Tandem Kayak Steering and Other Maneuvers

You’ve kayaked with friends or family before, but always in your own boats. This time, you’ve been invited for some tandem kayaking. Although you might have mastered maneuvering a kayak alone, tandem kayaking will be like starting from the very beginning. How do you steer?

To steer in a kayak, you have to get used to paddling in unison. The stronger kayaker should sit in the back. If you have a rudder, which is common in tandem kayaks, that will come in handy when turning and changing direction. 

In this guide, we’ll share our favorite tips for maneuvering in a tandem kayak. Although it won’t be easy at first, by working with your partner, you two will unlock the key to tandem paddling success!

The Basics of Tandem Kayaking – Steering and Maneuvering 

Determining Kayak Positioning

As we touched on in the intro, the way you sit when in a tandem kayak is important towards ensuring unison in your maneuvers. So the first part is arguably the toughest, as you and your friend or family member will have to decide who between you is stronger.

No, this isn’t the time for an arm-wrestling contest or a thumb war. Just be honest. 

If you’re not the stronger one, trust us when we say you’re doing yourself no favors by pretending you are. Not only will you struggle to keep your tandem kayak going all day, but you and your partner won’t be able to steer, turn, or maneuver in any other way easily.

What if you and your kayaking partner are about the same strength-wise? Then that will make this first part of the process a lot easier. 

Getting in the Kayak

The stronger of the two kayakers is supposed to go in the back and then the weaker person should sit in the front. If it makes you feel better, we’ll call the person in the back the stern paddler and the person in the front the bow paddler. 

When you first bought your solo kayak, you probably tipped it into the water several times as you learned how to get in. How in the world are you and another person supposed to both enter the boat without capsizing it?

Well, for one, you two shouldn’t get in at the same time. The bow paddler, or the kayaker who sits in the front, enters the boat first. While this person gets in, the stern paddler should hold the kayak steady.

Once the bow paddler is sitting and situated, then the stern paddler can gently let go of the kayak and climb in themselves. As they do, they should push off with their hands to propel the kayak forward, such as from a dock or a rocky shore. 

Steering in Unison

Now it’s time to begin steering in unison. Well, this is a best-case scenario, but not something you should expect to happen immediately on your first tandem kayak ride. 

Before you plan a kayaking trip, you might want to practice kayaking with your friend or family member for a while until you feel like you’ve gotten the hang of it. 

So, how do you paddle in unison? The bow paddler will begin paddling first since they’re in the front. The stern paddler should follow the pattern or cadence of the bow paddler. Even if the bow paddler maybe isn’t pushing their paddle at full strength, or they could be going faster but aren’t, the stern paddler should not overpower them.

What you’re trying to achieve here is synergy or moving together as one. That means that even if the bow paddler isn’t that great at kayaking that the stern paddler has to go along with it. 

They do have a job that’s unique to their seat in the tandem kayak, and that’s steering. Although the bow paddler will ultimately guide the kayak in a certain direction, it’s the stern paddler who confirms that direction. 

How do they do that? Via corrective strokes that don’t deviate from the paddling synchronism but do begin to change the direction of the kayak. 

In some instances, this might call for the stern paddler to stop paddling and put their paddle in the water like a rudder. If a tandem kayak already has a rudder–which many do–then they can skip this step and use the rudder. 

The kayak won’t stop immediately, but the bow paddler will have a much harder time paddling with the stern kayaker actively stopping them. This is what it takes sometimes for the stern paddler to achieve corrective strokes though. That said, they should only use their paddle as a rudder when it calls for it and only for as long as is required to redirect the kayak.   

Maintaining Rhythm

At the beginning of your tandem kayaking adventure, the stern paddler and bow paddler might as well be on two different planets. Their techniques are different, their pacing is different; nothing aligns. 

The more you and your kayaking partner keep at it, though, the easier it becomes to sync up. Then it’s about maintaining it. Outside of redirecting the kayak, the stern paddler should be doing what the bow paddler is, as we said before. 

Think about you and your partner as being in a band. A band has to keep time and follow the rhythm. No one is supposed to improvise or play out of turn. You and your kayaking partner need to find that rhythm as well and stick with it. 

This will become easier the longer you two work together. 

Should the Stronger Kayaker Ever Sit in Front? 

There are some instances in which the stern paddler should become the bow paddler and vice-versa. 

Since the bow kayaker is sitting in front, they’re the first ones to see what’s coming up. In anticipating what’s ahead, they must be able to start a maneuver that the stern paddler then follows through on, such as a turn.

If the bow paddler is brand new to kayaking though, then they might not know the first thing about turning. This affects both kayakers. 

Thus, in some situations, it’s less about who’s stronger and more about who has experience. In that case, the experienced kayaker should be the bow paddler and the less experienced kayaker should be the stern paddler.

The experienced bow paddler will be able to turn, stop, or otherwise maneuver when they have to. This will make the kayaking experience a smoother one. 

