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
The following hints may help execute a nice round, smooth circle:
Speed should be faster than a crawl. Executing a
slow circle is much more difficult than completing one with a little
more speed. If you do the circles really fast (and reasonably clean) your
instructor may be so impressed that they miss any imperfections.
The line of center thwart should always point at center point of
circle. This is why a buoy at the centre of each circle is helpful.
At each quarter point (at least) check line with an external
reference. This is where the additional buoys are useful but anything
that falls along a line perpendicular (tangential) to the radius of the circle
will work fine.
Both paddlers should participate in turning the canoe. The stern
is responsible for doing most of the communication as they
may have a better view of the canoe and centre point. A circle made
only by the stern paddler will usually have a significant degree of
yaw. At lower levels more yaw is allowed and circles are to be
controlled primarily by the stern paddler.
I find it helpful to think of a line attached from the bow and the
stern of the canoe - there is a constant length and tension on these
lines to the middle of the circle. Each time the back end of the
canoe is pulled or pushed around the circle the front end must be
treated in a similar fashion or the canoe will wash out at the back or
toe out at the front.
Most common problems are caused by attempting stern only turns or control.
- Back end 'washing' out.
- Front end toe out (heading out to sea).
Initiations and transitions are difficult and must be executed
well or the whole circle can be thrown off. If you
are having difficulty initiating a turn from a stopped position in the
middle of the figure eight then start outside and enter in a straight
Outside circles typically more difficult to control
Transitions from outside to inside are difficult and you must be
careful you don't accidentally paddle a 'straight line'. Changing the
direction of the canoe usually requires extra work - a change in
stroke, and weight shift to switch turn.
Solo circles use only partial stroke for most of the circle. To
make the transition use a full stroke.
Heeling or leaning your canoe into the
circles may also help.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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 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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.