Flatwater Canoeing Know How!

Most white water paddlers don't think much of flat-water canoeing. After all, what could be attractive about muscling a boat around a dead calm lake when, nearby, there's a sparkling river filled with exciting rapids? Indeed, some white water canoeists wrongly believe that a simple forward stroke and rudder are all that's needed to paddle a canoe confidently around a pond. They have no conception of the modern linked strokes and maneuvers that make canoeing flat water a viable recreational pursuit and beautiful art-form.

Watch a skilled paddler pirouette a solo canoe around a series of dead heads, gunnel awash, or surf controllably down the face of a good sized wave, and you'll marvel at the show. Flatwater practice hones the paddle skills which are essential for performing complex maneuvers in rapids. Indeed, to confidently paddle whitewater you must first master flatwater!

The term, flatwater, is really a misnomer, for by definition, "flatwater" contains no discernible rapids. Powerful currents? Yes! Rock-strewn riffles? Absolutely! Dangerous white caps, undertows, wing-dams and tides? You bet! Power dams, waterfalls, whirlpools and motor boat wakes? Of course. These hazards are all part of the "flat water" experience.

Flat-water canoeing is not a low skill sport for unadventurous weenies. It is precision paddling at its best.

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Canoes almost always handle better when loaded dead level. If an uneven distribution of weight is unavoidable, the lesser of two evils is to slightly lighten the bow. But a light bow will tend to weather-vane around in a headwind, making it difficult to keep the canoe on an upwind course. On the other hand, a weighted stern will provide better directional control in a following sea, though if the tail is too low, huge waves may pour in!

In currents and rapids, directional control is almost always reduced by burying one end. With the bow high, you may successfully negotiate large waves, but you might later pile up on a rock because you can't maneuver! So, load dead level and keep the weight close to the center and low in the canoe.

When a canoe is paddled hard, the bow rises and the stern sinks into the hollow created by the wake, effectively knocking the boat out of trim, and slowing its speed. The solution is to re-trim the canoe by shifting the weight of the paddlers or cargo forward--simple enough, if the craft has a sliding bow seat (essential on a serious flatwater cruiser!), or packs that can be shoved ahead.


  • Trim the canoe dead level for casual cruising. Ditto, when paddling currents and rapids.
  • Trim the canoe slightly (one inch is enough) stern down in a strong tail wind.**
  • Trim the canoe slightly bow down when paddling into a strong head wind.**
  • Trim the canoe slightly bow down for racing or ultra-fast cruising. Remember, when you push a canoe hard, the bow rises and the stern falls into the trough created by the wake.
    ** You may have to lighten both ends of the canoe and revert to level trim if the waves are so large they come in over the bow. Ditto, if waves come over the stern when running downwind.


Modern flat-water cruising canoes are built narrow for speed and have low sides to cheat the wind. The seats are mounted very low to keep the center-of-gravity low. Canoeists refer to these craft as "sit-down" boats because they are built to be paddled exclusively from a sitting position. Sit-down boats must have adjustable footbraces so you can "lock" your body into the hull and apply maximum power with each stroke of the paddle.

The high mounted seats of general purpose aluminum and Royalex™ canoes dictate that you kneel when waves begin to roll. However, after a time, kneeling becomes uncomfortable and you'll yearn to sit--a precarious and possibly dangerous situation in a high-seated canoe in rough water. What to do?

Rule: Adding weight to a canoe will lower its center of gravity and increase stability in rough water. At the turn of the century, Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan Indians would net whitefish from their big freighter canoes as they rode them through the dangerous St. Mary's rapids. To resist capsizing in the huge waves, the Indians added plenty of weight to the canoes. Often, they would solicit passengers from town who wanted to experience the thrill of riding a canoe through whitewater.


Some canoeing experts advise paddlers to "quarter" big waves at approximately a 30 degree angle as the bow beats upwind. This procedure shortens the canoe's waterline and makes it easier for the craft to fit between waves. The result is that the canoe runs drier and rises more easily to the waves.

However, a canoe on a quartering tack is constantly on the edge of broaching to the wind. An error and over you go! That's why quartering waves is best reserved for those with good paddle skills. Beginners are best advised to move closer amidships, as suggested above, and paddle head on into the wind.


Running downwind is much more dangerous than going upwind. If a tail wind drives the canoe to "surfing speed" and the craft stalls on the crest of a wave, you must act fast! If you backpaddle or turn abruptly, you'll capsize! Better to keep paddling forward, stern ruddering (or holding a strong rudder!) as necessary, to stay on course. Fortunately, canoes seldom surf for very long. The big wave will soon pass and the canoe will slide into the trough of a smaller, more manageable wave. Now, pour on the coal and get to shore before the scenario is repeated.

Paddling alone in a tandem canoe: Always trim dead level in windless conditions. Best procedure is to rig a removable seat about 18 inches behind the center yoke bar. If you find it difficult to reach the water from your centralized position, scoot sideways and place both knees close together in the bilge of the canoe. This "Canadian" position is very comfortable on quiet water, though you'll have to limit your paddling to one side. All other "solo techniques"--paddling backwards from the bow seat, or stroking in the stern with the bow weighted, are inefficient and, to a greater or lesser extent, downright dangerous!


A straight-keeled flatwater canoe will turn more easily if you lean it to the outside of the turn as you apply power. For example, to make a gradual turn to the right, with the canoe under power, lean the canoe to the left--the reverse of what you would do on a bicycle. If you hold the lean, the canoe will cut a nice arc in the opposite direction of the lean. Caution: don't use this technique for quick turns in strong currents--you'll upset the canoe!

In case you're wondering why I haven't defined specific paddle strokes, it is because flat water paddling technique is too complicated to detail in a column. Specialized books, paddling videos and seminars taught by master paddlers, will get you started right. And eventually, when all you hear is the silent hiss of your wake as you cruise along, you'll know "you're doing it right."

Cliff Jacobson is a professional canoe guide and outfitter for the Science Museum of Minnesota, a wilderness canoeing consultant, and the author of more than a dozen top-selling books on camping and canoeing.  www.cliffcanoe.com

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