Functional Freestyle

-- Last Updated: Nov-14-14 8:29 PM EST --

Those who have been to recent canoe symposiums or have been following posts on this and other forums have likely noticed that we're trying to take FreeStyle in a different direction. For years, it's had the reputation of being "fancy paddling". It's been referred to as "canoe dance" and the like. While there is that aspect of the sport (it's officially known as "Interpretive FreeStyle"), for most of us, that is a secondary use of the skills. Graceful, efficient paddling, be it on a smooth lake or a flowing stream, is where the skills and techniques really shine.

In the coming weeks and months, I'll attempt to showcase how the use of FreeStyle techniques can enhance our everyday paddling experiences.Through the use of video clips and discussions, I'll introduce techniques, explain how they're done and why. I hope others will join in the conversations, with questions, answers, and yes, opinions. At times I'll refer readers to the FreeStyle website ( for additional information.

Please bear with me, as this is a bit of an experiment. I'm no expert on the use of the internet, computers or social media. Some friends have offered expertise and help with the project. I'll be grateful for all of their assistance.

One last thing:
Some of you will look at this technique or that, and think, it's nothing new. Skilled canoeists have been doing these things for ages. To an extent. you'd be correct. What FreeStyle has done is to combine a wide range of effective, efficient and generally graceful techniques into a discipline with nomenclature that allows for a structured teaching environment.

Last fall, a few of us spent several days in the New Jersey Pine Barrens, paddling and filming. Attached is a video, comprised of clips taken during that trip. The filming was done with a hand held digital camera. Nothing fancy. Most was done while sitting in one canoe or another, filming the others in the group. Frankly, I wasn't sure we had gotten anything useable until my friend John Powell played his magic with the clips. As this project progresses, I expect you'll see more of his work. Enjoy the video. Next week I'll begin dissecting it. I hope many of you will participate.

More information about FreeStyle including links and information about upcoming events may be found at

Good stuff, Marc…
Thanks for doing this. Sorry it didn’t work out on the other site. Looks like the thread is gone altogether now.

I’m never going to be a freestyle competitor but I can surely see many aspects of the discipline that can be applied to tripping or even plain ol’ recreational canoeing. The more skills we have as paddlers simply equates to a better box of tools at hand.

Looking forward to following the project.

If for nothing else
just watch the paddle placement and correlate the direction of the turn…

And the J stroke is a pretty good model… Sometimes one picture is worth a lot of verbiage…

Sorry you had to go through a lot of inconvenience. I know I will enjoy this thread and hope others help us not lose it in the basement of pnet where everything seems to go eventually!

what I have learned
From these canoe symposiums I greatly improved my forward stroke and ability to maneuver around obstacles. Patient and knowledgeable instructors take you from clueless to paddling in control of your canoe. Plus lots of fun!

Live link to the video
P-Net can’t do https so

I enjoyed the video!
I think you did great- multiple subjects, taken from different angles, steady images with pleasing transitions- I focused on the scenery and the technique. It looked like a fun place to paddle and you all were real graceful.

Thanks Tommy,

I won’t pretend to understand why but I removed the s and Viola!

Nicely done!
I look forward to the discussion.

Nice video
Nothing better than an open boat, a little current and some twists and turns on the river. Looking forward to this discussion. Thanks.

Not new, but good stuff…
I have a few short solos and have found them to be some of the best boats to paddle the smaller, narrow rivers and streams that meander widely and are full of fallen trees. Many avoid these waterways, but with the right boat a good paddling skills, as shown here, they are great escapes and a blast to paddle. The techniques are not new, but few are promoting and teaching these valuable skills.I think it would be great to see them taught more and taken out of the dancing arena.

Picked up some ideas for when I switch
from my whitewater boats to my MR Guide Solo, though it is still a couple of steps away from a freestyle boat.

Good to see the Pine Barrens after 47 years…

EZ forward thinking
The MR Guide/Freedom solo is fine for tall people for forward maneuvering.

Backwards less so fine. Most paddlers really don’t care as much about backward as going somewhere forward.

