• Happy Discovery of the Rosetta Stone (1799)! 𓋹𓂀𓀮𓀛𓀾𓁀 𝞹βδΔ

RIP J-Stroke: ACA No Longer Teaches the J-Stroke (EDIT: Or Does It?)

A long time good paddling friend of mine took the BSA wilderness trek leader course I have been involved with for many years. He is also a certified ACA instructor (I am not) and one of the early promoters and performers of freestyle canoeing in the Adiorndacks and elsewhere. He asked me to assist him one season at a family-youth camp (non-BSA) during a weekly canoe training session. I was surprised that for beginners he completely ignored introducing the proper J stroke. Instead his philosophy was to simply get the paddlers to moving the canoe straight consistently, and making turns only as needed. ("if you know how to paddle in a straight line, you automatically know how to make. it turn.") Thumbs up rudder ("goon stroke") was perfectly acceptable and worked for them. He would stand in the water, give the canoe a push for an initial forward velocity and have the stern paddler practice dragging a rudder, pushing it in and out to see how the cnoe reacdtss, while the bow padler did nothing at all. Once the stern got the "feel" of what moving the rudder in and out did for directional control, take a stroke, just one and hold the rudder. Then another and another. Note that you can fine control direction to some extent by dragging the vertical paddle blade tipped slightly left or right off vertical. Finally the bow paddler assists with simpler power strokes to keep forward motion going. Easy and more complex bow paddler control assist comes a little later.

I was somewhat shocked at no attempt at the thumbs down J, eventually leading to the more advanced strokes. He said that could come much later after building confidence that the paddlers could control the forward direction of the canoe with whatever worked for them at the time.

But doesn't that lead to instilling a bad habit from the start? I asked. It doesn't seem to, as long as there is confidence in boat control built up, then more formalized strokes based on a proper J will follow. So I started to teach the BSA trek leaders in the same manner, noting that they themselves will be canoe trail instructors of rank beginners when they guide BSA scout trips for hire later in the summer.

In the related subject, for recreational cruising, letting the paddle drift back (underwater) to a J control position eems to be a perfectly fine techniqe, as long as power is not applied beyond the hip. Rearward from the hip, any power tends to become a stern sweep and will emphasize turning away from the paddlle onside, especially if the paddle is shaft has not been held vetical (with stacked hands), so common with beginners. Racers know that ergonomically, the greatest foward power is achieved ahead of the hip, hence the guidance to stop power applicationat the hip and to recover for the next full power stroke.
As someone who has instructed high school kids for 30 years, I can tell you that there are kids who are gifted with coordination and ability to learn things quickly, and kids who need hours and hours of repetition to achieve one small thing, and kids who never seem to learn anything. On any giver multi-day canoe trip, I would have all three kinds.

These were the basics I taught before every trip to the newbies, in order of instruction: (lots of stuff was covered before this, like safety, camp procedures, etc, this was just for getting on the water) canoe parts, , names for parts of paddles, canoe carrying, canoe entry. J-stroke. After two kids out of 20 got the J stroke, I taught the stern pry to the rest of them. Probably 17 out of 20 would get the stern pry within a half hour. The other three became bow paddlers if possible. Then we did draws and cross bow draws, no pries. Then spinning the canoe 360, obstacle avoidance under full steam, side slips and canoe over canoe rescue. That was enough to get us going on a trip. After about ten days, most kids would be doing very well, but the goon-strokers were still in the majority. Most of them didn't pick up the J stroke until about grade 11, and many of them never got it.

As for the Canadian practice of prying off the gunwales.....well, I'm Canadian, and I do it. Why not make full advantage of a fulcrum? Seems like a no brainer to me. As for wearing out gunwales and paddles, I would have to disagree. I haven't worn out a single gunwale or paddle due to this in many 1000's of kilometers of paddling. I pulled out one of my old paddles I had made about 20 years ago, when I was paddling between 1000 and 2000 k a summer.



As you can see, the oil is worn off the shaft, but the shaft is still in very good shape. A re-oiling will bring it back to normal. I have broken a few paddle shafts leveraging off the gunwale, but only softwood shafts, never hardwood.

So to sum up my ramblings, for some reason, the J Stroke is a difficult thing for many people to learn. The Stern pry is not. If you can get someone going straight with a stern pry, wait for a few days or even weeks and then re-try the J Stroke.
Yes, my experience has been the same as for the last two who posted. Some folks pick up the J stroke relatively quickly but many do not.

A good example was when I introduced my brother-in-law to solo canoeing a few years back. He hadn't done any canoeing for years and that which he had done was in tandem canoes. He is naturally quite athletic, an off-road motorbike enthusiast, but when I tried to show him the J stroke he just couldn't get it and was becoming increasingly frustrated. He wanted to paddle a solo canoe for 8-10 mile day trips on the Current River even though he had the option to paddle bow in a tandem but to do so he needed to have some directional control of the boat.

