How To Paddle a Canoe: The 6 Essential Strokes Every Canoeist Must Know

Chattahoochee River Kayak

Chattahoochee River Kayak

Abigail Scott

Abigail Scott
Mother, Professional Kayaker, and Software Engineer

Updated on 12/6/2022

Children learn how to canoe by paddling with a friend or sibling and figuring it out independently. They might borrow a family member's boat to paddle on a pond, or maybe they try it out at a summer camp. Either way, childhood canoeing is typically accompanied by some flailing and flipping. In adulthood, they are flailing, and flipping sounds a lot less fun.

If you're planning to go canoeing for the first time or want to improve your skills, it's good to learn some basic strokes and information about the paddle. Your paddling experience will be more enjoyable if you know how to paddle a canoe correctly, and floating in a straight line is more likely if you know a few basic strokes.

Why Do You Need To Know Basic Paddle Strokes?

Canoeing is a little more complicated than it appears. Newbies struggle a bit as they jump into a canoe and set out on their adventure. When you paddle a tandem canoe, you must work with your boat partner. If you and your boat partner aren't on the same page, and neither of you knows what you're doing, you'll spend a lot of time spinning in circles.

Enjoy your time on the water and have fun with your boat partner when paddling casually. Speed shouldn't matter much unless you're going on a long-distance paddle or an overnight trip. You should plan a short trip if you're going canoeing for the first time (or the first time since you were a kid). As a result, you and your boat partner may tire out faster than you expected.

When you master the basics of paddling a canoe, you're more likely to enjoy your canoeing trips. Knowing the basic strokes will make it much more enjoyable to paddle for an hour in a local park, even if you're going for a casual paddle. It will be easier for you to maneuver into nooks and crannies and avoid obstacles that you don't want to hit.

Moving Water Vs. Flat Water

Moving water and flat water both have their pros and cons. Flatwater doesn't move while moving water has a current or notable tide. Moving water is usually found in rivers, streams, and coastal areas, and Bayous, ponds, and lakes tend to be flat.
Paddling downstream is faster than paddling on a pond, and it isn't easy to paddle on moving water if you do not know what you're doing. Imagine being in a driving car without knowing how to operate the steering wheel. Depending on how fast you move, you're going to bump into more things.

It won't matter too much if you bump into something on flat water because you'll be traveling slower. To bump into the obstacles, you would have to accidentally maneuver yourself over to them. In that case, practice your basic strokes on flat water before moving on to a river or stream if you are entirely new to paddling.

How Paddling Works

When paddling effectively, it is essential to note that there is a significant difference between paddling in the bow (front) of the boat and paddling in the stern (back) of the boat. You can perform some strokes from either position in the boat, but others work only when the strokes are performed from the stern of the boat. As solo canoes are relatively uncommon, this guide will focus on tandem canoes (two-person canoes) that are more common.

Some people might find this section a little boring, even if they want to go out and paddle. Of course, we understand that! To learn how to paddle correctly, you need to know why the paddle strokes work the way they do. You may skip this section if you are more of a learn-by-doing type of person, or you can go out to the water and practice the strokes until you get them right.

Most canoes are designed to be symmetrical, meaning that the bow and the stern are the same shape and distance from the center of the boat (though there are also square stern canoe where you can attach a motor). Therefore, the pivot point for the bow and stern of the boat is in the center.

Bow and stern seats are intentionally placed at different distances from each other to create a comfortable atmosphere when boating. It's a little closer to the back of the boat from the stern seat, and it's a little farther away from the front of the boat from the bow seat. As a result, you should sit pretty comfortably in the boat's bow if you are facing forward, but you would not have much legroom if you are facing backward.

One could compare the bow paddler with a car's motor and the stern paddler with the steering wheel. Although the bow paddler can steer a little bit, he won't be able to do it as quickly as the stern paddler. So to keep the boat moving forward, the bow paddler will mainly be rowing forwards, while the stern paddler will use specific strokes to pivot the boat to the correct course.

A boat pivots around its center point when the ends of the boat are stroked with a paddle. To keep the boat on course, you must make it pivot in the direction you want it to. 

The Basic Paddling Strokes

Canoeists should know a few simple paddling strokes to master whether they're paddling in the bow or the stern. By learning these strokes, you will be able to steer your boat in the right direction and make minor adjustments that will keep you from running into obstacles and riverbanks.

One day won't be enough to master all the basic strokes!

In most cases, it takes several tries to get the strokes down and do them correctly. You will have no problem if you don't expect your paddling to be perfect right away. The most important thing is to practice the basic strokes until you become proficient. The more you do them correctly; you will find that it takes less effort to navigate your boat and that you'll go further and faster once you get the hang of it.

