Backwater Sculling Stroke?

I would like to learn to slow down in river currents to gain more time to observe obstacles and pick a line. Obviously the “plain” back stroke comes to mind (maybe with rev. J), but in Bill Mason’s Solo Whitewater film he seems to use a backwater sculling stroke, a stroke that is completely new to me.

Is that a commonly used stroke? I like sculling in general because the constant supply of less power seems more predictable and stable.

Whatever I do has become so
automatic that I can’t even image it to describe it. If Bill Mason’s sculling technique keeps the paddle up toward the surface where it is less likely to trip on rocks, that would be good.

If one is boat-scouting a ledge, then spotting and using micro-eddies can be a more secure way to buy time. In a ww boat, I’ll eddy out into such “soft” spots and scout over my shoulder. In a more conventional boat, I may push a wedging stroke along the side of the boat to back ferry it into a scouting eddy.

I’ll have to go find Mason’s video (which I’ve seen but don’t recall in detail) to see what he’s doing.

Slowing in whitewater
You can do at least four things. In my experience the least to most effective are:

4. Regular backstroke with a reverse J.

3. Compound backstroke.

2. Continuous compound backwater scull (what Mason often does).

  1. Quickly alternating on-side backstrokes without J with off-side cross backstrokes.

I would say no

– Last Updated: May-26-14 7:07 PM EST –

It is not common.

But then, back ferries in general have become a much less common whitewater technique than when Mason was paddling.

It depends on what kind of boat and load you have. Mason was paddling a relatively long canoe with relatively little rocker, relative to modern whitewater OC-1s. This type of boat can be heeled on its side and spun pretty quickly, but it still takes more time (and space) to turn upstream than for modern whitewater OC-1s.

Many of today's whitewater open boats turn so quickly and easily that most solo whitewater open boaters I know will simply spin their boat abeam the current or to an upstream ferry angle to slow and maneuver laterally in a rapid rather than use a back ferry.

I still utilize back ferries from time to time but they tend to be very brief affairs that consist of only a few strokes, and I tend to use them only when there is too little time to use a side slip instead. But then, although I like to think of myself as a "traditionalist" I am relatively certain that most of the guys and gals I paddle with simply think of me as "past it".

Probably the most common scenario in which I would use a quick back ferry would be a situation like the one Gary describes when approaching a relatively vertical drop in which the preferred landing site cannot be determined until one is nearly at the lip of the drop, and it becomes necessary to move laterally a few feet quickly.

Another scenario would be a case in which the canoe has to negotiate two or more relatively narrow slots that are closely spaced but offset.

Certainly, a tandem team in a laden, relatively long whitewater tripping boat can use back ferries to good effect if the boat is not trimmed too bow light and if the bow paddler is experienced enough to be able to effectively control the ferry angle.

When I do need to use a quick back ferry in a solo boat I will generally use the method #1 ala Glenn: backstrokes and cross-back (or cross far back) strokes. In a tandem back ferry as stern paddler I would use back strokes only and as bow paddler I would use reverse C or J strokes.

backing strokes are very commonly
used in the Northeast from what I have seen; especially in Maine.

Lots of rivers have ill defined paths and whitewater play boats not used for trips. Standing in a tandem and scouting while backing is still the method of choice to evaluate where the water is going.

As is using a Maine Guide paddle; a very long shafted paddle often over six feet long. Its variable grip allows paddling well when sitting or standing.

pudding stroke
My whitewater canoe experience is limited. Moving from mainly Grummans to a Solstice Titan kayak then to a Rendezvous, I tried back strokes during the first Rendezvous practice.

I couldn’t balance the Ren to pause or move backwards with ‘back strokes.’ The round rockered royalite hull bobbed up and down a bit continuing downstream at the ongoing speed. I figure the hull translated my long hull ( formerly effective) Grumman flogging into a series of right-left up and down energy but not directly backwards or slowing.

The Ren goes anywhere on the river. The hull turns up stream, dashes across waves. Amazing.