The inexperienced stern paddler can learn a thing or two by watching the bow paddler. Once they pick up the pace to match what the bow paddler is doing (which you already know is the proper way to navigate in a tandem kayak), they’ll earn valuable experience.

All this said, switching out the stronger kayaker with the weaker one is only a viable option if the weight difference between the two kayakers is less than 100 pounds. If the bow paddler is that much heavier than the stern paddler, the kayak won’t be stable. 

Then you’ll have more issues than difficulties with turning. 

More Tips for Maneuvering in a Tandem Kayak

Communication Is Key

Solo kayaking might be a rather quiet experience due to its solitariness, but that’s not the case with tandem kayaking. You and your partner don’t have to talk the entire time, but you should be able to communicate freely about what you’re doing.

The stern paddler might have to offer some gentle yet constructive criticism to the bow paddler, especially if their technique is so poor that it’s to the detriment of both kayakers. If you’re the stern paddler, you must be kind in your approach.

If you offend the bow paddler, do you know what will happen? That’s right, the bow paddler will stop paddling since they’re upset. You can’t navigate a tandem kayak by yourself, so you’re both stranded there out in the middle of the water until you can sort out your issues.

You might find it more productive to wait until after your day of kayaking wraps up and then express your thoughts to the bow paddler. At least then, if you make them mad, you won’t be stuck on a lake.

Bow Paddlers Need to Watch for What’s Ahead

A stern paddler does a lot in tandem kayaking, but one duty they cannot be responsible for is acting as the eyes. They’re looking at the back of the bow paddler’s head, after all. It’s the bow paddler’s job to determine if there are obstacles on the horizon.

They should let the stern paddler know with plenty of advance warning so the stern paddler can begin changing the kayak’s direction. This will help you and your kayaking partner avoid close calls with a dock or even another kayak.

Shorter Strokes for the Win

This is especially a useful tip as you and your partner first set out in a tandem kayak. Before you two can begin reading each other, so to speak, you’ll both try your own kayaking techniques, and it won’t work.

Broad strokes will ensure your kayak fishtails or even capsizes. At least with shorter strokes, the damage is less.

Paddle on the Same Side

Some new tandem kayakers assume that the bow paddler should put their paddle on one side of the kayak and the stern paddler on the other side. That’s a great way to cancel out the respective efforts of both kayakers and begin smacking paddles like battling with lightsabers. 

Instead, select one side of the kayak–be that the left or the right–and stay on that side together. You’ll avoid hitting paddles and you’ll notice an increase in speed as well. 

The Benefits of Tandem Kayaking 

Let’s wrap up by discussing some reasons to hop in a tandem kayak with your favorite person for a fun day on the water. 

Makes Kayaking Less Lonely 

Kayaking is a great way to burn calories, get vitamin D from the sunlight, and spend time in nature for better wellbeing. Altogether though, it’s an activity you do on your own. 

As we said in the intro, you can kayak with other people, but they’re in their own boats and you’re in yours. If your kayaking buddies pass you, then it’s just you left.

If you get kind of lonely when you spend long stretches of time kayaking (which, who doesn’t?), tandem kayaking is great. You’ll always have someone to talk to, and more so than that, someone to share your experiences with. 

Solidifies the Value of Teamwork

You learn about teamwork in school or maybe during your orientation at work, but it’s not something you get to utilize very often. When you rely on someone else, you realize that you don’t have to shoulder every burden yourself. Teamwork is a valuable life skill for a reason, after all! 

Tandem kayaking proves the value of teamwork each time you and your partner grab your paddles. 

Builds Bonds (Usually)

It’s just you, your friend or family member, a kayak, and a huge lake. Okay, and maybe some snacks too. You and them can talk about things that perhaps don’t usually come up in your everyday lives when you’re both so busy. 

Even if you don’t have any deep conversations in the seclusion of nature, the experience of tandem kayaking will certainly bring you two closer together. You’ll have to rely on and follow each other’s leads to successfully move the kayak.

In some cases, two people go kayaking together and have an awful time. They bicker over who the stronger kayaker is, they can’t sync up their paddling, and whenever one tries to offer constructive criticism, the other shoots it down. The day out turns into a shouting match.

That’s why it’s a good idea to rent a tandem kayak before you commit to buying one. If the experience isn’t for you, then at least you’re not saddled with a kayak for two when you’d rather go alone! 

Final Thoughts 

Steering a tandem kayak requires you and your partner to learn to paddle in unison. You two must work together, communicate about obstacles or issues, and accept that both people can’t have the role of the stronger paddler. 

Although it’s not easy to get the hang of, tandem paddling is very rewarding once you learn how it’s done! 

Geoff Southworth

I am a California native and I enjoy all the outdoors has to offer. My latest adventures have been taking the family camping, hiking and surfing.

Recent Posts

outdoortroop-21 outdoortroop-20