Mastering the Canoe J Stroke

When paddling a canoe, a solo paddler or a stern paddler is very often having to do some form of steering and there's a whole variety of strokes that you can use. But the classic one, along with its variations, is the J Stroke.

J Stroke Families

So there are two major families of strokes that we used to steer the canoe, one family very powerful and we use it a lot in whitewater, coming down a lake and with a strong tailwind and those are the stern rudders and stern prys.

Stern Rudder and Stern Pry

Put your power stroke in, pull through and then steer. Now the key with this is that you're using the power face. You can pull through with a power face but then, to steer, you switch faces and steer with the back face. So it's a case of pull, change blade face and steer with that side. you can do that either on the gunnel or off the gunnel. Off the gunnel tends to be called a stern rudder while on the gunnel is a stern pry. A useful marker in this family of strokes, the stern rudder and the stern pry, is that in the steer phase the thumb on the grip end of the paddle is at the top, or up.

C stroke, Indian Stoke, Knife J or Guide Stroke

The second family of strokes are 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 of the basic J stroke but subtly different. So with that you pull through, gain using the same power face and pull through but this time you twist and turn the paddle outwards to steer. So you've used the same blade face for power and for steering. Pull through and steer.

Hand Position

So in the J stroke because the paddle is rotated around, this hand now is on the outside and the thumb is pointing down. So one of the real important things with this is this movement of the hand on the top of the paddle. In the power phase of the stroke, the hand’s pretty well on the top, but as it comes down into the J stroke your hand slides around slightly so it's no longer gripping the top. This takes the stress out of the wrist and allows you to pull back very easily. You can do the same with the t-grip with the hands on the top for the power element but as you come into the steer, your hand moves quite subtly onto that face meaning you’ve actually loosened the grip with the fingers, again removing the stress. The problem without stress is if you don't get that movement, then as you come into the J stroke some people end up with this really awkward hand position. It's not very strong and not very useful but it's a solution to removing the stress. So you really have to learn to allow that hand slide round slightly.

Body Position

Solo Body Position

So what makes life a lot easier is your position in the boat. Sometimes I will sit and I'll look at that in a moment, but the majority of time when I'm solo, in whitewater or it's windy I'm gonna be kneeling and we've got a number of options here. Because I'm in this boat solo and it's a small tandem boat, you can paddle it back to front, which is the traditional way with the load up in front of me and I'm using the bow seat in reverse. If I want stability I keep my knees nice and wide and if I want to make my life easier so I can reach over this side to get a more vertical stroke or from steering, then I can move my knees across, the boat heels over and becomes more maneuverable. It's much easier to get a good quality power stroke with your hands across the side of the boat and much easier to do my J. If I can actually tilt my hips and knees so they're facing where you're going it becomes even easier. Because I paddle this boat solo out I’ve actually got a kneeling port in it and it makes my life a lot easier and more comfortable. The reality is I would normally use padding that could either be kneepads or a pad like this on the bottom of the boat. This allows me to move around the angles so my hips face the direction I’m gonna paddle and everything is a bit easier.

Tandem Body Position

So if I'm on the rear seat, again I could put that little bit of slant into the body to make life easier but also what I'll do quite often when I'm paddling tandem (I would generally only use this seat when I'm having tandem) is to generally have my legs slanted to one side to give my body that tilt to make this stroke easier. However if it gets a bit bumpy I'll square up again and I face forward and then I'll go to kneeling.

These are nice, easy conditions to practice the J stroke in. Each of my power strokes will push the nose slightly to the left so the J stroke is used to correct that.

Types of Strokes

Long J

Some people call it the traditional J so it reaches quite a way back on the boat and the bottom hand is outside the gunnel. You can either use the gunnel or not but in this case I'm not using the gunnel. If I want an extra bit of leverage or rest, you can put the paddle against the gunnel.

Short J

Using the shortened version would be called the short J. This stroke is coming off the gunnels hence the whipping on my paddle to protect it. This means you can get up to a faster cadence and get more strokes in.

Stern Rudder

You don't always need to start with the J stroke, you can start with a stern rudder. You can use a quick couple stern prys to get the boat accelerating and then into some very quick short J's with a really fast cadence to try and pick up some real speed. Now they do this to make a quick move on a river, into an eddy or in a rapid and you may use it to chew into a wind.

Common Mistakes

Stroke Angle and Handling

Many paddlers end up putting the blade up on this edge stroke after stroke. Now you may do that for one of two strokes to get going but then you should drop that angle off. If you continue to press on that angle there's a lot of stress on the wrist. So you can either remove the stress by swiveling it round on to the correct face or what some people end up doing (and it's not very helpful) is they swivel their hand on to the back of the t-grip. This is very weak and it doesn't really help you, it does remove the stress but it makes for a very weak stroke, so try to keep that hand on the face.

Poor Blade Exit

Another common mistake while learning is to do your J stroke is instead of tilting the blade to get the blade out of the water you actually lift the blade out to the back. It’s a bit like throwing up into the air like a propellor blade. It's not very useful, it's stressful on the hand and on the arm so it is well worth getting into the habit of just tilting the blade to take it out to the water. The water does the work for you and you’re then back on your way forward.

Types of Paddles

We’ll run through some paddles and how they make your life easier or more difficult and the realities of learning the J stroke with them


This is great for a spare, it caches bit short and it’s great for bashing off of rocks. It has a T grip at the top and we'll talk about that in a little more detail but the disadvantage of it is the blade. The blade has a spine and one of the things with a J stroke is you want a nice fluid movement through the water. Very often people talk with the stroke being fluid and the problem here is as you do your stroke, the water is going to hit this and create turbulence over it. You don't get the same clean fill, so I tend to avoid a paddle like this for teaching people how to do the J stroke. If you can find a plastic paddle with a clean blade face it can work as a second paddle or if you’re on a bit of a budget this can be something that's got a clean pace and actually gives you a much better feel within the water.

Wooden Paddles

Otter Tail

One of the best blades to work with and to teach edge strokes is an otter tail. It has a long, thin, tapering blade that’s very subtle in the water. The flow of the water across it is gonna be really smooth. Many otter tail paddles come with traditional grips that you can easily go to different hand grips. In the J stroke it allows my hand to slide around just very subtly and very slightly to remove all the pressure within the wrist.

Beaver Tail

They're much wider down at the tip and the idea is with these they’re great for steering when you're gonna do some abrupt steering and great for power. When you drop it into the water, immediately you get a lot of blade engaged which is really nice because it's a smooth blade face and it's wood. There's a great paddle game for learning the J stroke and at the grip end there’s a very traditional palm grip and that enables me again to power stroke. You can do my power element with the hand there but as you come into the J, your hand can very subtly slide around which again removes the pressure from the wrist.

Practice Paddling on Both Sides

Originally when we filmed this we did a lot on left and right but then for the sake of consistency decided to show the right hand in paddling. What we would urge you to do is right from the word away is to practice on both sides. That means that your development, muscle wise, is equal and it means that if conditions dictate you can choose which side that you paddle on. There will be times when that will be really pushed upon you by wind or current.

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