Sunday, May 31, 2009

Sitting Solo in the Stern

Paddling a tandem canoe solo is basic stuff, but there are those who do it wrong.

Take a look at the photo on the cover of The Wilderness Paddler's Handbook, by Alan S. Kesselheim, and notice how much of the boat's bow is out of the water. Now, in perfectly calm conditions, with no wind, and when you're not concerned about making time, this is okay. You'll note that it's sunset in the photo, and it's a common thing, at the end of a day of canoeing and after supper has been cleaned up, to hop in the stern by oneself and paddle idly in front of the campsite, enjoying the stillness at day's end.

But throw a bit of wind into the mix, and this scenario becomes untenable. Unless you're heading dead downwind, the bow's high profile, and its lack of underwater profile to provide resistance, cause problems. Any wind will take that high, exposed bow and swing it downwind. In light to moderate winds, you'll paddle like crazy just to stay on course. In heavier winds, it becomes impossible.

I recently watched an unsavvy paddler try this on a nearby pond on a stiff, gusty day. He was seated in the stern of a large, heavy, square-stern canoe, paddling like crazy to head more or less upwind. The wind would blow his bow away, and this big fellow would paddle like mad to bring it back. He looked to be a lot stronger than me, and he actually managed to swing the bow into the eye of the wind -- oops, just a couple of degrees too far, where the wind would catch the bow's other side and swing it downwind in the other direction. The paddler would switch paddling sides, paddle like mad, bring the bow back into the wind, lose it in the other direction ... over and over. It was exhausting just to watch, and he made absolutely no forward progress -- just spent all that effort trying to get the boat pointed in the right direction.

In light to moderate winds, the easy solution is the sit on the bow seat, facing the stern. Because the bow seat is much further from the bow than the stern seat is from the stern (to make room for the bow paddler's legs), this places it quite a bit closer to the boat's centerpoint. By orienting yourself this way, you'll have fairly good control, with your paddle not too far behind the boat's pivot point.

In stiffer wind, forgo the seat, move to the fore-and-aft center of the canoe, and kneel. Spread your legs and get one knee into the bilge (where the bottom curves up into the side of the hull), and lean the boat toward that side. This will position your paddle opposite the boat's natural pivot point, and allow you to hold the paddle nearly vertical with the blade as close as possible to the boat's longitudinal centerline, so that your forward stroke will produce mostly forward, and not turning, motion.

Now, about that book cover: Kesselheim's book is really quite good and useful. (I put it up there with Canoeing Wild Rivers by Cliff Jacobson [which, I believe, is now titled Expedition Canoeing], and The Complete Wilderness Paddler, by James West Davidson & John Rugge.) But when I worked as an editor for the book's publisher, Ragged Mountain Press (an imprint of McGraw-Hill), I received a proposal for a book to teach the rock-bottom basics of canoeing. It wasn't a strong proposal, and I rejected it. The prospective author responded by citing the cover of The Wilderness Paddler's Handbook as evidence that our existing canoeing books were no good. He evidently didn't understand that the folks who design book jackets aren't the same folks as the ones who write or edit the books.

And he also didn't realize that every rule has its exception. If there's any doubt that sitting in the stern with your bow up in the air is sometimes acceptable, ask Winslow Homer. It's hard to credit that the authentic-looking outdoorsman in his painting doesn't know what he's doing, even with his bow way up in the air.

(Homer painting available at


  1. I had a friend who used to paddle solo from the stern seat of his canoe. He used a fair sized rock that he put up front as a balance for his weight as his knees wouldn't tolerate kneeling in the canoe with his butt against a thwart. The standing joke with his friends was that the rock seemed to be getting faster all the time!

  2. The rock is a good idea, although if you're still sitting in the stern, it'll take a BIG rock to trim the canoe properly. If you turn the boat around (or rather, turn yourself around and sit backwards on the bow seat), it'll require a smaller rock.
    Another useful counterweight is a few gallons of water, usually in the form of one of those collapsible water containers.

  3. I have a paperback copy of "Two Years Before the Mast" by Richard Henry Dana Jr. The picture on the cover of the book shows a fore and aft schooner. The two years before the mast that Dana describes in the book were spent on a brig. The discrepancy between the innards of the book and its cover might have been less apparent if there wasn't a full page of pictures in an appendix that illustrates all the different sailing rigs. Clearly, the cover of the book is related to its contents only in the most general sense in that both the book and its cover feature sailboats. Apparently, whoever picks the pictures for the cover figures that the prospective reader will not have a clue about the contents of the book and so will not be aware of the inappropriateness of the cover until after he or she has bought the book. By that time, the publisher, author, distributer and bookseller will all have collected their due. The only damage done was a slight insult to the intelligence of the prospective reader.

  4. As a former marine book editor, I fought this battle for pictorial accuracy on the cover occasionally, and usually lost. The marketing people make the "packaging" decisions; they care little for the book's contents, and not at all about intellectual honesty.