by Joshua O'Connor
have been paddling Hawaiian outrigger canoes for years but have never
had the opportunity to steer. Doubtless you've wondered what is so
difficult about being the rudderman and why your new seat six can't
keep the boat pointed at the right island.
the case, there is likely a good deal more to steering a fast canoe
than you realize. Just how should you poke and exactly when? How should
you change your style to accommodate high winds and big swell? Get
these things wrong, and it doesn't matter who is in seats 1-5; your
canoe is going nowhere fast.
Learning with a coach
on the manu behind you is ideal, but most of us don't have that luxury.
Instead, we hop into the driver's seat on rare opportunities and
proceed to learn little as we weave around the ocean so wildly that we
are never given the chance again.
That is a shame,
because until you know how to steer that boat you pull around three
hours a day, you haven't really enjoyed the whole of outrigger
There is a better way. Learn the basic
concepts of technical steering – by which I mean poking and paddling to
keep the boat straight and fast – by reading them here before you get
in the driver's seat. Use your limited time on the water to put these
ideas to practice and learn the inimitable feel of steering the
Hawaiian outrigger canoe. Then come back, and read this again, because
it will belatedly start to make some sense.
you start yelling at your crew and dragging your paddle in the water
though, you should understand the tendencies of the 45' imitation log
you are trying to direct across the ocean.
AN UNRULY BOAT
take a quick detour to the local Longs Drug Store before we get
started in earnest. As you prepare for the weekend race and load the
slippers, snacks, and suds in your shopping cart, pause and do things a
little differently. Have a look at your shopping cart.
Notice that it has fixed wheels in back and
freely-rotating casters in front. Now stand in front of the cart and
give it a push backward. More than likely, it will swerve a little off
course and then spinout. It swerved a little because nothing is
perfect, then it swerved a lot because the front wheels held the
handle-end in the slight turn while the casters let go sideways and
thus the cart turned ever more sharply until it reversed heading
let's go to a waveless and windless) body of water – say the Ala Wai
Canal at 6:00 am . Granted, that shopping cart is unlikely to perform
its fancy tricks quite as well in a foot of water and a foot of muck,
but we can draw useful insights from its behavior in aisle 8A.
All six-man canoes, be they Malia or Mirage, behave much as the humble
Longs shopping cart – once the begin turning, they continue to turn and
at an increasing rate.
example, suppose we are cruising along in a straight line, and the
steersman falls out of the canoe without seats 1 -5 noticing. Some
imperfection will start the canoe turning ever so slightly to one side
– say to port (ama-side). Just like the shopping cart, the bow of the
canoe will hold better than the stern, thus causing the boat to turn
still further and faster to port. Within 30 strokes the canoe will be
as sharply as a regatta turn,and needless to say,
will be making little progress toward the finish line.
a good steersman rarely falls out of the boat and has two big
advantages over the shopping cart – water and a paddle to push against
KEEP THINGS STRAIGHT
every boat on the ocean has a rudder, and even surfboards and
paddleboards have skegs tacked on for stability. The most
straightforward way to steer a canoe is to imitate a rudder with a
paddle. In the parlance of our times, this is called “poking.” A
steersman will place his paddle in the water at his side such that the
shaft is near vertical and the blade is nearly flush with the hull. To
choose the ideal poking equipment and technique, we should first define
exactly what it is we want to achieve.
often we want to steer the canoe from point A to point B as quickly as
possible. Ignoring course quirks, that means two things: traveling in a
straight line, and minimizing drag (the force impeding forward motion).
All other things being equal, the steersman would also like to minimize
the time spent poking so that he can paddle a stroke or two forward to
sympathize with the crew.
Essentially then, we wish to use our paddle as a
wing braced against the side of the canoe and maximize sideways lift
, or corrective turning force and minimize drag
, or slowing force. Doing so requires a
deliberate paddle selection.
