Canoeing is a serious matter. A seemingly serene paddle on a quiet stream can easily turn into a time of tumult than can break long friendships and marriages. It’s not for the faint-hearted or ill-prepared.
It is therefore essential that the following canoe maneuvers be understood and mastered as soon as possible in one’s canoeing career.
The vault is a difficult maneuver that should only be attempted by experienced canoeists. Successful vaults are rare indeed. The vault is used when encountering severe ledge drops with clear landings below.
The idea is to gain as much forward momentum as possible and then to propel the canoe out into space such that it drops squarely and evenly back into the water.
As incongruous as it may seem, a heavily loaded canoe may stand a better chance of completing this maneuver than a lightly loaded one.
A successful vault is a thing of beauty. Performed and completed very quickly, it is rarely acknowledged or captured on film.
On the other hand, a poorly executed vault is an ugly sight. The bow of the canoe is left projecting out over the drop-off, if lucky, or stuck at a severe downward angle into the landing area, sometimes partially submerged.
A hesitant, aborted attempt at the vault can also lead to our next maneuver, the leap.
The leap is used by experts when stopping to scout an impending hazard. The leap enables one to ride right up to the brink of the danger before stopping to check it out.
In its best form, the stern man leaps onto a nearby rock while holding the stern line, surveys the course ahead, and then nimbly hops back into the canoe.
However, there are two variations of the leap: the leap to safety and the leap into the foamy cataract. The latter is a degenerate variation of the former, and can be executed by either the bow or stern person individually, or by both in unison.
Often the cue for a synchronized leap is the yelled expression, “Jump!” A sequential leap can also be performed as the stern man follows the lead of the bow man, who, with the best view to peril ahead, leaps first.
The cheek-lift, while neither a daring nor particularly elegant maneuver, should nonetheless be part of every canoeist’s repertoire.
The cheek-lift is executed in relatively slow, boulder-strewn waters. It is performed by leaning to one side and lifting one side (cheek) of the canoeist’s derriere, so as to heel the canoe over sideways. This is used in order to slide over submerged rocks and other hidden obstacles that otherwise would impede the uncluttered progress of the canoe.
As with many maneuvers, there are variations to this one as well. There is the single cheek-lift, performed independently by either the bow or stern man, and the double cheek-lift, performed in unison by both the bow and stern men.
Under no circumstances should any one person attempt to do a double cheek-lift. Its purpose can be misconstrued.
The swivel (not to be confused with the spin) is a maneuver that illustrates the implicit communication and rapport between the bow and stern canoeists. It is used to abruptly change the direction of the canoe, such as when approaching waterfalls and other unpleasantries.
Upon a spoken, barely audible command, both canoeists swivel in their seats such that they are facing what was previously the backward direction. Instantly, the canoe has changed direction by 180 degrees! Surely, a more radical course correction cannot be imagined.
After doing thus, it is usually a simple matter to paddle forward away from the danger.
Of course, a poorly executed swivel does have its risks. If there is any miscommunication between the bow and stern men, two things can happen.
The first, and less dangerous of the two, is that the bow man swivels, and the stern man does not. This leaves each canoeist facing the other, paddling in opposite directions. As soon as discussion resolves who is facing the wrong direction, corrections can be made.
A more dangerous situation occurs when the stern man swivels and the bow man does not. This again leaves the canoeists paddling in opposite directions, but this time they are back-to-back. This situation can go on for some time before being detected.
The spin is the bold counterpart of its tame cousin, the eddy turn. In an eddy turn the bow of the canoe is placed in the eddy downstream of a boulder. The stern of the canoe then continues downstream as the craft pivots about the bow point. Simple and effective, but mundane.
In the execution of the spin maneuver, the bow of the canoe is placed directly on the boulder. The quick cessation of forward movement, combined with the possibility of having the canoe partly out of water, creates the ideal situation for a sharp, snappy turn.
There are a few things to consider. One should approach the boulder at an oblique angle, at not too great a speed, and there should be room for the stern to swing unrestricted by other obstacles.
Sometimes the bow canoeist signals for a spin maneuver by first waving his paddle in the air to one side, then to the other, then back again, and so on. To the untrained observer this can be misinterpreted as a sign of indecision.
Additionally, neither canoeist should be standing or peeing over the side of the canoe at the time of impact.
The Flying Dismount
This maneuver is designed to re-acquaint the stern paddler with the sensitive and precarious nature of the canoe. It is set up by the bow man alighting first onto a steeply banked, rocky shore.
The bow man then proceeds to lift the bow of the canoe as far up the bank as possible, ostensibly to make it easier for the stern man to get out. The canoe is thus left in a bridged condition, with the bow on shore, the stern in the water, and the middle of the canoe in the air.
An aluminum canoe with a shoe keel, though good for little else, makes an excellent practice vehicle for this maneuver.
The remainder of the exercise is performed in or near the canoe by the stern paddler, usually to the entertainment of those already on shore.
At this point the setup is much akin to the rope-ladder balancing game found at local fairs. Not only must the stern paddler walk a fine and tenuous line up the middle of the canoe, but his footing is confounded by paddles, gear, pack items, fishing rods and cans strewn about the canoe. This exercise always provides a humorous respite after a stretch of arduous paddling.
There you have it, folks. Master these few maneuvers, and you will be well on your way to canoeing bliss. Happy paddling.
Jay T. Philoon is a Maine native who has canoed Maine rivers for decades and who has unfortunately had first-hand experience with most of the maneuvers described. Webster Stream has provided a lot of research for this article over the years, although Big Black Rapids contributed its share.