The state before back paddle is stabilizing maneuverability into a set for the stern to move in the direction you’re going. Here with the Ren, I’m using a draw scull. Lean out and draw with a circular motion ‘like’ stirring pudding.

In your hull a move from the pudding stroke toward a more direct backstroke may develop with heightened anxiety.

The pudding stroke stabilizes the hull in the direction you want to set or merely stabilize as when running a narrow chute toward a fixed point.

Or ‘crabbing’ thru a long quick bend as done with a long Grumman or wilderness tripping hull setting stern to the bend’s inside then draw sculling to stabilize hull onto the spoke and axle position, current ferrying hull downstream.

As you say, not fast but relaxing onto the river’s rhythm.

Worth learning?
Where can I learn more about the backwater scull? I like the idea of back ferrying and sculling. My internet seems clueless. Is it an effective stroke? Is it really a compound stroke? What about yaw correction?

Either I paddle a Mohawk Odyssey 14 solo or we paddle a Bell Northwind Royalex, either one often loaded with camping gear for a couple of days.

With a load in either of those boats,
backstroking in one way or another is usually safest. Those boats are not going to spin easily. But if they’re trimmed fairly level, they should backpaddle or backferry pretty well.

Trim can be an issue. Just as a bow heavy canoe does not like to forward-ferry, a stern heavy canoe may be cranky when you try to back ferry. How is the stern supposed to respond readily when it is loaded down and pushed into the water?

Trimming a canoe bow-up in moving and whitewater is often done, but really does not work well. A teensy bit bow light is OK, but more is not.

Not having found Mason’s video yet, I can’t say whether his sculling backstroke is “obvious” or hard to imitate. But you can take your canoe to an open patch of swiftwater and practice.

Mason Video

Start with sculling draws

– Last Updated: May-26-14 10:36 PM EST –

And then try sculling cross-draws to move the boat abeam to either side.

If you are feeling froggy you can then attempt sculling pry abeams.

For a sculling draw abeam rotate your torso to your paddling onside. You want to load the power face of the blade in both directions. Try to keep the paddle shaft as vertical as possible by getting the grip hand well out over the water.

When you are starting out it is easy to lose control of the stroke. To avoid this, start out with a very conservative angle on the blade such that the power face is angled only 15 degrees or so away from the boat. After getting the boat moving you can open the angle for more lateral draw if you please.

For the sculling draw abeam the leading edge of the power face will be angled away from the hull during the stroke. When you reach the end of one stroke excursion, reverse the blade angle so the other edge of the power face is angled away from the hull.

Another common mistake is to use too large of a stroke excursion at first, which tends to make the canoe yaw. Keep the excursion of the stroke limited to maybe 1 1/2 to at most 2 feet forward and aft of the center of lateral resistance of the hull. Again, once the canoe is moving laterally you can use a slightly longer stroke excursion if you like, but going more than a couple of feet forward or aft of center is usually counterproductive.

A couple of fine points to the sculling draw: the effectiveness of the stroke is somewhat increased by raising the side of opposition of the hull. For a sculling draw abeam this would mean heeling the boat away from the paddle slightly. The effectiveness of the stroke is greatly increased by using torso rotation to move the paddle as much as possible, rather than just moving the paddle with your arms.

If you center the stroke on the center of lateral resistance of the hull and do the stroke symmetrically, the hull will move pretty much directly abeam without yaw, at least on flat water. Moving the stroke toward the bow will tend to yaw the bow toward the paddle side. Moving the stroke aft will tend to yaw the stern toward the paddling side.

The sculling cross-draw is pretty much the same thing done with the paddle on the offside of the canoe. It requires good torso flexibility to get the paddle in optimum position, and there is less potential to get the torso into the stroke on the offside.

There are several reasons why I think a sculling draw done in the stern quadrants to backwater the canoe is a relatively poor choice.

First, sculling in the stern onside quadrant will tend to progressively yaw the stern of the canoe toward the onside rather than maintaining a fixed back ferry angle.

