Canoeing: Keeping the Inside Dry and the Outside Wet

by Darren Bush on May 7, 2012 · 26 comments

in Manly Skills, Outdoors

There is no such thing as a tippy canoe…only tippy paddlers.

I hear it all the time…”Canoes are tippy.”  “Ooh, that’s a really tippy canoe.”  “Every time I get in a canoe I end up swimming…”

My response is always the same.

Me: “How wide is your canoe?”

Wet Canoeist: “Oh, I dunno. About three feet?”

Me: “Right. How wide is your bicycle?”

W.C.: “Huh?”

Me: “C’mon, how wide?”

W.C.: “One, two inches maybe.”

Me (and this is where the idea hits them between the eyes): “Is your bicycle tippy?”

W.C.: [stunned silence...then recognition...then a sheepish grin]

No one ever says their bicycle is tippy, but something 20-30 times wider is?  Something’s wrong with this logic.  True, a bicycle has two gyroscopes attached which give the bicycle inherent stability, but that’s a small matter.  The trick to a stable canoe is to know how to keep things where they belong.

I use a mnemonic phrase.  If it’s a group of men, I tell them to always remember this: “nose over navel, navel over nuts (or nads works too).” If there are women present, I use a more gentlemanly but less memorable “nose over navel, navel over the spot between your knees.” Sometimes one of the women, usually a woman with some life experience, says, “You could just say ‘nuts.’”

That makes me blush, which makes them all laugh. I love teaching.

You’ll notice that even though the boat in the above picture is only 26″ wide and the gunwale (the wood part) is almost underwater, the boat is stable.  That’s because if you drew a line from my nose to the center of the earth, that line would parallel my navel and my (go)nads.  That’s the ultimate stability, irrespective of the angle of the boat relative to the water–hence the green line. You’ll also notice that I’m not even touching the top grip of the paddle at this point. No need: the boat is stable.

This older picture illustrates my point rather nicely. I am not wearing a lifejacket (I caught it big time for that as it was in the newspaper), and I had (lots of) hair then. My pointer, Winnie (R.I.P.) loved to swim next to me. There’s no drama here…I’m totally in control of my canoe, even if the gunwale is almost underwater. That’s because my body’s in the green zone.

But what if the N-N-’N line goes off plumb? You go into the red zone. Notice that in the picture above I need my paddle in the water to keep from going all the way into the drink. In this case I placed my head outside the gunwales to illustrate the point that you shouldn’t do that. Only by creating a temporary outrigger with my paddle do I avoid a swim.

Which leads to a question that would naturally come up at this point: “If all you have to do is keep your N-N-’N line perpendicular to the surface of the water, why does anyone ever tip a canoe?” Because there are forces outside our control: waves, wind, currents, and any other force that nature will apply, including a person you’re trying to rescue, or yourself when you lean over to grab that three-pound smallie. You need to find a way to get your body back to where it needs to be. The way to do that is called a brace.

Anyone who has done a belly-flop off a 30-foot cliff knows the density of water. It’s dense—really. A brace allows you to use the density of water to return you to your original green zone position, by placing the paddle with the blade parallel to the surface of the water, pushing down and using your lower body (your knees and hips) to put your body back where it goes.

Here I’m about ready to test my brace by throwing my head outside the gunwales. The paddle blade is parallel to the water’s surface, giving me a good surface against which to push. Remember belly-flops? There’s about a square foot of blade on this paddle. Think of slapping a 1′x1′ piece of wood against the water surface. That’s a good amount of resistance, right?

The key to learning a brace is practicing when you don’t have to in conditions that are conducive to learning. Warm water and a nice sandy beach are great places to try this, because the price of failure (and you will fail) is a damp body and a slightly bruised ego. Like any skill, it has to be reflexive. By the time your primate brain says to itself,  “Goodness, I think I need to try that brace thing I read about on the Art of Manliness,” your lower level brain will have accomplished the task. Or if you didn’t practice…sploosh.

The fatal flaw is to not commit to the paddle. You’ll notice that in the red zone picture I’m putting a lot of weight on my paddle. You gotta lay it out there and get the weight off your lower body so it can reposition the boat quickly. Then and only then can you give it a good shove and get your upper body back where it goes (N-N-’N position).

