My first struggle as a very young paddler was to keep my canoe moving in a straight line, and I know plenty of others who still wrestle with the same predicament. Two elements combine to keep a canoe moving in a single direction. First, you must physically control a canoe with well-executed paddle strokes and understand how each stroke moves the canoe. Every bit as important as good strokes is the ability to anticipate what a moving canoe is about to do, and make adjustments before the direction is out of alignment.

Many years ago, I heard a canoeing sage advise simply lining up the bow partner’s head with a tree, building, radio tower–anything on a far shore. Line up your partner’s head with your destination, simply maintain the alignment, and the canoe will go straight. That sounds simple; let’s look at how to make it happen.

Let’s say you’re in the stern, paddling on the right side. You look ahead to see a tree on the far shore in the direction you want to go. Initially, your canoe is heading toward the right side of the tree. As you paddle forward, you notice that your partner’s head moves left toward the tree but eventually “passes” it and begins to move away from the tree to the left. Your canoe has passed the direction you want and is moving farther and farther off course. This is where watching your alignment can help you keep a straight line.

You know that a J-stroke or a rudder stroke (with apologies to my Canadian purist friends) will keep your canoe tracking in a straight line. Once your partner’s head is lined up with the tree, you stroke forward and apply the correction stroke to keep it lined up. You will still see your partner’s head “moving” from side to side of the tree. Actually, the boat is “wobbling” its way across the lake, and the movement you see simply indicates how much you are on (or off) course. The less side-to-side movement you see, the more accurately you are holding course.

The point is to stay focused on the movement of your partner’s head relative to your destination. That tells you how much correction stroke to apply. If you are mostly staying on course, then you need only a very minor corrective stroke. If your partner’s head is wobbling from side to side a lot, then you have to apply a stronger corrective stroke, or hold it longer. Not only does the alignment tell you how much correction to apply; but it also tells you which direction to correct.

By comparison, when you drive a car, you look at the roadway ahead, and when the front (bow?) of your car moves out of alignment with the roadway, you adjust the steering. You don’t look at the steering wheel in a car, because if you do, you will lose control.

A new paddler likes to watch the paddle, perhaps because he is concerned about his stroke. As a result, the canoe wanders out of control, usually in a very convoluted path! You shouldn’t look at your paddle; watch where you are going, and you will get there. As you learn to focus on your alignment, you will begin to anticipate your canoe’s movement and take corrective action before it goes out of alignment. With time and practice, you will no longer think about correction; it will become as instinctive as driving a car.

As an extra benefit while aligning your bow partner with your goal, pay attention to your bow partner’s paddling stroke. A tandem canoe works best if paddlers are in sync. Until you develop a feel for your partner’s paddling cadence (which will come with time), the person who can see the other is really in the better position to match the stroke rate. If you are a solo paddler with no bow partner’s head to use for alignment, use the point of the bow. That’s even better than your bow partner’s pointy head; it doesn’t move in the canoe, and it sure doesn’t talk back!

Canoeists who use bent-shaft paddles with a “sit-and-switch” paddling style quickly learn to align their partner’s head with the destination. With experience, the stern will call for a switch just before losing alignment. Given the tendency of a canoe to yaw from side to side, the anticipated movement off course can be corrected before it becomes unacceptable. That’s why these canoeists switch so often, and why their boats keep a straight course.

Your canoe goes in the direction in which you’re looking. I’m not suggesting that you miss the wildlife, beautiful scenery, and everything else there is to see out there. Rather, your overall focus will help you handle your boat better, and to travel more efficiently with better control. Good paddling!

Steve Salins is a contributing editor who frequently shares his knowledge of all things canoe.