Choose your blade
ideal steering paddle design can most readily be take from sailplanes
and high-performance sailboats. Your steering paddle should be
relatively long with a foil, or cross-section, that is smooth and
moderate with some dihedral on the power face (the side facing you) to
give the blade some bite on the water when it is placed with its
leading edge and spine flush against the canoe (see Figure 3 : Steering
Paddle ). A large, abrupt spine is undesirable as it will cause excess
drag. Secondarily, the profile should have an elliptical “teardrop”
shape, or at least rounded corners
bend between shaft and blade is usually between 5 and 7 degrees to keep
the top grip close to the hull while poking yet still allowing for
paddling efficiency and “cranked” turns (to be described later). Your
shaft should be topped with a “T” grip for maximum grip and sensitivity
to blade angle. The steering paddle should be about as long as your
And it should be obvious that steering paddles
need to be strong. A loaded six-man canoe can weigh 1,600 lbs. Your
balsa-wood ultralight isn't going to hold that mass straight on the
face of big channel swell.
Now that you are geared up, it's time to turn your
canoe with the most effective, least slowing poke.
The Sideways Paddle
will get into the niceties of exactly when to poke soon enough, but
first we must address the rough topic of just how to stick your paddle
in the water to turn the canoe without slowing it unduly. For example,
say that you'd like to turn the canoe to port.
holding your paddle as you would a normal paddling paddle. The paddle
blade is on the left side of the canoe, your right hand wraps around
the “T” grip, and your left hand is wrapped around the shaft about one
hand width above the blade top.
Next, hold the paddle against the
hull's port side with its leading edge and spine flush against the boat
(see Figure 4 ). Because
of the paddle's foil, this means that the blade's trailing edge is
pointed away from the hull, and the blade meets oncoming water at an
angle – the “angle of attack”. The paddle thus deflects water to port
as it moves forward, creating a starboard “lift”, which turns the
The shaft should be about ½ -thigh in front of
your body, with the paddle shaft tilted neither forward
nor aft. This
angles the paddle vertically in the water to maximize its “aspect
ratio” – or wing length (i.e. blade tip depth) to chord (i.e.
approximately the paddle width perpendicular to water flow).
higher aspect ratio gives a higher lift / drag ratio and so gives more
turning force for less slowing force. Some steersmen let the shaft tilt
far forward so that the paddle is nearly horizontal in the water and
has a very low aspect ratio. Poking like this often leads to cavitation
(a vacuum or air bubble forming behind the paddle), a loss of useful
lift, and an increase in drag.
Ideally, submerge the blade until
only the top four inches or so contact the hull. The
shaft will tilt to port by the amount of shaft-blade bend (i.e. about 5
degrees). Submerging the blade deeply increases poking efficiency (via
the increased aspect ratio and decreased cavitation), and increases the
turning force (because more paddle area is in contact with the water),
thus letting you poke for less time.
There are two
situations when you would poke at less than full depth. First, you may
want less turning force than the full poke would give. Shortly you will
learn to paddle-steer to make these small corrections.
you might be in unstable conditions and in danger of huli. A full right
poke tends to pop the ama up, and a half-depth poke while leaning to
the left may be more appropriate. Ruddering (high-bracing on port to
turn to starboard) is not a good long-term solution in these conditions
because it is very tiring and takes energy you should be using to
During the entire poking operation, continue to look
ahead , not down at your paddle. This is an absolute
requirement to poking the right amount at the right time.
Poke Early and Poke Often
fact keeping your eyes and attention on the direction the canoe is
pointed is probably the most important thing you can do to know just
when to poke and keep the canoe straight and fast. Sight
down the canoe as with a rifle toward a target
(see Figure 5 ). First, you must pick a mark – a target you want to
head to (e.g. a landmark, a cloud, even an angle to oncoming waves).
Choose something, even if you need to change it every minute or two. If
you don't have a specific mark, you will weave around the ocean like as
if you were DUI.
Second, you must watch your canoe like a rifle's sights. Check where
seat 1's head is in relation to the target every single stroke.