What a FreeStyle boat is I really don’t know. I think of any boat that has outstanding secondary stability and symmetrical rocker as a FS boat.

The first requirement is needed to avoid an unwanted bath. The second is nice for maneuvering in all directions…

The Axle
The axle is considered by some to be the signature maneuver of freestyle. It is generally the 1st maneuver taught.

At the very beginning of the video, I execute two axles as I enter then exit the pool below the sand bank. At 44 seconds we see a red canoe (Robyn) and a green canoe (Bruce) use axles to maneuver around a bend in the stream.

The axle is a turn toward the paddler’s on side. It is initiated (started) with a J stroke, just strong enough to start the canoe turning. The paddle is then sliced forward or placed just ahead of the canoe’s center of rotation. This is generally a bit ahead of the paddler’s knee. The blade is placed almost parallel to the keel line but with the leading edge turned slightly outward. The shaft is largely vertical. This placement helps to keep the canoe turning. The placement is ridden until the hull begins to loose momentum, at which time the shaft hand is dropped down and the paddle is drawn toward the bow. Throughout the maneuver, the canoe is heeled toward the paddler’s on side. Heeling, effectively reduces the waterline length, allowing the hull to turn more easily. Shifting one’s weight forward and pitching the bow down a bit, helps free the stern to rotate.

All of the elements may be tweaked as necessary to increase or decrease the rate of and amount of the turn. An exhibition level axle would have the paddle shaft nearly vertical and the gunnel heeled to the water. The turn would generally be 180 degrees or more. In real world paddling, a 180 degree turn is not generally necessary. Holding the paddle shaft a bit less than vertical allows for some bracing. Heeling to the rail doesn’t allow much room for error, or waves, or shifting cargo…

The two clips, attached below, show an axle from the viewpoint of a camera mounted off the stern of the canoe. The first clip is at normal speed. The second clip is at 1/4 speed.

Let the discussion begin.

More information about freestyle including listings and links to upcoming events may be found at

Axle vs eddy turn

Could you possibly talk about the similarities between the “axle” and an eddy turn ?

Excellent video
Please keep them coming. Planned on making it to the symposium in Jacksonville but my job plays hell with with my personal life.

Your explanation “… Till the hull loses momentum then the shaft hand drops down and the paddle is drawn towards the bow” isn’t exactly what I see in the video. The hand comes up and , is that what you call a bow draw? Would you talk a little about what’s going on there please.

I see a sick day in my near future.

In ww at least, symmetry is no advantage
for backward maneuvers. In fact it is occasionally a liability. But in mild swiftwater, or flatwater, symmetry can feel reassuring.

In ww, a stern has to deal with rather different conditions for backward maneuvers. Anyway, asymmetry can’t be a liability in ww, or ww kayaks would be very different.

I agree
but we are talking flat or slowly moving water… not eddy stuff.

From what I have seen the big difference is ww paddlers have to learn to nap in their boats.

Eddy turn vs axle
Although the two maneuvers look similar the major difference lies in what’s going on in the water.

An eddy turn relies significantly on the differential in currents, between the main flow of the stream and the eddy. An axle can be done on flat water or water without differential currents. That being said, I’ve done maneuvers that were a cross between the two, generally involving weak eddys.

Oops! "Shaft hand drops should read…
As many times as I proof read my post, I missed that one. It’s the grip hand that drops. I think you’ll see that clearly in the slow motion clip.

In an eddy turn (entering an eddy)
You lean the boat upstream into the turn to keep the upstream current in the eddy from catching the downstream edge of the boat and flipping it as you enter the eddy. Same is true in a peal out (leaving an eddy). You still lean into the turn, but this time you lean the boat downstream into the turn to keep the main flow of the river from catching the upstream edge of the boat and flipping it as you reenter the current. In whitewater paddling, the extent of the lean is dictated by the power of the differential current - the stronger the eddy, the more lean required. As a practical matter, I’d say that these leans still tend to be more subtle than freestyler paddlers use. You may end up with the gunwale down to the waterline, but that is not necessarily required in a whitewater turn.