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whitewater chain of command

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Forgive my ignorance as I almost never paddle tandem and the overwhelming majority of my whitewater experience has been in a (gasp) kayak with a (imagine the horror) double blade. (usually chasing rafts as a rescue boat)

In a tandem canoe running whitewater, why would the stern paddler be in charge? I mean, it makes sense for a team racing boat because he/she can see all the other paddlers and they can probably hear someone behind them better but, in whitewater, the bow paddler would have a much better view on oncoming obstructions would they not? Seems prudent to have the bow pick / adjust lines and the stern simply steer. Is it because the stronger / most experienced paddler is usually in the stern?

I know some on here have a ton of paddling experience and are bow paddlers... does it work for the bow to take charge or is it too hard for the stern paddler to hear you? (I can see that being an issue)
 
Yes, when in whitewater, the bow should lead and the stern should follow. The big decision for the stern is whether to steer the boat in a new direction or to draw it sideways.
 
The bow should lead and when the bow does something with the paddle the stern ought to follow and keep the boat in line.. The bow can usually see the obstacle first. Hearing really doesn't play into the situation Hubby is deaf on water and his trick is to follow my rear...
Exceptions do happen . On the Allagash I had a new bow paddler and we went over forward back draw and cross draw.. ( thats a lot for a new paddler but that one was smart) so yes then instructions were given.
 
why would the stern paddler be in charge?
Because (in my experience) the stern paddler can see the entire canoe in relation to water flow, obstacles, and to set up for the next set of obstacles.

in whitewater, the bow paddler would have a much better view on oncoming obstructions would they not? Seems prudent to have the bow pick / adjust lines and the stern simply steer. Is it because
The bow paddler is perhaps 9'-10' ( one, maybe two strokes) closer to the obstacle than the stern paddler in a 17' canoe. Not a distinct visual advantage. I've been in situations with a bow paddler where they arbitrarily pulled the canoe sideways to the flow above a rock, setting up a classic wrap-the-canoe around the rock scenario. Only a strong corrective stern stroke avoided contact. Much better to set up a ferrying movement with the canoe parallel to the flow, with both paddlers acting in concert, even if the ferry is only a few feet to one side or the other. In my view (pun intended) this is something the stern paddler sees best, while the bow paddler would have to turn around to see the behavior of the stern- thereby taking his eyes off of the task ahead. The bow paddler can certainly call out obstacles ahead.

But then, I could be wrong...
 
I was taught that the stern sets the big picture route and the bow does the urgent moves around obstacles. The stern then follows the bow.

This is, of course, after the route has been discussed and agreed upon.

It takes skill and cooperation. You have to be able to trust your partner. A good paddling team is hard to find and something to greatly appreciate.
 
My practice has been as Erica suggests. The stern paddler is often in a better position to judge the "big picture" when it comes to running a rapid. The general route should be discussed between the paddlers before entering the rapid whenever possible but the stern is often in the best position to judge ferry angles and adjusting the angles at which lines of current differentials are crossed.

The bow paddler is in the best position to make instantaneous alterations in the canoes path made necessary by unforeseen obstacles. The stern paddler when attempting to turn away from and obstacle dead ahead and close to the canoe often winds up turning the boat broadside to the obstacle before it is cleared. The bow paddler can pull the canoe away from the obstacle more effectively. Usually in this situation there is not time for communication between the partners and a snap decision must be made by the stern paddler as what stroke is appropriate.

As paddlinhal points out, the decision must then be made by the stern paddler whether to do a complementary stroke to that the bow paddler put in. As an example if the bow paddler puts in a bow draw/Duffek the stern paddler could put in the complementary turning stroke which would be a stern sweep/stern draw. But if the obstacle is dead ahead that would turn the boat partially broadside to an obstacle dead ahead. In the latter situation a stern pry might be the appropriate choice to push the stern clear of the obstacle.

There is one situation in which the bow paddler must by necessity be the boss. That is the tandem back ferry. The downstream paddler in a ferry whether upstream or downstream must always be the partner that sets and maintains the ferry angle. In a back ferry that would be the bow paddler. The stern paddler can then simply provide reverse power to effect the ferry.
 
