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The four key areas to canoeing­

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Fundamental to your success as a canoeist

By Dave Rossetter – paddlesport instructor at Glenmore Lodge

The canoe has been around for a long time. There are reports of early canoes being used from Scandinavia, North America, South America and the Pacific Islands. Wherever it has been and whatever it has been used for –
the true beauty of the canoe – is that it is the craft for all occasions!

dave rossetter canoeing

Moving the canoe

The canoe is versatile and can be found being used in many different environments. Be it for hunting, travel or pleasure the canoe can cover it all. Depending on the environment you find yourself in you may need to move the canoe by:

Use of: pole; sail; rope and paddle. Not forgetting – you.

In future articles we will cover specifics for each of these skills. This article aims to give four key areas to cover regardless of the environment you are in or the skill being used.



You need to be able to do a few things here: gain it/maintain it/change it/loose it. Being able to either alter or maintain your momentum is fundamental to successful canoeing. Whether it’s your first time working on the J stroke to running a hard rapid momentum is going to be critical to the outcome.

Too many paddlers fail to get the boat up to speed while learning. Time is spent doing a huge amount of correction with little momentum being gained. Get the canoe up and running and you will find it will respond much easier to your strokes working.
However, we often need to loose momentum. Have you ever seen someone crash straight into the back of the eddy or another canoe? The ability to slow the boat down, especially on white water will ensure that you stay in control and even keep from getting water in your boat.

Understanding where to place the paddle and use of your body will help with your understanding of momentum.

Vertical paddles will aid in generating power to speed up or slow the boat down.

Top tip here is to ensure that your top hand is out over the gunnale.

Use of knees. Look to generate force through your knees while paddling. If you don’t kneel and prefer to sit then push off your feet / furthest forward part.

dave rossetter canoeing


Once an understanding of momentum has been gained then being able to maintain our angle is next. The angle that I am talking about is that of the canoe to the environment. This would be on the river crossing flow. Paddling on the open water the angle the canoe is to the wind.

Once you have chosen your angle then maintain until you decide it’s time to change. So often it’s the environment that decides for us leaving us out of control.

To aid maintaining this angle be conscious of where you steer from. Too many paddlers steer only from the stern of the canoe.
Learn to steer through your strokes by varying how far the top hand is out over the water and by changing the way the paddle is orientated to the side of the canoe. Once you have this understanding mastered on flat easy water take it out into harder environments.

Change the side you are paddling on. Learn to paddle the canoe from both sides. Don’t limit your options of the angle the boat is by the fact you can only paddle on one side.


Arguably the single most talked about subject between canoeists. Whether paddling solo/tandem or on the open water/river you need to get the canoe working for you.

Trim is about the footprint the canoe leaves in the environment from bow to stern.

Canoeists generally understand dealing with wind on open water – bow down going upwind versus bow up going downwind. However, going across wind not so sure? What about on the river? Going downstream is it the same as going downwind?

Trim is a dynamic thing and needs to change depending on the circumstances. Paying attention to what your trim is doing and ensuring that the canoe is working for you will aid in your performance and comfort during your journey.

dave rossetter canoeing

While testing your trim on the river or open water move little bits at a time and see what the outcome is. Measure this against the amount of effort you have to put in.

Don’t just use your bags in the boat to effect trim. Move yourself as well.

When the paddle is in the water in can also help your trim. The next time you are out in wind or current place your paddle in the water in front of you and pause before doing anything. Notice the change. Link this with the change of side that you are paddling on along with the way the blade is orientated as indicated earlier.


The way the boat sites side to side is just as important as trim. Hulls have a variety of different characteristics to them. This could be the amount curvature in the hull front top back and side to side. Whether it has a keel line and edges to it or not. This will effect how the canoe reacts to you and your strokes.

Understanding the hull shape will help you change the canoes direction or hold it on line much easier. There is no specific answer here that I can write because there are so many variables. However, I can point you to few exercises to help you see what works for you in whatever canoe you paddle.

dave rossetter canoeing

With each exercise ensure that you are sitting upright and not leaning over the side. While paddling forward keep the paddle vertical with the top hand outside the gunwale. Measure each exercise in terms of the amount of effort you have to put in versus the outcome.

Exercise 1
On a flat calm section of water paddle in a straight line with the canoe flat then same section with the canoe on a slight tilt. Try this a couple of times with a slight increase in the edge each time.

Exercise 2
This time when turning try start with the canoe flat then with each further attempt slightly increase the tilt each time.

Once you have practiced the exercises ensure that you have a way to get into the correct position each time. Piece of tape on the gunwale, pressure on the knees or where the hip is in relation to the side would be three examples.


These four areas are absolutely fundamental to your success as a canoeist and regardless of how you move the canoe.

For example:
Poling –
Experiment with tilt and trim

Sailing –
Experiment with momentum / speed up and slow down

Ropes –
Experiment with angle and trim while lining or tracking

dave rossetter canoeing

Happy paddling and hope to see you on the water.

dave rossetter coaching

Dave is the full time paddlesport instructor at Glenmore Lodge – Scotland’s National Outdoor Training Centre. He has been involved in the development of the new awards and provides expert advice throughout the industry on all things to do with coaching, safety, leadership and personal paddling. He is passionate about all things paddling and specialises in white water kayak and open canoe where he will most often be found. He is supported in his paddling adventures and coaching by Pyranha Kayaks, Mad River Canoes and Palm Equipment.

About thepaddlerezine (699 Articles)
Editor of The Paddler magazine and Publisher of Stand Up Paddle Mag UK and Windsurfing UK magazines

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