Tandem Paddling



Good agreements make good paddling partners


by Steve Salins

contributing editor


Brand-new canoeists go right to the point with their questions: "How do you communicate with your partner?" is the most common, and is usually asked by the bow person. Experienced canoeists chuckle at this point, because it isn't easy. For some of us who paddle stern the answer is "Yell a lot!"-but those of us who do that end up paddling solo. Effective communication starts with agreement over which responsibilities belong to which end of the canoe. Here are suggestions for flatwater paddlers to help grease the skids of understanding.



Canoes work best when paddled in sync; one partner sets cadence, and the other matches it. It stands to reason that the stern paddler is best suited to follow the stroke rate set by the bow paddler because the stern paddler can see what the person in the bow is doing. (As you spend more time in a canoe, you and your partner will be able to "feel" the stroke rate of each other.) If the rate is too fast for the stern to both steer and keep in sync, ask the bow person to slow down. If your bow partner can't maintain an even cadence, trade him or her in for a new bow person.




Stern paddlers are best positioned to view the overall orientation of the canoe to wind, waves, current, destination, and intended course, so it stands to reason that they are best suited to steer the general course. Fortunately, canoes steer best from the stern, so it works out well. (If your stern partner can't hold a course, find a replacement.) However, immediate corrections are often best made from the bow. Good bow paddlers have an arsenal of short-range steering strokes that can be used to accurately place the canoe or to handle unexpected situations. Bow rudders, draws, pries, and cross-bow strokes can all be effectively used to control a canoe, whether it's maneuvering to land or to avoid obstacles or collisions.


Where do you draw the line? If the immediate problem cannot be corrected from the stern, the bow must make the decision and the correction. The gray areas have to be talked out. By the way, good paddlers understand how the "other end" thinks, so spend some time in both ends of a canoe. Good stern paddlers sometimes ask the bow for help in maneuvering or holding course. ("Help me out with a draw.")



When it is necessary to lean the canoe against wind, waves, or current, the paddler on that side provides the lean. The "other guy" needs to learn not only how to give up lean but also how to paddle effectively when the boat is leaned away from his or her paddling side. Simple phrases such as "my lean" or "your lean" help remind both paddlers what the agreement is.



At the most fundamental level, each paddler is responsible for not tipping to the side he or she is paddling on. As a canoe tips toward one side, the paddler on that side can low-brace or paddle forward to stabilize the canoe. (Notice that a forward stroke provides some bracing action, which is why instructors sometimes tell students, "When in trouble, paddle like hell.") Holding the gunwale is never a beneficial option for either end. Agreement on "responsibility" goes a long way toward smooth communication. To maintain long-term communication, leave "blame" out of the vocabulary.


Steve Salins is an instructor for Pacific Water Sports in Seattle whose résumé includes whitewater marathon racing and canoe tripping.