On a flat, windless day, that sight picture is all
the information you need to steer a straight line. But
you need two pieces of that picture – angle off target, and rate of
turn off target. You
would like the angle off target to always be zero. Thus consider a
typical correction, for example say that you notice the canoe is
drifting off course to starboard. Act as soon as you notice the
First, you need to initiate a turn
back toward the target by poking on the side of the target. In
general, poke on the side to which you wish to turn, in this example on
port, until the bow begins to swing toward the target. (If you are
maneuvering and really have a long way to turn [30+ degrees], you can
sacrifice drag for turn rate by “cranking” the poke – pulling the top
grip in toward the canoe
Unfortunately, in any turn the canoe, like a backward shopping cart,
starts turning and continues turning at an ever increasing rate. As the
bow nears the target, it threatens to continue turning right beyond it!
Therefore a second step is needed; just
before the bow points at the target, poke opposite the direction of the
turn to halt all turning movement. Hold the poke just
until the canoe ceases to turn. The boat should now be pointing
steadily on target.
the most basic level, that is all you need to know: keep your eyes up
and poke deep in the water flush with the hull when you need to start
or stop a turn. It is simple, but not easy. It is also not sufficient,
for with only these skills, you are quite literally a drag.
crew and dragonboating, outrigger steersmen are blessed. We do not
demand effort from a seat of luxury, but share the glory and
conditioning that come with moving the boat further and faster with
forward strokes. More quarterback than coach, we run the crew and
inspire with performances of our own. To really move your boat along
and add a sixth paddler you need to learn to
wait, there's more! With paddle-steering added to your quiver, steering
a straight line will actually be easier. It is much easier to steal
part of a stroke for small steering inputs than to use the rather blunt
tool of poking.
So how do you replace the familiar
rudder concept with fancy stroke-work? Again the idea is simple: paddle
sideways. Consider the example of a canoe heading to port of our mark.
Previously we would have poked on starboard to deflect passing water to
starboard, create a force to port at the stern, and force the canoe to
turn toward the target. Unfortunately, poking also created drag and
slowed the boat.
Another way to create the force to
port and a turn to starboard is to draw stroke on port. Conceptually
this means to paddle sideways at 90 degrees and pull water from the
side of the canoe under the hull.
concept requires internalizing another layer of detail. First, if you
paddle sideways like you paddle forward, your crew will be distracted
either by the sideways rocking they feel, or their view of coral from a
hulied canoe. The lesson here is to keep your mass
centered , especially on starboard. Yes, this means you
will arm paddle to an extent. Done correctly though, you can and should
be paddle-steering on both sides of the canoe
and making going that much faster.
at normal paddling speed drawing sideways at 90 degrees doesn't work
very well because the water flows aft so quickly. Instead, pull
at a diagonal , from outboard and forward to your body.
The angle depends on the amount of turning
force you need. When
you only need a small correction, the stroke should be normal or
slightly angled (note: a steersman's normal fore-aft paddling stroke
will act as a slight draw on that side). When you need to change
direction quickly, begin your stroke as far out to the side and pull as
at as sharp an angle as comfortable.
You will need to add two related skills to master
the technique. You should become expert at switching
from paddling on the left to paddling on the right. As you learn to use
smaller, more frequent steering inputs, you will naturally tighten up
the “wobble cone” – or angle the bow actually points to around your
desired mark. That is a wonderful result, but requires more corrections
on the right and left with less time between them. Eventually you
should be able to switch sides every stroke while in time with your
crew and still providing powerful forward strokes.
