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The Art of Canoe Surfing

The canoe lurches forward as the bow plunges towards the bottom of the wave trough. You feel the energy of the wave as it grabs hold of the hull. With a few rudder adjustments you find the "sweet spot" and enjoy the sensation of surfing.

Not all canoes are created equal, however—especially when it comes time to surf. Longer, less rockered boats have good upstream speed and fewer tendencies to spin, making it easier to catch waves. If you want to carve back and forth, you're better off in a shorter, more rockered canoe, or in a whitewater playboat. These boats stick in waves better and can flat spin, side surf, and back surf with ease.

How to Surf Your Canoe

Whether you're paddling solo or tandem, surfing a canoe requires a variety of skills, the mastery of which will earn you the reward of catching the big waves. You'll need to be able to execute a number of techniques — the thumbs-up J-stroke, stern draw, stern pry, power stroke, and rudder — all of which require good upper-body rotation. Once you have a handle on these strokes, you need to perfect upstream ferrying, maintaining consistent boat angles in fast and turbulent waters. You must also be able to change ferry directions—from river right to river left—with ease.

When learning how to surf, choose well-formed, glassy waves close to large eddies. Work one wave over and over to build experience in a consistent environment. Learn to recognize user-friendly "hero waves" to practice on, and get to know the flows that create your favorite waves and their locations. Your surfing learning curve will accelerate if you start by doing maneuvers in Class I – II whitewater.

Surfing Solo

When learning how to surf, choose well-formed, glassy waves close to large eddies. Work one wave over and over to build experience in a consistent environment. Learn to recognize user-friendly "hero waves" to practice on, and get to know the flows that create your favorite waves and their locations. Your surfing learning curve will accelerate if you start by doing maneuvers in Class I – II whitewater.

If you paddle left, start off by choosing waves on river right—they will be easier to attain from a river right eddy. A pry is a stronger stroke than a draw and can be used as you enter a wave from river right. The pry should bring the bow angle back upstream parallel to the current, which will help prevent you from being blown off the wave toward the center of the river. The converse is true if you paddle right. Choose a wave close to an eddy on river left and again use a pry to bring the bow upstream. Two other considerations are boat angle and boat speed. Make sure your canoe doesn't have too much angle when you enter the main current. Your bow should be facing almost directly upstream when you enter the main current; then adjust your angle enough to carry your craft to the sweet spot. Lack of speed will also impede surfing and often results in your canoe flushing downstream. Watch the wave trough carefully and monitor your position. If you see the hull of your canoe moving back off the wave, apply some forward momentum with your on-side power stroke and rudder. When carving back and forth, use your on-side power stroke and rudder to initiate changes indirection.

Helpful Hints

If you are still having trouble surfing, practice proper body rotation with your thumbs-up J-stroke (power stroke with a rudder). You might also want to practice basic single blade skills, including an efficient power stroke with an effective rudder, and a stern draw and pry executed with outboard hand positions. Eliminate crossover strokes, as they are weak and slow to execute, and never use reverse sweeps, as they will kick you downstream off the wave. Also make sure your paddle is not too short — I am 5'9" and use a 59-inch paddle. For my 6-foot tall students I recommend a 62-inch paddle.

Going Tandem

Seating configurations and boat length affect the approach tandem paddlers take to surfing. There are three basic tandem seat positions. Traditional lake or expedition canoes have the bow seat set almost twice as far from the bow end of the canoe as the stern seat is from the stern end. This is ideal for longer canoes and touring, but will not facilitate surfing.

Tandem whitewater multi-day tripping canoes that boast four-plus inches of rocker over 14 to 16 feet and have decent payload are often outfitted with bow and stern seats placed equidistant from each end. With seats placed toward the ends of the canoe, this creates a compromise: moderate surfing control is achieved, and the bow paddler can provide forward momentum and execute draws and cross-bow draws.

For pure tandem whitewater playboating, place the seats in the Gemini position, where both paddlers sit equal distance from the bow and stern but in the midsections of the craft. This arrangement allows the best control for tandem surfers. A tandem playboat is generally 14 feet or less and has four inches or more of rocker with a beam of less than 30 inches. The bow paddler has almost as much control as the stern paddler and can execute a rudder to control surfing when carving away from the team's paddling side. The stern paddler can execute a rudder and control the craft when carving toward the bow paddler's side. The paddler who is not controlling with a rudder is responsible for applying forward momentum when needed.

Contributed By: Douglas Whipper

Canyon Canoeing Adventures "The Steamboat Springs Canoe School specializes in whitewater canoeing. CCA provides highly personalized instruction & trips for beginners to experts. Certified instructional guides will be your paddling companions in tandem camp; solo canoeing adventures".










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