Debunking the Tippy Canoe Myth

By Steve Salins

Generally, this column deals with reality–how to paddle better, how to read water, how to handle a canoe in different situations, how to do particular moves. But this is the Buyer’s Guide issue, and many readers are looking to make decisions about their direction with paddlesport: canoe or kayak. So I’d like to address a myth–the myth about tippy canoes.

Sometime ago, I was paddling on Lake Washington with my editor. Southerly winds set up reflected intersecting waves (clapotis) along the length of a pontoon bridge that spans the lake. It’s a wonderful place to test canoes–which we were doing–because the water is confused. Troughs are deep, crests are steep, and waves are unpredictable. We were doing great! Tossed about? Yes, but no water came in, and we were enjoying a magical ride in the midst of chaos. Still, one cannot ignore truth: canoes don’t come with lids. Canoeists understand the risks and difficulties of keeping water out. A single wave can swamp a canoe and turn a casual outing into a life-threatening situation. But it doesn’t have to happen.

Keep the boat moving: There are times to go passive and let waves pass under, and there are times to be pulling on the paddle. Rookie canoeists tend to freeze when they feel threatened; experienced canoeists do something with their paddle. Almost always, aggressive paddling strokes cause the canoe to feel solid and secure in the water. That’s why old hands tell novice paddlers to “Paddle like hell!” when they get into trouble.

Paddle in unison: This will stabilize a canoe. When one partner pulls on the paddle, so should the other. Stroking at different moments sets up a side-to-side rocking motion, which is uncomfortable. Learning to paddle together, with both paddles hitting the water at the same time, comes with experience. Who is responsible for synchronizing strokes in a tandem canoe? The stern paddler can both see and feel when the bow paddle enters the water. With increased experience, both paddlers feel the stroke of the other without watching, and paddling in unison becomes intuitive.

>b>Lean the canoe to your advantage: Compensate for not having a lid by leaning the canoe slightly away from oncoming waves. Although waves tend to overturn a boat that’s leaning in this direction, you keep water out. This is not a natural feeling, so practice with small waves. You don’t have to fall out of the canoe; simply drop your hip to lean it. At the same time, use your paddle to brace the canoe–either by pulling forward, using a forward sweep, or by using a low brace.

Watch what’s coming: Good canoeists understand and anticipate how waves and currents affect their boat. When something dramatic is about to toss a canoe, a preemptive corrective action keeps the paddler in control and from being thrown around unexpectedly and quickly. Effective reactions begin with continuous attention to what is coming your way. Watch the water.

Turn on the crest: Gnarly conditions can send a canoe in unwanted directions. When the bow is buried in a wave, you will lose the fight to correct the course. Wait until the bow lifts above a wave. Imagine your canoe balanced briefly on a single point. Apply the corrective stroke at that moment. It’s all about timing.

Adjust paddling sides to compensate for wind: When the wind is blowing your bow to the side, the stern paddler should paddle on the lee side of the canoe. The wind will negate the natural turning motion of the canoe. Few or no steering strokes will be needed; you won’t get so tired. Plus, the stern paddler is in a better position to lean the canoe away from oncoming waves while bracing with a forward pulling stroke as the waves hit.

Get a good boat: There is safety in selecting a model of canoe that is designed to meet your anticipated use. In this Buyer’s Guide, you will find some wonderful seaworthy, large, dry, fast, efficient canoes that are suitable for rough open-water paddling. A thoughtful choice of canoe that is designed to handle whatever you are likely to encounter allows you to absorb rough conditions that a less seaworthy model cannot handle.

Good technique begins with good training: For those new to the game, hands-on instruction by a competent paddler who has the ability to identify and correct paddling errors can help you develop effective strokes with good understanding.

Good judgment trumps good skill: Even the best of us must know our limits and when to get off the water. For all a canoe can do, sometimes there are things it simply cannot do. Know when it’s time to keep the paddles dry. The joy of canoeing extends from the artistic moves of a solo paddler to the rewards inherent in the perfect symmetry of a tandem partnership. Leave the myths behind. Tippy? Not so. A well-designed canoe, suited for its use, in the hands of a practiced and knowledgeable paddler replaces the myth with the magic reserved for those who effectively use the single blade. Good paddling!

Contributing editor Steve Salins invites feedback on his column. E-mail him at

The article was originally published on Canoe & Kayak

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