Over Easter I enjoyed a trip to Germany which including visiting Spreewald. This is an area to the south east of Berlin, not unlike the Norfolk Broads in Britain. It is lowland country where the natural branching of the river Spree has been extended into many channels ideal for exploring by boat. We hired two large Canadian style canoes (which point up at the ends, not the roll over kayak kind) and spent a couple of hours paddling, exploring and encountering locks and other boats without serious mishap.
My only previous experience of a canoe was as a teenager when I had rowed in a single kayak style canoe with a double-ended paddle. With the Canadian canoes you have a paddle with one end and typically row on alternate sides of the boat with a comrade or more. While you will have to steer to negotiate bends in the river, overhanging trees and other river users, the general aim is to move forwards. This was my difficulty.
My fellow paddler sat at the front of the boat and seemed to be able to propel us forwards using her paddle on one side of the boat. I was confused because my own efforts seemed to steer us emphatically in one direction or another, and initially I felt she must not be paddling hard enough. Instead of balancing each other out and achieving a forward motion, we seemed to veer towards whatever direction I chose (right when paddling on my left, and vice versa). This worked well when we needed a swift change of direction as I found I could steer us quite effectively. I also managed to paddle us round a bend fairly successfully while she took some nice photos.
But simple forward motion eluded me. I found I had to keep changing the side I was paddling (which confused her as she thought she was meant to change side too) or not paddle at all (which meant she was left doing all the work). We managed not to fall out too badly but we did seem to be working at rather cross purposes. Only afterwards did I properly understand what we had been doing wrong.
Imagine trying to swim with one arm doing the front crawl and the other arm doing the breast stroke. While either stroke can be very effective, the combination would be ridiculous. Forward motion would be an unlikely result. Somersaults, lane changing and spluttering might be more likely consequences. Doing front crawl with just one arm might result in roughly forward motion, if you corrected yourself every so often. Doing the breast stroke with one arm might well send you round the bend.
I think both our styles of rowing were acceptable, and may be used well in different circumstances and with different types of boats. While we still had fun, I think we could have probably saved energy, increased forward momentum and had an easier time of it if we had figured out how to paddle together effectively. Using similar techniques on opposite sides of the boat should have balanced us out better. I think steering would probably still be easier from the back of the boat – certainly this is the spot that gondoliers and the independent Spreewald rowers chose. If they manage forward motion standing up and single handedly I expect they probably use a technique rather more like my companion.
I’m sure there are lots of parallels with partnerships in life and progressing forward together. Perhaps this is a good metaphor for co-parenting or staying together in a relationship. For myself, I’m also interested in whether I am keener to change direction than continue following someone else in a straight line. I think it can be part of my personality to prefer veering off to one thing or another rather than continuing with dedication in a course that doesn’t vary much. Maybe paddling your own canoe gives you a lot more flexibility in these things, but it may not be so much fun as finding ways of collaborating with others. Some veering around is fun, and sometimes it’s necessary to avoid a hazard. But sometimes you just need to keep going, and find ways to harness the strength of others to help you through.