Toward Paddling Perfection:
How to get the most out of the Forward Stroke
by David Hearn
The two biggest problems for most solo canoeists, particularly on whitewater, are making the boat travel in a straight line to generate enough forward speed. The real challenge is putting these together so you're creating the momentum you want in the direction you want. Kayakers might get away with having inefficient strokes by simply doing more of them; since they have a blade on each side they can more or less correct their course with forward propulsion strokes. Because of the need for correction strokes, however, many canoeists who try to get up to speed with a faster rate only go in faster circles. Efficiency in both forward strokes and correction strokes is very important in a canoe; with only one blade, you need to get the most out of each stroke.
Though written from the point of view of a whitewater slalom C1 paddler, this article describes techniques for developing power and speed in a straight line for anyone who paddles with a single-bladed paddle. I emphasize correction strokes because in order to go straight fast, you have to keep from turning. A good forward stroke is as useful to casual lily dippers on class 1 streams as it is to hair boaters paddling waterfalls. Beginners and advance paddlers can both benefit from these ideas, since the perfect forward stroke is an ideal that we strive for but never reach.
The Basics of the Forward Stroke
Use the large muscles of the back as much as possible. The first thing to know about efficient canoe paddling is that the most powerful muscles in the upper body are in the back and shoulders. The muscles we are talking about are the fan-shaped latissimus dorsi, the erector muscles running along the spine, and the deltoids and trapezius muscles of the shoulder. The muscles of the arm such as the biceps and triceps are best used in a supporting role, not as the major movers. Even the largest of biceps is no match in canoe paddling for a normally developed set of back muscles. The arm muscles will tire long before the big muscles of the back. Therefore, many of the techniques mentioned relate to the intended use of the "big muscles" of the back and shoulders.
Relax all muscles not directly involved in propelling the boat. To practice your forward stroke, it is best to simply go out and paddle distance at a steady pace on flat or very easy water. Your body will let you know if you are tensing unneeded muscles; these areas will become sore and painful. Focus on relaxing these muscles, and soon you will be more efficient, putting only the necessary muscles to work.
Try to keep the boat steady regardless of how hard you paddle. Your lower body must be somewhat isolated from your upper body, so that the boat remains level, with no rocking or bobbing, as you apply power to the stroke. The boat will travel faster and with less effort this way.
Now, on with forward stroke technique. We will progress through the stroke from windup to catch to pull-through and then to correction and recovery. It may be difficult to concentrate on all the points at once, but with practice you can learn to integrate the different parts of the stroke into a coherent whole. It will probably be helpful to have a "coach" watch from shore or another boat, giving feedback on the stroke as it is developed. Remember that paddlers come in many shapes and sizes, and what is ideal for one person doesn't feel quite right for another. Each paddler must fine tune the ideal stroke discussed here to fit his or her body, finding a personal version of the perfect stroke.
Because most of the potential power in the forward stroke is in front of the paddler, it's important to extend the blade as far forward as possible at the beginning of the stroke. The way you achieve this extension is equally important. Twist your torso so that the shoulder and arm on your paddling side extend forward, and lean forward slightly at the hips. Muscles are very elastic when stretched slightly, and this elasticity can be used with proper extension to generate power at the catch (the point at which the blade takes hold of the water). The bottom arm should be almost straight at the catch and the torso rotated as much as is comfortable so that the catch is well forward. Bend the top arm roughly 30 degrees at the elbow and keep the wrist straight and rigid. Keep this angle in the top arm throughout the stroke. Keep the elbow of the top arm level or above the shoulder so that you are pushing down instead of pulling down with the top arm.
Stay loose and limber in the hips to allow proper twist on the windup, and originate the twist from the legs. As the onside shoulder (the side with the paddle) twists forward, the offside shoulder twists back. The spine serves as the central axis of twist. All forward lean should result from bending at the hips; avoid bending or hunching the middle or upper back. Bending the back interferes with maximum torso twist. The back should be in a slightly arched position for the whole stroke. This allows for plenty of twist and for proper breathing, with the chest expanded. (It is best to exhale on the pull-through and inhale on the recovery.) Keep the head in a neutral position. The "chin in the chest" phenomenon not only prevents complete filling of the lungs but also makes it hard to see where you are going!
To keep the boat from bobbing fore and aft on the stroke, try to transfer your weight onto the water by way of the paddle, rather than letting your weight push the bow down as you lean forward. You can lift the bow using your legs and abdominal muscles as you lean forward.
So, at this point we are ready to put the paddle in the water. The torso is twisted, bottom arm almost straight, top arm bent about 30 degrees, back arched and torso canted slightly forward at the hips. Slip the paddle silently into the water, without any splash to the front or back. A finely sharpened tip on the paddle will facilitate this silent, clean entry. It may help to pause for a split second before putting the blade into the water, to be sure that the blade is moving neither forward nor backward when it enters the water. Just before the catch, the latissimus muscle is stretched, and the rubber-band effect of this stretch is the first force that propels the boat forward. The top arm functions mainly to plant the paddle in the water all the way. It is very important to plant the blade fully before pulling through on the stroke. Hold the elbow up and push down with the top arm to plant the paddle.
