What is the paddling circle drill?

I’ve read talk of paddling the “inside circle” and “outside circle” as a drill, sometimes attributed to Tom Foster.

I’ve never been taught or shown this, but I thought I knew what it probably referred to. In futzing around with my freestyle technique, I realized I don’t specifically know what “inside” and “outside” refer to. That’s because I can think of 8 different ways to paddle in a circle, all of different degrees of difficulty (for me).

Maybe this is just a terminology question.

Assume a righty paddler, as I am.

Let’s start with a clockwise circle. Paddling onside, the paddle is inside the circle. But the paddler can do this with the hull heeled right (toward the inside) or left (toward the outside). Hence, so far, there are two ways to paddle clockwise. But there’s two more. The paddler can paddle clockwise with cross forward strokes on his offside, and he can do that with the hull heeled either right or left. This makes a total of four ways to paddle a clockwise circle.

So also a counterclockwise circle, where the onside paddle is nominally outside the circle. There are four ways to paddle the counterclockwise circle when you combine forward and cross forward strokes with right and left heels.

In total, I count 8 ways to paddle a circle. Which of these are condidered the “inside” and “outside” circle drills?

As a righty, paddling a counterclockwise circle on a cross forward while heeled right is challenging.

Kayaks seem so much easier and less dizzying.

Inside Circles
Tom Foster probably didn’t invent this drill but he taught it and focused attention on it in his and Kel Kelly’s book, “Catch Every Eddy, Surf Every Wave”. It is all about paddling a WW canoe playboats forward in an efficient manner. The terminology gets confusing. First it is known as paddling “inside the circle” or “The Inside Circle Technique” because it starts with carving a circle then paddling to the inside of that circle. It increases the efficiency of the forward stroke in a playboat by lessening the need for correction strokes by taking advantage of the inherent tendency of playboats to carve a circle.

First confusing terminology is the two ways to paddle inside the circle are the “Onside Inside Circle” and the Offside Inside Circle”. Confused yet?

Okay first the Onside Inside Circle. This maneuver is initiated by a couple of cross forward strokes which begin to turn the hull to the onside. Then heel the canoe to the onside. This keeps the hull carving a circle to the onside. Bring the paddle back to the onside and start pure forward strokes ( i.e., w/o corrections) The tendency of the hull to yaw to the offside during pure forward stroke is offset by the existing carve toward the onside. The idea is to move forward with all forward strokes and no correction strokes. It helps to think of paddling such a large circle that the arc approximates a straight line, rather than the tight circles of a FS maneuver.

As you might guess the Offside Inside Circle is the opposite. It is initiated by pure forward strokes (uncorrected),which causes the hull to carve a circle to the offside, then a heel to the offside, followed by a series of cross forward strokes.

Really, the objective is to go forward in a playboat without the braking action of the J or Pry corrections.

HTH, Pagayeur

Take the forward stroke class

– Last Updated: Jun-30-10 7:12 PM EST –

in the PM at AFS for clarity.

It ought to be called the Kiss of Death for the J Stroke.

How does what is being taught compare to the inside circle technique? Same basic idea or something different?

Same Ol’
The course described as the Inside Circle Forward Stroke in the Adk FS Symposium info is exactly that, how to paddle an inside circle with an uncorrected forward stroke.

We usually get to the Cross Inside Circle, for a righty, someone paddling on the right of their canoe, that does entail initiating with a couple sweeping onside forwards, then using cross forwards to drive the hull through Glenn’s counter clockwise circle.

Want to look good paddling circles?
Try this: http://www.seakayakermag.com/2009/Aug09/finesse.html?1

Tom Foster’s Solo Open Whitewater Canoe
video has a great explanation on paddling onside and offside circles. Great skill to learn, but I find that its much more fun in my playboat.


the cunning idea
of the inside circle is of course that when you make this circle big enough

you could see that as going straight… :wink:

As taught to me by Tom Foster
The inside circle assumes that you are paddling on one side rather than switching. So the paddler has an onside where they normally paddle, and an offside which they only paddle with cross strokes.

For the inside circle, the boat is heeled so that the the onside is low. A bit of an onside turn is initiated and as the hull carves only onside forward strokes are used. The carving action of the hull maintains the circle towards the paddlers on side.

The outside circle turns the boat away from the paddlers onside. The boat is heeled so that the offside is low and cross forward inwater recovery strokes are used.

The size of the circle is controlled in both cases by moving the stroke closer and further from the hull as well as by varying the power and rate of the forward strokes.

