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April 2011 cover image Paddle On!

Skill Builder: Paddling Particulars

These techniques will help keep your canoe or kayak moving in the right direction.

By Dan Oko

Many Texans believe they were born knowing how to paddle a canoe, but according to John R. Bartos, a Houston lawyer and conservation chair of the Houston Canoe Club, most are wrong. A veteran canoeist and avid kayak fisherman, Bartos should know. He and his wife, Cindy, have taught canoe basics for 25 years.

With the number of paddling trails on the rise, many Texans could probably use a lesson. Strong winds, choppy water, swirling currents and hidden obstacles can make paddling tricky.

After years of using muscle in place of technique when canoeing, I was all ears.

“Hey, it’s a lot more fun to do something when you know what you’re doing,” Bartos grins. Why argue?

Getting a grip

Before getting into specifics of the basic strokes, Bartos says that canoeists, in particular, must learn or relearn how to grip a paddle. Don’t strangle the paddle like a baseball bat. You don’t need a death grip. Rather, wrap four fingers over the “T” up top. Then fold your thumb across the shaft. Place your other hand low, so that when you raise the paddle above your head both elbows form 90-degree angles. On advanced strokes, you can choke up, but a common mistake is to hold the bottom hand too low.

Going forward

Paddling is all about physics. The boat and the water are one-half of the equation; your body is the other. Whether in a solo canoe, a tandem canoe or a kayak, you create the most efficient forward stroke by drawing the paddle shaft in a line parallel to the keel down the middle of your boat.

According to Bartos, Olympic racers use short strokes to also hold the paddle perpendicular to the water surface. In turn, rather than let the paddle cross the body, the arm you have on the grip should cross your body, so the shaft stays upright. (It feels unnatural, but keeping the T-grip and upper hand near your chin increases power and efficiency.) Sit up straight, press the paddle forward, and put the blade in the water. Twist your torso and shoulders slightly to help bring the blade past your hip. Then lift the paddle and reset.

No joke “J” stroke

Novice paddlers learn quickly that going forward and going straight are rarely the same thing. Enter the J stroke. Essential for solo canoeists and paddlers in the stern (or back) of the boat, this modified forward stroke allows for course correction with little if any lost momentum.

Start, Bartos explains, as you would with a forward stroke, moving both hands forward, keeping the shaft close to the boat and perpendicular to the water. Again, sit up straight and avoid crossing your body with the shaft. But as your low hand reaches your hip, twist the T-grip down and away to change the blade angle (in turn doing a “thumbs down” with your upper hand). The paddle blade is now like a rudder. Push the blade to steer.

The “onside” draw

Once you’ve learned the J stroke, whether alone or in a tandem canoe, you should not have to constantly shift the paddle from one side to another. This switching is one of the tell-tale moves of a novice paddler. (In a kayak, with a twin-bladed paddle, that’s not an issue, of course.) But no matter the boat, paddlers must sometimes steer the boat more aggressively away from rapids or snags.

This is one of the best reasons to learn the draw, a technique that can offer a bow (or front) paddler a chance to play a more active role by helping direct the boat away from dangers unseen in the stern or to overcome strong or swirly winds.

With the blade lined up so it’s flat with the boat, choke up slightly to avoid reaching too far, and then “bury the blade,” explains Bartos, and pull the boat sideways to the paddle.

Once these strokes have been learned, Bartos says, they can be tailored to maneuver your canoe or kayak in almost any direction. Such skills, he promises, will fuel a lifetime of fun on the water.


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