The Stroke

Posted on Aug 19, 2013

Over the last five years we've posted about almost every paddling topic imaginable. We've covered a variety of races, talked about training, explored the history of unlimited canoes, clarified why we do, what we do, and even touched upon the taboo subject of surfing in an oc-1. However, there has been one glaring omission: stroke. The most fundamental part of canoeing hasn't even been mentioned on our website. Get paddlers together in a room and it's all you'll hear them talk about. Wars have been fought over less. More important than training, canoe design, and surfing combined, your stroke will determine whether you win a race or come in last place. The topic is so important that we've been too intimidated to broach it. But here it goes. For better or worse, this is our take on THE STROKE.

Every coach has his/her own version of the perfect stroke. Everytime that I talk about stroke, I do so in a hierarchy of importance (and debatability). There are two things which I consider the most important and the least debatable. Rather than get into the nitty gritty of arm position, exit angle, etc., I am just going to focus on those two fundamentals: the catch and rotation.

The Catch

The purpose of an effective catch is to make sure that you're literally moving the canoe passed your paddle, and not the paddle passed the canoe. Your catch happens at full submersion, but your stroke starts at the moment of impact with the water. So, the way that you get from impact to full submersion determines the effectiveness of your catch. Our goal as paddlers should be to get the stroke completely buried as far forward as possible. The less the angle of your blade changes from impact to full submersion, the more effective your stroke is going to be because your paddle will act as an anchor that you're propelling the canoe passed. Practice standing in waist deep water with your paddle or have someone hold onto your canoe. The only way to get an efficient catch (no turbulence, white water, or noise as you pull) when you're stationary is if you bury your blade at exactly the same angle that you hit the water. As soon as you pull your bottom arm (therefore changing the blade angle) before submerging the blade, you will cause turbulence through the rest of the stroke. Whereas if you drop your bottom shoulder into the stroke so that the angle of your paddle at the entry is identical to the angle of your paddle at full submersion, and then transition into driving through your bottom arm when your blade is completely buried, you will notice that your stroke is not only silent, but it's going to be much harder to pull the blade back. The exact same principle applies to a moving canoe, the only difference is that the water, relative to you, is now moving. So, instead of the blade angle being identical from impact to full submersion, you are going to lose some angle as you drive down, but only enough to maintain your blades position in the exact spot of moving water that you initially hit. All of your energy from impact to full submersion is going into lifting the canoe (as you drive down, the canoe comes up). So, if you use the momentum of your blade from the air and transfer it into the water, you can have a high intensity hit that transfers into an effective and powerful catch. You will know that you're doing it correctly when your stroke is silent and you feel resistance in your top arm.


The more rotation you have, the more power your stroke will have. Rotation comes from two points, your hips and your shoulders. Both of them have to work together in order to be effective. Shoulder rotation is relatively easy to learn and it allows you to active your entire core. You want your bottom shoulder coming as far forward as your body can twist and you want your top shoulder coming back. The goal being to face your back towards whatever side you're paddling on. Hip rotation is much harder, but, effective hip rotation will activate your lower body. As your forward butt cheek slides forward on the seat (during your recovery), your forward leg will naturally bend. Then, as you bury your blade and apply pressure, you're now able to effectively push off of your forward leg. But, more so than just being an efficient source of power from your body's big muscles, rotation will give you more positive angle on the blade. The more positive angle you have, the more lift you will create in your stroke causing your canoe to run more efficiently.

Put both of those concepts together, and you have the workings of an efficient stroke. With an effective catch and a large rotation, you will undoubtedly start moving your canoe faster than you ever have before.

For some clarification, see the pictures below:

Moment of impact with the water.

  • Positive angle on the blade.
  • Both arms fully extended (though not locked).
  • Shoulders rotated to their maximum.

Full submersion.

  • Minimal loss of angle on the blade.
  • Body has come down a few degrees on the entry.
  • Hips rotated to maximum.
  • Leg drive initiates.
  • Bottom shoulder dropped forward.

Exit as blade angle turns negative and initial power from entry wanes.

Email a quick video (taken from someone moving at the same speed as you on the same side that you're paddling on) of your stroke to and we'll be more than happy to do a free stroke analysis for you.