In this case, a baby wave is threatening. I lean into the wave to counteract its effect and brace, getting my body back to where it needs to be (it’s on its way back, trust me). At this point, I could do something really dumb: lift the paddle blade out of the water without turning it so the surface is no longer parallel to the surface of the water. Remember, water is dense. If I do that, I’ll just pull myself right into the water. Turning the paddle 90 degrees so that the blade can slip out of the water is highly recommended unless you are hot and want to cool off a bit.

This is a skill that is much easier to demonstrate than it is to describe. There are resources online that can give you a few hints. Below is a quick video demonstrating some of what we just talked about:

There’s a lot more to discuss in terms of canoe design, and how a well-designed canoe works with you, not against you. That’s for another day.

{ 26 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Bruce Williamson May 7, 2012 at 6:27 pm

I’ll tell you how to keep the canoe from tipping. Don’t ever go canoeing with my friend Rick. He has a terrible sense of balance and it will frighten the hell out of you shifting his weight from one side to the other!

BTW never realized the thing about the green line. I must do it without thinking.

2 Chris May 7, 2012 at 7:37 pm

Does the same principle applies to kayaks? I tend to struggle with balance on a short kayak and often find myself cooling off in the river…

3 Hunter May 7, 2012 at 8:32 pm

Chris, you have two options. Either get a kayak skirt and learn to roll or gain core strength and use it to keep the kayak sort of swaying side it side. Well, rolling does take core strength, but I think it takes more than just balancing. The best way to do it is to move your hips in the opposite direction of the paddle (If you have the right side of the paddle in the water, move your hips left.

4 AF May 7, 2012 at 10:16 pm

My one problem with this article is that the canoe/bicycle comparison does not work. Bicycles are really stable because of several factors that canoes simply do not possess.

Other than that, great article about canoe balancing. I think often people are too afraid of canoe balancing because they never practice (i.e. mess around with canoes) in shallow water.

I taught canoeing skills at an adventure camp for 9-12 year olds for a little while. One of the very first things we did was take them out and have them swamp their canoes in shallow water with a sandy bottom.

It just gets them used to how far you can tip a canoe, what keeps it afloat and what truly tips it, etc.

5 Gary House May 7, 2012 at 10:22 pm

I remeber the time I took a friend down the river with me and I forgot to tell him not to “lean” into the turns. Man, we went over so fast! A refreshing dunk that could have turned out very bad if we went without life preservers. Great article!

6 AC May 8, 2012 at 5:55 am

Any tip on how not to end up with sore lumbars?

7 Darren May 8, 2012 at 6:49 am

Chris, same principles apply. I actually actively encourage not learning to do a kayak roll for specific reasons I’ll go into when I write about how to do a kayak roll. :-)

8 Uncle Lumpy May 8, 2012 at 7:28 am

If I may, I would like to address one thing that I never (or rarely) see in canoes:
A couple of simple sand bags placed on the floor will GREATLY add to stability, and incidentally can provide very comfortable padding for a knee.
When I belonged to a re-enactment group, the Grosse Pointe Canoe Brigade north of Chicago, we paddled 26- and 34-foot copies of birchbark canoes….at 660 pounds the fibreglas copy of the 34-footer was half the weight of the wood version, quite svelte. We ALWAYS had ballast bags to paddle these, as even with 18 paddlers in the 34-footer we would have so much freeboard that reaching down into the water, and retaining stability with a large number of newbies on board, was at times a challenge…even with a beam of about 6 feet.
Please consider ballast…be it sand bags, picnic kits, dry bags etc.
After all, the boats were made originally to carry more than people…they were haulers of commerce, exploration vehicles, transports to the New World.

Ralph Frese of the Chicagoland Canoe Base made our canoes, I have not heard about him in many years, and hope he is doing well.

9 Uncle Lumpy May 8, 2012 at 7:51 am

BTW, the Chicagoland Canoe Base is still in operation, and the owner is retiring…anyone interested?

10 Nic May 8, 2012 at 8:58 am

This helps a bunch… Always had trouble balancing in the water. Thx

11 Jeff May 8, 2012 at 9:08 am

Or you could just learn to roll the canoe, then you really don’t have to worry about tipping.

12 James May 8, 2012 at 10:41 am

I should have given my canoe partner this lesson before the regatta I did last Saturday. Only tipped twice, but refreshing adults beverages may be partially responsible.

