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We just bought a tandem kayak, we took it to the water and we can’t make it go straight.

My husband is bigger than me so he sits on the back. We rented kayaks before, so we are wondering if it could be the kayak or our lack of experience.

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    Do you both paddle straight when in single kayaks? – Toby Speight Jul 30 at 7:06
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    I hope you have agreed as to who will steer, otherwise you might be fighting. – Weather Vane Jul 30 at 14:51
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    How much bigger is your husband? Is there a noticeable bow-out-of-water effect? – shoover Jul 30 at 15:50
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    Did you make the agreement ahead of time that whoever sits in back is in charge of steering? Simple thing but two people steering at once is almost impossible to manage. You can take turns being in charge of where to go, but the one who physically steers should be in the back. – mmcc Jul 30 at 18:35
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    What specific kind of kayak is it, a very rigid one, or one that deforms rather easily if you press on the wrong parts? I've had a rented kayak that was doing great, then I sat on it during a break, and it became super hard to steer, always turning in the same direction. – Marc Glisse Jul 30 at 20:48
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Common paddling problems

  • Most people are strongly right handed
  • You'll get more power on your stronger side
  • It's really common for the weaker hand to slip closer to the blade as a result of wanting to feel the same level of effort on each side. This results in a less efficient weak side stroke that's closer to the boat.
  • It takes a while to get used to the feather on the paddles (angles between the blades) and that can lead to a weaker stroke on the left side.

The outcome of all this is circles to the left. Then overcompensation and swinging to the right.

Tandem kayaks are less sensitive to all this, but it'll still work out the same, just more slowly.

Other problems

  • Weight to one side of the boat will cause it to turn that way.
  • Heavier weight in the front of the boat will make it more sensitive to imbalance.
  • Wind and waves, these aren't your fault but you will have to learn how to compensate for the fact that kayaks normally turn nose to the wind and waves.

Things to work on:

Balancing your stroke

This is fundamental to paddling in a straight line.

  • You'll have to regularly check your paddles to ensure that you're holding equidistant from the blades.

  • Ensure that you're rotating the paddle correctly and that it's going in nice and flat both sides, leaving it slightly angled on the weak side is very common.

  • Ensure that the paddle is going in the same distance from the boat on both sides. Closer to the boat will drive you straighter, further from the boat has more of a turning effect.

Balancing yourselves

  • Make sure everyone sits in the middle of their seat.

Working together

  • The person at the front sets the stroke rate, the person at the back matches the stroke for basic paddling and does much of the routine course correction.
  • 8
    One good way to check your stroke is that the paddle should pick into and out of the water with as little splashing as possible. – Jan Doggen Jul 30 at 7:31
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    I upvoted and agree with all of this answer except the thing about weight in the front of the boat making it more sensitive —It could also be the opposite problem, that there is too much weight in the back, especially since it’s a tandem kayak (not a motorboat which has thrust only from the stern and is more sensitive to the kind of problem you mention) and because poster specified her husband is bigger. – mmcc Jul 30 at 18:28
  • @mmcc if I had a couple of kayaks and a lake I could explain the details of trim, but you'll just have to trust me that for these purposes you want the balance centre or after of centre – Separatrix Jul 30 at 19:35
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    @Separatrix I’ve heard different philosophies re optimal trim but the general agreement seems to be flat is a good place to start – mmcc Jul 31 at 1:18
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    @mmcc, yes flat is better, but always err towards the back rather than the front. If the boat is front loaded then the back swings around like a fishtail far more easily than the front does if you back load. So in this case they're correct to have the heavy person in the back. – Separatrix Jul 31 at 7:04
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Going in circles while in a paddled craft such as a kayak/canoe/raft means that there is more force being applied on one side than the other (this is also how you turn the craft).

If you notice that you are going to one side, paddle more on that side and less on the other until the craft straightens out. All of this just takes practice and it gets easier with time.

The other option to look into would be getting a rudder for the kayak, as that will help but whether it would be possible depends on your exact model of kayak.

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    If your craft were a canoe, I could say with authority that it is your husband's fault! The person in the rear (in a canoe) steers, and compensates for any difference in strength between the paddlers by occasionally paddling underhand or switching to the other side. But this is for a canoe, and I don't know if these options are available in a kayak. But it is definitely your husband's fault. :) – ab2 Jul 30 at 2:57
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    The rear paddler in a tandem kayak dominates the steering. So it's his fault as in a canoe. But using his paddle as a rudder ("stern rudder" stroke) is an effective solution if you don't have a pedal-operated rudder; if you do, check it's straight! – Chris H Jul 30 at 7:12
  • The OP didn't say that each paddler is only paddling on one side of the craft, but my best guess would be that this is the case. The paddlers (especially the stronger paddlers) need to be aware of where the craft is going and adjust their paddling accordingly. I don't know that I'd say it's anyone's fault, but, if you are the stronger paddler by a noticeable amount, it's best to operate as though you're the only one paddling, and that means switching sides to make it go the direction you want. – Adam Miller Jul 30 at 13:49
  • It can also mean that someone is sitting towards one side and the kayak tilting in consequence. If that's the problem, adjusting force is not going to be effective. – cbeleites Aug 1 at 15:32
7

If your kayak has a skeg, make sure it is down (in the water). This will help you to steer straighter by reducing the turning effect of paddling more on one side.

As mentioned, you will have to adjust your padding technique to distribute the force evenly on both sides.

