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Backpacker Magazine – October 2005

How to Ferry A Canoe

An essential paddling tip for turning in fast water

by: Alan Kesselheim

For newcomers, canoeing is all about speed--point the boat and paddle like hell. Problem is, ramming speed makes bad things happen, and happen faster. For trips on fast water, wise canoeists master the art of ferrying (also called back-ferrying), a maneuver that moves the boat sideways across a current, slowing the action and putting you--not the current--in control. Ferrying lets you pick your way around ledges and boulders, or edge around a rapid. It's also ideal for tackling blind turns; back-ferry the inside of a bend and you'll have time to react to what's around the corner. Perfect it and you'll never paddle frantically again.

Bow Paddler

You provide the back-paddling (braking) power that slows the boat down so the current can push it sideways when the stern paddler angles the canoe. The faster the current, the more oomph you'll need. If the angle of the boat to the current gets too broad, help the stern paddler correct it with a draw or pry stroke (depending on the situation). Then return to back-paddling.

Stern Paddler

Your job is to use draw strokes (pulling the paddle toward the hull) and pry strokes (levering the paddle away from the hull) to angle the stern toward the bank you want to move toward (it won't point to the exact spot). Once you find an effective angle, help the bow paddler back-paddle.


Start on an open, slow-moving river. Get a feel for the angle and paddling force required to slide gracefully. Once you master the back-ferry on an easy flow, up the ante on a more powerful river.

The Right Angle

» The strength of the current determines where you point the stern. Gentle water allows for a straighter line toward the opposite bank; in fast water, you may get swamped if you don't stay nearly parallel to the current. Experience is the only way to get a feel for successful ferrying.

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