Freestyle Instructional Thread

With the end of the paddling season approaching (at least for those of us in the northern climes) I thought it might be fun to introduce an instructional thread. Periodically I’ll present a freestyle maneuver. I’ll describe it’s components, how it’s done and what it’s used for (in the real world).

Those with interest will hopefully post comments, and questions. Other knowledgeable paddlers will contribute their comments and so on. Although I’ll present from the standpoint of freestyle, most maneuvers have practical applications in other paddling disciplines. Freestyle developed out of advanced touring technique and many components directly transfer to whitewater. The basic principles involved work for nearly all paddle craft.

I’d hoped to film some videos this summer and use them along with the discussion. Other projects soaked up my available time and alas videos won’t be part of this project, except to the extent other contributors can provide or link to them.

Marc Ornstein

The Axle

– Last Updated: Oct-31-10 7:10 PM EST –

The axle is probably the signature freestyle maneuver.

The axle is a turn to the onside with the boat heeled to the onside.Like most maneuvers it has three basic components. INITIATION, PLACEMENT and CONCLUSION. There are more subtle components but we will address those in future posts.

With the canoe traveling straight ahead the turn is INITIATED with a hard J. The hull is heeled to the paddle side and the blade is sliced forward to a PLACEMENT forward of the canoe's pivot point. The paddle orientation is that of a high brace with the forward or leading edge of the blade slightly open (pointing away from the canoe. The shaft hand should be kept fairly loose. The paddle shaft should be as vertical as possible with the grip hand out over the water. Don't be afraid to choke up on the shaft as necessary to maintain a comfortable body position. It's also fine to rotate your torso toward the paddle. The stern will break free and the canoe will seemingly rotate around the paddle. As momentum fades and the turn begins to slow, the leading edge of the blade can be opened more (turned a bit farther away from the canoe). Finally, the maneuver is CONCLUDED with a draw to the bow. Choking up on the shaft will allow for a more effective bow draw.

Whitewater paddlers use the axle when making eddy turns and peel outs. It's a stable turn anytime you need to turn crisply toward the paddle side. On meandering streams it works well to avoid obstacles or to coax the canoe around a tight turn.

The greater the heel, the easier the boat will turn. By shifting your weight forward (that will be another discussion) the turn is further enhanced. With proper technique, it's possible to spin a Bell Magic 180 degrees.

Marc Ornstein

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choked up
I often forget to choke up on the paddle leaving me a bit off balance as I try to learn the axle. When successful, it’s cool! Do you ever use a sweep to the off side to get a 360 turn? I hope to learn more at FFS in March…jesse


– Last Updated: Oct-31-10 8:24 PM EST –

If what you're referring to is a cross sweep, I have not. It sounds like a very cool move but tricky. It's difficult to do a cross sweep with the boat heeled to the onside so it's best to complete the draw (conclusion) portion of the axle then cross over, heel to the offside and do the cross sweep. Doing that smoothly would be the trick.

There's probably not much practical use for a 360 degree turn but it would make a nice demonstration sequence and it would set you up for a cross reverse maneuver. That kind of exercise gets you comfortable moving about in the boat and leads to other possibilities.

I like the way you're thinking about how to link maneuvers.

Marc Ornstein

Something like this Marc?


Axle vs onside eddy turn
As Marc said, the axle is nearly identical to what a whitewater C-boater does during an onside eddy turn, either to eddy out (leave the main current into an eddy) or peel out (leave the eddy to enter the main current).

I think there are some subtle differences, however.

In an eddy turn if the boat is already angled at the correct attitude to the eddy line, it is not necessary to initiate the turn with a J-stroke or a pry. In that case just heeling the boat to the onside and driving it across the eddy line with authority will be sufficient. The current differential will initiate the turn automatically as the pivot point crosses the eddy line.

Sometimes though, it may be necessary to adjust the angle the boat makes to the eddy line. Crossing a strong eddy line into a small eddy usually works best if the eddy line is crossed at nearly a 90 degree angle. In this case, a J-stroke might be used, but in heavy current which tends to resist turning the boat, I suspect most whitewater boaters would prefer to carry a forward stroke back to a stern pry or “thumbs up J”. The “thumbs up J” refers to the position of the control hand (grip hand) thumb.

The stern pry is a much stronger stroke than the J and it allows the power face of the paddle to be facing the boat and the control hand thumb to be pointing toward the stern as the paddle is brought forward which is the correct position for a true high brace (in a low brace, the non-power face faces toward the boat and the control thumb points forward).

A whitewater boater will also most likely take the paddle out of the water when bringing it forward while crossing an eddy line. An in water recovery is smoother and looks more graceful on flat water, but slicing a paddle across a powerful eddy line at right angles can have unpredictable results.

