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An Introduction to

Canoeing History

Paddling has played a role in human history for at least 6,000 8,000 years. Early canoes and kayaks were used for transportation, survival (hunting and fishing), and trade. The earliest canoes were likely dugouts. They were made through an extensive process of carving and burning trees into a hollow craft. Dugouts were used by people throughout the world, from the West Indies, Africa, and the Middle East to North and South America.

Native Americans in the northern region of the
continent created birchbark canoes. Bark from white
birch trees composed the structure of the canoe.
Roots from white pines were used to sew the birch
together. The seams were sealed with pine resin.
Wood from white cedars was used for the internal

Paddling Ethics

Wildlife is scared easily by humans. If animals are nesting, breeding, or seeking shelter, scaring them can create a dangerous situation for them or their young. Observe the following guidelines when watching wildlife:

  • Paddle quietly.

  • Don’t splash paddles near wildlife.

  • Keep a respectful distance (approximately 20 feet).

  • Stay at least 100 feet from nesting sites.


Respect other paddlers. Keep voices down; sound carries over water. Obey all regulations for a particular body of water.

Paddlers help aquatic resources when they leave the place better than they found it. Pick up all litter (yours and others).

Right of Way

Accidents can be avoided if paddlers pay attention and learn the rules of the “road.”

If two crafts are meeting head on or nearly so, both operators should alter their course to the right and pass at a safe distance.

Unpowered crafts, like kayaks and canoes, generally have the right of way over powered crafts.

Basic Paddling Terms

Aft - back part of craft
Astern - back part of craft
Amidship - center of craft
Ballast - weight that lowers center of gravity and adds stability
Forward - ahead; toward the front of the craft BOW
Leeward - away from the wind
Offside - direction of a maneuver in which the craft moves away from the bow; designated paddling side

Onside - direction of a maneuver in which the craft moves toward the bow; designated paddling side
Port - left side of craft when facing the bow
Powerface - side of paddle blade pressed against the water during a forward stroke
Starboard - right side of craft when facing the bow
Stern - back part of craft
Trim - balanced from end to end and side to side; center of gravity over keels, below gunwales, and as near bottom as possible
Windward - toward the wind


Parts of Canoe

Deck - panels at the front and back of the canoe
Freeboard - distance between surface of water and gunwale at the middle of the canoe
Gunwale - (pronounced “gunnel”) top edge/outside rim
Keel - reinforcing fin that runs along the centerline of the bottom; may be in or outside
Thwarts - (pronounced “thorts”) braces that reach across top


Paddles are made of wood, aluminum, plastic, fiberglass, or combinations thereof. They should be light and strong. Canoe and kayak paddles are quite different in appearance.

Canoe Paddles are single bladed.


There are two types of grips:
T-grip and palm grip. The T-grip allows a firm grasp with precise control that can be used in all waters. The palm grip creates a better platform for hands and typically is used only on flat water. The grip of the paddle should fit smoothly and comfortably in your hand.

Holding the Paddle

One hand goes on the grip, the other on the shaft near the throat.

To hold the grip, lay your hand on top with palm down and fingers outstretched. Close your hand so fingers are on one side, the base of your hand is on the opposite side, and your thumb wraps around.

To hold the shaft, open your other hand, with palm down and fingers spread. Lay the throat of the paddle between thumb and index finger and close your hand. Hands should be shoulder width apart.

To paddle on the port side, place your right hand on the grip and your left hand near the throat. To paddle on the starboard side, do the opposite.


Sizing the Canoe Paddle

On the water:

  • Sit comfortably in a canoe.

  • Place the paddle perpendicular to the water surface with the blade submerged to the throat. The top of the paddle grip should reach between eye and nose level.

Without water:

  • Sit upright on a flat surface.

  • Place paddle grip between legs (on lap) and extend the blade upward.

    extend the blade upward.

  • The throat of the paddle should reach the top of the head.


Basic Strokes

The basic concept of a stroke is simple. When the paddle is planted in the water and the paddler pulls, he is pulling self and canoe to the paddle. Many strokes may be performed to move the canoe in the proper direction.

The Forward Stroke

Reach forward with both the shaft and grip hands and place the paddle in the water. Then simply draw it straight back with the face of the blade perpendicular to the water, twisting your torso through the stroke. When you withdraw the paddle from the water for the next stroke, “feather” it (swinging the blade forward, flat above the water’s surface) to reduce wind resistance. When equally matched, the bow and stern paddlers can act in rhythm with each other, each staying on opposite sides of the canoe until tired. Then switch sides.

The J-Stroke

This is a forward stroke with a hook on the end. It is most often used by solo paddlers and by stern paddlers who are stronger than their partners. Its purpose is to compensate for the canoe’s tendency to turn during the simple forward stroke. It does not replace the forward stroke but instead supplements it when necessary. The J stroke is so named because it traces a letter “J” in the water when done on the port (left) side of the boat. Begin as you would for a forward stroke, but when the paddle blade crosses to the back of your body, twist the shaft so that the blade turns outward. On the port side, this means turning the blade clockwise. Reverse the motion for paddling on the starboard (right) side.


The Back Stroke

This is the reverse of the forward stroke. Simply reach back with both hands and place the paddle in the water to the rear of your body. Then pull forward, with the flat side of the blade perpendicular to the canoe. Feather the blade as you reach back for another stroke. The backward stroke is used to stop the canoe when you already have forward momentum or slow it in moving water. If used by the bow paddler on one side of the boat while the stern paddler uses the forward stroke on the other side, it can be used to pivot the boat.