I'm going to have to disagree with the stern seat bosses. I think what happens is that lots of people who paddle in the stern might have inexperienced people in the bow, so the stern gets used to calling the shots, and once that happens, they have a hard time giving up the routine. I'm usually guilty of this, as most people who paddle with me are greenhorns. There can be quite a learning curve for this type of sternsperson when they get an experienced bowsperson.
 
Most of my paddling over the years has been done tandem, except for the occasional solo trip or some fishing. About 6 or seven years ago, when I started to have more time to paddle I wanted to focus more on soloing my tandem canoes. This was also a good opportunity for my wife to get experience paddling her own boat. After a few years of soloing our own boats we have gone back to paddling tandem, and find that I enjoy it more.

Paddling in sync is a beautiful thing. We didn't always do it. We started doing it in strong winds where the extra efficiency was welcome. We also started paddling "hit and switch" style at that same time with me in the stern calling the hut. After doing it for so many years it is the only way we can paddle. It's not only more efficient but it's more interesting, for the stern guy anyway, and it feels and looks better. We not only paddle at the same time, but I match how and when my wife puts the power to her stroke. I can feel when my wife increases her power, and match it, and she can feel when I do the same from the stern. After years of almost always paddling hard with some place to go I have been getting my wife to paddle softer, which is something I had to work on myself. So, paddling in sync started as a way to buck a head wind and we have now gotten it down to going slow, relaxed and quiet while maintaining the same efficiencies.

I still like to paddle solo but welcome the extra help in power and maneuvering from having a good partner. One thing I miss about paddling our own boats is that when we are solo we can paddle side by side making it easier to have a conversation. This post is about day paddling, not tripping. We do have a small solo boat that my wife would paddle on trips when we had an odd number of paddlers, but for general tripping I doubt we'll ever go solo.
 
I know that, in theory, the bow paddler should lead the way through whitewater. In practice, most of my bow paddlers have had limited or almost no paddling or river-reading experience. Such a person usually doesn't have mastery of the necessary strokes to lead the way through whitewater and they often don't have enough river-reading experience to "see" what is upcoming. If I have to paddle with an inexperienced paddler, I could have them paddle bow or stern. I choose to paddle stern and give commands as to what stroke I want them to use. I find that I can control the boat from the stern and I can read the water well enough from the stern to recognize what is coming. With new or almost new bow paddlers I keep it simple. I teach them to do a draw stoke and practice on both sides. I get them to paddle forward and to paddle backwards. The four commands I use are: forward, backward, draw and switch. In effect, they only need to do one of three strokes. I anticipate upcoming situations and get the bow paddler to change sides so that her/his strokes are most helpful.

There is one situation in which the bow paddler must by necessity be the boss. That is the tandem back ferry. The downstream paddler in a ferry whether upstream or downstream must always be the partner that sets and maintains the ferry angle. In a back ferry that would be the bow paddler. The stern paddler can then simply provide reverse power to effect the ferry.
I'm pretty sure that pblanc has much more whitewater experience than I do so take the following for what it is worth. I am limited to Class 2+ or easy Class 3. I agree with the theory that the bow paddler must set and maintain the ferry angle. In practice, with an inexperienced bow paddler the tandem back ferry doesn't work because the inexperienced bow paddler doesn't have the skill to execute the back ferry. I find it necessary to set and maintain a back ferry angle from the stern in the water that I paddle with my relatively inexperienced bow paddlers.
Also, in my time setting a back ferry angle from both the bow and stern, I find it much easier, in my limited experience, to see the angle of the boat relative to the current from the stern of the boat.
 
90% of my racing career has been from the bow in either a 6-7 paddler voyageur or a 4-paddler C4, thousands of miles with the same stern paddler, and much of the time with the same few mid paddlers as well. Over time I think the relationship and trust has developed between bow and stern, and also the mid paddlers. We all have our jobs and expectations. As a flat water paddler, I have never paddled in true whitewater, but I often paddle in fast rushing flat water n strong complex current, such as on the Yukon River. Average flow rate is 6 mph, sometimes much higher. Make a mistake and it may take super power paddling to overcome. I have learned much from reading surface effects, what colliding riffles mean about the current flow below depth, and if it is worth heading the canoe in that direction or if it may be a mistake.

