Canoe Paddling Explained


Canoe Paddling Explained

By Caleb Davis


In 1992 1 started to make and sell canoe paddles as well as instruct paddle-making classes. Shortly after I added canoeing instruction. For years, I have addressed the issues of paddle selection and the proper positioning of the paddlers so as to get the most out of paddling with the least effort and stress on the body. This article is intended for (two) tan dem paddlers who paddle opposite sides and who are using the traditional method of paddling with a full stroke length while on flat-water (lakes or slow moving rivers).

When asked what is the best and most stable position in which to paddle, many will say that it is best for both paddlers to be seated and centered in the canoe. I might agree if you needed to paddle both sides of the canoe, such as in whitewater or sit-and-switch, but for most recreational paddling this position has some distinct disadvantages. It's understandable that people respond that the center (length) is the best position. It is hard to imagine coordinating a move to the edge (side). To most of us, the edge of the canoe means tipping and an unwelcome swim.

But if you think of a canoe as a seesaw, it is apparent that the canoe has two balance points. One is across the short axis (width) where the portage or carrying thwart is located. This balance point determines the tip forward and back and is critical in having the correcttrim. The other balance point is the long axis that runs bow/stem along the centerline. This line determines the tip side to side. You may feel comfortable sitting on this balance point if nothing else is happening, but if you add paddling and weather it can become a precarious balancing act.

In contrast, if you shift from the center, and opposite your partner, you will act as outriggers to each other, It will take some cooperation but the ride will feel far more stable. I strongly encourage hip to gunwale (edge) and knees to the floor with your backside resting on the edge of the seat. I get there by having one of the paddlers say: "What side do you want'? Ready to shift? One, two three, shift." Remember to shift back to the center upon switching sides or landings.

In addition to the issue of stability, there is the matter of technique. For centered paddlers you will find several things that happen that significantly impair your technique and heighten discomfort. Sitting centered means a longer distance to the water. This requires a longer shafted paddle, which puts more stress on your body. Imagine what an equal load feels like with a long handled shovel versus a short handled shovel, the same increased leverage and increased body stress is true for the paddle. I don't believe that recreational paddlers need that increased leverage and body stress.

There is also the issue of decreased angle of the paddle to the water, which makes each stroke a bit of a sweep. Remember (in theory) that the most efficient stroke would be directly along the long axis line. This requires no steering for a straight line and it is the most direct line to move the canoe forward. By paddling hip to gunwale, you improve your technique by getting the paddle perpendicular to the water, minimizing sweeping action, and your paddle closer to the long axis line, which helps reduce the need for an excessive shaft length. This position gets you closer to the working area and helps to reduce body stress. Seats. I'm sure that you'd agree that most seats are designed to center the paddler and that the seats are a real pain in the backside if you move to get your hip touching the gunwale. There are three distinct styles of canoe seats. Perhaps the easiest to manufacture are the bucket seats. These are usually made of rigid plastic and are almost always centered. You can imagine how thrilled I am with these! Next are the wood caned seats. These are usually an improvement both aesthetically and in comfort, yet the frame seat is often too narrow to allow one to comfortably move hip to gunwale. Paddling this way loses its thrill very quickly when you have to straddle the seat frame. Finally there is the bench seat. If this is made wide enough and has enough foot clearance, then the use of a thin sitting pad allows the paddler to comfortably be positioned exactly where it is best for stability and technique.

The bottom line for better traditional flat water stability, technique, and body comfort is to get your hip over to the gunwale. Be aware that the canoe manufacturers may be inaccurately determining our comfort and sacrificing good technique. I would love to see manufacturers provide seat inserts and removable bench top for bucket and caned seats. This would allow paddlers to move to the desired side as well as able to use the fixed seats for comfortable crossover paddling.

If you have any questions, please feel free to contact me at 603-532-5992 or For more information about Caleb's activities, please log on to or 

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