When I was first learning how to paddle a canoe I was taught the ubiquitous 'J' stroke. This stroke was to be used by the stern paddler every three strokes to 'steer' the canoe in a straight line. Today I still use the 'J' stroke but only on occasion since there are many variations and alternatives. I still show new paddlers how to do a J and explain why it is important, I also let them know that there are alternatives. Learning the J initially is useful because it is relatively easy to learn and execute, most other corrective strokes are at least partly a variation on the J. I want to introduce a few of these alternatives and where they can be used for correcting the direction of the canoe.
The J stroke and its variations are done when needed and generally only for subtle corrections. When going in a straight line I prefer to think of doing small corrections rather than steering. If you want to steer a canoe, such as when going down a windy creek, landing at a dock (or shore), or doing canoe ballet, both paddlers must be involved using adequate and appropriate communication.
The reason that I was taught the 'J' in the first place was to correct for the canoe turning away from the stern paddling side. On flat calm water this happens for a very basic reason: the stern paddler is further away from the pivot point of the canoe and paddling is done off to one side. With greater leverage the canoe turns away from the stern paddlers side. The problem is exacerbated by not keeping the paddle vertical in the water, long paddling strokes, doing a 'sort of' sweep following the canoe shape, a canoe with lots of rocker, and having poor trim where the canoe weighted toward the front. Having a stronger paddler in the back is not as significant as many people think. In the end all the 'J' stroke does is push the stern of the canoe back into line with the bow.
Correction strokes should be done as soon as the canoe starts to wander away from your chosen course. Most experienced canoeists do a subtle correction with almost every stroke, usually without any thought. An easy way to determine when a correction is needed is to watch a marker, such as a tree on a distant shore, over the bow person's head. If the marker is to your paddling side of the bow persons head then do a J to bring the canoe back. If the marker is to the other side then do straight stokes or a light sweep. By the time you have done this a few thousand times you will no longer think about markers and correction strokes you will just think about going someplace and it will happen - very Zen like.
Switching sides is a common correction technique sometimes referred to the as the 'sit and switch, 'hut' or 'Minnesota hut' stroke. The name comes from the stern person calling out 'hut' each time there needs to be a correction and both paddlers switch sides. This technique works works fine on flat water with two paddlers that are comfortable with the technique; it will move a canoe with minimal rocker quickly through the water. If the paddlers are not familiar with more traditional correction/steering techniques the use of the 'hut' stroke alone can have serious, and dangerous, consequences when conditions get rough. I would not want to paddle on a lake or river trip with someone who uses this as their sole correction technique.
In this article I am only going to cover the 'J' stroke and its variations. I have provided names and descriptions for each stroke but I don't want to mislead you into thinking that there are seven different correction strokes. There is a continuous variation between all of the listed paddling strokes. Each of the following strokes shine under specific conditions but when paddling for long periods of time remember to use a variety of styles, body positions, and strokes (or at least variations along the continuum).
The traditional J starts with a forward stroke then near the end of the stroke the power face of the paddle rotates away from the canoe and pushes out from the canoe. When I am paddling the push out portion of the stroke (bottoom of the J) is done by pulling my grip and back towards the middle of the canoe. Think of a lever with the fulcrum at your shaft hand. With practice the J portion of the stroke gets shorter and if you watch people that have paddled for years this becomes just a small twist or twitch near the end of the stroke. Most J variations follow the same theme where the power face rotates away from the canoe at some point during the stroke. The exception is the river J and rudder.
The pitch stroke gradually rotates the power face away from the canoe as the paddle is pulled straight backward. The pitch on the paddle pushes the canoe away from the paddling side. Similar to the J stroke the power face turns away from the canoe but the rotation happens throughout the whole stroke and there is never a push out at the end of the stroke. The whole forward stroke is under power, with the blade pitched at a greater angle through out the stroke. Keeping an angle or pitch on the blade makes it a more difficult and tiring stroke with a greater potential for strain injury. This is the only stroke that requires a firm grip on the paddle throughout the whole stroke (maybe I shouldn't say this since under some conditions such as whitewater/wind-waves a firm grip is also required).
Canadian or knifing J
The Canadian is similar to a J through the first part of the stroke but there is less push out, the recovery is sliced partially through the water. During the recovery your grip hand is inside the canoe and usually lowered somethat, near the middle of your chest. There is a slight pitch on the paddle during the recovery which provides the correction and makes it feel like you are lifting the water. This is a common variation on the J stroke - it works best with a thin blade and straight shaft paddle.
The C starts with a short draw at the beginning of the stroke and completes as a regular J or Canadian. In some cases the initial draw is replaced by using a pitch into the canoe. This stroke is really only useful when solo paddling. The most common problems I have seen with this stroke are: a) starting with a draw to the paddler not into the canoe which causes the canoe to move diagonally through the water; and b) the power, or straight, portion of the stroke being too long - the C stroke is short. Practice first by turning the canoe toward your paddling side just by using the first portion of the C stroke. This stroke works best with a straight shaft paddle.
Rolling J or Silent stroke
This stroke has similar characteristics to both the C and Canadian except the blade never leaves the water and the power face switches every stroke. The great advantage to this stroke is the blade is always in the water allowing for continuous correction. I often use this stroke when getting the canoe going and in windy conditions. This stroke works best with a thin blade and deep water. It can only done with a straight shaft paddle since the power face switches with each stroke. With a small modification, shorter more upright stroke, this becomes one variation of the Northwoods stroke.
River J or stern pry
This is a powerful stroke often used by river paddlers. Instead of using the power face for the correction the non-power face is used by rotating the power paddle face towards the canoe and doing a pry. The greatest advantage is that it allows for a quick transition from a forward stroke to a reverse or reverse sweep. A River J done with a bent shaft paddle is difficult to execute properly usually slowing the canoe and over correcting.
Rudder (sleeping stern stroke) - don't mistake this for a
This is any easy stroke to spot from a distance as the stern paddler is lying back on the stern deck with his hat pulled down to shade his eyes and his feet propped up on the stern thwart. A good stroke to use on a hot lazy afternoon in calm weather. If you are in the stern lie back and relax - let the bow paddler do all of the work. If you are in the bow with one of these lazy paddlers rock the canoe violently and quickly without notice and watch your stern partner fall in the water. Turn a bent shaft paddle backward to rudder.
With all of these strokes there are a few common problems to watch for: as with all paddling keep the paddle vertical and near the canoe, shorten your stroke down a little and don't delay or let the paddle hang at the end of a J or river J, make sure the blade is rotated enough (poor rotation with the J does not provide correction and with the River J it stops the canoe). Insure that the blade surface is perpendicular to the water surface at the end of the stroke; this may not be the case in the Rolling J or the Canadian. Be careful of the infamous 'Air J' where there is good rotation and push but it is done after the blade exits the water. Remember to do a correction stroke when it is needed; do several small corrections rather than one big one.
Don't be fooled into thinking that the J and its variations are the only way to correct the course of your canoe. There are a variety of other strokes and options, such as sweeps, draws and prys, 'sit and switch', and cross strokes that also allow for subtle corrections.
At the end of the day, for most of us, it is more important understand why things work rather than getting a specific stroke 'right'. Do what feels right and use what gets you safely home at night. No matter how much you read you will never really be able to paddle a canoe until you pick up a paddle and actually use it - quit reading this and get out and paddle.
Some other articles
Going Straight (Paddling.net)
Straight ahead: Four canoe strokes to move you forward (Ottawa Outdoors Magazine)
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If you have any questions or comments please send me Email: burc...@cc.umanitoba.ca