Freestyle Paddling Techniques

I have to admit that I was really inspired by Marc Ornstein’s freestyle demo at Raystown Lake this past weekend. I was mesmerized by how effortless he made it look! Ray C. (the MC during Marc’s demo) also inspired me by talking about “paddling with more efficiency” as he worked with me on my J-stroke out on the water.

Freestyle Symposeums are far and few between both timewise and geographically (I live outside of Philly). That being said, can anyone recommend any books or DVDs that would be good “substitute teachers” for me over the Winter months while the waters turn into solid ice?

It looked like Marc was barely even moving his arms, wrists, and torso but yet the boat was magically moving in very precise movements.

Are there certain style paddles that are better than others? I would imagine that straight-shafts are far superior for freestyle than bent shafts but I am such a novice that even the most basic advice would be greatly appreciated.

Jeff P.

“Freestyle Canoeing” by Lou Glaros
and Charlie Wilson has been my wife’s reference until we get to Charleston each April for more of Karen Knight and Bob Foote’s classes. Hoping to get to other live classes/symposiums next year too. Rick

some resources

– Last Updated: Oct-15-08 7:14 PM EST –

Google a bit.

The book by Glaros and Wilson taught me most of what I know.

There are videos available at You can also find some by searching on youtube (including, I think, some by Marc).

There are people who teach freestyle professionally. As far as I know, Mark Molina still teaches in Florida, and he is an awesome paddler.

You know about the events in Louisiana in the spring, New York in the summer, and Ohio in the fall?

You can do some of the freestyle moves with a bent-shaft paddle, but it's basically a straight-shaft sport. I use a Grey Owl Freestyle paddle made of wood -- no longer produced. I've heard good things about their new, carbon Freestyle, and about Quimby and Dog Paddle paddles, but I haven't been lucky enough to try them.

-- Mark

Instructional FS sources
are not plentiful, however the video “Paddles in the Stream” by Mark and Becky Molina is an excellent source for some forward manuevers (they have not yet released a Part II; Tom MacKenzie of Loon Works also has a video that outlines most of the manuevers called “Solo FreeStyle Canoeing”. Karen Knight also indicated she had plans for a video, but have not heard any recent info. The Wilson/Glaros book has already been mentioned.

Do not get too hung up on a paddle at his juncture; any paddle (tho probably not a canadian style)wpould work well for learning. That is one thing that is stressed in the Molina video, as manuevers are demo’d with Mohawk boats and aluminum/plastic paddles in addition to the higher end stuff.

Have fun!

Instructional Videos
Guess what would be nice is to be able to see what the paddle is doing UNDERneath the water level. It was difficult to see what Marc was doing above the water. I mean it truly looked like he wasn’t doing ANYTHING obvious; just very subtle movements but yet the boat was maneuvering like nobody’s business.

Do any of the videos show what is happening both above and below to make the boat move so effortlessly?

The short answer…no.
There are no underwater views; the videos are generally produced on a tight budget. However, good instruction depicts the breaking down of the five major aspects of most FS manuevers: initiation, paddle placement, conclusion, heel, and pitch. The reason that Marc is able to make it look so effortless is that all of those aspects are gracefully blended, along with a keen knowledge of boat and paddle hydrodynamics. It also takes a tremendous amount of good practice technique. The videos can generally help illustrate these techniques, however, competent live instruction is, in my mind, a necessery complement.

– Last Updated: Oct-16-08 6:45 AM EST –

Adirondack FreeStyle Symposium is about a six hour drive and Midwest is across about a five to six hour drive..

Living in Philly is actually pretty convenient relative to other areas of the country.

Instruction is the most economical and fastest way to learn because: instant feedback. Its hard to read a book on the water and comparing what you are really doing to what you saw, for most people self analyzing, is not possible.

The book is a good way to you can get the principles of paddle and boat physics seated in your head

There are many levels of instruction..the normal curriculum for all the levels of FS is 45 hours long..some become "addicted" and go through the entire curriculum over several symposia..(each in nine hour blocks). Others want to just work in the forward onside quadrant for tripping..its all up to the individual.

Pagayeur hosts La Lou..due to "Ike" I dont know if La Lou 2009 is on...but he and Pagayette puts on a marvelous feed at a lovely park. Northerners like La Lou for the chance to paddle soft water, though Pagayeur and Pagayette have been known to throw cubes from the ice machine in to make us feel at home..They're that kind of folks.

What you saw Marc do was the result of many years of daily practice..its not unlike playing an instrument well..

Some FS instructors teach on the side...there used to be a pile in New Jersey but no longer..

I second the Loon Works DVD
It really helped me get started, until I got to AFS. Of course, I missed some of the nuances, so I have habits to retrain. Better control of your boat is exciting, and watching is awesome.

I have the loonworks video and like it a lot.

No you can’t see the blade but you can see the T-grip.

Since the blade has the same orientation as the T-grip you can often figure out what’s going on underneath the boat.

As others have said video is no substitute for instruction. I’ve had the pleasure of a day with Karen Knight and, more recently three days at AFS in New York. I’d highly recomend either.


wannabe freestyler

Loonworks video
Kin’ yer tell me waar ah’ kin’ obtain this video. Seems Loonworks doesn’t have a website. Thanky kindly.

