From the Shop: “Moving Forward”
Winter in New Hampshire isn’t exactly a paddler’s paradise, but we’ve been getting enough days when the Mercury approaches (and sometimes breaks) 30 degrees that I’ve been getting out on the water a few times a week. With things a bit slow around the the shop this time of year, I’ve been heading to the Winni for mid-day mid-week runs. It can be tough to find people to join on these, so I’ve been jogging shuttle and attaining upstream from the put in as far as I can. It’s mostly moving flatwater and a good way to put in some extra forward strokes to try to stay in shape for spring paddling, and I’ve been seeing a lot of wildlife- mink and muskrats and various waterfowl. It also gives me a lot of time to think about whatever has been on my mind. This week it has been an article from Rapid Media that has been popping up on my social media lately entitled “Moving Forward: Why The Most Important Solo Whitewater Canoeing Stroke Is Dead.” The article was written by Andy Covenry, the man behind Echo paddles and a long time canoe instructor. I think this same article made the rounds a couple years ago, and then and now, I think a lot of people are mis-interpreting or misunderstanding the author’s point, so I figured I’d give my take on it.
Much of the outrage, or at least scoffing at this article comes glossing over the details and simply reading it as “don’t bother to learn to do an efficient forward stroke.” I think that’s almost entirely NOT the point of the article. The subtitle give the first clue. “THE FORWARD STROKE IS DEAD. LONG LIVE THE FORWARD STROKE.” When we proclaim “The King is dead. Long live the King,” we mean one kind has died, a new king has ascended to take his place. And so it goes with forward stroke technique. Andy goes into the history of forward strokes- the classic J-stroke, which almost no one uses in whitewater boats because it really doesn’t work well in whitewater boats. The ‘goon stroke’ or whitewater J-stroke, which is what most whitewater paddlers think of as a J-stroke. This is the standard ‘forward stroke’ if there is such a thing. Vertical paddle, pull back along the hull, small stern pry to correct. It works well in a boat with A LOT of glide (>13ft), or when you’re paddling though a pool chatting about which Mexican Restaurant you want to go to after the river, but most of the time, we just don’t use it now days. Watch some slalom race videos on Youtube. These are people dedicated to honing their technique to as close to perfect as possible. Here’s a video of Jessica Fox winning the World Championships (again). How many strokes does she take that end in that subtle stern pry? I count zero. (And OH MY GOD DID SHE SWITCH HANDS????)
Instead, as Andy points out, we use the tendency of the boat to carve, balanced with our strokes, to move the boat in the direction we want to go. A slight bit of an arc, carving toward the paddle side, and that textbook vertical paddle forward stroke pushes the trajectory of the boat to just about straight. A slight hip tilt keeps the carve going and we can repeat over and over with very minor corrections. Adjusting the tilt of the boat and the amount the the boat is trying to carve though the arc and we keep it going straight. It’s faster and more efficient. As Andy wrote in the original article: “Skilled paddlers were carving their boats and driving them forward with no stern correction strokes whatsoever. Purists were confused.” The “Whitewater J-stroke’ is dead. Long with the forward stroke. By all means, you should strive to paddle your boat straight and efficiently with good form.
One final point about this article. It’s really about instruction, more than technique. The real point is, if we accept that we don’t just the ‘old style’ forward strokes, why do we teach them? I helped with a clinic this summer, and the first thing covered with the classic J-stroke. I struggled to model it because it’s something I never do when I’m paddling. But that’s the curriculum. We teach individual strokes- the forward stroke, the sweep, the draw, etc. as a means to introduce the concepts of what happens when we move the paddle though the water in different ways, but in practice, we blend it all together into whatever we need to do to make the boat move in the way we need. A tiny bow draw pulls the boat into an arc we can then power though on a forward stroke to go in a straight line. A dogmatic adherence to the specifics of a particular definition of a stroke are less important than understanding the concepts behind them, and even less important than the understanding of how to use those concepts in whitewater.