Spin City on the Lake

I’m going to be teaching a basic canoeing class tomorrow. Do you know what happens-with every class? Students get “stuck” in a corner of the lake, pointed to the shore with no idea how to turn the canoe around. It’s really frustrating for them! Ever been there? Then you know that one of the most basic skills for effective canoeing is to be able to “spin” a canoe. Notice I didn’t say “turn” a canoe. Turning is what you do when you’re under way and want to head in a different direction. Spinning is what to do when you’re stuck at a dead-end waterway and have to turn around. An effective spin rotates the canoe around a single point-the center of the canoe. You don’t need any more room than the length of the canoe. Here’s how to do it.


If you have command of the two basic canoe strokes-a draw and a pry-then you have the tools to spin a tandem canoe. When you think about it, a draw stroke pulls your end of the canoe toward your paddle side. A pry stroke pushes your end of the canoe away from your paddle side. Now, assuming you and your partner paddle on opposite sides (and you do, don’t you?), then, if you both do a draw stroke, each of you is pulling your end of the canoe so that you spin without introducing any forward or reverse motion. And, should you wish to spin the other way, you could change sides-but you don’t because you want to develop your skills. So you both pry, and you spin the other way.


Some tips about using draws and prys: Your canoe will feel best if you both draw or pry in perfect sync. If one is reaching out to draw and the other isn’t, then the boat is going to wobble badly and rock from side to side. Learning to spin with draw strokes is a great way to learn to paddle in perfect unison because the boat feels so good when you’re doing it right, and so bad when you aren’t! Once you get the timing down, learn to reach way out of the boat with your draw stroke. It will be more powerful, and it’s a lot of fun. Just be sure your partner is also reaching out a lot to balance the load.



Another tip about drawing: If rather than drawing directly to the side (which, after all, is a “pure” draw), the bow person reaches slightly behind with her draw stroke, and the stern reaches slightly ahead with his draw stroke, you may find that the canoe spins more easily without moving ahead or sideways. Why? Because you are each pulling more in the direction in which your particular end is going in the spin. Try it; you’ll feel what I mean.


Are there other ways to spin? Yes. You can both use sweep strokes. I don’t usually prefer sweeps for an effective spin because I think it wastes energy, and I’m getting too old and lazy for that. But if you insist, here is how you would do it. The bow paddler does a forward sweep-but only from the bow to about 90 degrees to the side. The stern person does a reverse sweep-from the stern stem to about 90 degrees to the side. If you go much past 90 degrees to the side on those strokes, you are introducing a directional element to your canoe that counteracts the desired direction of spin. (If you think about it and draw a sketch, you’ll see that the second half of a 180-degree draw stroke in either the bow or stern is counterproductive. The reason is that the canoe should spin around the center, but the reach of the tandem paddler’s stroke is limited to her end of the canoe-unless you paddle a very short canoe.)


So I’m off to teach some new paddlers how to play their canoes like a merry-go-round. They’re about to learn that when they can spin effectively, not only can they extract themselves from dead-end corners of the lake, but their basic draw and pry strokes will become much more effective and they will tend to paddle in sync. What fun! Spin away, and good paddling!


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

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