As the pivot point crosses the eddy line the paddle is replaced in the water within the eddy at about the position of the paddler’s onside knee with the power face facing the bow, a pretty vertical shaft angle, and an open blade angle (up to 45 degrees) to sharpen the turn, much like the latter half of an axle, but a whitewater boater would be inclined to refer to this as a separate stroke called an onside Duffek.

As the boat completes the eddy turn the power face is drawn to the bow, as in the axle, and often transitioned to a forward stroke to draw the boat high into the eddy.


– Last Updated: Nov-01-10 5:57 AM EST –

What the video shows is a variant of the axle, known as a bootlegger or high kneel thrust axle. What the paddler (Mark Molina) has done has been to shift his body position far forward in the canoe. This weights the bow down and raises the stern clear of the water. Since in most cases, canoes turn from the stern, the weight shift dramatically enhances the maneuver. This is an advanced move with several subtleties that need to be incorporated. We may discuss it at a later time.

The basic axle, does not involve a major repositioning of the paddler within the boat although typically the paddler will shift some or all weight off the seat and onto his/her knees. That alone is enough to weight the bow considerably.

Pete has beautifully defined the differences between axles, eddy turns/peel outs. I don't think I could add anything significant.

Marc Ornstein

Problems with axle

– Last Updated: Nov-01-10 4:57 PM EST –

It does bring the boat to a stop. When negotiating turns on rivers that are simply meandering and winding its not the best turn.

A bunch of us did a two day trip on the Batsto. I had a touring boat that in and of itself with sweeps and js would have banged every bank and stump. But often the river was only six inches deep.

So I used the cousin of the axle; the post. The Axle is heeled onside and aids turning by changing the waterline shape to an airfoil with the curved side toward the turn. It also frees the stems to make a temporarily shorter boat or at least reduces stems resistance.

The post is heeled the other way the outside of the turn. That flips the waterline shape and makes a carved (faster) turn. Also one of the beauties of making a carved turn is you can rely less on getting the paddle way in the water. A post can be effective in less than six inches of water.

I kept snagging my paddle on axles with all the underwater stuff and snags on those Barrens river.

All I can add that without FS I would have been exhausted at the end of the trip.

I have to say that extension with the grip hand is risky on some rivers. Axles used to be more at an angle of shaft to the water, but were found to be whippier when brought close to the boat and vertical paddle plant. Its sure prettier and certainly more efficient but with unseen underwater perils, it may pay to tuck your srms closer to your body.

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Evolution of the axle…
Marc - could you say something about how this (and other) strokes have evolved since the early days of Freestyle?

Comparing the Glaros/Wilson book to the way I’ve been taught and to your routines on You-tube… the “brace” element of the axle (and other moves) appears to have gone: paddle placement appears to be more vertical and closer to the hull - but perhaps I’m just seeing thing :frowning:

I’m certainly not seeing things when noting differences in some of the elements you will come onto later (especially 4th quadrant): would be nice if some history / context could appear where appropriate :slight_smile:

early FS’ers
A good source for very early FS info can be had from several folks who post here. “CEW” posts here regularly and is the Wilson of Glaros and Wilson, co-arthors of “Freestyle Canoeing” Another early FS’er on this forum is “stevet” (the FS Manual, for FS Instructors is an ACA publication and was contributed to by these gentlemen). I started in FS as a student in the first symposia offered after the ACA formally certified the first Instructor group in 1994.

I would like to hear from Charlie and Steve, but in my humble opinion there is a big difference in practical FS and Competition FS. Competition maneuvers have evolved much more toward Free Spins which as pointed out in snowgoose’s post reduces the pressure on the blade during the static placement part and is much more stylized. For instance the so-called one handed Christie is not a practical Christie at all. It is a Free Spin while dragging the paddling along behind. In the early Christie both hands are on the paddle and pressure is applied throughout the turn. It is a low brace turn which I was doing in Whitewater before learning FS.

Another notable difference is that Conclusions are becoming lost in Competitive maneuvers. Very few true Conclusions are being done in comps.

There are any other subtle differences but I’ll leave off here lest this become a treatise rather than simple comment. I do NOT say here that either style is correct of incorrect only that a dichotomy exists between practical FS and Competition maneuvers. I would call for a formal recognition of these differences as currently there exists a blurring of technique in instruction. For instance, I see many Instructors who are also competitors, teaching vertical shaft during static placement but say little about lack of good conclusion. As a practical matter most FS technique on a river is not the same as those done in competition. They are conceptually the same but executed differently.


