One of the most misunderstood ideas about canoeing: The paddler in the stern has to keep switching sides to steer properly.

It works, undoubtedly, and is fine for quick little jaunts around the lake. But if you’re out for several hours or all day—say on a canoe trip—you’ll waste huge amounts of energy continually switching sides.

That’s why you want to learn the J-stroke. Once it’s mastered, you’ll feel much more in command of your canoe. You’ll only have to switch sides occasionally to give your muscles a break, or so the paddler in front can switch.

canoe strokes j-stroke

Let’s break it down:

Plant your paddle

This stroke starts the same way as any other forward stroke. With your off-hand on top of the grip and your near-hand grasping the shaft near the blade, reach as far forward as you comfortably can. Plant the paddle blade fully in the water.

Pull through the water

Pull the blade back towards you alongside the canoe. You’ll feel your boat move forward. If you watch the front of the canoe, you’ll notice a straight stroke will force the tip just slightly to the opposite side. Here’s where the J-stroke comes in…

Turn your wrist to make a J

This is the key: At the end of your stroke, turn your wrist on your near-hand (the one by the blade) outward, so the paddle blade makes an imaginary J away from the canoe. This will pull the front tip of your boat back in line and keep it moving straight.

How often will you use the J-stroke?

Under normal conditions, you’ll use the J-stroke every 2 or 3 strokes. Here are a couple variables that may change that:

  • NOTE: The J-stroke is for steering, so it’s only used by the paddler in the back.
  • If your front paddler is stronger than you, you won’t need the J-stroke as often.
  • High winds and rough water may make switching sides more effective and easier than the J-stroke.

It takes a little practice, but once you have it down you won’t have to think about it. You’ll be glad you have it mastered!

Want to watch a video that demonstrates the J-stroke? Here’s a good one from paddling.com:

More posts about paddle technique: