Want to feel awkward? Try solo canoeing. Want to feel more awkward? Try it in a little boat in white water. In respect to solo canoeing the saying goes, "half the blades twice the skill". Solo canoeing across a still lake with a beaver tail paddle, the sun setting and a loon calling you back to the cabin can easily be done paddling on one side by using a beautiful lingering j-stroke. If you put a beginner into any canoe that person will end up switching sides to move their canoe forward. In time any canoeist will have selected a stronger or favorite side to paddle on and will have figured out at least how to rudder for correction. The problem with switching sides in white water the moment when your switching sides you are exposing yourself to the an instant when you have only one hand on your paddle. At that moment there may be a cross current, loss of balance or a fumble with disastrous results. Also this is a poor time to get caught without the bracing effect of a paddle in the water. In white water you still need to paddle on both sides of your boat. This is to maintain forward power and hull speed. Hoping to perform all your magnificent white water maneuvers in a tiny little bathtub while maintaining forward momentum and controlling angle or trajectory will be significantly hampered by any time spent correcting with pry's, draws or river-j's (goon stroke). These correction strokes not only slow your hull speed significantly but also remove time and energy available for forward paddling. A solution is to paddle on the opposite side but without changing hands, off-side forward.
Probably one of the most essential but awkward and difficult to master skills in the world of sports if you ask me. The off-side forward stroke requires the paddler to reach over to the other side of the boat and plant the paddle and pull the boat forward with some sort of effectiveness. The proper technique is hard to describe. While setting up for the off-side forward the paddler must lift the blade up and bring it across the front/bow of the boat and then plant the paddle and perform a stroke on the opposite side. Typically the paddler should make an effort to engage their core. This is often described as body rotation.
Pulling your boat forward with body rotation while on the off side is difficult to say the least. This is due to the fact your already twisted a good amount just getting your paddle to the other side of the boat. The moment that the transfer to an the off side can slow your hull speed down at the same time. This can reduce your stability resulting in that un easy feeling of being on edge without support. Add the reduced effect of you forward power on the off side and things get really dicey. One step closer to being that top heavy cork at the whim of the current.
The study of the forward stroke in paddling, more so in canoeing, is endless. Scouring YouTube for detailed instruction on forward stroke results in many videos provided by out rigger racing specialist. There are only a couple detailed videos on white water canoeing forward stroke. As mentioned, body rotation is highly regarded by white water canoeist as a defining feature of good technique. However dragon boat racers, and outrigger racers have moved on to emphasizing bending forward at the waist planting then pulling back. Ultimately a shortened pulling phase ending at your knee while maintaining a vertical paddle shaft is the key. The same is true about the off-side forward stroke.
Here a some tips I use to help others improve their off-side forward power. Obviously nothing helps improve any skill other than practice. However breaking things down into small increments or focused development one phase has exponential results.
Learn to Boof: develop the skill of onside boof stroke. While pulling your boat forward with body rotation on your off-side forces you to rotate outside of your normal range of motion the boof stroke utilizes forward lean to anchor the paddle and a hip thrust to force your boat up and out of the water. Using forward lean and hip thrust can add effective power to your off-side forward
Rotate hips rather than body: bringing the blade across the bow of the boat and anchoring it effectively before the power phase of the off-side forward can be difficult enough. In the power phase with your paddle effectively anchored thrust your hips forward and slightly away from your paddle rather than pulling on the paddle . You might even think of this as steering with your knees. It will help guide the bow into the corrective direction the off side is being used for.
Shorten your stroke: work hard to connect with the correct power phase. there can be a significant urge to pull harder and longer when feeling the need to keep up the power. Feeling repeated success from a more efficient stroke with a higher turn over will help avoid this in times of need. Similar to climbing, when run out and pumped, focused technique will see you through.
Get comfortable on your off-side edge: tilting to your off-side while paddling on your off-side will give you more room and make it easier to have a vertical paddle. Practice the 2x4 method to get the feel of carving and paddling inside the carve. Lastly when crossing eddy lines into current (out of an eddy) get on to you off-side forward early before you cross the eddy line this will give you down stream tilt and you will be paddle against the current on your down stream side. Here is Paul Mason's video describing the 2x4 method https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7huV-ivbGAs
Hold your paddle mid shaft: for me this is a major complicating factor in paddlers challenges. Holding shaft in the middle creates an effective pivot point or fulcrum, It keeps your elbow and hand inside the paddlers box, gives you more reach to get your blade deeper and allows your shaft to make contact with the hull of your boat on your pry. In the context of the off side forward it allows you the reach you need when challenged with limited rotation.
It takes time and just like anything else, connection. Connecting to the muscles and connecting to the technique. I hope these suggestions can help anyone who struggles with off-side forward strokes. And I hope that for those who have developed the skill can glean a nugget or two from these suggestions. Solo white water canoeing can feel fairly silly. To what end? We struggle about the river amongst kayakers, rafters, SUP'ers and surfers. To me the canoe is still the most practical craft for the river or lake. You sure cant pile your dog, kids, camp and what ever else you want to bring with you onto a SUP. Rafts are simply too big and heavy and kayaks are for getting radical not practical. Now apply the skill of off-side forward strokes in the stern of a tandem canoe with all your cargo (weak paddlers included) and you are free to explore your world.