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    The purpose of a skeg is to neutralise the effect of tailwind/crosswind (weathercocking), not to compensate for systematic turning. That said, the question isn't clear that weathercocking isn't the case (and is indeed more likely if there's a problem with trim). – Toby Speight Jul 30 at 7:06
  • A skeg doesn’t “compensate”, but it definitely greatly reduces the turning effect of uneven paddling, by exerting a large force against sideways motion as compared to the small force against forward motion. – mmcc Aug 1 at 1:39
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It might seem obvious to more experienced paddlers here, but it drove my wife and myself crazy while trying to paddle on a 3-seater kayak. We were sitting on the two front seats, without noticing the rear paddler should sit on the rear seat.

The kayak would turn around every 10 seconds. Could that be your problem?

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    Exactly the same thing happened to me first time we ever went out in one, the difference when we moved back was the difference between a boat that didn't work and a boat that did. – Whelkaholism Jul 30 at 12:31
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    @Whelkaholism we tried everything! Even advanced techniques like threatening to get a divorce didn't help. – Eric Duminil Aug 2 at 6:40
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Briefly: make sure the boat sits as flat and level in the water as possible. As others have indicated in their answers above, it’s not good if there is too much weight in the front (which can happen even if you are very light if the seat is very far forward—-think of a small kid at the very end of a see-saw balancing their parent close to the middle). But it’s also bad if too much weight is in the rear and not enough in the front. Because you say your husband is heavier, it’s possible you don’t have enough weight forward. A boat that is not flat is very sensitive to wind and paddle strokes. If you can, move your or your husband’s seats until the boat is as level as you can make it. Ideally, have someone look at the boat with you both in it, it should lie flat on the water—adjust the seats until it does. Definitely also practice the good paddling techniques mentioned in the other answers. Also, many tandem kayakers appreciate the convenience and control of a rudder.

General notes on making a kayak easier or harder to turn:

Going straight in a kayak is a competition between the forces acting to turn the kayak and the kayak’s “tracking”, or resistance to turning, from the shape that is under the water.

The main forces acting to turn the kayak are what you do with the paddles, the rudder if any, and the wind. In addition there may be a contribution from waves or currents, and any assymetry of the part of the hull which is under water, which may happen if the kayak is leaning to one side of the other (from putting much more of the heavy cargo on one side, or if you are leaning or sitting slightly closer to one side than the other).

The shape under the water that resists turning and promotes straight tracking is the combination of the shape of the submerged part of the hull, plus the rudder or the skeg if there is one (a skeg is basically a small rudder which always points straight and which can be raised or lowered a variable amount). The paddle can also be used to help the kayak track straight when it’s not busy paddling or steering (for example when on the face of a wave).

The important thing to understand is that all of these factors add up to influence how the boat behaves. Some of these tracking factors are inherent to the boat, and some may be changed. Specifically, how a boat is “trimmed” (where weight is placed) may strongly affect how strongly the kayak turns toward the wind, or how easily it turns in response to uneven paddling. Adjusting seat position (slightly because people are heavy) or cargo storage (needs to be significant) may very noticeably change this tracking performance.

Note that a steerable rudder is a very easy way to make a boat go straight and is a very welcome feature especially for new paddlers or paddlers in double kayaks. However, relying on the rudder to counteract asymmetrical paddling will cause excess drag and slow forward progress. For ease of travel it is preferable to learn to trim your boat flat and paddle symmetrically.

As a related side note: a typical sea kayak has a very different submerged shape depending if it is upright or leaned on its side aka “edged”. When upright, more of the kayak’s bow and stern, and the full length of its keel, are in the water, which promotes staight tracking. When edged, more of the kayaks wide hips are submerged, the bow and stern are lifted slightly, and the resulting shape is significantly less resistant to turning. As a result most sea kayaks can be turned more quickly when edged which is important for fast maneuvering. Additionally some kayaks are shaped such that they naturally turn in a particular direction when edged and can be actively steered by edging.

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The tandems I have seen have rudders, not skegs, because people find them hard to turn without one. Depending on the type of rudder, it can be easy to set it so it is turned when your feet are in normal position. That will lead to the boat turning as you report. Make sure the rudder is centered when you are not trying to steer with it.

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Your explanations could be correct. But from having paddled a flat bottom inflatable kayak I noticed that the "swirl" from the paddle would go under the hull and cause a turn. The solution is opposite that of a canoe. The person in front steers and the person in the back paddles. Thus the swirl goes away from the kayak and not under. Make sense?

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    This is in the more complex factors that I didn't put in my answer but it sounds like you might be overextending your stroke, anything past your hip only acts to turn you not drive you forward. Make sure that at the end of your stroke your top arm is straight forward in front of you and the wrist of your bottom (pulling arm) hasn't passed your waist. If the top arm is in the right position the stroke will naturally end correctly and you'll be set up for the next stroke. – Separatrix Jul 31 at 18:24
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The stronger person (if there is one) should sit in the rear. The rear paddler is also responsible for steering, even backpaddling for tighter turns. Bigger person, bigger blade, smaller person, smaller blade.

The person up front should simply paddle, and set the pace, but not too quickly (or strongly) for the rear paddler. When both paddle on the same side the person in back should dip just before the lead to prevent strikes.

Switch sides every few strokes. Sometimes there are rocks and you'll have to stick on one side or the other; otherwise it's better to be on alternate sides to loosen the timing requirements. To switch with a double ended paddle the lead simply pauses for a moment and then switches with the rear following (catching up on the next stroke).

This balances your efforts and distributes your exertion.

That should result in an almost perfectly straight course, unless you are deliberately turning. Try practicing paddling from buoy to buoy, figure-8 will provide slightly better tight turning practice.

Like anything with two people it takes practice and cooperation.

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