Guide to canoeing

By Pat Kinsella 20 August 2014
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Before you hit the water, there are a few things to know about paddling with a single blade

OUR TRADITION OF open-boat paddling stretches back beyond recorded history – indigenous people began using dugout canoes in the 17th century, but they were getting around in bark boats for millennia prior to that. Yet modern Australia lacks the canoe culture of North America, where a love of open boats is woven into the fabric of outdoor communities.

This is partly because our population is concentrated along the coast, the natural habitat of sea kayaks and ocean skis. However, we also have numerous rivers, lakes, dams and estuaries that are ideal for canoeing and right now these are primarily the preserve of school groups and Duke of Edinburgh participants, noisily splashing around in big, plastic Wobbegongs.

These rivers are screaming out to be explored further, by paddlers in proper touring boats, on small independent missions to follow the flow and camp on the banks as people have done for thousands of years. From the small town of Robertson, in NSW’s Southern Highlands, one bloke is spearheading a canoe revival.

Travis Frenay is an upstate New Yorker, born and bred on the shores of Oneida Lake, who – when he’s not teaching canoeing techniques to TAFE outdoor rec students – is championing the opportunities offered by open boats and single-bladed paddles. First up, here’s a disclosure: Travis brings Wenonah Canoes into Australia. However, his missionary zeal is not that of a self-interested salesman.

“I just couldn’t believe how few people paddle canoes here,” he says, when we hit the Shoalhaven River for a canoeing skills session cunningly disguised as a four-day, three-night downriver tour. 

The Shoalhaven, which dissects Morton National Park, is a classic example of a waterway perfect for canoe touring. The upper reaches boast challenging rapids and this section is regarded as the best downriver trip in the region for experienced paddlers.

On the middle section, just above the dam at the confluence of the Kangaroo River, the water sprawls out to form meandering Lake Yarrunga, with numerous calm nooks and crannies ripe for exploring and bush camps perched under the awnings of the ruddy escarpment.

We spend two of the next four days practising flat-water techniques here. Below the dam, the lower section offers yet more rapids, and this is where we put in for the moving-water portion of my education – straight into a feisty stretch of challenging whitewater.     

Canoe v kayak

Accompanying us are several of Trav’s current and former TAFE students and two fellow outdoor instructors, both called Matt and both from the UK, where canoeing is widely taught and enjoyed. Matt 1 is an all-round paddler and a devout open-boat enthusiast, cut from the same cloth as Trav, but Matt 2 is more of a climber and a kayaker, and as we gear up he poses a common question: “So tell me again, why are we taking canoes, not kayaks?”  

The reasons are many. Canoes can carry far more equipment than kayaks, making them ideal boats for touring and multi-day river expeditions. Most of your gear should be stored in barrels or dry bags, but there’s always room for luxuries like camp chairs and, in our case, the world’s biggest coffee pot. Canoes are also great for families with kids (and/or dogs), as you can easily take them along.

Once fundamental skills have been mastered, you can take a canoe into more places than most kayaks. They can be portaged by individuals across or around sizeable sections of water that can’t be paddled, and you can even sleep in them at the end of a long day, and be lulled off to slumberland by the rocking of the water under a tapestry of stars. Yep. I tried it. It’s awesome.        

Canoe designs

Canoes come in a variety of designs, reflecting the range of intended purposes, from racing to fishing, touring to running rapids. River-touring boats are longer and shallower, with a flatter underside and lower gunwales to reduce wind resistance. They’re faster across flat water, but less responsive and manoeuvrable. Typically, they have better initial stability but poorer secondary stability.

River-running whitewater canoes (as opposed to the tiny C1 boats used in slalom racing and high-volume whitewater) are shorter, have steeper sides and a more pronounced “rocker” (meaning the bottom is curved), which makes them much more manoeuvrable when you’re executing sudden, fast turns to follow a chosen line through a rapid. They tip quite easily, but their secondary stability is good – you just have to trust it.

Different paddles are used for each style of paddling. Whitewater paddles are generally heavier and more solid. They have straight shafts and squarer, wider blades for fast strokes and cranking turns. Touring paddles are longer and lighter, with thinner blades often offset at an angle. Classic variations include ottertail and beavertail-style paddles, which are elongated and can be used with a much smoother cadence. Wood, carbon, plastics and metals are all used, but wooden paddles are favoured for their warmth, flexibility and durability.    

Body positioning & loading your canoe

Where and how you sit in the boat will affect how your canoe performs, how responsive it is, and how it tracks through the water.

“Body. Boat. Blade. That’s my order of priority when I’m teaching students,” says Matt 1.

Get a grip: Grasp the T-grip at the top of the paddle in one hand and the shaft of the paddle in the other, with your elbows slightly bent. Swap hands when you change sides. You can do every stroke needed without ever turning the paddle around and you can make your canoe do almost every manoeuvre without swapping sides. It’s important to keep hold of the grip at all times, especially in rough water, to avoid braining yourself or a fellow paddler.

Keep trim: In a double canoe it’s ideal to have the heavier paddler in the back, otherwise steering can be challenging. When touring with significant amounts of gear and water, distribute the weight appropriately in the boat. Adjusting the “trim” of the boat involves moving the gear in the canoe forward or back to help deal with prevailing natural conditions, such as high winds.

Bum or knees: You can either sit or kneel in the canoe. Kneeling gives you a slightly lower centre of gravity, which helps with stability in rough water, but on longer trips it can be more comfortable to sit. Experienced solo paddlers kneel with their legs together and pointing towards the side of the boat they are paddling on, which helps keep the boat straight and lifts one side of the canoe out of the water (heeling it over) to decrease drag and improve efficiency and speed. Many downriver canoes feature thigh-brace straps that secure kneeling paddlers to the boat to a certain degree, enabling them to use their full-body strength to turn the boat. Accomplished canoeists can even roll their boats.

Go against the flow: When eddying in or dealing with any fast-flowing water, no matter how counter-intuitive it feels, it’s imperative to lean away from the flow of the water so the side of the canoe rises high against the flow – if you lean the other way the water will breach the side of the canoe, swamping and potentially sinking it. 

Canoe safety and self rescue

Always wear a helmet and a personal flotation device (PFD) when paddling in fast-flowing water.  Never enter a rapid blind – always scout it first. Even if you are familiar with a rapid, new and dangerous obstacles may have entered the water since you last paddled it. Learn defensive and aggressive swimming.

Defensive: floating on back, legs downstream, feet up, looking downstream, using arms to direct body angle. Aggressive: floating on stomach, legs downstream, body on surface and angled around 45 degrees to the river current, freestyle swimming technique, looking downstream for any obstacles.  Ready to retreat to defensive position if needed.

If you’re in your canoe and come up hard against an obstacle, such as a rock, lean onto it – don’t push away from it or you’re likely to end up in the drink. If you do end up outside your canoe in moving water then stay upstream of the boat so it can’t pin you to any objects. Grab the end of the canoe that is upstream (hopefully equipped with a swim-line or “painter”) and swim for the bank.  Once on the bank, get a firm footing and hold the rope tightly (do not wrap it around your hands). The canoe should swing downstream into the bank with a pendulum action.