In paddling a canoe, a solo paddler or the stern paddler is, even in easy conditions, having to do some form of steering and generally the canoe will turn away from the power stroke. There's a whole variety of strokes that you can use to correct this with the J-stroke being the normal one.
We can think of there being two families of strokes we use to steer at the rear of a canoe. One family, very powerful, we use a lot in white water or coming down a lake with a strong tailwind. And those are the stern rudders and stern pries. The side of the blade I pull on I am going to call the power face. I can pull through with the power face, but then I switch and steer with the back face. So, it's a case of pull, change blade face, steer with the back face. I can do that either on the gunwale or off the gunwale. Off the gunwale, we tend to call it a stern rudder. On the gunwale, a stern pry. A useful marker in this family of strokes, is in the steer phase the thumb on the grip end of the paddle is up.
The second family of strokes, all based around the J-stroke, so the C-stroke, the Indian stroke, the knife-J, which sometimes goes by the name of Canadian stroke or guide stroke, they’re all variants really of the basic J-stroke. In the J-stroke the same blade face is used throughout. We take hold of a piece of water, apply power and then, as we turn the blade outwards, we are still using the same water to steer with. It is a dynamic stroke and normally we don’t trail it like a rudder. The J-stroke can, at first, feel unnatural but soon you will understand why paddlers as far afield as the Amazon Basin, the islands of the Pacific or forests of Canada used the same steering stroke. Once mastered, it feels natural and fluent. It is used in the stern of a tandem canoe or when paddling solo. So in the J-stroke, because the paddle is rotated power face outwards in the steering, the top hand now is on the outside of the grip, and the thumb is pointing down. One of the real important things with this is to allow the movement of the hand on the top of the paddle. In the power phase of the stroke, the hand is pretty well on the top. However, as it comes down into the J-stroke, the hand slides around slightly so it’s no longer gripping the top. This takes the stress out of the wrist. I could do the same with a Pear or T-grip. The hand is on the top for the power element, but as you come into the steer the hand moves round subtly onto the outside face. You actually loosened the grip with the fingers, removing the stress. Problem with the wrist stress is if you don’t get the correct top hand movement, then as you come into the steer, some people end up with a really awkward hand position. It’s not very strong, it’s a poor solution to removing the stress. You really have to learn to allow that hand to slide round slightly.
Sometimes I will sit but the majority of time when I’m solo, it's white water or it’s windy, I’m going to be kneeling. We have got a number of options. In a traditional canoe paddling solo, I can paddle it back to front using the bow seat, which is the traditional way. If I want stability, I keep my knees nice and wide. If I want to make my life easier, so I can reach over the side to get a more vertical stroke or for steering, then I can move my knees across. The boat heels over, becomes more manoeuvrable although less stable. It’s much easier to get a good quality power stroke, hands across the side of the boat and easier to do my J. If can actually slant my hips and knees so they’re facing the paddling side, it becomes even easier.
Because I paddle this boat solo, I use a kneeling thwart. It makes life a lot easier and more comfortable. I would normally use some padding, and that could either be knee pads or a pad on the bottom of the boat. This allows me to move around, be angled, so my hips face the side I’m going to paddle on.
If I’m on the rear seat when paddling tandem, I can still put that little bit of angle into the body. I can sit in easy conditions but even then, I would generally have my legs slanted to one side to give my body that angle to make this stroke easier. However, if it gets a bit bumpy, I’ll square up again, and I’ll face forward, if it gets harder again then I will go to kneeling.
Choose nice, easy conditions to practice the J-stroke in. Each of your power strokes will push the nose slightly away from the power side. If, because of conditions it turns towards the power side then a stroke without steering or a partial sweep will push the nose back on course.
The angle in the water of the blade can be high during the steering phase, almost on edge and that gives a lot of steerage and that is certainly useful starting the canoe or when necessary but most of the time the angle can be far less. Rather than lifting the blade from the water all that is necessary is a slight tilt up of the leading edge and the water lifts the blade out and you can swing it forward for the next stroke.
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