Regular visitors to my blog will have noted my fondness for the stern rudder. I think it’s a very useful technique – invaluable to surf and freestyle paddlers and a great addition to any river running and touring repertoire too. It is also a subtle technique and one beginners often seem to have difficulty getting the hang of.
When introducing paddlers to the stern rudder one of the first things I find helpful to emphasise is that its primary use is as a steering rather than turning stroke, used mainly to keep a boat travelling in the preferred direction. If it is allowed to become a reverse sweep stroke that will slow forward momentum and turn the boat, so only encourage that if that is want you/your learner wants to achieve! As a second point I ask learners to consider the stern rudder as an extension of the forward power stroke. This comes very naturally to anyone who has learned to paddle in a canoe and is a great example of the benefits of learning to paddle in a variety of different craft.
Next, and most importantly, is discussion on how to initiate the stroke which is, of course, with the body. Rotating our trunk towards the paddle side enables us to bring our shoulders into near alignment with the centre line of the boat and to carry the paddle and both hands well outside the gunnel. If the paddle is then released into the water and hits the boat on the way, the paddler isn’t rotated enough! The head should however continue to look forward in the direction of travel.
Finally I often find myself having to remind learners to keep all of the trailing blade upright in the water with the face of the blade towards the boat and as far back as they can comfortably reach. It’s called a stern rudder for a reason and is only half effective if you only put half the blade in the water! The front hand and blade should be high enough to stay clear of the deck as the paddler pushes against the rear blade.
Asking learners to practice getting into position while stationary and then pushing and pulling against the submerged blade to see how the direction of the boat changes can save a lot of frustration when they attempt this on the move. Playing ‘darts’ with you or another paddler asking the learner to adopt the stern rudder position then pushing them towards a target can be great fun, and is even more effective if the pusher has a solid stance, perhaps on a jetty or standing in shallow water.
Once your learners start to get the feel of the basic stern rudder you can ask them to experiment with the angle of the trailing blade in the water and explore the further subtleties of this useful technique. Note the paddler in the photo has only half the blade in the water; this could be poor technique or simply their having decided that they need to start taking the blade out of the water to perform another manouvre!