Often, I have found that moving on a parallel line, only a boat length or less left or right , may result in a gain (or loss) of as much as 2 mph. Just as important is judging where the current splits when approaching an island or gravel shoal as far as a half mile upstream. Choose the wrong side and you may rejoin in main current only after taking a much longer time consuming route that may include dead water. So when I make such an observation and decision, I let the crew know which way we are going left or right, especially the stern paddler, located way back more than 20 voyageur feet behind me.

I've learned about how broad rapidly flowing rivers turn water to flow around large sweeping bends in "helicoidal flow" where the surface current breaks left or right to head sideways, carrying anything on it hopelessly toward the distant outside of the bend, unavoidably adding considerable distance to the travel route and time. From the bow position, one learns where to paddle to avoid this and still remain in a fast fully forward direction in deep water around the bend.

In more reasonable flowing home waters, such as in twisty narrow winding flows like Brown's Tract in the Adirondacks, the entire width of the waterway may be less than the length of a voyageur canoe. From the bow I am the first to see the condition of the bank and direction into the open water ahead. I initiate the turn action with a draw or duffek and the stern knows me well enough to make their draw, rudder, or power action at the same time to bring the stern around to properly angle us into and through the turn. Middle paddlers maintain forward power and may sometimes assist around the sharpest turns. If I miss-judge by a single stroke exactly when to initiate, we may end up striking bow first into the opposite shore bank. After the turn is complete, if there is any straight segment at all before the next turn, we all work to power toward the wide outside of the next turn before the key position of setting up for the correct approach angle once again.
 
I know that, in theory, the bow paddler should lead the way through whitewater. In practice, most of my bow paddlers have had limited or almost no paddling or river-reading experience. Such a person usually doesn't have mastery of the necessary strokes to lead the way through whitewater and they often don't have enough river-reading experience to "see" what is upcoming. If I have to paddle with an inexperienced paddler, I could have them paddle bow or stern. I choose to paddle stern and give commands as to what stroke I want them to use. I find that I can control the boat from the stern and I can read the water well enough from the stern to recognize what is coming. With new or almost new bow paddlers I keep it simple. I teach them to do a draw stoke and practice on both sides. I get them to paddle forward and to paddle backwards. The four commands I use are: forward, backward, draw and switch. In effect, they only need to do one of three strokes. I anticipate upcoming situations and get the bow paddler to change sides so that her/his strokes are most helpful.


I'm pretty sure that pblanc has much more whitewater experience than I do so take the following for what it is worth. I am limited to Class 2+ or easy Class 3. I agree with the theory that the bow paddler must set and maintain the ferry angle. In practice, with an inexperienced bow paddler the tandem back ferry doesn't work because the inexperienced bow paddler doesn't have the skill to execute the back ferry. I find it necessary to set and maintain a back ferry angle from the stern in the water that I paddle with my relatively inexperienced bow paddlers.
Also, in my time setting a back ferry angle from both the bow and stern, I find it much easier, in my limited experience, to see the angle of the boat relative to the current from the stern of the boat.
When I started paddling whitewater years ago, canoes predominated over kayaks at least in the Midwest and Appalachian areas. Open boats are now a distinct minority. It is hard enough to find folks who desire to paddle whitewater in a canoe and most of those who do prefer to paddle a solo canoe. So those who have the opportunity to regularly paddle tandem whitewater with an experienced partner are lucky.

It has been more common for me to paddle tandem with a less experienced partner. That was one of my daughters when they were younger but it has also been paddlers with whitewater experience in a kayak but not in a canoe. I have had discussions with other canoeists about what positions, bow or stern, are best suited to someone attempting to paddle whitewater in a tandem canoe who have relatively little experience. I have encountered some who have claimed it is best to put the experienced partner in the bow and I have occasionally challenged one of those people to demonstrate their ability to control the canoe solely from the bow with a relatively inexperienced stern paddler. The result has usually been an epic fail for that person.

I have been successful in taking folks down Class II to easy Class III rivers by putting them in the bow of a tandem and paddling stern and that has almost always worked out well so long as the water is not too technical. Especially in a relatively shorter tandem canoe it is quite possible to control the boat pretty well from the stern station, especially if the stern paddler can get their paddle blade forward of the center of the canoe. I too have found that is is generally not too hard to teach a paddler new to canoeing how to perform a tolerable bow draw/Duffek and cross bow draw/cross Duffek. Those and a decent forward stroke are all that are really needed. I have found that it is harder to teach a new paddler how to do an effective stern pry and stern draw.

