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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

Different Strokes

Going Straight

By Farwell Forrest

This is the first in an occasional series of "how-to" articles for beginning and intermediate paddlers. (It's "occasional" because the articles will appear from time to time, not one after the other.) And it's also the first illustrated In the Same Boat. When you come to a small image icon in the text, just click on the image to see a larger sketch. We think it's a good idea, but we'd like to hear from you. Do the illustrations make things easier to understand? How do they look on your screen? Do you want to see more articles like this? Let us know.

Going straight. It ought to be a snap, right? But it isn't. As any paddler (or politician) can tell you, it's a lot harder than it looks. Within minutes of getting on the water for the first time, every canoeist learns it's not easy keeping a canoe on course. In most cases, when bow and stern paddlers are reasonably evenly matched and neither is trying to correct for drift, a tandem canoe will tend to turn away from the side on which the sternman* is paddling. What does this mean? Let's say the sternman is paddling on the left-hand side of the canoe. By the time he and his partner have taken a couple of strokes, their boat is already veering to the right. And the stern will be swinging out, too, tightening the turn as they go. The result? If they keep paddling without correcting for this rightward spiral, sooner or later—more likely sooner, rather than later—they'll be facing back the way they've come. They'll have turned completely around, in other words. This isn't a good way to make progress. Just ask the Prez.

OK. That's the problem. What's the solution? Many beginners (and some experts, too, but that's another story) keep on course by switching sides every few strokes. They veer to the right for a while. Then the sternman switches over and they veer to the left for a while longer. And then the sternman switches again.... This works, after a fashion, but you've got to admit that it's not very elegant. Worse yet, unless bowman and sternman switch sides quickly and smoothly, their canoe will "lose way"—it will slow down. This isn't good.

Happily, there's a better way. It's called the "J-stroke." Before I describe how the "J" is done, though, I should say a little something about the art of paddling itself.

A Proper PaddleUnless you've got a two-horse kicker on a bracket at the stern, you and your partner are the only engines your canoe's got. And you don't want to run out of gas, do you? Paddling stops being fun when you get tired. So you'll want to paddle efficiently, with a minimum of wasted motion and energy. How do you do this? First, choose a paddle that fits. If your upper hand (that's the one wrapped around the grip at the top of the paddle) is somewhere in the air way over your head when your paddle enters the water at the start of each stroke, then your paddle's too long. What's the remedy? It's easy. Get a shorter paddle.

Second, reach forward at the start of each stroke, rotating your upper body away from the side you're paddling on. Nothing extreme, of course—you want to keep your eyes on where you're going, after all! Just rotate round far enough to get your paddle in the water well forward of your seat.

Powering UpAs you begin applying power to the blade—upper arm pushing forward and out, lower arm pulling back, upper body uncoiling—keep the blade moving parallel to the canoe's keel (that's the boat's centerline). DON'T follow the curve of the gunwale. Keep your paddle moving straight back, parallel to your intended course. This means you'll have to reach out over the water with your upper arm throughout much of the stroke. Do it. If you're really "in the groove," the biceps of your upper arm will brush your chin as your paddle blade comes back even with your body.

Your paddle won't do much useful work after it passes your body, so you might as well lift it out of the water. Just drop your upper hand to your off-side—that's the side opposite your paddling side—slicing the blade up and out. (Drop your hand, but don't drop the paddle!) Now swing the blade forward, keeping the back of the the blade parallel to the water's surface. (It's a bit confusing, I know, but the "back" of the blade is the part that faces forward when it's in the water. The other side is the "face." And the side that's doing the work—whether face or back—is always the "power face.") Now you're ready to take another stroke.

Everything I've written so far applies equally to bowman and sternman. In most cases, you and your bowman should paddle on opposite sides of the boat. If one switches, the other should, too. And, on flatwater, at any rate, you should always try to keep "in step" with your bowman, matching him stroke for stroke whenever possible. Your canoe will slip along much more easily if power is applied smoothly and steadily. This means you have to paddle in sync and on opposite sides.

Now we're ready to come back to the J-stroke. We have to. Why? Even if you do everything exactly as I've described it above, your boat will still veer away from the side the sternman is paddling on. You don't want that, do you? No? Then it's time to J.

Thumb's Down!First, though, keep in mind that the J is a stroke for the sternman only (or for a solo paddler). Your bowman just keeps paddling, straight and steady. You, however, do one thing differently, beginning as your paddle blade comes even with your body. Instead of simply dropping your upper hand to your off-side, you twist your wrist downward as your arm falls. The motion's a little like twisting the lid closed on a jar of peanut-butter (or twisting it off, if you're paddling on the right-hand side). When you've finished—when you've dropped your arm all the way and your paddle blade's out of the water—you'll find that your upper wrist is bent down at nearly a right angle, and that the thumb of your upper hand is pointing down and back. The result? The face of your paddle will be forced outward at the end of each stroke, away from the canoe. This short outward jog (the "J" in the "J-stroke") is what does the trick. It checks the canoe's tendency to veer and pushes the stern back on track.

The J can be gentle or vigorous, as needed. You can even lever your paddle against the gunwale if you have to. This is hard on both paddle shaft and gunwale, however, and it should be done only when an especially powerful correction is necessary.

Of course, the J can't be learned simply by reading about it. The best way to learn any stroke is—no surprise!—to go for a paddle with a knowledgeable companion. And don't be alarmed if your arms are a little sore at the end of the first day. The J makes demands on the triceps, the muscle in your upper arm opposite the biceps. The triceps usually doesn't get much of a workout. Expect it to protest a bit when it's forced to start doing its share. No problem, though. Just take it easy the first few days out, and you should be fine. A sore muscle or two is a small price to pay for going straight, after all!

* I'll be using the word "sternman" to identify the person in the rear seat of a tandem canoe, but don't assume that the person in the stern has to be male. In many boats—in our boat, for instance—the sternman is a woman.

Copyright 2000 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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