I love boats. Canoes, really. They are simple. They float without fanfare. They have a history that harkens back 10,000 years to prehistoric dugout canoes, and more recently to the discovery of a well-preserved birch bark canoe dating 250 years old. There are tons of specialty canoes out there – from outrigger canoes for ocean races to whitewater canoes that look more like stubby bathtubs for running steep frothy whitewater. In between these two extremes, there is something essential about simply exploring by any ole canoe that you can get your hands on. An early morning paddle while the water is like glass and the sun is just rising is my favorite time be out on the water.
But, here’s the challenge with canoes. Making them go in a straight line can be an exercise in pure frustration for novices. Here are a few essential pointers to get things going in a tandem canoe and keep you safe out on your next adventure.
- Paddle on opposite sides of the boat. This will keep your craft from pitching back and forth, and make the boat more stable under motion. For added stability, kneel if you’re in rough water, or trying to gain ground in a headwind.
- Paddle in synch with your partner. Yup, find your rhythm. It is the bow (front) paddlers job to set the pace, and it is the role of the stern (back) paddler to match that tempo. This insures that you are maximizing your forward momentum. Call a “switch” regularly to change sides, which will help keep your boat going in a straight line, until you learn a couple more steering strokes – namely the J-stroke and the sweep stroke. View a video featuring details on steering strokes.
- Keep your paddle shaft vertical. Easier said than done. The alternative is what we call “lily-dipping” – fine when good conversation trumps going someplace in particular, but if you’ve got an itinerary to keep and miles to make, a vertical paddle shaft will ensure that the blade of your paddle is vertical during the power phase of your stroke – maximizing forward propulsion each time.
- Wear your darn PFD. You never know when something goofy is going to happen and you end up in the drink unexpectedly. 75% of paddle sport related drownings were found with no personal floatation device on. 20% of paddle sport fatalities had alcohol as a contributing factor. If you’re planning on doing a bunch of canoeing, invest in a comfortable PFD, so you’re more likely to wear it. It won’t save your life if its worn out, so mildewed you won’t wear it, or strapped to a thwart when you take that swim.
- Dress for the water temperature, not the air temperature. Consider this sobering statistic: a person dressed in street clothes has a 50% chance of swimming 50 yards in 50-degree water. Hypothermia is the real killer – zapping core temperature and compromising motor control.
- Know your limits. A map and some sense of the adventure before you is part of good trip planning. Measure before you go. Novice paddlers typically cover about 2 mph on flat water. Experienced paddlers looking for a workout can cover 3-3.5 mph. Anticipate what river current might do to your speed and itinerary.
- Sunscreen in all the right places. Sun reflected off the water will burn in some unlikely places – including under your nose and the back of your ears. In an aluminum canoe, there is added reflection off metal surfaces. A wide brimmed hat with a keeper string or alligator clip, and sunglasses on a keeper cord will keep those expensive glasses where they need to be and add to your sun protection. My dad once flipped his canoe on a chilly October day, leaning out to gallantly rescue his partner’s sinking hat. A quick boat rescue, and skills to get a 250+ pound paddler back in the boat and out of frigid water prevented a near disaster and lost hat. Which brings me to the next tip…
- Practice getting back in your boat. If you’re paddling with another boat, practice canoe over canoe rescues. If you are paddling solo, the best advice is to paddle close to shore and in the lee. Don’t be farther away from shore than what you know you can swim with your boat full of water. I’m a big fan of the Canadian re-entry technique. It works well for the less-athletic, and in choppy waters. Once you’ve T-rescued the capsized boat, have the swimmer get to one end of two boats held side by side by a rescuer. Put a hand on each gunwale, float on your back, and hook a leg over a gunwale of each boat. Then, arch your back and drop your buns into one of the boats. Ta-da, on board.
- Beware of flat river wide horizon lines. These are often low head dams. They may look benign, with a modest 2-4 foot drop, but given how water hydraulics work, underwater currents trap and hold boats and their humans. Learn to recognize these hazards and portage around them.
- Pack something fun along for a little floating flair. In addition to ample water, consider packing fun snacks, a picnic for a floating dinner date, fishing poles, binoculars, extra chocolate. Or, bring headlamps and glow sticks for each end of your boat and enjoy the night sky from the middle of your favorite lake. Take your creativity to the water.
See you on the water!