Canoe Paddling – Focus on the Basics
by Steve Salins
First appeared in Canoe Journal 2005
No matter how practiced a canoeist you are, you can develop bad habits, or “bugs” in your paddling stroke. Let’s review the basic principles of pulling a canoe forward through the water so we can better enjoy trips to come.
One thing that “bugs” me is canoeists who lean forward as they paddle. I wonder if Mom ever taught them to sit up straight. They should. Power and performance in a canoe come from the back, not from leaning forward, and not really from the arms, either. Sit up straight, let your body paddle the canoe, and you’ll find all kinds of untapped power flowing into your paddle blade.
How do you sit up straight? One way is to start at the top: stabilize your head. Visualize your head moving neither forward or back, nor side to side. A stable head encourages body rotation with each forward stroke. That rotary motion of your body is done with your back, which is more powerful than the strongest of arms. Furthermore, a stable head keeps your body centered in the boat, so your canoe maintains an even keel. A straight posture also allows you to relax; it’s tiring to lean forward all the time. Relaxing in a canoe is a good thing, whether you are moving with purpose or just gunkholing. When you sit straight, relaxed, and with a stable head, you can look around and paddle with more efficient power. Ask a friend to watch you paddle. Does your head stay in one place? If so, good!
Next,focusonthearms.Power comes from strong back muscles as you rotate; consider each arm to be a connector between your back and your paddle. That’s not to say your arms don’t move; they do. But if you want to learn how it should feel, lock your arms, elbows tight, and take a couple of practice strokes. Even standing on shore doing “air” strokes with rigid arms, you can tell how your body must rotate to complete a stroke (remember, your head stays still). Your back rotation around your spine is your engine; your arms connect the engine to the paddle. Take that same feeling in the canoe with you as you paddle. There’sthe body rotation you seek.
Sit up straight, reach up high to place your paddle in the water, choke up the lower hand on the paddle shaft, and finish up with a relaxing rotating flourish to rewind your engine.
Grip Hand High
Now that you’re using your body (feels strong, doesn’t it?), help yourself by allowing your grip hand to rise high as you reach forward with the paddle. No mealy arm-action stroke for you—reach that upper hand high and plant your blade in front without leaning forward. Sound contradictory? Here’s another trick to make this work: move your lower hand up the paddle shaft a bit (choke up). Adjust your lower hand so it remains just above the gunwale throughout your paddling motion. Instead of leaning forward to extend your blade, let the lower portion of the paddle shaft do the extension for you, while you stay centered in the boat. You paddle with more authority and increase the range of your paddle blade. No need to lean forward to grab water; it will come to you if you let it. You will feel the difference when you paddle, and if you find your lower hand slipping back into old habits, wrap a few turns of skinny duct tape where the lower hand should be to help remind you.
We’re nearly finished here. You’re sitting up, reaching up, and choking up. Now “follow up” to prepare yourbodyforthenextstroke. Whether you use a high recovery (vertical paddle) or a horizontalrecovery(across your body), this movement should be the “relax” part of your stroke—while at the same time rewinding your torso to power the next stroke.I thinka canoe paddle recovery is the “elegant” portion of canoeing. It’s one independent element that our double-bladed brethren don’t share, since their recovery on one side is concurrent with a power stroke on the other. For canoeists, a relaxed recovery is a moment to be savored.
And there you have it: sit up straight, reach up high to place your paddle in the water, choke up the lower hand on the paddle shaft, and finish up with a relaxing rotating flourish to rewind your engine.
I can feel it already; the bugs are leaving your forward stroke! Good paddling!