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How to Solo a Tandem Canoe

Bryan Hansel solos a cedar strip Freedom 17

One of those perfect morning dawns, the dew is fresh, there is a nip in the air and the mist rising off of the mirrored surface of the water calls you out. After cooking oatmeal over a small fire you wait for your paddling partner to wake up so you can go paddling. Unfortunately, she is a constant over sleeper and a bear to force out of her slumber. The only way onto the water is if you get into your 18-foot tripping canoe and paddle it solo.

Bryan Hansel solos a cedar strip Freedom 17
Bryan Hansel solos a cedar strip Freedom 17

Solo canoe paddling is a rewarding experience that opens you to more time on the water when you can’t get a paddling partner to come out on the water with you. Although it’s best to break down and add a solo to your fleet, sometime garage space doesn’t allow that to happen, or if you’re like me, two canoes are all that will fit above your living room TV. There are a few tricks and strokes you can learn that will turn your current tandem canoe into a workable solo.

Get into the Lean of It

Many people who paddle solo like to sit in one of the seats, and although this is very comfortable it puts too much weight into one end of the canoe. When you see someone paddling this way, one end of the canoe will be raised up out of the water and opens itself to become a giant sail in the lightest of winds. It is much easier to paddle from the center of the canoe. If you don’t want to add a center seat or yoke style center seat the best you can do is kneel just behind the yoke of your canoe. This position slightly raises the bow of the canoe and allows you more control during turns. It also slightly weighs the stern forcing the stem to acts like feathers on an arrow, which help you glide straight ahead. A slight lean towards the paddle side will also lift the bow and stern out of the water creating a shorter waterline and more manageable canoe for a soloist to handle.

Basic Strokes to Solo a Tandem

Most tandem canoes are at least 34 to 36 inches wide at the center, while the typical solo canoe is 30 inches. The extra width in a tandem canoe makes paddling solo using sit and switch style difficult. So it makes good sense to learn a few strokes that allow you to paddle on one side of the boat. When you do this in a leaned position the tandem canoe takes on a playful feel and becomes easily controllable. Many of the strokes that you need to do this efficiently you probably already know: The Draw, the Pry, and the Forward Stroke.

The Forward Stroke

The forward stroke is a smooth but quick stroke that starts a shoulders turn ahead of your body. To execute this stroke, lean the canoe towards the side that you are paddling on, hold the paddle vertically; twist your torso so that the shoulder on the paddle side turns towards the bow. Next you need to catch the blade into the water and unwind your body. The planted paddle will pull your canoe past the catch. When the paddle reaches your hips pull it out and stroke again.

The Draw

The draw stroke pulls your canoe sideways towards the paddle side. Start this stroke by turning your paddle blade parallel to the centerline of your canoe. Your thumb on the handle of the paddle should point towards the stern. Reach outwards, while leaning your canoe towards the paddle, catch the blade keeping the paddle as vertical as possible, then pull your canoe towards the paddle. If you draw forward of the center, the canoe will turn the bow towards the paddle, likewise for a draw stroke rear of center.

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The Pry

The pry stroke pushes your canoe away from the paddle side. The easiest way to do this stroke is by placing the paddle shaft against the side of the gunwales next to you with the blade parallel to the centerline of the canoe. Lean the canoe towards paddle side and slice the paddle into the water at an angle that puts the blade under the canoe, use the canoe’s gunwales as a pivot point and pull the handle towards you. You can use the weight of your body to increase the power of the pry. Like the draw, a pry forward or aft of the center of the canoe will push your bow or stern away from the paddle, respectively.

The C-stroke for Soloing a Tandem Canoe

Using these three canoe strokes in combination allows more control over a canoe when paddling on one side of the boat. When a forward stroke is used on just one side of a canoe it forces the bow to turn away from the paddle side. While great for going in circles, most paddlers like to be able to go straight. When you apply a draw stroke at the start of your forward stroke, the canoe will turn towards the paddle. Blend this into a forward stroke, which moves the boat away from the paddle-side, and finish with a pry. The final pry pushes the bow towards paddle-side. The net result is a C-Stroke, because you are drawing a “c” underwater with your paddle. When learned a C-Stroke keeps a solo or a tandem canoe paddled solo going completely straight.

Experiment with Your Canoe Strokes

Experiment with draws and pries and forward strokes. By using these in different combinations it is easy to control a canoe by paddling only on one side. One of the best tricks for learning is to set up a buoy and paddle circles around it. A dry bag weighted with just enough rocks to submerge it halfway makes a good one that resists winds well. A good routine consists of paddling around the buoy clockwise, then counterclockwise. After you have done that a couple of times, point your bow at the buoy then spin the canoe around it while keeping the bow pointed at the buoy. A bigger challenge is to do the same but with the stern.

Breakfast, There’s Lots of Toast and Jelly

After you have mastered these techniques, on those long mornings while you’re waiting for your padding partner to unzip her sleeping bag, you will already have been out on the water paddling a tandem canoe. You’ll have explored the hidden coves of the lake you camped on. If you’re lucky you will have cast your lure into some snags and have the perfect breakfast waiting for your partner when she finally gets out of bed.