Moving Forward: Why The Most Important Solo Whitewater Canoeing Stroke Is Dead | Canoeroots Magazine | Rapid Media
The evolution of solo whitewater canoeing means going forward with new strokes Photo: Scott MacGregor

The forward stroke is dead. Long live the forward stroke.

Paddling a solo canoe in whitewater has evolved.

We no longer paddle small tandem boats, but solo ones—a very different craft that cannot be paddled in the same way as when sitting on the bow seat facing the stern. As solo canoes have gotten smaller, new techniques have emerged to paddle these new boats. 

Back when we were solo tripping canoes in whitewater, lakewater strokes still worked. The J-stroke worked and purists remained pleased. 

When the first generation of solo whitewater canoes came along we paddled them from the center of the boat. Our old techniques were not as efficient so adaptations ensued. The river-J, formerly know as the goon stroke, was employed as a quicker, more stable correction stroke to follow a powerful forward stroke. Solo boaters were born. Purists scoffed. 

This led to that Holy Grail of the perfect forward stroke—a completely vertical paddle shaft, extension to the bow of the boat, torso rotated and wound up like a spring and a powerful unwind for the power phase. Follow this with a subtle stern pry pop and you will not slow momentum. I’ve spent the better part of my adult life working to perfect this forward stroke and I have taught it like this on every course to every student and every instructor over the last 20 years. It was a hard-won badge of honor to achieve. A new generation of purists was born. 

That beautiful forward stroke did one thing and one thing well—it propelled a canoe forward in a straight line. 

New solo canoes, new ways to paddle

This, however, was still tandem mentality, except that solo paddlers have to do both the bow and stern paddlers’ jobs of power and steering. As solo whitewater canoes have shrunk in length and hull designs have become more advanced, the new boats do not want to go in a straight line. Turns out they want to be carving one way or the other.

Advanced paddlers found themselves paddling in new ways. This included speeding up stroke rates and changing the placement or angle of the blade, dropping the t-grip and sweeping to change an arc and paddling up front for steering and control, tilting or flattening the boat for arc control. Skilled paddlers were carving their boats and driving them forward with no stern correction strokes whatsoever. Purists were confused.

Does the former stroke still get employed? Yes and no. The twisted torso, vertical shaft and extended blade is in the mix but it is no longer the default stroke. Solo boaters instead have many strokes in their arsenal to propel solo canoes, each with its rightful place for controlling the journey. 

Each stroke is employed for a specific purpose. A stroke off the hip with an angled paddle shaft straightens an arc. A stroke in tight to the hull at the bow tightens an arc. A sweeping stroke switches an arc to the offside. These variations are being blended together to allow subtleties in control that were simply not possible when paddling a solo canoe like a tripping canoe paddled solo. 

I no longer teach the forward stroke. I now teach various techniques to propel the canoe along a desired path. This is what paddling in whitewater is all about. Paddling is a dance with the river. It’s made possible by placing your canoe in the right water, at the right angle, with the right momentum. 

It is a beautiful sight to see an accomplished paddler dance with the river, moving effortlessly across a wave or carving into an eddy. It is this end result, no matter the canoe, that is the mark of a beautiful paddler— not one particular stroke. —Andy Convery 

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