Paddling Solo in a Tandem Canoe

It's one of those perfect morning dawns: the dew is fresh, there is a nip in the air and the mist rising off of the mirrored surface of the water calls you out. After cooking oatmeal over a small fire you wait for your paddling partner to wake up so you can go paddling. Unfortunately, she's a constant over-sleeper and a bear to force out of her slumber. The only way onto the water is if you get into your 18-foot tripping canoe and paddle it solo.

Solo canoe paddling is a rewarding experience that enables you to log more time on the water—even when you canít get a paddling partner to come with you. Although itís best to break down and add a solo canoe to your fleet, sometimes garage space doesnít allow that to happen, or if youíre like me, two canoes are all that will fit above your living room TV. Well, don't fret. There are a few tricks and strokes you can learn that will turn your current tandem canoe into a workable solo.

Get into the Lean of It

Many people who paddle solo like to sit in one of the seats, and although this is very comfortable, it concentrates too much weight at one end of the canoe. When you see someone paddling this way, one end of the canoe will be raised up out of the water, causing itself to become a giant sail in even the lightest winds. So unless you enjoy being blown around chaotically, it is much easier to paddle from the center of the canoe. If you donít want to add either a drop-in or yoke-style center seat, the best you can do is kneel just behind the yoke of your canoe. This position slightly raises the bow of the canoe to allow you more control during turns. It also slightly weighs the stern, forcing the stem to acts like feathers on an arrow, helping you to glide straight ahead. A slight lean towards the paddle side will also lift the bow and stern out of the water, creating a shorter waterline and more manageable canoe for a soloist to handle.

A Little Stroke Here, A Little Stroke There

While a typical solo canoe is 30 inches wide at center, most tandem canoes are at least 34 to 36 inches wide. Since this extra width makes it difficult to paddle in the conventional sit-and-switch style, it makes good sense to learn a few strokes that will allow you to paddle on only one side of the boat. When you do this in a leaned position, the tandem canoe takes on a surprisingly playful feel and becomes easily controllable. Many of the strokes that you need to do this efficiently you probably already know: The Draw, the Pry, and the Forward Stroke.

The Forward Stroke

The forward stroke is a smooth but quick stroke that starts a shoulder's turn ahead of your body. To execute this stroke, lean the canoe towards the side that you are paddling on, hold the paddle vertically; twist your torso so that your paddle-side shoulder turns towards the bow. Next, plant the blade into the water and unwind your body. The planted paddle will pull your canoe past the place it catches the water. When the paddle reaches your hips, pull it out and stroke again.

The Draw

The draw stroke pulls your canoe sideways towards the paddle side. Start this stroke by turning your paddle blade parallel to the centerline of your canoe. Your thumb on the handle of the paddle should point towards the stern. Reach outward while leaning your canoe towards the paddle; plant the blade, keeping the paddle as vertical as possible; then pull your canoe towards the paddle. If you draw forward of the center, the canoe will turn the bow towards the paddle. Similarly, a draw stroke rear of center will turn the stern towards the paddle.

The Pry

The pry stroke pushes your canoe away from the paddle side. Start this stroke by turning your paddle blade parallel to the centerline of your canoe and placing the paddle shaft against the side of the gunwales. Lean the canoe towards the paddle side and slice the paddle into the water at an angle that puts the blade under the canoe, use the canoeís gunwales as a pivot point and pull the handle towards you like a lever. You can use the weight of your body to increase the power of the pry. Like the draw, a pry forward or aft of the center of the canoe will push your bow or stern away from the paddle, respectively.

Putting the Strokes Together

Now that you have these three simple canoe strokes down, you're probably still wondering how any of them is going to help you paddle straight without your trusty sit-and-switch. Obviously, the conventional forward stroke I described will have you going in circles if you only paddle on one side. However, by combining it with the other two strokes—the draw and the pry— you can turn it into the C-stroke. Properly done, a good C-stroke will allow you to effectively control the direction of your tandem canoe, even when paddling on only one side of the boat.

The C-Stroke

To perform the C-stroke, begin a draw stroke forward of center, at the position you would typically begin a forward stroke. The canoe will turn towards the paddle. Blend this draw stroke into a forward stroke to pull the boat forward. Since this effort is being exerted on only one side of the boat, the bow will also push away from the paddle-side slightly. As you near the end of the forward stroke and the paddle nears your hips, finish the stroke with a pry to pull the bow back towards the paddle-side. All together, the draw-forward-pry motion is akin to drawing a "C" in the water with the paddle blade, hence the name "C-stroke." The stroke moves the canoe forward and keeps it straight by incorporating draw and pry components to offset the usual tendency of the bow to push away from the side a forward stroke is executed on. Once mastered, you will find it surprisingly easy to paddle any canoe in a straight line without needing to switch sides with the paddle.

The Mad Scientist Experiments

Be sure to experiment with draws, pries, and forward strokes. By using these in different combinations it is easy to control a canoe by paddling only on one side. One of the best tricks for learning is to set up a buoy and paddle circles around it. A dry bag weighted with just enough rocks to submerge it halfway makes an excellent makeshift buoy that resists wind well. A good practice routine consists of paddling around the buoy clockwise, then counterclockwise. After you have done this several times, point your bow at the buoy then spin the canoe around it while keeping the bow pointed at the buoy. For an even bigger challenge, try the same thing with the stern.

Breakfast — Thereís Lots of Toast and Jelly

Once you have mastered these techniques, you will appreciate the new-found feeling of independence that you can enjoy in a tandem canoe. Even better, on those long mornings while youíre waiting for your paddling partner to unzip her sleeping bag, you will already have been out on the water, exploring the hidden coves of the lake you camped on. If youíre lucky you will have cast your lure into some snags and have the perfect breakfast waiting for your partner when she finally gets out of bed.

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© 2006, Wesley Kisting

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