Second, torso rotation during the stroke is very limited since it requires near maximal torso rotation to get the paddle in the correct position to begin with, at least for many people.

Third, the position can put the shoulders in jeopardy since it is rather difficult for many to keep the hands in the "paddler's box" when executing this stroke, unless they have and maintain very good torso rotation. Bill Mason was a skinny guy with good rotational torso flexibility. Even so, if you watch his videos closely you will find that he is often putting his hands in a pretty risky position for his shoulder(s).

Personally, I find I can get a great deal more power on the back stroke, cross back stroke combo by "putting my back into it" while keeping my hands in a much safer position for my shoulders.

The sculling pry abeam is more or less the converse of the sculling draw, and moves the boat abeam toward the offside (away from the paddle) the same way a sculling cross draw does. It is harder to master for nearly all people.

During the sculling pry the paddle shaft easily jams against the hull and it is quite possible to trip the hull over the paddle. For the sculling pry the back face of the blade is loaded, and the leading edge of the blade is angled toward the hull. Ron Lugbill, who tried to teach me this stroke years ago suggested that I imagine maintaining the leading edge of the paddle at a narrow angle as if I was using it to scrape paint off of the side of the hull. The paddle shaft can be moved in contact with the outwale if you wish, or you can slide your shaft hand forward and aft along the outwale to keep the paddle shaft just out of contact of the outwale if you prefer. If anything, start by using an even shorter paddle excursion than you would for the sculling draw if you want to try this stroke, and lengthen the stroke excursion after you get the stroke under control.

And no, the sculling draw, sculling cross draw, and sculling pry are not compound strokes. For the draws the power face is loaded in both directions. For the pry the back face is loaded in both directions. Compound strokes are ones in which one face of the paddle blade is loaded during one portion of the stroke, and the opposite face loaded during another portion of the same stroke.

Thanks much! But…
I was under the impression that for a backwater you’d scull perpendicular to the keel line, pushing the paddle out and pulling it back in rather than sliding it fore and aft like you would during a sculling draw or pry. Or maybe I misunderstood your post.

I will have to try some of the finer points you made about the sculling draw and pry.

What Mason is doing: slowing speed
In the days of yore, when tandems paddled in whitewater they would back paddle a lot–not to change direction, but simply to slow the velocity of their descent to current speed or below current speed.

The slower you go into a wave, the less likely you are to submarine into it and take on water.

The slower you are going, the more time you have to move right or left if a rock or hole comes ahead.

Going into an eddy was done by slowing below current speed, having the bow pass the eddy, angling the stern toward the eddy, and then back ferrying into the eddy.

In long whitewater pitches, Mason is simply employing this traditional tandem “go slow” technique as a soloist. He doesn’t want his unbagged, 16’, heavy canoe to take on water by smashing at speed into waves or holes. He doesn’t want a rock or hole to surprise him. Therefore, he often uses a sort of continuous “backwater” scull simply to slow himself. The advantage of this method is that you don’t have to take the paddle out of the water. He can also control sideways movements with slight adjustments to the scull, at which he was an expert.

I use the on-side, off-side alternating backpaddle method (my #1) to stop quickly, or when slowing to current speed to ferry left and right along the lip of a ledge looking for a slot – or when trying to line up a shot between the branches of a sweeper on the Mullica River.

Stern moving toward the paddle
Just a brief comment on this comment:

“First, sculling in the stern onside quadrant will tend to progressively yaw the stern of the canoe toward the onside rather than maintaining a fixed back ferry angle.”

True, in general. But Mason was such a single-sided expert with sculls, draws and pries that it wouldn’t be detrimental to him.

The amount of yaw to the on-side can be controlled by the amount of slowing relative to the current and the angle of the canoe. There will be less tendency for the canoe to draw to the on-side if the stern is angled away from the on-side than if it’s angled toward the on-side. If the stern is angled away from the paddle, there will be more of an upstream vector component to the backwater scull; if the stern is angled toward the paddle, there will be more of a sideways vector component.