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axle moves
Thanks for the info Marc, I would not call anything I do at this point smooth! Right now there’s snow on the ground and ice on the lakes so my days are numbered till early spring but looking forward to FFS. jesse

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The bracing aspect you are referring to
comes out of the whitewater “duffek”. In quietwater, the forces are less (no current and less chance for shoulder injury)and the more vertical paddle placement maximizes the paddle forces. The vertical aspect has just evolved over time as it makes for a more efficient turn. It is interesting to note that even slalom whitewater paddlers tend to use a much more vertical placement in recent years, also.

Much easier to illustrate the concept in the boat; I have much more of a challenge trying to explain it in writing here. An axle can be accomplished though with either a vertical or bracing style paddle placement.

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Bootlegger axle…
in addition to the high kneel thrust weight shift that Marc has discussed, the other difference in the Bootlegger axle that Mark Molina does in the video is that the paddle placement is dynamic (moving) rather than static, which is the placement of a standard axle.

Kayamedic makes some good points
but I’ll differ somewhat in my opinion. When used on a twisty stream it is rare that the axle is used to turn 180 deg. It may be a tight 90 deg. or less and all forward momentum is not necessarily lost. Further, the conclusion, being a draw to the bow, puts the paddle in the perfect placement for a strong forward stroke to get moving again.

The post is a snappier turn and as stated by Kayamedic is more efficient but the offside heel may be uncomfortable to some. Both are good tools to have in your quiver.

Marc Ornstein

Just to clarify
the object of taking FreeStyle lessons is to learn principles of canoe behavior that allow you to enhance your turns with static strokes.

There is the competitive aspect which most paddlers do not want to do…which involves 180 degree turns.

In real tripping life, 180 degree turns are rarely necessary (though there were several mandatory nearly so turns on the weekend river trip) and you may be going slow. Using the principles of what momentum you have and the heel you can attain plus the weight shift you can do and the static stroke selection you can safely make certainly makes wilderness tripping on the river or lake more relaxing and efficient.

Nothing says that you cant cut off that axle at ninety degrees if thats all you need. FreeStyle is conversion of momentum to a turn, thats all.

Imagine that you paddle on the left and have a left turn to make and not much room. Do an axle. It will put the brakes on but not nearly as much as a stern pry. Better yet , the post…you wont have to build up as much steam. Beginners often oft for switching sides and paddling on the right for that left turn with many sweeps…and a bang on the bank of the river or brushes with bushes.

I agree with Pagayeur on nearly all
points. I am a proponent of teaching functional or practical freestyle as an alternate curriculum. At the Florida Freestyle Symposium, there will be an afternoon class called “Creekin Freestyle”. I’ll be teaching that class on Lofton Creek, a short distance down the road from the symposium site. The concepts won’t change but the application will.

On the issue of conclusions: In competitions often the conclusion of one maneuver is the initiation of the next. Those initiations/conclusions may not be the ones classically taught. Unfortunately, we sometimes get caught up in the performance and those conclusions get blurred to the point of non-existence. It’s the job of the judges such as Pag to hold us accountable.

Marc Ornstein

What am I missing?
Marc -

Please help this kayaker understand. When I visualize this – J stroke and slice forward – I end up in a low brace position. How do I get to a high brace.


Country Gent
When you complete the J stroke, the blade should be vertical to the water with the shaft parallel to the keel line of the boat. the grip should be low and approximately 12"-18" forward of your hip. Your grip hand will be approximately 18" behind your hip. Your thumb (grip hand) is turned down

From that position, slice the blade forward while raising your grip hand until the shaft is vertical. Your grip hand does not move forward or back appreciably. The grip rotates within the palm of your hand (palm roll)so that when the shaft is vertical, your thumb is pointed back towards the stern.

You are now at the placement point. The shaft should be nearly vertical in all planes and the grip should be at or near shoulder height. The blade should be parallel to the keel line.

This would put you in a high brace position.

Let me know if this helps to clarify things.

Marc Ornstein.

Well, I will chime in for Marc…
(I don’t think he will mind)

Slicing into the placement from the J would require a palm roll, whereby you would rotate your palm around the paddle grip; the power face of the paddle remains constant. I do mine at the end of the J when the correction thumb is down, then do the palm roll at the before I start slicing forward. The final placement will then have your thumb pretty much pointing to your left shoulder. You also can do the placement by lifting into it rather than slicing, the way that a duffek in whitewater would be accomplished. That would not incorporate a palm roll. Most FS paddlers use the slice method. The constant power face in the water provides good feedback to what the paddle and boat are doing, and it is quieter and looks slicker.


Thanks Marc & Tracy
Thanks - It was that palm roll thing I was missing. I’ve got to quit thinking kayak paddle.