How to Steer a Canoe

How to Steer a Canoe
Steering a canoe sounds like a straightforward process that requires little thought. The truth is that there are several different paddling techniques that go into guiding your craft in the water. Doing these inefficiently can make a day on the water seem more like work than recreation, while using correct navigating techniques will allow your canoe to glide almost effortlessly through the water.


Difficulty: Easy

Step 1
Understand the terms for the different sections of canoe. Like any other watercraft, the front of the boat is the "bow" and the rear is the "stern." The right is known as the "aft" and the left is known as "port," however, these two are rarely used in canoeing. Most people will refer to the sides as being the "on" side or the "off" side. The "on" side refers to the side that you use for most of your paddling, which is usually the right side if you are right handed or left side if you are left handed. The "off" side is the opposite of the "on" side.
Step 2
Practice doing an efficient "forward stroke." This paddling technique is used most often when steering your canoe. You will do the forward stroke hundreds, if not thousands of times during a day of canoeing. To perform the forward stroke, hold the paddle so that the shaft is vertical (straight up and down) and turned so that the broad side of the blade pushes against the water. Hold the top of the paddle shaft with the hand on your "off" side and the other hand positioned farther down the shaft. Simply dip the blade of the paddle completely into the water and pull it straight back, towards the rear of the canoe. This action propels you forward.
Step 3
Learn how to do the "back stroke." The back stroke is essentially the opposite of the forward stroke. Instead of pulling the paddle blade from the front of the canoe to the back, you are pushing it from the back to the front. This method can be used in still water to back away from an object or can also be used to make sudden, sharp turns in the canoe. The back stroke is an effective technique for doing a u-turn. This is especially true in a two-person canoe. The person sitting in the stern (rear) seat can do a back stroke on the side of the canoe that matches the direction you want to turn, while the person sitting in the bow (front) does a forward stroke on the opposite side.
Step 4
Master the "J Stroke." This is a common navigational stroke that makes subtle course corrections. When you are using mostly your "on" side to paddle, preventing the extensive work of constantly switching sides, it can be easy for your course to veer off to that side rather than staying straight. Using the J Stroke corrects this and helps keep your canoe traveling in a straight line. Simply start with a standard forward stroke, but when you reach the end of the stroke, turn the paddle and move it out away from the canoe. When this is done on the port (left) side, the pattern resembles a letter J, which is how the stroke was named. Be careful to keep the blade of the paddle submerged during the J. Also be careful not to overcorrect, or you'll find yourself zig-zagging across the water.
Step 5
Use a "Side Stroke" when necessary. There are two types of side strokes--one where you pull the paddle towards the canoe and one where you push it away. To do either one, turn your torso to face the side of the canoe where you will perform the stroke and place the blade of the paddle in the water, with the broad side of the blade adjacent to the canoe. To move the canoe sideways towards that side, put some distance between the paddle and the canoe and pull the blade towards you. To move away from that side, start with the blade near the canoe and push it away so that the canoe moves in the opposite direction. Using these side strokes is an effective way to move the canoe in a parallel motion across the water.

Tips & Warnings

Always wear a life vest. If you are canoeing in an area with strong currents due to rocky waterways, you should also wear a safety helmet. It also helps if you can canoe with a friend, but if that is not possible, learn how to do a self-rescue in the event that you capsize.

Article Written By Wirnani Garner

Wirnani was born in the Philippines, where she had constant access to a rural jungle environment. In addition to exploring the island jungles, Wirnani spent much of her youth interacting with local wildlife, swimming in the Philippine Sea and rafting on the Davao River. She also routinely went on backpacking trips along the trails of Mount Apo, the highest peak of the Philippine Islands. Wirnani currently lives near the Ozark Mountains of Northern Arkansas. The location provides an abundance of hiking, swimming, canoeing, kayaking and fishing opportunities. When she's not spending time outdoors, Wirnani enjoys studying biology and human health sciences.

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