Sometimes it’s just as important that you look good as it is that you are good. One of my pet peeves is to see canoe paddlers windmilling their paddle on the recovery. I’m sure you’ve noticed it–paddling across a lake with paddle blade slicing high in the air like a scimitar slashing down to lop off a head on a chopping block. Looks funny, doesn’t it? In fact, it looks downright rookie-ish. Beyond that, it’s a major waste of energy. When you lift a canoe paddle blade high in the air, your lower hand and arm rise-usually by scrunching up your shoulder as well. Sit there and scrunch your shoulder. Not very relaxing, is it? So why do it when paddling? What we want is to relax during the recovery phase of a paddle stroke. Here is one way to recover with grace and efficiency.

Take a forward stroke (you can sit in a chair and practice as you read this). Remember, it should be a vertical paddle shaft, upper hand high and out over the water, body twisting back as you pull on the blade in the water. I wouldn’t focus on how the blade exits the water; leave it alone and it will come out just fine by itself. As you finish the forward stroke, this is the time to relax. Your hands are low, aren’t they? Holding the paddle low over the water? Good. Leave your hands low, and swing the paddle in an arc horizontally across your body. Focus on the tip of the blade making a wide arc out to the side-barely clearing the water! The paddle may almost be in a position where you can set it down on the gunwales across your body. Notice how, when you recover with the paddle across your lap, it “winds up” your torso like a coiled spring. That’s good, because when you unwind during your forward stroke, you’re going to unleash a lot of power from your back.

Meanwhile, your shoulders are relaxed during this recovery phase. Is the paddle blade just barely clearing the water? It should be. In fact, occasionally you will hit the water on the recovery. That means you’re keeping it low. By the way, if you twist the blade to a slight upward angle, it will bounce off the water should you hit a wave. Don’t recover with the blade perpendicular to the water; you may be pushing unnecessary wind. Leave the blade flat and use your upper (grip) hand to control and set a small angle to the blade during recovery.

Some paddlers lean forward on their recovery to begin their next stroke. No need; the water will come to you if you are patient. Let your wound-up body and extended lower arm provide the reach to catch the water for the next stroke. Notice that you will have to quickly raise your upper hand to catch the next stroke with a vertical paddle. If you need a more aggressive recovery, you can raise your upper hand and shoulder to lift the blade out of the water at the end of the stroke. Let your lower hand slide the blade out to the side a little bit-just enough to clear the water and no more. The lower hand and arm then send the blade forward for the next catch. But keep the blade no higher than necessary to clear the water.

The whole idea of an efficient recovery is to allow your shoulders and arms to rest and relax during the recovery phase of your paddle stroke. That’s why paddling a canoe is so much fun-we pull hard for half the stroke, and rest and relax for the other half. (Hmm, seems like we should end up doing no net work at all! Bet the kayakers can’t do that!) An old commercial used to promise: “Look sharp, feel sharp, be sharp!” Same with your canoe-stroke recovery. If you paddle in sync with your partner and recover with a blade kept low to the water, it will feel more comfortable, you won’t get so tired, and you’ll be a lot sharper paddler. Plus you’ll look like you know what you’re doing.

Contributing editor Steve Salins invites feedback on his column. E-mail him at