IMO the technique that Charlie teaches is somewhat different in that the boat is heeled in the opposite direction. My experience has been that touring and freestyle boats respond to this opposite heel where they do not respond to the heel TF taught me.

In whitewater the opposite heel is considered an advanced technique and results in lots of swimming for newbies. On water without a lot of current it’s not nearly as risky though using cross forwards over the high side of the canoe can be challenging.

Heel differences
Heeling to either side loosens the stems, and improves the paddlers access to the water, allowing a more vertical paddleshaft, a key in wider boats.

In touring boats with sharp stems that are in the water, an outside heel carves the bows into the circle. In whitewater hulls with blunt stems out of the water there is no benefit to the outside heel, and heeling inside is mechanically preferable because the paddler isn’t reaching over an elevated rail.

I encourage paddlers to try heeling both ways for both Inside and Cross Inside Circles.

It is useful to remember that the reason for the drill is to straighten out the circle and drive the boat to a destination. The circles are just training mantras.

Thanks, but I’m still not straight …
… on this circular terminology or technique. Sorry, but I don’t have the books or videos and won’t have the opportunity to attend any classes.

Pagayeur seems to be describing a way of paddling a rockered WW boat in a STRAIGHT line, not paddling in a circle at all – except to the extent you veer off the straight line if the carve turning force overcomes the forward stroke turning force, or vice versa.

TC1 seems to be describing a technigue to paddle in an actual circle rather than in a straight line. Perhaps he’s describing the same technique as Pagayeur, but the heel (or heel shift) descriptions don’t seem to match.

Can’t tell what CEW teaches or how he uses the terminology – is it about paddling straight or in circles? – but TC1 seems to think CEW’s heels are opposite from Foster’s.

I’m more confused now than before I posted.

My objective is NOT to paddle in a STRAIGHT LINE; I know how to do that in various ways. Nor am I interested in gimmicks to paddle a banana boat in flatwater. I want to be able to paddle a flatwater cruising boat in an elegant CIRCLE.

In the circular context, I forgot backwards. Paddling backwards circles would increase the total number of circular paddling techniques from 8 to 16.

And there must be yet another doubling. My conviction is that true single-bladed canoe paddling mastery – in whitewater or flatwater freestyle – cannot be claimed unless every stroke can be done ambidextrously. That increases the circle techniques to 32.

I certainly have a long way to go.

Didn’t see CEW’s reply
I was writing my last post while Charlie was posting his. That clears things up somewhat.

ambidextrously is ambitious

– Last Updated: Jul-01-10 10:43 AM EST –

I just wish I could paddle just as well on both sides,
as it would be a huge advantage in difficult situtations
were my balance in the canoe is at stake too.
So far I can only paddle well enough on both sides on the flats...

As for the 'inside circle', I always thought that it was a drill or method
to learn to paddle straight, especially in whitewater canoes.
That may be the cause for confusion here?

Ambitious but useful and even impressive
You can, of course, become an excellent and efficient paddler while paddling a canoe on just one side. You can even become an Olympic sprint or slalom champion or a US freestyle champion.

However, I don’t let these small facts affect my viewpoint: only ambidexterity is true mastery.

Flatwater marathon racers, solo and tandem, must paddle on both side. So do outrigger racers. Any kayaker who ran rivers “one-sided” would be considered inept. No kayak roller could compete in competitions if she could only roll on one side.

It’s only in canoe whitewater and flatwater freestyle that one-handedness is tolerated. In whitewater it is somewhat understandable, as switching hands in mid-maelstrom can be dangerous. Freestyle flatwater has no such excuse.

I don’t even think the excuse applies much for whitewater. There are many moves in whitewater that are better done lefty or righty if the paddler sets up that way before the move.

This was impressed deeply upon me by Nolan Whitesell when I paddled Section IV of the Chattooga and the Ocoee with him back in ‘86. He was completely ambidextrous on the river. When I was hesitating on a 4+ rapid because it was a “lefty move”, Nolan jumped in my boat to paddle it righty after he had just done so lefty. Quite impressive … and humbling. Nolan was also completely ambidextrous in his high brace, low brace and hand rolls on either side of the boat.

In flatwater, too, the ability to paddle on the other side is important, even for non-switching, correction stroke paddlers. Angled wind and wave conditions counsel paddling on one side rather than the other. So does muscular devepment. I still remember from 1984 Bardy Jones’ overdeveloped and injured shoulder, which resulted from one-sided flatwater paddling.