Moreover you should do all of these
tricks without looking at your paddle or your crew's paddles. To
keep your keen steersman sight on the mark, you will need to keep
timing with the other five paddlers using only your peripheral vision,
feel and rhythm while paddling forward and diagonally. You should also
break the habit of looking at your paddle as you switch sides.
might wonder why we spent so much time learning to poke and bought that
monster steering blade if paddle-steering is better and easier. Well
don't trade in your paddle just yet because the sea is not often
without wind or wave.
with our shopping cart science, let's consider what happens when we add
some wind. Say you are taking your cart full of Longs purchases back to
the car – still pushing it backwards of course – when suddenly a gust
of wind hits directly from your right. You give the cart a little shove
forward and before long it turns sharply into the wind. The wind pushed
the entire cart to your left, but the fixed wheels in front held while
the casters in the rear let go, resulting in a turn toward the wind.
phenomenon, called “weathervaning”, is also present in canoes. When the
wind blows from port, the canoe will tend to turn to port and
canoes don't behave exclusively like a reversed shopping cart, rather
as a cross between the cart and a crustacean. As the wind blows from
port, the entire canoe will slip – or “crab” – to starboard. The result
is a canoe moving downwind of where the bow points. The steersman beset
by wind must therefore compensate for two effects: weathervaning and
The solution to crabbing is straightforward
but not straight-forward. You should point your bow upwind such that
the canoe is traveling toward your objective. Ideally you line up two
objects at different distances in the direction you wish to travel (see
Figure 6 ). If they become unaligned, you are
traveling off course.
Then estimate the angle upwind
of your objective necessary to travel directly at your objective. Your
goal is to keep the canoe pointed at this angle. You may pick a mark
along this heading (i.e. where your bow is pointed), but realize that
the angle between your mark and the
objective will change as you near the target and
so you will need to change your mark as well.
weathervaning effect is a bit more vexing. In light winds, the bias to
turn upwind will be minor and the canoe can be held perfectly straight
with small paddlesteering inputs.
Stronger winds demand
a different technique. Overpowering the wind with constant draw strokes
is so tiring that in little time you will be forced to poke and rest.
Even when you are paddling, your draws are angled so far to the side
that you are adding little to the boat's forward motion.
solution is to alternate strong pokes with strong forward strokes. This
is less fatiguing allowing you to both add thrust and keep the boat on
course – but not perfectly straight. While it is impossible to make the
canoe always point exactly on target, the error, or “wobble cone” that
the heading wanders through, should be consciously enlarged in high
For example, imagine you are steering a boat
with high winds from starboard. Check the canoe from turning to
starboard by poking on port strongly until the bow swings 5 – 10
degrees port of your mark. Then switch sides and paddle strongly
forward (with a bit of a draw) on starboard. As the wind brings the bow
back to starboard of your mark, poke once again and repeat the process.
optimal tradeoff between straightness and powerful paddling comes with
experience. Try to keep the wobble cone width under 20
degrees. As a rule of thumb, if you must ever
correct toward the upwind side (e.g. poking on
the upwind side), you have pointed the bow too far downwind.
Managing the wobble cone is a skill you will also
find crucial as you begin traversing waves.
if you paddle somewhere interesting you will have to deal with waves.
Here I describe how to keep the boat moving in the proper direction
over waves, but leave catching waves to another article.
are made of moving water. As a non-breaking swell passes your canoe,
the water beneath moves in an approximately circular orbit (see Figure
8 ). While the moving water obviously causes the canoe to rise and
fall, it also moves the canoe in the horizontal plane. This horizontal
action only causes problems for some headings.
When the boat is pointed directly toward or away
the wave direction, this horizontal movement only causes surges in
speed fore and aft.
When the canoe heads 90 degrees off the wave
direction, the horizontal water movement causes only port and starboard
from these four special cases – directly toward, away from, and at
right angles to the wave direction – the wave will push the canoe bow
and stern sideways by different amounts. As a result, the canoe
naturally yaws back and forth in a cycle as it traverses a wave, but
generally ends up pointed where it began (see appendix for more detail).
objective steering in waves is not to eliminate this wobble, but to
ensure that the average direction of the wobble cone is pointed toward
your mark. Two new skills are required.
First, you must
learn how the canoe yaws over a wave period in order to determine where
the center of the wobble cone is at any given moment. Pay careful
attention to the pattern of movement so that you can predict whether
the canoe is due to point port or starboard, and by how much. If, for
example, the canoe is pointed to port of your mark and is due to swing
back to starboard, wait for this anticipated action before you poke. On
the other hand, if the canoe is due to swing even further to port, you
should poke on starboard immediately.
