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Foundation Canoe Skills: Effective Tandem Forward Paddling

Paul Bull coaching

Paul Bull coachingIn this article I’d like to explore some more tandem canoe skills and look at efficient forward paddling and also hopefully bust some myths. Tandem paddling for me is an art form where two paddlers work in harmony, and with everything working correctly there should be no need to correct at all as we glide along on our journey.



Lets break down our tandem paddling into seven key concepts:

  1. Offset seating positions
  2. Pre-rotation
  3. Stacked hands/vertical paddle
  4. Blade following a line parallel to the centre line of the boat
  5. Trim
  6. Timing of the strokes
  7. Equal weighting of power

Lets start with our seating position. As a tandem pair, each paddler will work on opposite sides of the canoe. To aid paddling, rather than sitting square on facing the bow, each paddler should be slightly turned or offset to the side that they are paddling on. This offset seating position enables our hands to operate over the side of the boat rather than inside the boat and enables us to stack our hands more effectively. Unless we get our fundamental seating positions correct, the rest can’t happen.

Have you ever paddled on a long journey and found that your arms quickly tire? If the answer is yes then it’s likely that you’re using too much in the way of arms and not enough of your core muscles. Pre-rotation winds top our core muscles and allows us to drive the boat forward more effectively. When paddling on the left side a good flag for effective pre-rotation would be as you reach forward to catch the water your left shoulder is pointing forwards and your chest starts to face to the right. For a right handed paddler the opposite is true.

The third principle for forward paddling is making sure our hands are stacked (one over the other) and the paddle is as vertical as possible. This means that as we plant the paddle into the water, we drive the boat forwards and past the paddle. The moment our top hand drops inside the boat’s gunnels we start to turn either push the bow away from the paddle or pull the stern towards the paddle and the boat starts to turn.

The fourth principle is ensuring that we drive the boat past the paddle in a straight line. Draw an imaginary line in the water to the side of the boat that is parallel to the centre line of the boat – the line from bow to stern. Again, if we plant the paddle too close to the boat we end up following the gunnel, and at the bow we push the boat away from the paddle and at the stern we pull the boat towards the paddle.

The fifth principle of tandem forward paddling is ensuring we have the correct trim. I often hear people say that the most experienced person should be at the back to correct. But actually the heavier person should be in the stern position. If we were to place the heaviest person in the bow position the boat is trimmed bow heavy and directional stability is lost and the boat always wants to turn. We should therefore swap bow and stern paddlers around so that the boat is trimmed stern heavy and the boat will track in a much straighter line.

The sixth principle of tandem forward paddling is the correct timing of the strokes. If both paddlers time the strokes effectively so that their blades enter the water at the same time the boat remains balanced, moving forward in a straight line. If we mis-time the strokes the boat will again have a tendency to turn. Who should dictate the pace and cadence of paddling? I’d argue the bow paddler should, as the stern paddler can easily see and time their strokes accordingly.

The seventh and final principle of tandem forward paddling is the equal weighting of power between bow and stern paddlers. This is a really important principle and is easily identified. If the boat turns away from either paddler then that paddler is responsible for delivering too much power. So for example if the bow paddler is paddling on the left and the boat consistently turns to the right then it is the bow paddler who is delivering too much power. So how do we fix this? Does the stern paddler deliver more power to compensate? I”d argue that the bow paddler needs to reduce their power. You often see it with male/female or adult/junior crews – an adult male can deliver more power and often turns the boat whilst telling the other paddler to put more effort in! The other paddler may already be operating at 100% and may not be able to. Net result – knackered paddler after only 10 minutes! Always work well within the strength range of the weaker paddler.

If you get all of these seven principles ingrained into your forward paddling the trip will be smooth and effortless. Have a go at these tandem canoe paddling concepts if they are new to you and let me know how you get along!

Happy paddling!

About Me:

Paul BullI’m an enthusiastic full time UKCC Level 3 Coach who’s passionate about helping people to develop and enjoy kayaking and canoeing whether that be more advanced skills on the more technical or bigger volume rivers of the UK and Europe or grass roots sessions nearer to home. I deliver a range of BCU and Personal Skills courses in both Canoe and Kayak around the country and from my very own recently opened centre at Tittesworth Water (, Staffordshire. More information about me and the courses I offer can be found at / or via Facebook at

About thepaddlerezine (654 Articles)
Editor of The Paddler magazine and Publisher of Stand Up Paddle Mag UK.

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