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Tips from FreeStyle Canoeing

by Cliff Jacobson

For years, I've envied accomplished FreeStyle paddlers and have tried to copy their moves. But doing them right requires some formal instruction, so some years ago I enrolled in a FreeStyle canoeing class. However, pivoting around a pond to a mellow melody (they do it to music. Really! see video below) turns me off, so I went with some trepidation. But my friend, Jim Mandle - a nationally certified FreeStyle instructor - insisted I'd learn some cool tricks and come away smiling.

"It's all about precision boat control-which applies to all styles of canoeing" said Jim. "It's also a fun way to play around in our little canoes, and it looks so pretty." I agreed. It does look neat. Most important to me was that FreeStyle instruction improved my (marginally bad) balance, which translated to more reliable braces, eddy turns and peel-outs in moving water.

Here are ten tips I learned from my FreeStyle lessons:

1. If you kneel arrow-straight, belt buckle in line with your nose--body perpendicular to the water--you can lean the canoe awash and it won't tip over. FreeStyle encourages good posture and balance!

2. Get up some speed and initiate a snappy turn. Then, rise up on your knees, lean slightly forward and heel the canoe away from the turn. The unweighted end of your canoe will spin spectacularly. Wahoo, what fun!

3. Smooth moves require thoughtful initiation and precise paddle placement. You must then allow time for the boat to respond. Aggressive (read, whitewater style!) flailing sours the stew. If, like me, you come from a whitewater background, you must learn to slow down!

4. Experienced paddlers know that sculling (the sculling draw stroke) off beam in a solo canoe will move it sideways. But it will slide much faster if you lean the canoe slightly away from your direction of travel (i.e., lean left to side-slip right and vice-versa). This allows water to flow under the canoe rather than against the side-wall.

5. If you want to go around an obstacle real fast, get up speed, plant a post (it's a "high brace" in old time canoeing lingo), then lean the canoe in the opposite direction of the turn. Yee ha! Note: This is strictly a FreeStyle flatwater maneuver; do this coming into an eddy in a foamy rapid and you're set to upset! When executing an eddy turn, you must heel the boat towards your paddle, aka upstream in relation to the river's flow. Do the opposite and you'll swim real quick. Your paddle brace stabilizes the canoe and keeps it from capsizing as it turns into the eddy.

6. One FreeStyle lesson will teach you the difference between a merely good paddle and a great one! Blades with square corners, thick edges and noisy splines are out, as are bent-shaft paddles. Try doing a palm roll with a bent blade-or a straight blade with a directional grip--and you'll see why.

7. FreeStyle paddlers can teach rapid riders subtle tricks about boat control!

8. The early days (1970's and 80's) of the FreeStyle movement were marred by self-styled gurus whose rigid approach to the sport drove away new-comers. Times have changed! The emphasis is now on "fun". Even this old dog couldn't stop smiling-even though his moves were mediocre.

9. FreeStyle paddlers don't have the benefit of moving water so they are forced to learn how to be efficient and gain the maximum movement from the minimum amount of strokes. That's why they look so smooth!

10.On a still, moist evening, beneath a setting sun of copper-gold, a lone paddler darts out between some islands and comes your way. The canoe runs arrow-straight and dearthly quiet. Ahead a jutting snag blocks the path. Before you can call a warning the canoe mysteriously side-slips around the obstacle then pirouettes around another. That's FreeStyle!

Cliff Jacobson is a professional canoe guide and outfitter for the Science Museum of Minnesota, a wilderness canoeing consultant, and the author of more than a dozen top-selling books on camping and canoeing. www.cliffcanoe.com

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