Inside-Out (sushi) Circles

Well controlled circles are likely the most difficult maneuvers to execute when paddling in either a tandem or solo canoe. The maneuver in this example is a figure 8 with the two circles having a radius of roughly a canoe length. I realize that we very rarely paddle in circles when tripping but the ability to make well controled circles will be helpful when paddling down small meadering creeks, through marshes, and in many other places where you are required to turn the canoe through various arcs.

Prior to starting to work on circles you should be able to control the canoe well enough to comfortably go in a straight line for at least 100m and stop completely. The following strokes may be used: J, draw, cross draw, sweep. When practicing it is useful to setup two buoys about 10m apart with another two buoys at least 10m apart on a line perpendicular to the first two. If the second set of buoys are also 10m apart they can be used as part of your external referencepoints.

Paddling this maneuver is completed as two complete circles (no diagonal where the circles intersect). The additional buoys are helpful to determine when you are at the point between the two circles and need to transition. You may start the circles from a stopped position in the middle of the buoys or you may stop the canoe outside along the line between the boys and enter the circle. I suggest starting the circles from a full stop in the centre, completing both inside and outside circles, then stopping again in the middle of the figure eight.

The following hints may help execute a nice round, smooth circle:

Tandem Circles

Tandem circles require a lot of co-operation and communication with both paddlers participating in the circle. At lower levels the "...bow paddler paddles forward and occasionally may assist with the turning of the canoe, but most of the turning should be accomplished by the stern paddler." Making a circle with limited yaw can not be easily (or at all) executed by the stern paddler alone. It is my belief that once canoeists are comfortable paddling then the control of the canoe should be a partnership with the stern providing direction in open flatwater and the bow providing direction when in closer quarters.

NOTE: With regard to 'inside' and 'outside' this page references the stern paddling side. Taking my que from my instructors over the years the direction of a turn or circle was always referenced to the stern paddling side. Some authors and standards associations reference the bow paddler.

  1. From a stopped position in the middle of the two circles initiate an outside circle by having the bow paddler do a draw diagonally from the front and the stern paddler complete a forward stroke. On the first stroke the stern paddler may have to do a small J. I usually suggest starting with an outside circle since it is a little more difficult to control and will allow you go gauge the speed required for the next circle.
  2. To continue around the circle the bow paddler will continue to do draws ending in a short forward stroke. The stern paddler will likely need to do J strokes for most of the circle to keep the back end from washing out. If the stern paddler is having to do sweeps or draws then ask the bow to use a stronger draw.
  3. After completing the first circle you will need to transition to an inside circle at the moment you pass your starting point. This is typically initiated by a cross draw from the bow paddler and a J stroke, with a short forward section, from the stern. It is important to wait until you are on a line perpendicular to the centre line between the two circles. This is usually the call of the stern paddler.
  4. To maintain the circle the bow paddler will continue with a bow J (regular J stroke but in the bow) very close to the bow of the canoe. A cross draw diagonally into the bow paddler may also be be used. The stern paddler will continue to do forward strokes with possibly some J correction. Remember you will want to keep the proper 'tension' from the centre to the stern - basically this will usually require pushing the back end out little. It may seem a little counter intuitive but it works.
  5. After completing the final circle stop the canoe on the direction of the stern paddler. The bow paddler will need to do a short draw from behind - this will both stop the canoe and the turning motion of the canoe. The stern paddler will do a back paddle possibly with a pitch into the canoe - this will also stop the canoe and stop the turning motion of the canoe.

Solo Circles

Solo circles are often easier to execute than tandem circles but the paddler must remember to control both the front and back end of the canoe. I find completing solo circles easier when I shift my weight slightly between each circle. When working on my instructors course these figure eight circles came to be known as 'The Circles of Doom' because of the amount of time it took to successfully complete the maneuver.

  1. From a full stop in the middle of the two circles start motion with a forward stroke with little or no J. You may want to start the circle with a cross draw with a short cross forward stroke. Have your weight shifted towards the back of the canoe, sitting back on your heels. This will sink the stern a little and reduce the amount the canoe washes out at the back. Similar to the tandem circles start with an outside circle for the same reason. An outside circle is a little harder to control and often a little slower - this will allow you to gauge the speed and complete the inside circle with a similar speed.
  2. Continue to complete the circle with a short J. With the push- away section almost right beside your hip. If you shifted your weight back the paddle may be angled a little away from the canoe. If you wish to continue sitting near the centre of the canoe you will need to make sure your paddle is more vertical in the water. Some people will make solo outside circles by doing a cross draw stroke and heeling the canoe to the off side. The expectation in the PC course is the paddler will paddle on the outside of the circle.
  3. The transition to an inside circle is made by doing a C stroke or even a river J as you pass the starting position. During the forward portion of this stroke the blade is close or even under the canoe. Shift your weight forward during the transition either by moving to a high kneel or leaning forward. A good heel on your canoe will help with this maneuver.
  4. The rest of the inside circle is completed by doing a draw diagonally into your position, or slightly forward, with a short forward portion. The paddle blade should be deep and almost under the canoe. If your canoe has very little rocker, or not enough heel, you may have to include a soft J at the end of the stroke to maintain the circle.
  5. As you approach the starting point stop the canoe with a backward stroke pitched into the canoe.


There are only a few common problems when attempting to complete inside and outside circles. It is important to watch the line of your canoe by making sure that it follows a tangential line to the centre of the circle. The easiest way to do this is watch that the centre thwart is always pointing at the middle of the circle. Pick at least four distant refernce points to line up with as well. This will ensure that you have minimal yaw and you are in the correct position at each quarter circle. A distant reference is easier to see and gives you (the paddler) a more comfortable looking paddling position.


When doing outside circles if the line of the thwart is falling behind the centre (C) then the back end of the canoe is 'washing out'. This means that the circle may be getting smaller or there is a significant amount of yaw. Generally the cause is the stern paddler is trying to control the circle alone. The correction is usually made by having the bow paddler do a draw diagonally into the canoe from the bow.

If the line of the thwart is running ahead in an outside circle (D) then the back end of the canoe is being held to close to the circle or the circle is getting larger. Generally the correction for this is to have the stern do more draw as the portion of the forward sweep. It may also help to have the bow paddler do more draw into the canoe - in this case the stern may have to J stroke.

On an inside circle if the thwart is falling behind (A) the stern paddler is likely doing hard J strokes. The back end is washing out and the circle may be getting smaller. Having the bow paddler do a bow J or even cross draw more will help. The stern paddler will will need to reduce the strength of the J strokes. If the bow paddler is doing a cross draw then make sure the paddle is mostly vertical (don't do a shallow draw or cut).

If the thwart is running ahead on an inside circle (B) the canoe is toed out or the circle is getting larger. The stern paddler needs to do more J stroke. It may be that the bow paddler can help by doing a stronger push away, sweep, cross draw, or bow J.


Just practice. The key thing here is keeping the stroke short, next to the paddler. The blade should be shallow and away from the canoe with outside circles and deep, almost under the canoe, during Inside circles.

During outside circles it is common to have the back end wash out and the circles get smaller. Because the canoe will turn away from your paddling side it is important to be able to control the amount of turn - just as you would with a forward straight line. You should be prepared to a a J to most strokes. Shifting your weight backwards a little will also help.

When completing inside circles you are paddling on the inside. Most paddlers are concerned about making sure that the turn happens using a stronger J stroke. This unfortunately causes the back end to wash-out from the line of the circle. It is better to shift the stroke further forward and include a draw to initiate the stroke. Keeping the canoe heeled into the circle will help.


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Last modified: Sat Oct 23 07:24:02 2010