. Here are a few techniques to make it work better.


Develop a Turning Stroke


With bent-shaft paddles, sweep strokes are the most effective for turning the canoe, so spend some time with the stern paddler sweeping on one side to turn one way, switching sides, and sweeping on the other side to develop a sense of turning the other way. An alert stern doesn’t have to use dramatic sweep strokes; simply changing sides will hold the canoe on course. But the stroke and which side to use must become intuitive. Remember that the most effective sweep stroke employs a horizontal paddle-and for the stern, an effective sweep begins at 90 degrees out and pulls back all the way to the stern. (Too many rookie stern paddlers sweep 180 degrees, making the first “half” of the stroke counterproductive.)


Develop Synchronization with the Bow


Both paddlers have to agree on how and when to switch sides. Generally, the stern calls “hut” and both switch together. You’d best be paddling in rhythm with each other; if one switches without the other, the boat can tip! Train the stern paddler to follow the cadence of the bow partner. Even while looking away and using peripheral vision, the stern can follow the bow. With a little experience, partners can feel each other’s cadence and don’t have to watch anymore.


Develop a Switching Pattern
I recall first learning to paddle stern and having the hardest time spitting out the “hut” at the exact moment I wanted to switch. I prefer to call “hut” just as the paddle is entering the water-with the understanding that we both fully finish our stroke and then switch. Practice by calling switches without regard for canoe direction until a natural rhythm is established.


Though it is possible for the bow to call a switch, the stern better sees the overall picture of where the boat is headed and should make the steering decisions. Sometimes when working with students, I’ll call the “hut” from the bow to let them get the hang of bent-shaft paddling without having to think about too much too soon. I suggest a very slow cadence to allow them to develop a rhythm and understanding.


For practice, agree to automatically switch after every stroke to get the hang of switching and maintaining course. (In this exercise, although you’ve pre-agreed to switch after every stroke, the stern can call “hut” at the beginning of each stroke to get the hang of the timing of the call.)

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