So I gave up on having him try to become even marginally competent with a J stroke, showed him the stern pry, and he did great with it for the rest of the week. His reaction was "why didn't you show me that in the first place?".
Had good success in teaching the J but there were a few things I had students do. One was never to clutch your paddle in a death grip. The shaft hand was like a gooseneck on a sailboat. People complained about the pain of overrotation of the shaft wrist; just letting the shaft rotate in your hand is fine and not necessary to flex your wrist. The thumbs down awkwardness of the grip hand can be just fleeting.. let your hand rotate from thumb down to thumb up without moving your paddle.
The biggest hurdle was teaching a quick small pushaway.. In the water, Not in the air .No need to contact the boat.

We also started with the stern pry to get people used to being in control of their boat. One of the biggest hurdles to learning is the fear of bashing into another paddler.
But we had time.. We had several hours. Intro courses do not have several hours.

You that don't care for the ACA are entitled to your opinion but I find it quite disrespectful to those of us who have served in it. I am not going to agree that it is garbage. Nor me. Would you say that to my face? Yes there are things that are wrong with it but name calling serves no purpose.
I learned the stern pry at Keewaydin as a kid, and thought I picked up the J stroke on my own after reading about it as an adult. Eventually I learned that the "j stroke" I taught myself is actually a Canadian stroke. It has always seemed pretty efficient, and I still don't do an actual j stroke very often, although at least I know how.

As an aside, my family has a camp on a lake in Vermont, and the family camp down the lake has a fleet of canoes that see a lot of use. Every once in a while I'll spy a couple paddling by out in the middle of the lake and I can tell, even from a distance, that the stern is doing a j or Canadian stroke because there is no wasted motion. A stern pry never looks like that to my eye.
The forward/stern pry stroke can be done quite smoothly and if the blade is feathered as it reaches the hip at the end of the power phase before the stern pry there is no "lifting water" with the paddle blade.

The J stroke is more efficient than the forward/stern pry combo, but not by a large margin if the latter is done well. I have paddled with folks who are unable to comfortably execute the J stroke for any length of time because arthritis or prior injury has limited motion in the grip hand wrist. Some of those folks are very easily able to keep up with competent paddlers using the J stroke.

The J stroke simply doesn't apply sufficiently powerful correction in certain settings, such as when a quick on-side turn is required. Another is getting a highly rockered solo canoe moving forward from a dead stop, for example leaving an eddy where it is necessary to cross the eddy line with decent momentum. The stern pry can be used to get the boat moving and one can switch to the J stroke once it has gained momentum.

Mastering one stroke does not preclude mastering or using the other.
Every spring, our canoe club, the Beavers, in Vancouver, offered “Basic Paddlers” to new members, often times as many as 30 or 40 people. All instructors were RCABC-certified to at least a Lake Water level. The course ran over two full Saturdays, ending with an exam consisting of padlling around a course that allowed each student to demonstrate their new skills with the various stokes. I don’t have any data, but in my memory I would say that 95% of the new paddlers had achieved some skill and confidence with the j-stroke.

In my own wilderness tripping, on long days, I sort of naturally fell into the Pitch stroke, which is easier on my wrist, particularly when I began to suffer from “Trigger Finger.”
I don't believe having a generic negative opinion about an organization should be interpreted as personal insult to folks who are or have been members of that organization. I was a member of the ACA for many years, but ended up stopping 30 years ago when I realized that it was mostly a dues-sucking bureaucracy irrelevant to my paddling life, and the only thing it was doing for me was sending me an increasingly kayakized and othewise irrelevant magazine I could buy on my own.

Same with the American Bar Association.

I started out as a self-taught child using the goon stroke, which has a child-like appeal. I read about the J-stroke, but had a hard time executing it at first because it was literally too stressful and tiring on my shaft wrist and forearm. Of course, I was using a paddle much too long, holding the paddle with YC's lower hand death grip, and using what I now would call a pushaway at the end of the stroke. The pushaway-J is a Satanic, momentum killing, forearm crippling obscenity that belongs only in the Tower of London torture chamber.

Eventually, over many years, I self-learned a smooth thumbs-down correction that was some sort of combination of C-stroke, pitch stroke and an in-water forward loaded slice (Canadian) return—I didn't know any of that terminology then—that was comfortable and effective.

I also began my whitewater canoe career in California using a nine foot double blade Carlisle paddle in a Mad River Explorer. That was another childish obscenity that I will ban myself from further discussing in this particular thread.

As an adult beginning in 1980, I took formal and informal paddling lessons from some of the top recognized paddlers in the West, East and nationally, none of whom were ACA (or BCU) certified—other than informally with ACA mega-guru Tom Foster—until I took flatwater freestyle lessons in 2009 and 2010, where the thumb-down proficiency seemed to be assumed. Now, even the Freestyle Committee has left the ACA in favor of the USCA. John Berry and others have told me it wasn't worth their money or time to keep up with ACA certification requirements. In my opinion then and now, their lack of a piece of ACA paper did not diminish their paddling or pedagogical bona fides or effectiveness.

Aside from learning an intuitive repertoire of thumb-down, single-sided correction strokes, I consider my biggest breakthroughs in becoming a decent paddler was learning cross-forward strokes and heeling the canoe to turn. Both self-learned by observation of advanced paddlers.

