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My wife and I recently bought an inflatable, tandem kayak. I grew up canoeing and we've had many enjoyable outings on the water together, so I thought two-person kayaking would be relatively easy. When I take the craft out solo, I find it very responsive, easy to steer, and (for a recreational-class craft) straight-tracking.

But when I take someone else out, it's a different boat. We can't steer and the tracking is all over the map. It's not just the extra weight—when I ask the other person to stop paddling, the craft becomes sensible again. Obviously, we're doing something wrong. In a canoe, I can teach my partner the basic stroke and we can get into the water right away. But a kayak doesn't seem to work that way.

Google gives lots of results but they can be divided roughly into two categories:

  1. "Tandem kayaks require teamwork" (Really?)
  2. Fairly technical discussions about strokes and weight distribution and the purpose of skegs/rudders and etc.

What none of the results (or at least none that I've found) explain is how an experienced paddler can guide their partner to work as a team. Any suggestions?

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Would teamwork and technique be useful for this question? (I can't suggest tags yet.) – Jon Ericson Jun 27 '12 at 19:19
I think you should remove the link to the boat in the shop. "Inflatable" suffices to describe the type of kayak you have. You're just opening up your post for closure due to advertising. – cfi Jun 28 '12 at 11:37
@JonEricson I don't have a problem with the link per-se but it'd be much better if it linked to the actual model rather than just the general product range. – berry120 Jun 28 '12 at 16:00
@berry120: Ugh. I thought I had. I fixed it to be the actual model in case there's something specific about it. – Jon Ericson Jun 28 '12 at 17:25

2 Answers 2

I'm baffled by your question. Normally people who have grown up canoeing do not have this kind of problem, especially since you mention that you can steer the boat well when sitting in it alone and even when there's two of you with the front person not paddling. To me that means it is neither the boat, nor you.

So we need to fix either the front person's paddle style or the combination.

When we have new club members the only thing we tell them is this:

The back person always paddles with the same frequency as the front person. Front person sets the pace.

That's it. And it always worked out so far. The more experienced person should sit in the back, because that's where one steers a boat. This is good because in leisure activities the more experienced persons should care for the others. In your kayak this means you should not force a higher speed, or a stronger stroke onto the front person. The front person just paddles, and the back person follows suit.

If the front person is much stronger than the steering person in the back, then try to convince the front person to paddle softer...

Might be stupid remark: Double check that in the front the paddle is held correctly (not turned by 180 degrees or at any weird angles).

If that does not work, please elaborate on what's happening. Is it just direction, or do your paddles clash all the time? (Synchronize! Front gives the pace).

Good luck!

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Don't tell my wife, but I think the problem might be that she's a little bit of a control freak and wants to help steer. If your bit of advice works for others, I may have a problem that is definitely off-topic for Outdoors.SE. ;-) – Jon Ericson Jun 28 '12 at 18:08
@JonEricson: Intentionally you won't find 'wife' in this answer. It would have been much easier to not having to use front/back person. But you never know who stumbles upon this question... – cfi Jun 29 '12 at 6:34
@JonEricson: hopefully you two never attempt a tandem bicycle with her as stoker. Stoker trying to steer is a recipe for disaster on a tandem bicycle :) – whatsisname Sep 25 '12 at 3:30

cfi's answer describes the classic situation, but if you have a skegg, you can have the front person steer (it can be wired to the front).

I've been regularly paddling in a touring K2 regularly for 4 months now. My partner (an expert kayaker) sits in front, while I (a beginner, but have also paddled in single) sit in back. He basically does everything - picking a line, steering, setting the pace. All I do is sync my strokes to his, and work on my technique (height, entry angle, strength which I can keep up without tiring after a kilometer, etc.) Only if I see my partner doing something unusual - poising the paddle above the water instead of paddling during large waves, or stroking backwards when we approach the place to go out - do I make a decision to either

  1. stop doing anything and let him handle the situation, or
  2. replicate exactly what he's doing, if I know why he's doing it and trust myself to not undo his efforts, or
  3. continue paddling in our previous steady rhythm, keeping a forward velocity to the boat and trusting him to brace us if needed.

This does mean that, as in the previous answer, there is one person who takes the lead, steers, and makes all the decisions. The difference is that the passive person watches the leader all the time. Thus the passive person does not sit in front, facing the possible dangers coming up at the kayak, and feeling that he/she should be doing "something". Rather, he or she can observe the leader doing something (while not having to face dangers rushing into his/her face) and thus feel calmer and just paddle. Another advantage is that the passive person learns the correct ways to behave when something happens, like large waves, or taking a turn.

This has worked so well for us that we made it perfectly well on the first day we went out as a team, doing a short (4km) ride on a river with breast high waves - weatherwise, we happened to pick one of the worst days of the year. All I had to do was to perfectly sync my strokes with his and stay calm and upright, and we did not even come close to tipping despite wind and passing ships.

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