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Tandem Canoe - Welcome to the Divorce Boat (A Survival Guide)

Karl Midlane, BCU Level 5 Coach at Plas y Brenin by Karl Midlane, BCU Level 5 Coach at Plas y Brenin

Paddling an open canoe as a tandem pair is a powerful and rewarding experience, just as manoeuvrable as a solo canoe but with vastly improved horse power available. Like a sports car with two engines, tandem canoeing is for paddlers with friends.
Strangely in the UK it is an often neglected option, usually relegated to the realms of beginners on flat water and solo paddling is considered the way forward if you want to progress beyond the novice stage. This is probably because the tandem canoe has been earning its self a reputation as a divorce boat, arguments erupt at the simplest of manoeuvers, blame is attributed, tempers flare and boats become consigned to dusty garages or if space allows a second one is acquired so that its crew can have one each and be allowed to revel in their own success rather than suffer the consequences of somebody else’s mistakes.

Tandem Canoe Team on White Water

Now we don’t like to think of canoeing as having any rules and if there were any there would be plenty of exceptions but here are a few guidelines that may help to prevent unseemly disputes and promote the formation of a slick and efficient team, capable of anything a solo paddler can do but at twice the enjoyment.

Pick a partner

You will both need complimentary goals if one of you has ambitions of huge rapids whilst the other expects tranquil lakes you are not off to a good start.


Trim is the way the boat is balanced from front to back. Whilst traveling forward the boat usually performs best if the bow [front] is slightly lighter. If the boat is manoeuvring backwards or in windier conditions this may need to be changed. Trim can be changed by a small extent by considering where you position any luggage and to a greater extent where the heavier paddler sits/kneels. This will be a more important factor than who wants the most leg room.

Pick a Side

A tandem boat is best paddled with one person on the left and one on the right. All the manoeuvring you need can be achieved this way. Swopping sides is expectable if one armgets tiered but is not what you do when you need to steer. When you are starting to get tiered give your partner a few strokes warning and both swop at the same time. If paddling at speed one partner may shout ‘hut’ during a power stroke signalling that they are going to perform one more full power stroke after which both will seamlessly switch. Having both canoeists paddling on the same side as a means of turning is poor and inefficient, only producing large circles. It always disappoints me when I hear lazy coaches telling novices to do that rather than teaching them something better that they can continue to use for the rest of their paddling career.

No Man’s Land

Often in tandem canoes paddlers sit close to the ends [just out of reach of their partners paddle should disputes turn violent]. This means that you are not sat at the pivot point of the boat as you would be in a solo, so many of the strokes in your solo repertoire will need to be modified leading to areas of no man’s land around the boat where performing any strokes will be ineffective or counterproductive.

Diagram of Bow and Stern Paddlers Zones

For bow paddlers strokes performed in front of them are potentially very powerful, but anything that goes in behind them is useless. Forward power should be done with a vertical paddle and run parallel to the centre line of the boat and not follow the curve of the gunnel, but must end at their hips, trying to add any sort of stern rudder or J stroke is pointless as it does not reach anywhere near the stern [back] of the boat.

Sweep strokes that for a solo paddler go in a wide arc from one end of the boat to the other can now only do a quarter of a circle from the front out to ninety degrees, or from ninety degrees to the front for a reverse sweep. Draws and prys [pulling and pushing] is great, as are bow draws, bow rudders/cuts and bow jams, cross deck bow rudders are also very powerful.

As long as they do not swap hands to do so bow paddlers can temporarily reach across to the other side of the boat to initiate off side turns, but anything they do behind them will contravene the peace treaty.

Stern paddlers

The rear paddler is permitted to use the no man’s land in front of them by the middle of the boat for forward power only anything else they do has to be behind them like stern rudder and J strokes or a quarter sweep stroke going between the hips and the back or a reverse equivalent in the same zone. Draws and prys at the hip or behind are great but anything they try to do on the opposite side of the boat is pointless.

Keep the engine running

Tandem Canoe Team on White WaterComplement whatever your partner is doing with a stroke that adds to is effectiveness rather than trying to duplicate it, for example rudders only work when the boat is moving at a good speed, so if the front paddler is doing a cross deck bow rudder the stern paddle cannot choose to do a stern rudder as no one is generating more forward speed. They would be better of providing forward power to make the bow rudder more effective and adding a hint of J to the end if the turn needs tightening.

Who is in charge?

It is a common misconception that the stern paddler is charge. This option is rarely effective as the stern strokes available are limited to ones that help to keep the boat running in a straight line, and the view from the stern is restricted by the bow paddler being in the way. Conversely the bow paddler has an excellent view of any imminent obstacles and has a wide range of stroke options that are good for initiating sudden changes in direction. So if the bow paddler suddenly appears to be trying to make the boat turn left trust them and do a stroke that assists as there may well be a good reason for it that the rear paddler is unaware of.

Keep in time

The boat will hold a better straight line if forward power is done in unison. The rear paddler has a good view of what the front is doing and should strive to keep in time with them. However the rear paddler may need to add some steering correction to their strokes that will slow their stroke rate, although the bow paddler cannot see this happening they should be able to feel the boost in power the stern is providing and aim to limit their stroke rate to something the rear paddler can keep up with.


Tandem Canoe Team Working in Harmony Two paddlers in a boat should be able to provide the craft with twice the skill, but this will be limited by the quality of the interface between them. Communicating with each other is vital, try to talk about the manoeuvre you would like the boat to perform rather than the strokes you would like your partner to do. ‘Sharp left then accelerate’ should do the trick; your partner will know how to achieve that.


If you have inspected a rapid you can do your communication in advance. This will give you time to think about how you will complement each other and you may even decide that there is a tactical advantage to be had when deciding which sides to paddle on.


Edging or tilt in the canoe is its side to side angle, you will need to be able to put it on edge particularly as the water becomes more demanding. Don’t get upset with your partner if the boat is not always perfectly flat. In a canoe tilt is usually achieved by shifting your weight to one side, but your centre of gravity [body] will still remain inside the gunnels so it will be in balance even if it is at an odd angle. You can plan in advance who is going to initiate the edging so that you do not overdo it, but you will need to practice enough to feel comfortable with somebody else tipping the boat if they feel it is needed.

Forming, Storming, Norming, Performing

Tuckman researched how people develop in to effective team and believed there are four stages:

  • Forming; everybody is really polite to the rest of their new team but they do not function very effectively.
  • Storming; letting down the barriers and getting use to people, tempers may flair; arguments occur but persevere as the next phase is…
  • Norming; getting use to each other and developing trust and productivity.
  • Performing; now you are a slick well-oiled machine.


Don’t blame your partner; you are a team if something has not gone right you have both failed.


My paddling partner refers to this as endpathy, even if you have a preferred position swap ends with your partner occasionally and get a feel for life at the other end of the boat and the problems they have to deal with.


The perfect unity and ability to sense just what your partner needs that allows you to manoeuvre the boat twice as well as a solo paddler will not happen overnight it needs time to get right and there may be a few tiffs and swims along the way but it is well worth pursuing.

Three in a boat

Well that is just madness, twice the power on one side as the other is just asking for trouble. Unless the third crew member is a very young child or the family dog you would be better off getting them to swim along behind.

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