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?

  • 2
    Would teamwork and technique be useful for this question? (I can't suggest tags yet.) Jun 27, 2012 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, 2012 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, 2012 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. Jun 28, 2012 at 17:25

5 Answers 5


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!

  • 5
    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. ;-) Jun 28, 2012 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, 2012 at 6:34
  • 1
    @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 :) Sep 25, 2012 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.


In response to this: John- it may not be a control issue- it may be that your wife enjoys exercising competency just as you possibly do and if you are always steering then she is relegated to being a follower, something difficult for us women to always have to do if our men need to be in charge doing 'manly' things.

My dear hubby is always wanting to protect me from just about everything. He is a giant gentle bear of a man and I am a smallish framed woman. However, I like the feeling of accomplishment and need to be able to do that in our outdoor pursuits as as well as career, etc. whereas he would tote me about if he had his way, saving me from any of life's hardships and trials, including paddling. He encouraged me to retire early so I could just relax, he wants to cary in all the groceries and just dote on me, which is awesome in some respects but restricting in others. I have explained that I dearly appreciate his care and concern but that he has to let me fail and succeed on my own time in my own way. That includes carrying groceries since I need my muscles to remain strong as I enter older age. Fortunately he is a great listener and once I explained why I need to fail and succeed and try out new things and accomplish things on my own, he totally got it.

Hope this helps you see your wife more as an individual with her own set of needs rather than perhaps a competitor trying to control everything. Put her in the back and see how it goes. Then take turns at this in your paddling and you will form a team instead of a competition.

  • 1
    This won't seem responsive to the question to some users, and it is rambling, but it is something the OP should consider, IMO. This is the first step towards teaching the OP's wife to steer. Note that the OP is probably not the best person to be the teacher. An experienced kayaker friend would be better.
    – ab2
    Aug 6, 2017 at 20:31

It's hard to give paddling advice without seeing someone paddle, but from your description it sounds like the person in front is actively doing the wrong thing, and quite strongly so because the person in the rear position should have much more control over the boat than the one in front.

The most likely thing I can think of is that she is trying too hard to help steering. When you want to go to the right, she knows she has to paddle on the left, so she looks at her left blade, leans to the left and starts paddling really hard but very close to the boat. This is something a lot of beginners do, and it's ineffective or counter-productive at worst. Try to give her the advice to look where she wants to go, not where her blade is, because the body goes where the head goes and the boat goes where the body goes, and to use long, wide strokes far from the boat while steering. You could also ask her to try holding the paddle with her hands further apart. Yourself too. Most people hold their hands too close together, giving them less control over the boat.

Alternatively, ask her to not try and steer at all but just paddle forwards while you figure out better how to steer the boat. If your handling of the boat was good enough she would not have much influence from the front. You might be able to use the same tips above, and as a bit of a patch you can also use braking strokes on the side of the boat where you want to go. They're a stronger steering influence than the wide "bow strokes" on the other side. Try to not hold the paddle perpendicular to the boat and just brake hard though. Instead, try to use the blade more like a rudder, almost parallel to the boat and as far back as comfortable. Feel what the pressure does.

As I said before, it is really hard to give advice based on a text, it's better to have a kayaker friend have a single look at you guys than to ask online, but this is what I think might help based on your description. That being said, I work as a kayak guide for beginners, and often a crucial part of the best approach is just to keep trying. I've yet to see someone go from zero to hero from a single tip, but I've seen plenty of boats coming in stronger than they went out.


Put her in the back so you can fish! Let her be the control freak. My hubs loves it, he gets first cast!! Best of luck!

  • 1
    haha "Person in front is a control freak, what do I do?" Answer: "Give them control!". Such an obvious and excellent answer
    – coagmano
    Jun 29, 2018 at 4:44

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