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English Gate Routines Improve Paddling Skills

Glenn MacGrady

Staff member
Oct 24, 2012
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"By seeing how quickly and cleanly you can put the canoe through the phases you will get an immediate assessment of your skill as a paddler. Not only does it demonstrate your weaknesses and strengths, but it rewards you with evidence of quicker and cleaner paddling as you repeat the drill and improve."

Charles Burchill doing an English Gate pattern (there are many) Canadian style in a tandem canoe—kneeling centralized and heeled to maximize turning ability and bow stroke reach:

The legendary John Sweet in 1971 doing an English Gate sequence in an inherently more maneuverable short canoe, a decked Hahn, with some rolls included for whitewater proficiency:

Keith from White Rose led an English gates session at Maine Canoe Symposium last year. Seems like good practice. Interesting that Sweet's movements seem more jerky, but I guess he's staying closer to the gate.
I have paddled my share of gates in my life. In fact, to this day, on every river I paddle, in every craft, I dissect each section, "as though" it was a slalom course with gates to be navigated with precision. I even do upstream gates around floating leaves. I cannot imagine another way for me to paddle. It is how I feel fulfilled.

As an aside, I would also say, this mindset offers strategic advantages as well, and broadens one's horizons, by breaking difficult water, (that's a subjective term), down into its component parts. It grows technique, and confidence. Any piece of class1 water can be turned into class 2, and so forth, with this outlook. If that is what you want.

Paddling gates reminds me of a couple of stories from the past.

Back in the 70s and 80s, (up on New England rivers anyway), there was a comical dichotomy about Eastern vs. Western boaters, that went something, like this.....Western boaters simply throw themselves down their rivers with no regard to technique while Eastern boaters, paddle slalom gates on stagnant duck ponds. That story is credited to "Soko" I believe.

Another story stems from the 80s, I was paddling a good bit of C2 and OC2 back then with a small handful of good boaters and we invented a number of slalom and river running moves.

If Glenn MacGrady is the mod I think he is, he will read this and recall our reverse eddy turns and reverse peel outs we used to do in his Millbrook ME, OC2. Great boat.
If Glenn MacGrady is the mod I think he is, he will read this and recall our reverse eddy turns and reverse peel outs we used to do in his Millbrook ME, OC2. Great boat.

Can't believe I missed this post from my old friend and canoe companion, TomP. Yes, we used to play the 16 miles of the Dead River in Maine so long in that ME tandem with all our experimental moves and attainments that we'd be just about the last of the hundreds of Labor Day paddlers back into camp at Webb's. We also used to tandem roll the ME at AMC skill events in hotel pools.
Maybe this belongs in a DM, I don't know but here goes..

Glenn, glorious memories of The Dead & West Forks, an annual pilgrimage that still holds a dear place in my life. Reverse eddy turns, reverse peel outs, attainments, cross stern strokes, MEs, Hydra Duets, debates on quartering, power paddling, and of course, the famous "jump out", born at Elephant Rock. 'Nuff said about that move.

I also vividly recall our road trips to West Va., and I am compelled to offer the following about that.

In those days, there was no internet, video tech was in its infancy. We had no fore knowledge of our next river. We were armed with only the original copy of the Burrell and Davidson guidebook and a box of county maps to figure the shuttles, low water bridges, etc, before getting on the river. Most of those creeks were quite remote and not scoutable in advance.

It was as close as regular people like us, with jobs to go back to, and without sponsorships could get to the pure exploratory experience. Our trips were therefore thrilling with the anticipation of the unknown. They represent for me, a bygone era of adventure, places, and people that I will always remember.
I was paddling in a tidal creek this morning at slack tide, and I wanted a little more exercise than I was getting out of the sliver of time available to me. Paddling past a series of piers, I vaguely remembered reading something about "English gates." I whipped out my phone and revisited this post (after disregarding my first google search that yielded myriad pictures of the English countryside...) and watched the videos above. Huzzah!


Paddling these patterns is a lot of fun and got me working much harder than I had been before, especially a lot more effort from my core muscles. It also seems a good way to breakdown some techniques and approximate some whitewater training on flatwater, akin to what @TomP mentions above. A little breeze and the restart of tidal flow added to the difficultly too.

"By seeing how quickly and cleanly you can put the canoe through the phases you will get an immediate assessment of your skill as a paddler.

The Becky Mason quote above rings true. My own assessment of my paddling is "not very good!" Ha! I'm looking forward to more practice.
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When I teach canoe paddling to guides, I put out a line series of anchored floats to do the same thing. S-turns and figure 8's. The best one is the final float where we do a buoy turn, as if at the turn around point during a race on a lake or wide river. I always like to do those, since from the bow I initiate the turn after the stern paddler has set us up with a wide enough approach angle. We both kow exactly where we need to be. The goal is to put the turn buoy at the apex point of our turn arc and to just miss the buoy with my paddle flipping above it during a strong power draw pull around it. the stern draws opposite to straighten us out for the 180 return. Mid paddlers (in a C4 or voyageur keep the speed and power going). Great fun and super training.