I will grudgingly concede, as one who has personally blundered through every canoe technique obscenity available, that if my only goal were to get a total newbie through his or her first couple of hours of canoeing, I might suggest the goon stroke. However, we all must choose our informational and polemical niche on canoe forums. I choose to be a fundamentalist Stringer-Mason-Berry-Galt advocate of single blade, single-sided correction propulsion of open canoes using efficient strokes in all four canoe quadrants—from a centralized seat in solo canoes—which will never include the goon stroke as the most efficient means of regular forward travel.

Other than adopting that pedagogical and polemical 'puter persona, I'm an infinitely flexible softie, and don't really care what other folks do in a canoe as long as they enjoy it.
I use a lot of correction strokes and I'm even not sure I even do a classic J anymore. When paddling tandem I match my stroke with the bow paddler so my correction has to be completed by the end of the stroke. I do the same while solo to maintain a fast cadence. Does the classic J happen after the end of the power phase stroke? If the correction takes place during the power phase is it still a J stroke, or something else??
I use a lot of correction strokes and I'm even not sure I even do a classic J anymore. When paddling tandem I match my stroke with the bow paddler so my correction has to be completed by the end of the stroke. I do the same while solo to maintain a fast cadence. Does the classic J happen after the end of the power phase stroke? If the correction takes place during the power phase is it still a J stroke, or something else??
Probably a pitch stroke.
I can think of two possible reasons for not focusing on the J.

One reason newbies gravitate to kayaks is because kayaking is much easier at the start. It takes 15 minutes to get somebody to turn or paddle straight in a kayak. Perhaps ACA is simplifying for newbies In canoes to get them to a level where they can control the boat and have a fun outing. With a pry, draw, and forward stroke, you can navigate. So, perhaps it is just an entry-level simplification.

I took whitewater classes at Madadawska back in the 00s and was surprised when they told me to stop J stroking and do a stern pry instead. But, they were right. If you need to get the boat to turn in a hurry, the stern pry gets it done quicker and more surely than a J. So for people that go into ww, they don’t have to unteach the J.
I did not know the love of the J-stroke ran so deep.

It runs deeper with an ottertail and beavertail than with a tulip racing blade, but it runneth ever.

Does the classic J happen after the end of the power phase stroke? If the correction takes place during the power phase is it still a J stroke, or something else??

Correction with the single blade can be done at four places during the stroke—in whole or in subtle, blended combinations. Yaw correction implemented:

• At the beginning plant of the stroke → C stroke (a short, angled draw after the plant, ending with a soft J stroke)

• During the power phase pull → pitch stroke

• At end of power phase → J stroke

• During return recovery to the next stroke → an in-water loaded forward slice, variously called the Canadian stroke, knifing J stroke, guide stroke, northwoods stroke, or Indian stroke, depending on various sublteties such as the angle of the paddle, how long you keep the paddle return in-water, and whether or not you incorporate a palm roll

I do a slight, angled C draw at the plant, maintained as a slightly angled pitch during the pull, and a loaded slice Canadian in-water return (sometimes with a palm roll) for a few feet on the forward return, and completely eliminate any vestige of the the pushaway type J stroke.
Last edited:
I use a lot of correction strokes and I'm even not sure I even do a classic J anymore. When paddling tandem I match my stroke with the bow paddler so my correction has to be completed by the end of the stroke. I do the same while solo to maintain a fast cadence. Does the classic J happen after the end of the power phase stroke? If the correction takes place during the power phase is it still a J stroke, or something else??
Your point about the need to keep in sync with your bow partner when paddling tandem is very apt. That usually requires the stern paddler to use a rather short J, a pitch stroke, a Canadian stroke, or some blend of the three.

If all of the correction takes place during the power phase it would be a pure pitch stroke. When paddling stern in a tandem I will generally use some combination of a pitch stroke and short J. I would prefer to use a pure pitch stroke whenever possible but often find I cannot get enough correction out of it.

If sitting I start to pitch the blade for correction by the time the paddle shaft reaches my knee and will execute whatever degree of quick outward hook is needed when the paddle shaft nears my hip. Since the paddle shaft is angled sternward by this point in the stroke excursion, the paddle blade will actually be somewhat behind my body.

A pitch stroke, or a pitch stroke with a short J hook will also allow for a higher stroke cadence when paddling solo as well. But it is still less efficient than paddling sit and switch and avoiding correction strokes altogether.
And here is Ray Goodwin's take on when to use the stern pry versus the J stroke. In my view arguing which is better makes no more sense than arguing whether a hammer is better than a screwdriver. You use the stroke that works best for what you need to do at the moment, assuming you have no physical limitations that preclude you from doing both.

And just like that, this video comes out from Paddling Magazine.

Yes, I just watched this video. Pretty superficial, but illustrative to anyone who doesn't know what the goon stroke vs. J stroke are.

I found it ironic that at the very end of the video the presenter utters the cliche mantra about keeping a vertical paddle, but when executing a the J stroke earlier in the video, he holds the paddle at what I call the comfort angle and levers the J off the gunwale, which is in my opinion a legitimate way to execute the J and its variants as long distance, long duration traveling strokes.