13 Dave May 8, 2012 at 10:59 am

@Jeff – I’ve seen people roll canoes in competition (whitewater C2 and C1). The coordination, communication, and practice it takes for two people to roll a canoe in whitewater in competition really amazes me!

@Chris – In a kayak, I always think about keeping my nose between the gunwales. Works most of the time…

14 lady brett May 8, 2012 at 11:30 am

great article – good info. i love the simplicity of the n-n-n rule.

and if you use gonads instead of nuts it’s completely unisex (though i recognize that probably doesn’t make you any more comfortable with *saying* it in mixed company =).

15 Adam May 8, 2012 at 11:51 am

Nice introduction to the low brace!

When I’m teaching tandem canoeing I use a “rule” I made up (at least I think I made it up!) called the three O’s.

-Open side up: otherwise it’s a swimming lesson!

-Opposite sides: the bow and stern paddlers shouldn’t be holding their paddles on the same side of the canoe (crossbow draws don’t violate this rule since the hand position doesn’t change).

-On your knees – it’s a lot easier to be stable in a canoe when you have both knees on the hull and your butt in contact with the seat. It makes you into a tripod which is very stable and also lowers your centre of gravity in comparison to sitting up high on the seat.

I’m looking forward to the next article Darren!

16 Blaine May 8, 2012 at 12:06 pm


I love going canoeing with my dad and his friend because they get so drunk that they can’t get in the watercraft.

17 Tom King May 8, 2012 at 1:19 pm

I like this post. A lot of people don’t learn to use their hips for balance and wind up in the drink by leaning without regard to the “nose over” rule. Also, the low weight thing is what gets a lot of people. They sit with their knees up above the gunwales and they always wear this surprised look when they find themselves in the water and their canoe still upright and dry and drifting away without them. I have a blog for men working with youth groups and I’d like to put a link in it to this blog. It’s quite well done. Thanks. – Tom King

18 Curtis May 8, 2012 at 5:20 pm

Great article! I love kayaking and have been known to canoe from time to time as well. All kinds of people would benefit from reading this post, as too many people take the power of moving water for granted.

19 Darren May 8, 2012 at 7:22 pm

@Uncle Lumpy, Yep, Ralph is alive and kicking at 83. Haven’t seen him in a while, I really should stop in and say howdy…I had breakfast with him on his 80th birthday. He is a charming and wonderful man. He bumps his head and forgets more about canoeing than I’ll ever know.

@AC, I find that kneeling takes care of any lumbar soreness as that compliments the natural curvature of the spine. It does require some paddling and occasionally resting my knees. I find a pool noodle under my ankles helps a lot too.

@Tom, share away. I did a series of DVD (that’s where the you tube clip is from) on solo and tandem canoeing, available at I don’t make a dime on them. It goes to support the Bach family children’s college fund.

@Dave — I have a great story about rolling C-boats. I’ll mention it next time.

I have several more articles like this in the pipeline. Thanks for the feedback! Always welcome…

20 JT May 9, 2012 at 2:05 am

Good timing as I’m doing my second multiday trip at the month

21 DB May 13, 2012 at 3:47 pm

Paint it black and it will never tip again.

22 Joseph May 15, 2012 at 7:35 pm

Great write up on canoe stability. Same principles apply to kayaks too. Overall goal when paddling either is to remain centered and keep the weight & center of gravity low. This, plus a proper stroke will ensure good stability in typical flat water paddling conditions.

23 Matt May 18, 2012 at 4:33 pm

I just got back from a four day canoe trip in the wilderness. Great exercise and a lot of fun. Staying upright is more critical when all your gear is in the canoe and the water is cold enough that you are two minutes away from hypothermia (literally two minutes).

24 True December 4, 2012 at 1:21 pm

Here is an excellent video treatise on the various canoe strokes. Focused on the solo-canoe, but applicable to tandem canoeists as well.

25 Brandy July 20, 2013 at 9:50 am

ha! my husband and I love this website!
did some marathon canoe racing back in the day – love seeing the canoeing topic come up here. great stuff! :)

26 Caroline September 29, 2013 at 9:43 pm

Just out of curiosity, how long is that 26″ wide canoe?

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