Canoe Paddling Stroke Essentials

Photo: Aaron Black-Schmidt/Tandemstock

Following are a few technique tips to get you paddling in the right direction.

Whether you’re tackling easy Class I-II whitewater, heading out on a loon-filled lake for a quick day-tour or extending miles for an overnight outing, the right strokes can spell the difference between a great time on the water and a grueling one. In fact, efficient paddle use is the foundation to any canoe trip. And, fortunately, it can be learned easily with just a little time on the water. Following are a few technique tips to get you paddling in the right direction.  

Tandem vs. Solo 

Most canoe strokes apply to both tandem and solo paddling. If paddling tandem, try to paddle on the opposite side of the canoe as your paddling partner; it’ll yield better stability and forward momentum, without the tendency to turn. 

Forward Stroke

The forward stroke is the most fundamental and frequently used paddle stroke for canoeing, so gain an edge by doing it correctly. Designed to propel the canoe forward, the key is keeping the blade as close to vertical as possible in the water. To do so, lean forward at the waist, reaching out as far as you comfortably can, placing your (top) grip hand (which should be placed over the top of the T-grip) out over the water and keeping it at eye level throughout the stroke. Rotate the shoulder of your grip hand forward as you plant your blade, while rotating your other shoulder backwards, to help engage your whole core; as you pull the blade back toward you, the power should come from your torso, twisting as you return to an upright posture, instead of your arms.

Try keeping your arms straight (elbows close to locked) and you’ll see how that core-driven motion will result in less fatigue in the extremities as you push your grip hand forward while pulling with your (lower) shaft hand. Use your core and arms together to recover and bring the paddle forward again. Hint: End your stroke when it’s next to you rather than behind you for maximum efficiency. 

Back Stroke 

Use a back stroke to slow down and/or put the canoe in reverse; it’s good for stopping the canoe’s forward momentum on flat water, or slowing it down in moving water. If paddling tandem, it can also be used to help turn the boat (have one paddler take a back stroke on one side while the other takes a forward or sweep stroke on the opposite side). To perform it, reach back with both hands, put the blade in the water behind your waist and pull forward, keeping the blade-face perpendicular to the canoe. Hint: Rotate your torso to engage your midsection, pulling with your grip hand while pushing with your shaft hand. 

A man paddles on Flagstaff Lake, Maine Photo: Aaron Black-Schmidt/TandemStock

Draw Stroke

The draw stroke is used by bow or solo paddlers to move the boat sideways or change direction; it’s especially useful when dodging a rock midstream when you don’t have time to turn away from it, or when pulling up to a dock. Executed on the same side you’re paddling on, reach out sideways over the water as far as possible with your lower hand and place your blade in the water. Then pull your shaft hand inward to move the canoe in the direction of your paddling side. Hint: Plant the paddle in vertically so it’s facing you and then pull the boat toward the paddle. To recover, turn the blade 90 degrees (so it’s perpendicular to the boat), slice it away from you while lifting it out of the water, and repeat.

Executed by bow paddlers, the cross-draw is similar but on the opposite side: maintaining the same grip, withdraw your paddle from the water, fully rotate your torso to the opposite side (reaching your lower hand across your body), and execute the draw on the opposite side. 

Pry Stroke

The opposite of the draw, the pry stroke pushes the canoe away from the paddling side. Put the blade in the water parallel and as close to the canoe as possible. Holding your grip hand as far over the water as possible, tilt the blade so it’s nearly beneath the boat, then pull in with the grip hand and push out with the shaft hand to ‘pry’ the boat sideways. While it can slow the boat down, the stern pry is a powerful turning stroke executed at the end of a forward stroke. At the end of your forward stroke, rotate your torso toward the water and place your grip hand over the canoe’s gunwale and your shaft hand at waist level, slightly behind you with the blade against the boat’s stern. Pull in your grip hand to pry the blade outward. 

J Stroke

Added near the end of a forward stroke, the J stroke is used by the stern paddler in tandem canoes (and by solo paddlers) to keep your canoe going straight and gently steer without changing paddling sides. At the end of your forward stroke, rotate your grip hand forward and down (outward), so that your thumb is pointed downward, while pushing your bottom shaft hand slightly outward to make a “J” in the water away from the canoe. This will pull the bow back in line.  

Sweep Stroke 

A sweep stroke is designed to help turn your canoe. Perform it just like it sounds by “sweeping” your paddle blade in a wide C-shaped arc across the surface of the water, keeping the paddle more horizontal (parallel to the water) instead of vertical as in a forward stroke. Different arcs affect how quickly the canoe will turn. 

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.