Fat Elmo

Freestyle Technique

– Last Updated: Oct-16-08 4:47 PM EST –

I'm glad I didn't jump in and respond too soon because several of you have answered most of the questions (thank you all).

I assumed from the start that you were referring to solo technique because that is what I demoed. If you were interested in tandem, you would have likely stated so.

The books and videos that have been previously mentioned are all good for starters and are useful for review purposes. I studied those that were available and tried to duplicate what I saw and read about for a year or two before getting any instruction or attending my 1st symposium. I can tell you from 1st hand experience that there is no substitute for hands on instruction.
The symposiums are great places to learn. They are fun and the best paddlers around are there teaching. The Adirondack symposium is a longer format (4 full days) and allows more instruction and practice time than either LaLou or MFS. I've attended all of them for the past several years and wouldn't miss any of them.

Private instruction is also an option. I did some with Mark Molina when I was getting started. He provided me with a big "jump start".
I can help with private instruction if that is your desire. I'm within reasonable driving distance of you. I'm also glad to answer any questions that I can via phone or email although admittedly it is difficult to analyze paddling technique without seeing what is going on.
Lastly, I have 2 copies left of the Loon Works Video from Tom Mackenzie. He gave them to me to distribute at AFS this year because he was not able to attend. I'd be more than glad to send them to anyone upon request as long as my supply holds out. Email me at if interested. They are $20.00 ea. I'll forward the payments to Tom.

Marc Ornstein
Dogpaddle Canoe Works
Custom paddles and cedar strip canoes

Karen Knight
If any of you saw Karen Knight and Bob Foote in Charleston, SC at ECCKF their performances on the water created a constant stream of “How’d they DO THAT!?!?!?” comments from the audience.

Having paddled, taken instruction and taught with both of them if you can schedule some time with either it will do your paddling skills a world of good. Bob’s schedule is rather full at the moment but Karen’s is fairly flexible. Oh, they happen to be a bit east of Annapolis, MD now so they’re not too far off.


See you on the water,


The River Connection, Inc.

Hyde Park, NY

Thank you everyone
Thank you all for all the wonderful info on various books and videos and websites.

I just sent Marc a check for the Loon Works video. I also spent some time looking around website and all the various websites that branch out from there.

Next on my list is to find a decent paddle. I am currently useing an old horribly beat up generic paddle. Would love to get a lightweight one but Marc’s are way out of my price range for now unless he sells off any of his “blems” (if there even is such a thing). I know that it is the carpenter and not the tools but it sure would be nice if Santa could bring me a new one this year.

jcamry, I think an average carpenter is always MUCH happier with decent tools! You will be happily surprised.

There are two of us in Maine
who have been teaching FreeStyle for years. I am up to 11 years…

I dont think this is the place to advertise though we would be happy to do lessons in the seven months we dont have hard water.

If you watch Karens videos do not be fooled. The basics have to be mastered before you do the pretties…and 99 percent of people just want to paddle better and not do the poses(which is another training track in FS entirely). She has the basics down cold, so watch the heel and the paddle and dont get distracted.

The reason I interject that is some people have tried to imitate her without practicing the basics…(she works on the basics for a few hours every day)

Carll & John’s in Madison, WI
still had a few of the Grey Owl Freestyle paddles in the wood veneer construction (Grey Owl does not produce this any longer). Probably the best paddle out there for the money if you are looking for a FS specific paddle, at about $110.00. You migh wish to check and see if they have any left in a size that works for you.

I love to watch Karen do her water …

Many times in rough water when she has the canoe on one gunnel she’ll even let some water come over the edge.

If I attempted 10% of what she does, I would be swimming!



p-net classifieds…
lists a Crickett straight shaft with “large” blade size that may work for you. Definitely a FS blade for a good price.

Budget paddle
Though I have my share of pricey FS paddles I found the Grey Owl Voyageur at 40 bucks decent for a learning/tripping paddle. A little sanding off of the varnish of grip and shaft at the hand level and you are good to go.

What to look for is what the Grey Owl FS has. a symmetrical shape that you can use both sides on and a clean slicing blade… fairly stiff flex. I am blesses to have gotten four of them in the past…three are fine…I have done too many trips with the fourth and the veneer is gone after 13 years.

The Voyageur is an inch or so narrower and a thicker blade, but it still has sufficient width to transmit turning forces…and its pretty rugged for tripping.

New FS Stick

– Last Updated: Oct-21-08 10:03 AM EST –

Grey Owl imports a carbon straight paddle that replaces their FS. It's pricier at $200; the shaft is round and the grip is either T or a comfortable but powerface dedicating offset.

The blade shape is close to perfect, with fine edges, rounded tips and well fared cross sectional shaping.

The grip pulled out of mine; which was cool, I added a 1/4 lb of lead into the grip to improve balance before using real adhesive to re-install.

The thing is quite rugged, slices wonderfully and will take a licking and is a zero maintenance stick.

With the best kayak sticks at $500, and Marc Ornstein's superlative canoe blades at $450 the $200 price seems acceptable for a working stick.