Canoe paddling guide

By Justin Walker February 26, 2015
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From the shop to the shoreline, this complete guide to finding the right paddle craft and gear has got you covered. It’s time to hit the water

The Canoe

A canoe is your ticket to inland waterway exploration, of which Australia has a surprising abundance. This watercraft has been around for tens of thousands of years; it’s been the primary waterborne transport mode for many of the world’s indigenous populations (Australian Aboriginals used bark to construct theirs; the Inuit and Canadian Aboriginals used animal skins stretched over a timber skeleton frame).

Although little has changed in its fundamental design (open topped, propelled via a single-bladed paddle) and intended function, stepping inside a canoe retailer’s doors can still be a daunting task – today, not all canoes are created equal.

The first question any canoe buyer has to ask is:

“What will be the primary use of this canoe?” There are a number of designs on the market, with everything from the plastic all-rounder/recreational model (favoured by canoe-hire companies), suited to flat/slow-flowing water, fishing-specific models (the silence of a canoe in the water makes it the perfect mobile fishing platform), through to the specialised whitewater jobbies, designed to get you through rough, rapid-filled, technical sections of waterways safely.

Oh, and strict traditionalists can still buy a classic wood/canvas canoe.

For those just after a canoe to load themselves, their kids and some gear in for a day – or overnight – trip on slow-running rivers, creeks and lakes, the recreational canoe is the obvious choice.

This variant’s versatility, large load capacity and beginner-friendly design have made it a must-have part of your family camping kit.

Having a canoe for you and/or the kids to paddle around in ups the fun factor immensely when you’re camped near a river or lake. These versatile canoes are designed with ease of paddling and primary stability in mind, thanks to minimal “rocker”.

Rocker is the term used to describe the curve of the canoe’s keel line when the craft is viewed side-on. Minimal (or no) rocker means the canoe tracks very efficiently, and is very stable, but is harder to manoeuvre. Moderate rocker describes a slight curve in the craft’s bottom, offering increased manoeuvrability while retaining efficient tracking capabilities. The curve on a maximum-rocker boat is quite pronounced and reserved for whitewater boats, where manoeuvrability is paramount.

For paddlers looking to cover longer distances, a touring/expedition canoe is the best option. These offer increased manoeuvrability, while still tracking very well, and are also designed to withstand more punishment. The increased rocker of a tourer means there is less primary stability compared to recreational models, but this is offset by improved secondary stability; ideal for when you need to move the canoe around more on the water to negotiate a tight run of rapids, for example. Larger tourers (17-20 feet; watercraft are still gauged in Imperial measure) are the water-going equivalent of modern 4WDs – they can lug a serious amount of gear.

If you’re a serious rapids rat – as in, you spend 90 percent of your time running fast whitewater – then the whitewater canoe is the only choice.

These are specialised watercraft, with maximum rocker and very high levels of manoeuvrability, both of which equal epic fun in fast-flowing rivers.

However, for the majority of Aussie-based river-runners, these specialised craft – although looking seriously awesome and promising maximum adventure – are only worth considering if you are a dedicated whitewater specialist.

There are numerous touring/expedition canoes with a more pronounced whitewater bent to their design that would make a better overall purchase. That said, there’s no reason you can’t have more than one canoe.

Choosing a canoe paddle

Canoe paddle selection runs along similar lines to that of a kayak, in terms of materials used (aluminium, plastic, carbon-fibre and wood are all popular options, with the same caveats in regards to strengths and weaknesses of each material) and blade shapes.

The obvious differentiation between the two, though, is that the canoe paddle is single-bladed in design.

As well, certain parts of the paddle’s design play a more governing factor in user comfort.

A canoe paddle is available in straight and bent shaft. The traditional style is a straight shaft as it makes for the best all-round paddle. A straight-shaft paddle is also more manoeuvrable in technical conditions and delivers more power to each stroke when you need to paddle quickly. For flatwater touring, however, a bent-shaft paddle may be the better option.

As a result of the bent shaft (angles vary between 7 and 14 degrees), the paddle blade itself stays vertical in the water during the “”power” part of a stroke, while still allowing easy entry/exit from the water, which puts less strain on your body, and reducing muscle fatigue.

In other words, a bent-shaft paddle is ideal for longer touring conditions.
The shaft shape is also a factor; some shafts are circular, others are oval – and some paddles have an “oval-indexed” shaft, where the shaft is primarily circular in shape, but with high-use sections (where paddlers will most likely place their hands) ovalised for improved comfort.

As well as the shaft design, pay close attention to the grip; the pear grip fits more naturally into your hand and is less tiring for longer journeys, while the T-grip provides
more control over paddle angle and is more easily held in rougher/bouncier conditions.
There are several ways to ensure the perfect paddle fit.

The best way is to kneel/sit on the shop floor, with your backside around 20cm above the ground (to roughly replicate your body height when seated in a canoe), then grab the paddle you are testing, turn it upside down (make sure the grip is firmly on the ground) and, if it is the correct size, the blade should start from the equivalent height of where your nose is. It sounds a bit haphazard, but it does work.

However, you also need to take into account the width of your canoe (if it is wide, a slightly longer paddle will mean less twisting/leaning over the side to paddle) and its depth.