How to Canoe with a Partner?

Last Updated: 09.07.20


While even the most stable canoe can flip and turn over, things are easier with a partner, especially for beginners. The secret here is that the front person has to paddle forward while the rear one also has to steer the boat in the right direction in order to remain stable.


Where did it start?

Canoeing is one of those activities that are still relatively unknown to some people yet highly popular with others as well. For those who did not yet see one, a canoe is a light and narrow boat which is built pointed on both ends while also being open on top. A canoe moves forward with the help of one or more paddles.

Even people who study this sport find it difficult to point exactly when it began because the latest discoveries found evidence of canoeing thousands of years ago. A few years back, a team of archaeologists even managed to find the remains of a dugout canoe believed to be around 8 millennia old. 

As flawed as that information is, it’s still well-known that in North America, the very first canoes were used by the indigenous people in the Caribbean region, who had to frequently travel between their islands and found the canoe to be the perfect tool for that.

This is because even though canoeing is a sport today, a great number of years ago some people like the ones from the Caribbean used it as their primary means of transportation. As a matter of fact, the long history of Indian canoes goes a long way toward making us understand how we got to the present day.



Manufacturing evolution

Native Americans had their very own way in which they liked to build the canoes, heavily influenced by the region and the resources they had available. 

In the northeast and upper Midwest, the primary type of boat was the birch bark canoe because of the plentiful forests there. This was built with the right side up, propped on a wooden skeleton which was surrounded by bark. This entire composition was lashed together with roots, planked, ribbed, and sealed with pitch.

On the other hand, southerners starting from the Gulf of Mexico and all the way west toward the Pacific Ocean were making use of the dugout canoe. This was exactly what your mind pictured it to be, a partially-hollowed log made this way by using tools and fire. After that, the log was expanded with hot water and eventually sharpened at both ends. 

After the Europeans arrived on the continent they were more than happy to adopt the canoes as their vehicles of choice for exploring the new lands. The French, in particular, were very keen on them, using canoes as the basis of their fur empire in the region.

Later on, after the Civil War, the quick advances in technology and even a certain scarcity in right-sized birch trees led to the development of new manufacturing techniques for canoes. This new type of boat was built upside-down from a strip of wood over molds instead of the traditional way which was the right-side-up from the bark. 

Modern canoes have, of course, grown beyond such petty entrapments. These are usually made from plastic because it is a durable and sturdy material while still going easy on the body. This is especially helpful for beginners, who need all the patience and damage-reduction they can get.


Starting out

It is universally recognized that the best way to start this is tandem canoeing since two people will find it much easier to keep the boat straight. While many of us living near patches of water never take a formal lesson and instead learn from family or friends, a basic skills course can save you hours of frustration, zigzagging or tipping the boat altogether.

If you opt for the basic option, this can last from two to four hours and cover the most basic of basics while a one-day course is definitely the more thorough training and should make you quite confident on simple rowing and steering.

It’s recommended that beginners start with a calm water which is close to the shore, even if this is a small lake or a pond. The reason for this is that this type of water is unlikely to get wavy or agitated because of a current, causing unwanted difficulties.

Another point which we feel is quite obvious is the fact that anybody wanting to get into a canoe should either know how to swim or feel safe enough not to panic when wearing a life jacket.


Equipment needed

We’re gonna make a list of the most basic things you will need and are required to have in order to go canoeing. However, we should point out that many parks and campground rent canoe packages which offer most of these things, so make sure to check with your location first.

First things first, the one who wants to go canoeing obviously has to get a canoe. If you plan on buying one, remember that the longer and wider the boat, the more stable it is. For two people on board, the common size range is something between 15 and 17 feet long.

In order to get the canoe to move, you will need two pairs of paddles, one for each of you. Determining the right paddle size may seem hard but hear us out! What you have to do is turn it upside down with the grip on the floor. Now, look where the blade begins, at the throat of the paddle. If that reaches between your chin and nose, it is the perfect size for you.

Even though not all places make you wear them, you should also get a personal flotation device for each person on board. They will make you feel safer and approach canoeing with a much more relaxed attitude.

Some other safety equipment will also be needed, such as a whistle to be able to call for help in case something happens. You will also have to get a bailer and a rope at least 49 feet long.



Getting in the canoe

Even though there are steps to help you get in the boat without getting wet, it’s going to be much easier if you have some footwear that is able to take a little water.

The spot that you should aim for is the centerline of the canoe. Physics dictates that you maintain three points of contact to be safe, so you have to stabilize the boat on both sides while stepping on the centerline with your first foot.

Your partner should kneel and hold the canoe while you step in, with you repaying the favor afterward and helping them climb. The process is similar if you have to get it from shallow water or a beach.



Partners will work together by paddling on opposite sides of the canoe. By doing this, they will create a rhythm of stability while also keeping the boat traveling in a straight-ish line. The person in front (or bow) will mainly paddle forward while the rear (stern) person will paddle forward and will also steer the canoe.

This is where that basic canoeing course can come in since you can learn the basic strokes required for this. You will start with forward and backward paddling, the draw, and the pry. For those in the stern, you will need to use the sweep and the j-stroke to help you steer.



To paddle forward, dig the paddle blade ahead into the water and pull toward you, stopping after your hip. Keep the arms nearly straight, using the power from torso rotation instead of the arm and shoulder muscles. Keep the paddle vertical when it enters the water.

Backward paddling is obviously the forward stroke done backward and you will use it to avoid collisions and to stop your boat from moving.

Draw and pry

The draw or pry can save the boat from hitting a surprise rock or help it pull into a dock. What you want to do to draw is reach out with your blade parallel to the canoe in the water and simply pull the water toward you. Pry is the same motion but in reverse, pushing the water away.


Sweeping is exactly what it sounds like, so don’t be afraid of it. Starting with the paddle nearly in front of you, just below the surface of the water, sweep the blade in a half-circle making sure to finish at the back of the canoe. Remember that if you’re paddling on the right, a sweep will obviously turn the boat left.


The stern paddler will sometimes have to perform a j-stroke to turn the canoe or help it maintain a straight line while in the water. This is essentially a forward stroke ended with a pry-like flick behind you, not really in the shape of a j. If you find it difficult, keep in mind that it gets easier with practice.



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