During the actual stroke, or pull-through, the torso unwinds, with the onside shoulder moving back and the offside shoulder moving forward. The spine again acts as the axis of rotation. This unwinding of the twisted torso continues during the stroke until the shoulders are square to the long axis of the boat. Keep the bottom arm nearly straight for as much of the stroke as possible, to ensure that the work is done with the torso muscles. The weaker bicep does the work if the arm is allowed to bend. The top transmits a downward force to the paddle during the stroke, and actually moves slightly backward relative to the boat as the paddler straightens up at the hips. End the stroke in an upright position.
Note that you're actually pulling the boat past the paddle, rather than pulling the paddle along the boat, as it might appear from the canoe. Think of planting the paddle and pulling the boat up to it and you'll be more likely to use your torso muscles. Make the paddle stick in the water.
For top efficiency, end the stroke before your hips have reached the paddle blade. The blade grabs water best when it is vertical (relative to the fore-and-aft plane). As the angle changes to horizontal at the end of the stroke, the blade begins to lift water. This lifting only drives the boat deeper into the water, effectively making the craft heavier and slower.
In the side-to-side plane, however, it is less critical for the paddle to be vertical, especially in a decked canoe. To enable maximum force to be applied to the paddle during the pull-through, keep the top hand near the centerline of the boat, rather than trying to position it directly over the blade. This allows the body to best work with the paddle in propelling the boat. Keep the blade right next to the boat on the pull-through, but avoid banging it on the side of the boat. In large open canoes, keeping the top hand over the centerline of the boat may move the paddle blade well away from the side of the boat. This can cause a problem because the farther away the blade is from the boat, the more turning effect the stroke will have. In a large open canoe, therefore, you may want to move the top hand away from the centerline and over the blade to minimize turning effect.
Now the pull-through is finished, and the boat is tending to turn away from the paddle side. This turning action can be counteracted in several ways. Twisting the torso on the windup turns the boat back toward the onside. Leaning the boat slightly to the offside will also tend to turn the bow toward the paddler's side. To effect the lean, keep the torso centered over the boat and use the muscles of the legs and abdomen to tilt the boat. In addition to these measures, a correction stroke is often needed to straighten the boat.
Correction strokes have their tradeoffs. The rudder or pry stroke is very effective in turning the boat, but it creates drag. Execute the rudder/pry by turning the thumb of the top hand up and moving the blade behind the cockpit of the canoe. Begin the rudder/pry with both hands over the water, so that the shaft of the paddle is nearly parallel to the centerline of the canoe, and then pull the top hand in over the centerline with a quick forceful motion, prying the shaft against the side of the boat. The force is exerted with the back face of the paddle blade.
The rudder/pry does not blend well into the recovery. It requires an extra motion after the correction to take the paddle out of the water. In C1, the rudder/pry is preferably used only in emergency situations on the river, such as when the boat has turned upstream too much while crossing an eddy. In C2 and open canoes, you'll use this stroke more often because of the greater weight and momentum of the boat and paddler(s).
The J-stroke is the more efficient and elegant of correction strokes. Execute the J-stroke at the end of the pull-through, when the blade is nearing the hip, by turning the thumb of the top hand downwards. The power face of the blade exerts the turning force on the boat. The paddle shaft drags on the edge of the boat as the blade traces a J-shaped pattern in the water. The J-stroke works well because it blends right into the recovery, with no wasted motion. When you need a strong turning action, you can pry the paddle right off the side of the boat as you would in a rudder stroke. But often you can create enough turning motion without touching the side of the canoe. Move the top hand in across your face, toward the offside, as the J-stroke unfolds.
The top hand controls the J-stroke, while the bottom hand and the edge of the boat act as the fulcrum for the lever of the paddle shaft. The edge of the boat must be smooth where the knuckles of the bottom hand drag along the gunwale, or you may end up with some scars. Eventually calluses will form on the last knuckles of the bottom hand, but a smooth boat will make this adaptation easier.
The J-stroke should be done at the end of every pull-through. The easiest, most efficient path for boat is a straight line. Doing a correction at the end of each stroke ensures the closest possible approximation to a straight line. Trying to get in several strokes before correction results in a more zigzag path, which takes more energy. Try paddling a very slightly curved path away from the paddle side to develop the J-stroke further after you learn to paddle straight with it. When you can do this, try an increasingly curved path to really test your new skill.
If you have a decent stroke on your offside, switching hands and sides is an option. Entire muscle groups are rested, and you have a brace on the downstream side in every hydraulic. However, not many paddlers enjoy equal proficiency on both sides, and in many whitewater situations you will be unstable while switching hands. Often you need to react quickly and don't have time to switch hands. Non-switching paddlers who are forced into challenging offside situations tend to adapt and improvise quite well. In fact, many whitewater moves that used to be considered offside moves are now as comfortable and effective as onside moves because of developments in technique made possible only by a commitment to paddling without changing hands.