The Draw Stroke

Sometimes called the “pull to,” the draw stroke is used to change the direction of the canoe. It can also be used to move the canoe sideways, such as when you’re pulling alongside a dock. Reach out as far as possible with the shaft hand and place the paddle into the water. Then push your gripping hand outward while pulling your shaft hand inward; this creates leverage and moves the canoe in the direction of your paddling side.


The Pry Stroke

This is the opposite of the draw stroke. It’s used to push the canoe away from the paddling side. Place the blade in the water parallel to the boat; it should be as close to the canoe as possible, even tilted a bit so it’s almost underneath the boat. Your gripping hand should be out over the water as far as you can reach. Pull in with the grip hand while pushing out with the shaft hand.


Launching a canoe from shore

1. Place paddles in the canoe.

2. One paddler (A) should hold the canoe steady while the other (B) gets in. To steady the canoe, sit on the breast plate with legs on either side bracing it or kneel at the bow or stern with one knee on either side and grasp the canoe with your arms across the breast plate.
3. Paddler B places his hands on the gunwales for support while entering. He must keep his weight centered and low (keep your bottom down) while moving.
4. Once Paddler B enters, he holds a paddle against the river/lake bottom to steady the canoe.
5. Paddler A places his hands on each gunwale and climbs aboard. He enters the canoe the same as Paddler B. Paddle away from shore.


Launching a canoe from a dock

1. Partners place the canoe gently into the water parallel with the length of the dock (one gunwale against side of dock).
2. Paddler A kneels/sits on the dock and holds the canoe steady while Paddler B puts the paddles in.
3. Paddler B puts his feet in the canoe. With one hand on the dock, he grabs the gunwale on the opposite side and moves to his position.
4. Once Paddler B is in the canoe, he holds the dock to steady the canoe.
5. Paddler A gets in following the same procedure.
6. Push off from the dock.

Most upsets occur during launching or landing.

Always wear a PFD when paddling.

To prevent capsizing, keep your weight bearing foot on the centerline and balance the craft from side to side by transferring your weight to your hands.

Maintain three points of contact while entering or exiting a craft, one hand and two feet or two hands and one foot.


Transporting the craft to water

1. Stand on opposite sides of the deck or at the first thwart from the bow and stern.
2. Grasp it under the deck, or at the thwarts, and stand together.
3. Lift the craft with your legs, keeping your arms straight.
4. Place the craft in approximately six inches of water with few rocks underneath to prevent scratching.

Personal Floating Devices

Personal Floatation Devices (PFDs) are a must for every paddler. NYS law mandates a U.S. Coast Guard approved wearable PFD in good condition be available to every person in a canoe or kayak. Not only is it the law, it makes good sense.


Paddlers are more likely to go into the water than any other type of boaters. Accidents can happen at any time without warning and life threatening accidents often occur in seemingly shallow water.


Wearing a PFD

A PFD is only effective if it is worn correctly and fitted properly. All PFDs should be worn with the label on the inside and belt straps adjusted so it
fits snugly. 

A simple way to tell if it fits is to try the PFD on and close the zipper and/or cinch the ties. Have a partner grasp the vest by the shoulders and pull as high as they can. If the PFD rides up over your ears, it is too big and should not be worn.


To prevent hypothermia...

  • Dress for water temperature, not mid-afternoon air temperature.

  • Wear clothes that dry quickly

Positions to reduce heat loss
Heat Escape Lessening Posture (H.E.L.P) - single swimmer; cross legs at ankle and pull toward chest; cross arms at chest (protecting the area under the arms) or hold neck with hands; keep head above water at all times.

Huddle position - more than one swimmer; swim together to form a circle; wrap arms around one another and keep legs together; keep heads above water at all times.

The best treatment for hypothermia is to remove wet or cold clothes


If You Capsize

If your boat capsizes, don't panic. Your canoe can be flipped back over. Over turned canoes float.

First, assure that all passengers are safe before attempting to retrieve equipment. Stay with your canoe unless you judge that doing so will be dangerous. If you can stay with the canoe you can guide it into quiet water.

Stay at the upstream end of the canoe so that if the canoe becomes pinned, you don't. If possible hold on to your'll need it later.

Don't try to swim in rapids. Float in your life jacket on your back, with your feet downstream. If the water is cold, get ashore quickly.

Overboard in Current

In rivers with a current, stay upstream of the boat to avoid being pinned. Don't float with your body on the down river side of the canoe.

Staying upstream allows you to avoid being pinned against obstructions. Even a light current flow can cause you to be pinned between an immovable object and your canoe. 

Stay away from strainers (trees and parts of trees or posts which are submerged and subject to strong currents), and sweepers (low-hanging branches which touch the water in a current). If you are swept by the flow against an obstruction, lean your body toward the
obstruction instead of pushing away. Pushing invites the flow to come in and over the side more quickly.


EYE GLASSES AND SUNGLASSES...You'll need a strap for attaching them to your head. This is particularly important during a capsize when eyewear can easily slip off and go to the bottom. (tie with a string)

FOOTWEAR...Don't forget shoes. Water shoes or sneakers are best for canoeing and should be worn at all times. Bare feet have no place in canoeing...the terrain of the land and the bottoms of streams can be hazardous.

TIE ALL YOUR EQUIPMENT TO THE CANOE put your equipment into a waterproof bag to keep it dry and tie it to one of the center beams in the canoe so that you don't lose everything if your canoe tips over.

SUN PROTECTION hats, sunscreen, long sleeves and pants





Standing up or moving about in a canoe greatly increase the chance of capsize.

Maintain three points of contact while moving around.

Load the boat properly.

Keep your shoulders inside the gunwales of the boat.

Wear a PFD.

Understand your limitation and that of the vessel.

Use Buddy System


Know how to swim.

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