Mastering pivot and sideslip strokes

canoe technique
Paul and Willa practice their pivot turns

By Conor Mihell

If you think the bow is just the engine in a tandem canoe, you’re not doing it right. When Canoe & Kayak’s technique guru Paul Mason paddles tandem, his daughter Willa plays a critical role in choosing a course from the bow seat. “It gets more exciting for bow paddlers as soon as you start doing pivots and turns,” Mason says. “Their role is correcting for obstacles that are in close and not visible to the stern paddler.”

Filming this segment provided vivid flashbacks for Mason, who confesses to sometimes paddling absentmindedly in the bow while his father, the late Canadian canoeing icon Bill Mason, manned the stern. Now, Mason is literally and figuratively in the other end of the boat. “When we filmed this we were into our seventh or eighth take because of all the variables,” he says of the C&K Virtual Coach video now available on “It was just like filming Path of the Paddle with Dad, only this time I was the one wondering when Willa was going to get tired of going around in circles.”

The Draw Use: this stroke to pull your end of the canoe to your paddle side. To do it, plant the blade perpendicular to the canoe and then pull the hull toward the paddle (if the canoe is moving forward, open the leading edge of the blade slightly). Increase stroke efficiency by reaching out with you upper body and pushing away with your upper hand, effectively turning the lower hand into a fulcrum. The canoe will slide across the water toward the paddle blade, which remains relatively stationary. The movement brings you back to an upright position at the end of the stroke. Recover the blade for a second draw by rotating your upper hand to knife the blade away from the canoe. The thumb on your grip hand will point out when you’re doing it right.

The Cross-Draw: A stroke used exclusively by the bow paddler (or a solo paddler) to pivot or sideslip the canoe to his or her offside. An effective cross-draw requires good torso rotation and an awareness of the angle of the paddle blade. Hold the paddle horizontally and rotate to your opposite side, without shifting your hand position. The paddle blade should now be parallel with the gunwale. Plant the blade as far from the hull as you can while still maintaining a strong core position, and then unwind your body to draw the canoe toward the paddle. “Think of shoveling the water under the boat,” Mason says. Use an out-of-water recovery with the cross-draw.

The Pry: The stern paddler uses a pry stroke to push the canoe away from his paddle side. Hold the paddle above the gunwale, sink the blade into the water and lever it away from the canoe. Pay attention to the start of the stroke, as the first few inches of the pry generate the most turning force. “You want to hear the paddle blade slap the stern of your canoe before you perform the pry to capture the most powerful part of the stroke,” Mason says. At the end of the pry, rotate your upper hand (thumb facing out) and knife the blade back to the stern.

Pivots: The bow and stern paddler use complimentary strokes to pivot the canoe away from an obstruction or to compensate for wind and waves. If both bow and stern paddlers perform draw strokes, the canoe will rotate toward both paddlers’ onsides. Likewise, if the bow paddler performs a cross-draw and the stern paddler a pry, the canoe will rotate toward the paddlers’ offsides.

Sideslips: Opposite strokes—a combination of cross-draws in the bow and draws in the stern, or draws in the bow and pries in the stern—will move the canoe laterally without any rotation. This is a handy technique for landing a canoe broadside on a dock. The stern paddler can ask the bow paddler to slow down to maintain an even sideslip.

The article was originally published on Canoe & Kayak

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