Front Surfing Your Canoe

Front Surfing Your Canoe

With these tips, surfing your canoe may be easier than you think.

Front surfing is just about the coolest thing you can do in a canoe. Rushing water under the hull, defying the downstream pull of the current, just hovering in one place on the river is a remarkable feeling of speed and boat control.

So how do we choose a wave, get on it, and control our position? Let’s take a look at what makes a good surf wave.

First, a really good wave has to be large enough to hold your canoe. That means the length of the wave and its height must be large enough to cradle your boat so that your canoe will tilt downhill while facing into the current. Think of it this way, your canoe has to slide down the wave at least as fast as the current is rushing past you.

Second, a really good wave has a trough oriented perpendicular to the direction of current flow. This allows you to point your canoe into the approaching current. Everything will feel balanced and the canoe will be easy to steer both left and right for great boat control.

Before getting on a wave, look for doorways to the current. Easier waves have a trough that meets the eddy line at nearly 90 degrees. At this point there will be a depression.  This dip at the eddy line is your doorway to the current. Paddle through and drop on the wave to start surfing.

More challenging waves are further out from your eddy. In this case, your best option is to ferry across the eddy wedge to your doorway.

In some cases the doorway is upstream of the surf wave. Here, surf the shoulder wave out and downstream to the best part of the wave face.

Getting on the wave takes a bit of strategizing. Let’s look at some of the tricks that will get you surfing.

One key to catching a wave is to paddle quickly enough to match the speed of the current you are entering – not too fast, not too slow, just right.

Your position on the wave is important too, place your center of gravity a bit upstream of the crest of the wave.

Controlling boat angle is essential. Opening your canoe’s angle relative to the current will move you in the direction the bow is pointing. To hold steady in a front surf, close your angle to point the bow into the approaching current.

The tough part is knowing how much angle to give your canoe. Generally, use more angle in less powerful current, and vice versa for fast water. Boat design plays a role too, so experiment to find the ideal angle for your canoe, wave and water level.

If using a shoulder wave to catch your ride, you will need to surf along it to reach the sweet spot of the wave. Choose an angle close to 90 degrees to the shoulder wave. As you surf out into the current keep adjusting your canoe angle to match the shape of the wave. Once in the sweet spot, maintain 90 degrees to the trough for a beautiful gliding front surf.

Once on the wave, controlling your left to right movement comes from unique rudder strokes. These strokes are the same for solo and the stern position in tandem.

The rudder is modified by twisting the blade using the T grip. Twisting the blade creates drag which controls both direction and speed.

To turn away from your paddle, twist the T grip outward and push the bottom edge of the power face down while pulling inward against the current.

To turn toward your paddle, twist the T grip inward and push the bottom edge of the non-power face down while pushing outward against the current.

Viewed another way, to rudder away from your paddle, turn the t grip’s thumb toward your shoulder.

Or, you can turn the t grip’s thumb away from your shoulder to rudder toward your paddle.

While ruddering, both your grip hand and shaft hand work together to control the blade. For balance, keep an independent upper body by holding your hands away from the gunwales. Plus, keeping your hands off the gunnel means the stroke won’t interfere with boat tilts.

In tandem, bow paddlers can assist in steering. Often they’ll use the bow cut to direct the canoe toward the bow’s onside. This likely is the more difficult direction to turn for the stern paddler. Cross cuts are often not needed as the stern onside rudder is so effective at steering to the bow’s offside.

Surfing also needs good edge control. Surprisingly, an effective carve requires you to keep your gunnels level as it is the wave face that is tilted beneath you, even when moving left to right. If tilt were added, traction would be reduced leading to weakened boat control.

Your position between crest and trough can be controlled by how you lean your body. Shifting your weight forward drops your bow down to the trough, while leaning back will move you back up to the crest.

In tandem, both partners must coordinate their leans with good communication and a keen awareness of where the canoe is positioned on the face.

Your goal is to keep your center of balance upstream of the crest without unnecessarily plowing your bow into the wave in front of you.

Stroke cadence is important too. Combining forward strokes and lean to approach the trough, or dragging your paddle blade and backward lean to approach the crest.

Some surf waves just beg to be ridden. Problem is, there may not be an easy way to catch them as they are not close to an eddy. One way to catch a ride is to drift backward onto the face and accelerate to match the speed of the current.

Another way is a bit fancier, called a wave turn. Set yourself up sideways to the current and drift into the breaking crest of an inviting surf wave. Make sure just the front half of the canoe strikes the recirculating crest and the stern of your canoe remains in current. Now the wave will spin the canoe to face upstream and into a nice front surf.

As we said earlier, surfing is just about the coolest thing you can do in a canoe. And, we hope you find these tips helpful in making it happen. So find yourself a really great wave and go for a ride.

Check out our video: Front Surfing

Carole and Andrew Westwood

Paddle Canada Instructors / Instructor Trainers


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