More importantly, Mason was the best “serial pryer” I have ever seen. He could instantly slice that yawing scull into a repeated on-side stern pry, and quickly move the stern in the off-side direction. Hence, you can watch him slowly maneuvering though rapids using a sculling backwater and a repeated pry, all the time never taking his paddle out of the water in the on-side stern quadrant. Very impressive, at least to me.

If I understand correctly
You are suggesting using a sculling draw rotating the axis of the paddle excursion so that is moves in a plane 90 degrees off the long axis of the boat.

I have not tried to do that, nor have I seen it suggested in any book, video, or instructional clinic or course I have participated in. While I suppose it might be technically feasible to do it, such a stroke would be “all arms” as it would be nearly impossible to get any effective torso rotation into it so far as I can imagine. It would function like a backstroke, but put the shoulders in a much more dangerous position and be less effective.

pudding scull
Developing an understading for movement with English language description is difficult, no

Old language instructions tried leading the reader into an understanding over pages.

Here, we see commercial interests with Mason prodding us to download Canadian or ? spyware.

When I arrived at Mason et al, the site recognized me.

The pudding scull uses the usual:

lever blade with shaft fixed position mid grip, lever top grip.

Twist torso for total leverage

Angle blade for back or lateral movement

Slide blade parallel to keel from end point boward to stern beginning power stroke again.

Do not dislocate shoulder from excess backward positioning.

Do arm rotation exercises for the shoulder joints every morning for 15 minutes.

Aha! So it is done

– Last Updated: May-27-14 11:42 PM EST –

like any sculling draw, only in the stern quadrant? But, like you say, wouldn't it then have the same effect as a stern draw and simply pull the stern to the onside without any back movement. How could you possibly travel backwards with that stroke?

That's why I imagined the sculling would have to pull back rather than sideways.

I’ve done exactly that

– Last Updated: May-27-14 9:50 PM EST –

The boats I use for whitewater are pretty traditional designs, so reverse thrust is a handy thing. I often do such a stroke as you describe, but as has been pointed out, it's not a particularly powerful means of providing reverse power, and you can't use that stroke alone for more than very brief periods because you can't maintain a proper heading (with forward-directed, continuous thrust by sculling, even with the blade positioned quite far back toward the stern, the stern wanders away from the paddle side, and altering the direction of thrust to correct for that simply induces side-slip, and if you want to combine side-slip with braking action there are much better methods).

I use this stroke for momentary braking, not for full reverse power. It's also effective for extended braking to slow your speed, but you need to throw in a lot of adjustments along the way, something I think Glen was talking about regarding what Bill Mason did.

I'm one of the worser (less-experienced) whitewater paddlers you'd ever meet, so I find that a controlled approach to a tricky situation, sometimes done via the stroke you describe (along with the necessary corrections to keep a proper heading), sets up the situation so that when I fully understand the nature of the oh-shit moment that's unfolding, something that requires a stroke providing a lot more oomph, that stroke can be applied with much less urgency than would be needed otherwise.

Spyware and commercial interests?
I had no issues viewing this video. I’ve never had the things you describe happen on other Bill Mason videos or other things from the Canadian Film Board either. However, Google (and probably other sites) have gotten pretty good at throwing advertizements in your face when they “see” what you are currently viewing. In any case, don’t blame the video publisher. They didn’t cause what you saw.

on course…
The site sez right off ‘we will now invade your computer’ after recognizing me with personal information.

Canadians are ‘above reproach’ as all Canadians, like yourself, are Commander Whitehead.

Of Vancouver.

What would Morse, and we know his friend Vail, have to say that would allow his site to breach your computer’s integrity ?


– Last Updated: May-28-14 9:07 AM EST –

I didn't understand even half of what you just said, but it seems like you are trying to side-step the meaning of my message.

All I said was that I've never gotten such warnings and have never had any problems of any sort when viewing that and related videos. That being the case, I proposed an idea as to why it might actually be happening, though I'm no expert on such things. For you to respond to such a simple statement with such a broad-brush sarcastic comment about my character and that of a whole country makes me wonder what's really going on with you.