Of course, the ideal situation is to have both partners be experienced. In that case a technically proficient bow paddler can make quick cuts to avoid obstacles and line up on narrow chutes and can really sharpen up eddy turns. A decent back ferry becomes an option in stronger current as well.

When both paddlers are equally proficient I don't see it as a situation in which one paddler is "the boss". But I do think that there are some tasks better suited to the bow paddler and others better suited to the stern paddler. I think it is often easier for the stern paddler to set and maintain the general course. Course changes in heavier current can often be made more smoothly when the stern initiates the turn. The stern paddler is in a better position to judge the angle of the keel line to the current and can see when the pivot point of the canoe crosses an eddy line during an eddy turn or eddy exit. And the stern paddler can obviously more easily maintain the ferry angle during an upstream ferry.

On the other hand, the bow paddler is clearly in a better position to spot and initiate last-second course changes to avoid previously unseen obstacles, fine-tune course changes or initiate a small side-slip to line up on a chute or avoid coming down onto a rock when going over a drop, and control the angle during a back ferry. The bow paddler can really allow even a longer tandem canoe to execute a turn into a narrow bank or midstream eddy.
 
I'll just agree with some points already made.

If I'm with an inexperienced whitewater paddler, I of course will take the stern, make just about all the decisions, make all the critical directional moves, and at the same time try to call out the strokes the bow paddler should be doing—bow strokes that we hopefully have had some time to instruct and practice together in flat water. With this kind of bow person, we are unlikely to be doing anything sophisticated in challenging rapids.

If I'm with an equivalently experienced whitewater paddler, tandem paddling in hard rapids becomes the quintessential joy of simultaneous adrenaline and endorphin mind states. Strategy for each rapid will be discussed before entry. Stern will initiate the bigger, more strategic moves. Bow will initiate the quicker, tactical moves. Communication will be constant. Mid-rapid changes to strategy and tactics will be discussed during pauses in mid-rapid eddies.

Practiced experience with a talented tandem partner produces a Borg Boat controlled by a mutual Vulcan mind meld.
 
Bow leads, stern follows. Having said that, the stern paddler can always overrule what the bow is doing since they are in the eddy-resistance end of the boat. When you have a knowledgable padder in the bow, you need to resist the urge to do that or you will end up woking against each other (and maybe not padding together in the future).
 
If I’m paddling a rapid with a newb, they’re in the stern and I’m in the bow. In the bow, I can pick the slot and get the bow there. All the stern has to do is follow. If the bow doesn’t get where you need to be, the stern won’t get there either.

communication: first, there’s lots of noise in rapids, so no guarantee the bow is going to hear the command from the stern. Second, if they do hear, will they understand, “go to the right of that rock?” The stern can see the bow, and if the bow starts drawing right, they know, we are going right of that rock. Communication is achieved instantly and visually.
 
Hadn't really thought about the stern initiating the carving arc untill I watched this:


Still think bow leads and stern follows. With a good bow paddler the stern can tell which way they need to go and initiate the carve.
 
I have spent my canoeing career mostly with people with minimal experience. I have been successful in teaching bow paddlers in about a week. Therefore all the decisions have been made from the stern position. I will never forget paddling the N Platter River in CO with famous paddler Jerry Nyre. He controlled the boat from the bow. That was new to me.

Once in awhile I have paddled with experienced paddlers like one here on our local Carson River. It felt like dancing. I can only imagine what it is like to be in a canoe club with lots of experienced paddlers like in this this excellent video. We have managed to make a lot of moves over the years to stay safe in rapids, but without much eloquence or beauty.
 
My hearing isn't great, in a significant rapid the only way I can accurately hear a bow paddler is if they turn their head around and that makes them almost useless. My tandem running of anything greater than an "easy" C2 is very limited. I do expect the bow paddler to make the fast moves (hidden rocks etc.) if I know the paddler I don't need audio I can just follow their choice of a draw or a sweep to determine what I should be doing in the stern.
 
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