The second new
skill required is to poke for a given force * time (force multiplied by
time), instead of poking until seeing the boat begin its turn. In
effect, you estimate the appropriate magnitude of correction required,
poke until you have felt sufficient force (through your grip on the
paddle and your seat-of-the pants feel) over a sufficient time to
effect this estimated correction, and then watch the boat's new wobble
cone to see if it centers on the mark.
At some points
in the wave cycle there will be virtually no sideways force on the
paddle. Try to avoid cranking the paddle for greater effect. Instead,
wait for the wave to push the canoe against your flat poke. With
experience you can poke only when it will have effect and paddle
forward when poking would be a waste.
GET IN SEAT SIX!
preceding is really too much information to swallow at once. Worse yet,
to steer really well requires not only hours of seat time, but also
practice in the other aspects of steering such as running a crew,
docking, regatta turns, race tactics, surfing, and strategic
navigation. Still, you are now ready to steer intelligently and learn
And steer you should. Learning to steer will
expose you to an entirely different side of the sport and provide new
challenges to the saltiest of paddlers. Steering teaches you to be
aware of all factors affecting your canoe, making you a more
knowledgeable paddler in general. Your versatility and skill will make
you more valuable to your club.
So seek out opportunities to steer, and always
consciously improve your skills. Think
about how you are poking and paddle steering. Make an effort to note
the speed and direction of the wind. Make sure to always gauge the
direction and character of the waves. Monitor your wobble cone to see
if it is too broad or skewed off course.
Once you learn, try to teach others your skills
and give them the opportunity to practice.
biggest drawback to learning how to steer is that you may like it so
much that you won't want to paddle any other seat. But please, don't
let that stop you.
O'Connor has been paddling outrigger canoes since he was 10 years old
and steering competitively since a shoulder injury in high school,
before which the lighter kids always got to steer.
the past he has paddled for clubs in Hawaii and Southern California .
Now he is adjusting to the colder waters in the San Francisco area and
attempting to shed a grad school-induced sloth.
Contact Josh with any questions or comments at:
The latest version of this document can be found
APPENDIX: Canoes over Waves
in Nauseating Detail
yourself floating in deep water with non-breaking waves rolling under
you. On such a wave, you will not slide down the face as a surfer does.
In fact, you do not move much relative to the water you are sitting in,
rather you move about with it. The path that water – and you – take can
be seen in Figure 8 . For a wave traveling to the drawing's right,
water near the surface moves in a clockwise circle.
Thus as the wave passes under you, you would be
Crest: to the right (in the direction of wave
Back of crest: down
Trough: left (opposite to the direction of wave
Front of crest: up
imagine a canoe heading into the waves from the right side of the
picture, but with the bow a bit starboard of being directly into the
waves. Now the canoe bow and stern are on different parts of the wave
and are being thrown about in different directions. This action causes
to boat to yaw, or turn port or starboard, depending on where the canoe
is on the wave. For example, consider a canoe with the bow ¼ wavelength
ahead of the stern (bow on wave part (water moving), stern on wave part
(water moving), => yaw and pitch moment (i.e. movement, not
position)) as wave crest approaches:
Front of crest (up), Trough (left) => yaw
starboard, pitch up
Crest (right) , Front of crest (up) => yaw
starboard and pitch down
Back of crest (down), crest (right) => yaw
port, pitch down
Trough (left), Back of crest (down) => yaw
port, pitch up
final consideration is the movement of water beneath the canoe, because
it is this against which you must press to turn the boat. The water
will move port and starboard about the same amount of time, in sync
with the passing waves. There are at least two effects that cause
sideways relative motion of water beneath the canoe.
Water is moving in different directions at any
given point along the canoe because it spans different parts of the
Water moves relative to the canoe because the
canoe inertia resists changes in velocity (translation) and rotation