3 Key Strokes All Paddlers Should Know

Basic Strokes That Work In The Bow And The Stern

Forward Stroke

Canoeing's basic stroke is the forward stroke. Having been canoeing or seeing it in a film, you have experienced this before. Moving forward is the forward stroke.

Steps:

  • Put the paddle blade in the water before you, and make sure it is perpendicular to the boat.
  • Strike a straight line back toward the stern of the boat with the paddle.
  • Paddling on opposite sides of the boat is the best way to use this stroke, and it balances the stroke out. Boats with paddlers paddling on the same side will start to veer the other way.

For example, if you both paddle forward on the left, the boat will turn to the right.

Almost exclusively, the bow paddler will use the forward stroke when paddling in flat water. Paddlers in the stern will use a combination of forwarding and steering strokes. 

Backward Stroke

The forward stroke is reversed in the backward stroke. The brake slows the boat down or makes it go backward (also called hitting the breaks). Paddle backward if you are about to crash into something you don't want to hit. You should paddle backward if you've already hit something and need to get out.

Steps:

  • Put the paddle blade in the water behind you. Angle the blade perpendicularly to the boat.
  • Towards the bow, push the paddle forward.
  • Be sure you're paddling on the right side of the boat to achieve your goal by communicating with your boat partner. You'll want to be on the same page when using this stroke, which you don't typically use unless you're in a jam.

You can also use backward and forward strokes to spin the boat. The boat will move backward if you are both paddling back. If you paddle forward with one paddle and backward with the other, the boat will circle. Get a feel for spinning and maneuvering on the water when you first get on the water.

Draw

A draw stroke is used to move the boat sideways. Unless you're paddling on a pond or very slow-moving water, you shouldn't need to use this stroke often. A person uses it to avoid an object they're about to hit or get closer to something they're trying to reach.

Steps:

  • Place the paddle blade as far out as possible in a shallow water area. The blade should be directly adjacent to the boat (not in front or behind).
  • Bring the paddle toward you.

Basic Strokes That Only Work In The Stern

Pry

When the boat starts to veer, a pry is applied to keep it on course. You will need a pry to turn the boat in the same direction you are paddling.

Pry strokes on the left will turn the boat left.

Steps:

  • Put the paddle blade as far behind you as possible in the water. Make sure the blade is parallel to the boat.
  • Make a 45° angle with the blade. If necessary, brace the shaft of the paddle against the boat.
  • It should not be difficult to perform a pry stroke. Your boat's direction can be significantly affected by this slight movement. Take care not to move it too far forward. Moving the boat too far forward can make it slower.

Sweep

Sweeps are used to keep the boat on course if it starts to veer. You will use a sweep during paddling to turn the boat toward the opposite side.

For instance, if you use a sweep stroke on the left, the boat will turn right.

Steps:

  • It would help place the paddle blade as far out into the water as possible. Directly next to you, the blade should be perpendicular to the boat.
  • It would help if you swung the blade back toward the stern of the boat. If you can reach the stern of the boat, it's OK to touch it.
  • The motion should be a full 90°.

J-Stroke

It will make your life easier if you learn to do a J-stroke correctly. This technique combines a forward stroke with a pry, and you can maintain forward momentum while using the J-stroke. Keeping the boat on the course is more manageable with each stroke's tiny corrective action.

Steps:

  • It would help if you placed the paddle's blade in the water in front of you. Make sure that the paddle blade is perpendicular to the side of the boat
  • It would help if you pulled the paddle straight back towards the stern of the boat.
  • It would help if you turned the blade parallel to the boat once it was behind you.
  • Turn the blade to a 45° angle and swing it forward. As a precaution, you can brace the paddle's shaft against the boat if necessary.

When you know how to do a J-stroke properly, you know how to paddle a canoe well enough for an easy or moderate canoeing adventure. As the most advanced basic stroke, it is also helpful for steering.

Paddling By Yourself

In a single-person canoe, you can use any of these strokes. You will not be in the bow or the stern of single-person canoes because the paddler sits or kneels in the middle of the boat. You are unlikely to learn to paddle in a sign-person canoe, however.

The likelihood is that you will be paddling with someone who is not very good at paddling and that you will need to do most of the work on the boat. Even though you might not be by yourself, it's like yourself. You will run into this problem a lot if you go canoeing with children or canoeing with a friend whose confidence level exceeds their ability. When you are in either of these situations, make sure you are in the stern of the boat to control the steering better.

Sit backward in the bow seat when paddling a two-person canoe by yourself.
As a result, you will be seated closer to the boat's center than if you were in a stern seat. Paddling a canoe is similar to paddling a giant single-person boat. As a result, you will get much more leverage from each stroke and will be able to control your turns more easily.