Cross-bow Forward Strokes
The fastest way to paddle in waves and on the flat for short distances is by doing "The Perk," named after Rand Perkins, who was the first one to paddle distance in a C1 in this manner. The Perk consists of several onside strokes followed by a forward cross-bow stroke on the offside for correction. Options run from 2:1 onside to offside (Perkin's original method), through 3:1, and up to 5 or 6:1. The proven fastest Perk is 3:1 or 4:1,depending on the strength of the paddler's onside versus offside stroke.
The Perk comes in very handy for starting up from a dead stop in an eddy, but is often overused by folks who have not yet learned a solid J-stroke. Forego the Perk for a while in order to learn your J-stroke well, since the J-stroke is the bread-and-butter of skillful canoeing. The Perk can be perfected later. Too many paddlers go right from the rudder/pry to the Perk and find themselves lacking in many whitewater situations. For instance, the Perk tends to weight the bow, and paddlers often need the light, bow-up position that can be obtained with the J-stroke.
Technique for the Perk follows the same principles as the regular stroke. Above all go for plenty of extension in front, and don't let the blade get behind your hips, where it is difficult to recover. Use the cross-bow forward sparingly. Do one big cross stroke rather than several small strokes with feathered recovery in between. The feathered recovery slows the boat, and you'll feel stuck on the offside. The Perk can be difficult in open canoes because the high bow gets in the way of crossing the paddle over. Practice your offside strokes before you rely on them in whitewater.
With a good J-stroke, the recovery is simple, because the correction blends into the recovery. Bring the blade forward just above the water in a nice arc. The windup, back where we started, takes place during the recovery. Beware of letting the elbow stray out to the side during recovery. Holding your elbow far out to the side shows that you are turning the paddle during the J-stroke with the bottom wrist rather than the top hand. Your lower forearm will let you know if you make this mistake by becoming sore and tired. Let the bottom hand pull the bottom arm and onside shoulder directly forward on the recovery/windup.
Starting From a Standstill
Special tricks to get going when stopped: use a small pry or J to turn the boat 20 to 30 degrees toward the paddle side from the desired path. After you take your first forward stroke the boat will point where you want to go. Sometimes it helps to take a couple of quick strokes with no correction (a rare exception to our earlier rule) to get enough speed so that a correction will do the job. A strong pry after the first stroke is sometimes the only modification needed to get moving. Judicious use of the Perk can also help in getting up to speed. I don't recommend doing a slight draw at the catch, known as a C-stroke, when starting from a dead stop. The C-stroke prevents you from applying full power to the stroke. You're far better off to start with the boat turned toward the paddle side to counteract the canoe's turning momentum.
Another useful technique works only in low-volume race boats with sharp edges. Lean the boat up on edge roughly 30 degrees toward the onside while paddling forward. The edge of the canoe behind you slices into the water and acts as a rudder, enabling you to paddle forward without correction strokes. This is a difficult maneuver. Even the best paddlers can't keep it up for long, but it is very effective when done correctly.
C2 and Open Boat Techniques
Tandem paddling and open canoe paddling use most of the techniques described above. Due to the increased weight of the boat and paddler or paddlers, however, generating power from a standstill sometimes feels like a furniture moving operation. The strength needed goes up and the speed goes down. More of the motions are isometric movements; that is, the muscle contracts but the arm moves little. Tandem boaters must pay particular attention to "hitting together," making sure that their strokes match perfectly upon entering the water. Cross strokes are used less, and the pry becomes more common than the J-stroke.
Many canoeists are confused about how long the paddle should be. First, you can't determine paddle length from your standing height or any related measures, such as "up to your chin." The factors that determine proper paddle length are the paddler's seated height, from seat to shoulder; the height of the seat in the boat; the draw of the boat in the water; and the length of the paddler's arms (lesser influence). A good rule to follow is that the top hand should not be much above or below the top of the paddler's head during the pull-through. People who have problems with the shoulder of the top (offside) arm should use a shorter paddle. The bottom hand should grip the paddle near the blade, or such that when the paddle is held with shaft centered on top of the head, the elbows are bent at roughly 90 degrees.
With some practice, your stroke will become refined, efficient and powerful. A little flatwater work always builds character, but need not be at all unpleasant. On the contrary, it can be relaxing and even invigorating to feel the "sweet spot" of a properly executed forward stroke in a canoe. Your newly developed stroke will take you farther down the river before tiring, and you'll find the energy to play more on the river. You will have the power and speed to do things in the water you never thought possible. Why not give it a try?
David Hearn was Whitewater Slalom C1 World Champion in 1985 and 1995.
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Last updated: December 31, 2006