Paddling by yourself in a canoe meant for two can be relatively easy on a flat lake on a calm day, but when doing so in less than ideal conditions, here are a few tricks to help make life a lot easier.
Turn the boat around
Instinctively, you may just sit in the stern (back) seat and paddle away. Nothing wrong with that of course. It’s nice and comfortable for a relaxing paddle. However, without a second person’s weight to push down the bow (front), you’ll notice rather quickly that your canoe was designed to work best when it sits in the water flat (gunnels parallel to the water). The bow will easily catch wind, and with the bottom of the boat not in the water completely, your canoe will turn very easily, and not necessarily in the direction you want to go. The most simple trick is to sit in the bow seat (with you facing the stern of course). Because of the way the seats are laid out, you and your weight will be closer to the center of the boat, keeping it more flat on the water.
Gain a few pounds in the right places
“Trimming” the boat is a term that refers to getting the canoe as flat as possible by either adding or shifting the weight inside, for better “tracking” (moving through the water optimally). Many canoeists will add rocks or sticks in the bow to compensate for big differences in the weight of canoe partners (*This can be a bit of a touchy subject. Be gentle. A little bit of an angle is not worth the awkwardness of assessing people’s weights in front of everybody). Also, some canoes, like mine, are designed to carry a lot of weight, with less than optimum tracking happening when the canoe isn’t filled. Obviously both these issues can be a big problem with only one person. Another advantage of portaging is that you have gear with you, and rather than dirtying up your boat and trying to find a rock when you need it you can just adjust the packs and bags further towards the end that’s raising out of the water (*And when paddling with partners, this can be done with more subtlety than the loud judgmental klunk of rocks).
Get weight from nowhere
Here’s a pro tip: You know those dry bags that keep water out? They also keep water in. Rolled up they weigh very little and take up little space. But opened up and filled with water they can be quite heavy. They’re usually the perfect shape to sit right at the tip of the boat, and so perfect for trimming the canoe. The best part is, if you’re portaging, you just dump the water out and fill it again on the other side. So pack an extra along with you when you’re paddling solo.
So turning the boat around didn’t do the trick, you forgot your dry bag and you can’t find any rocks? Another thing you can try is moving a little more towards the center of the boat. The first thing you can try is to kneel on your seat instead of sitting on top of it – if you don’t already do that. If you’re not used to it, it can be a little tough on your knees. Some fancy canoes have kneeling pads which help, but if yours doesn’t, try using a rolled up towel or sweater. I bring along one of those stadium seats on a lot of trips. It’s multi-use in that it can act as a kneeling pad, a small sleeping pad and when attached right to my barrel pack, a pocket for more storage. (Oh, and a camp chair, I guess, but Nancy usually steals it on me for that.)
For best results, you’ll want your to have the edge of the seat positioned near the middle of your butt, with your knees on the bottom of the canoe. Then try to shift a little so that your weight is equally distributed between your knees and butt. (Lucky folk will have canoes with angled seats for just this purpose, but that won’t leave that line from the edge of the seat on your bum. I mean, you might be swimming later.) This will push you a little further forward, but not all that much. Combined with the next two points though, things will get easier.
If you’re still not far enough up the canoe, you can get your bum completely off the seat and move closer to the center. This takes some getting used to for some of us, because all your weight will either be on your knees, or pushing down on your folded legs. If you’re in a bigger boat (usually bigger than 16′) this will probably be essential without weighing down the canoe. But usually the bigger canoes have a back thwart that you can use to lean on like you would the seat. (Just don’t put all your weight down on it. They’re not meant to be sat on top of.)
Get sideways (kind of)
So since you’re up close to the center of the canoe, and your kneeling, why not take the next step for best control of a solo canoe and lean it a little to your paddling side. This might seem counter intuitive if you’ve never seen or done it, but when paddling alone you’ll actually find it much easier with the canoe on the side, or what your canoe instructor calls “keeling”. Your best bet for this technique is to shift your knees slightly towards your paddling side to tip the canoe ever-so-slightly and get comfortable. If you think you can lean a little more, try shifting a little again or as many times as necessary to get you into a comfortable leaning canoe. Obvsiously you don’t want the gunnels too close to the water that it starts to get into the canoe, so consider the water and wind conditions. Better yet, take a canoe paddling class and get your technique down with advise and feedback from an instructor.
Another great idea: Check out Becky Mason’s latest DVD “Advanced Classic Solo Canoeing“. This great instructional video offers some advanced paddling techniques which Becky shows off with grace and ease, but the DVD also comes with more basic instruction of her original “Classic Solo Canoeing” movie to get you started
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