My opinion, of course, is just an ideal. I don’t approach the ideal well at all yet.

However, I think freestyle canoeing – which holds itself out as the ultimate technical flatwater discipline, while remarkably ignoring 50% of the human body – could help approach the ideal. It should offer training and award points to students and performers who demonstrate ambidexterity, and deduct points from those who don’t.

The Arc of a REALLY Big Circle
On whitewater there are few straight lines. The inside and outside circles are used to carve into and out of eddies as well as general manuvering.

As Payaguer said the arc of a really big circle is hard to tell from a straight line.

TF seemed to be able to hold that RBC Arc for as long as he wanted. Taking pity on us mere mortals he suggested that we alternate inside and outside circles to approximate a straight line when we had need for such a line. That is good practice on the flats but I rarely use it in rapids. In rapids I’m generally carving tight to moderate arcs and switching between inside and outside for S turns.

OK, this video is circles, if incomplete
The video shows paddling a kayak in circles, and not as some sort of drill to covertly teach straight line paddling.

Circles: that is what I am trying to practice but with more variations.

Schumann uses a forward stroke, a sweep, a bow draw and a cross bow draw – but he is always heeled to the outside of the circle. In a WW kayak, you would heel to the inside. Hence, I think everyone should be practiced in both heels, no matter what kind of boat you are in.

In addition, to more closely mirror the single blade challenge of a canoe, Schumann when paddling circles would have to use a cross forward stroke at every position where he is using a simple forward, and vice versa.

Then do it all backwards.

Thanks, but note it’s whitewater
I’d like to see this video but I’m too cheap to buy it.

I think I’m finally understanding what Foster means by paddling circles. It’s a technique showed to me by John Berry in the early 80’s to paddle his highly rockered ME in a straight line. You counterbalance the carving, sidewashing bow of a rockered canoe against forward (or sweep) strokes.

This is effective for short distances, which is all you ever need in WW, but I don’t believe it is possible to actually paddle a highly rockered boat straight this way for any significant distance. Either the carve will prevail and the stern will slide out, or you overpower the carve and it disappears – unless, of course, you goose back the carve with some cross forwards or an on-side deep C.

Seems like a laborious way to try to paddle straight in a modestly or non-rockered cruising canoe.

Nevertheless, I’m going to try it today in the Wildfire – amidst the plenitude of rowing pulchritude on my local river. (The candidates for the US rowing team are in training camp here.)

sea kayaks with their skegged sterns
and paddlers weight somewhat aft…cant break the stern free well to skid so the carving action of an outside heel is the way to get them to start turning…

Initiation is with a sweep well to the stern (not quite like in solo canoeing!) then plant the hanging bow draw…effectively its a “kayak post”. Very similar to FreeStyle canoeing…but due to the kayaks design an outside heel works best.

I have fun practicing the video maneuver in my CD 'Bou. That boat is all angles and edges.

Freestyle vs. Whitewater

– Last Updated: Jul-02-10 7:02 AM EST –

Maybe it’s the difference between freestyle and WW, but I don’t think of carving circles as a drill about going straight. To me, its more about developing a good forward and cross forward stroke. Once you have the technique down, you can use the pinned bow to go straight, but as Tommy said its just as important to be able to use those carving turns to ferry, or to get into and out of eddies.

As for paddling ambidextrously, I pretty much gave up on that once I started to develop a more reliable set of cross strokes. I’m a lefty, and pretty much stay a lefty except on long stretches of flatwater where it makes sense to switch sides to prevent muscle fatigue. I don’t think that makes me a one-sided paddler though. Again, maybe it’s a WW thing, but my objective is to be able to do the same moves on my offside as on my onside – eliminating the need to switch sides. I’m not there yet – in fact I still have a long way to go. Once I’ve mastered my left side, maybe I’ll start working on my right.

Good discussion – glad I’m not the only one out there paddling in circles.

ambidextrously vs. cross-forward
Personally I would rather be ambidextrously than have a good cross-forward stroke.

In the environment where I paddle often, that is in a combination of hard wind and steep waves:


the use of cross-forward strokes – certainly with a bentshaft paddle… –

would be too ‘dangerous’ and the advantage negligible I think.

To be able to paddle on both sides well, would be a huge advantage though,

as there often are some wind and wave combinations that I can handle well

if they occur in a way that my right side is the best side to deal with

them. If they occur in a situation that I could better paddle on my

left side, then my staying on my right side slows me down

considerably, sometimes too much…