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Tom Foster's Classic Video on Solo Whitewater Technique

Glenn MacGrady

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Here is a three-part video on solo whitewater technique by Tom Foster, who was the chief of all paddling instruction for the ACA for many years, headed the Outdoor Center of New England, wrote paddling books, raced whitewater slalom, co-designed the Mad River Outrage and Outrage X, sold and custom outfitted canoes, and taught paddling for decades. I believe this set of videos was taken from his popular DVD called Catch Every Eddy—Surf Every Wave.

You will notice basic things about his technique right away before you can execute any of the river maneuvers properly.

1. You must be centralized in the canoe, not just for trim, but because all on-side and off-side forward strokes are initiated and completed in the bow quadrants.
2. You must have an instinctive and effective cross-forward stroke.
3. You must be comfortable J-leaning your canoe to both sides, preferably right down to the gunwales.
4. You must learn to initiate and maintain a carving arc because you will always be paddling in a circle of some diameter, even when going "straight".

These videos are long and may not be for everyone, but if you can master what Tom teaches, you can become a confident an advanced level solo canoeist. (For some reason, you may have to roll the videos back to the beginning.)



 
Thanks for these, Glenn. I attended a weekend seminar taught by Tom I think back in the early 1990s. One thing I remember about it was after the first day on the water I was so sore from doing moves I was unaccustomed to that I couldn't sleep much that night. Part of that was my arthritis, but certainly not all of it. It was one intense weekend.
 
Great videos. I've watched them several times since posters on another forum recommended them. His accent and manner is just as much a reason to watch as is the instruction.

Ok, at this time, I'm going to talk about the aff-side kaave.
 
I just watched the first video and it's good info even if you are only a flat water paddler. Coincidently I was just carving on side and off side circles from the stern seat of my 20' White and I didn't know they were a "thing".
 
Thanks for posting these. I discovered these about a month ago and have watched the full series 3 times.

I find it very counterintuitive. When performing a forward stroke (whether normal or crossforward), I am accustomed to the canoe always turning away from whichever side my paddle happens to be on. I'm a righty, like Tom, so if I do a forward stroke on the right side, my canoe normally turns to my left. If I bring my paddle over my canoe on the left side and do a crossforward stroke on the left side, my canoe normally turns to the right.

When Tom initiates turns, that is exactly what happens -- at first, at any rate. To carve to his right, for example he takes one or two crossforward strokes (remember he is a righty so the paddle is on the left during the crossforward) and those strokes move his canoe away from his paddle to the right. So far so good. But that's when stuff gets weird (to me). To continue carving toward his right, he switches to his regular forward stroke (paddle now on right side) and instead of that stroke moving the canoe left, the canoe continues to carve to the right.

A carve to his left similarly starts normally -- i.e. 1-2 regular forward strokes (paddle on right side), moving canoe to the left. But then he switches to the crossforward (paddle on the left) and the canoe still carves left.

As confusing as I found this, I was intrigued enough to try practicing it mostly on flatwater in my whitewater canoe. I can kind of get the canoe to carve to the right with only onside forward strokes (again I'm a righty) well in the front of the knee; but it isn't as easy as he makes it look, and I find that I need to cheat a bit and almost use a C stroke in front of the knee to do it.
 
I find it very counterintuitive.

As confusing as I found this, I was intrigued enough to try practicing it mostly on flatwater in my whitewater canoe. I can kind of get the canoe to carve to the right with only onside forward strokes (again I'm a righty) well in the front of the knee; but it isn't as easy as he makes it look, and I find that I need to cheat a bit and almost use a C stroke in front of the knee to do it.
alsg,
It is counterintuitive, but it's all in nuances of boat lean and how far from the boat those onside strokes are done. Set the circle going with the offside stroke or two and correct boat lean, and then switch to onside strokes close to the boat, and when needed -- just every once in a while -- taking a stroke farther from the boat to straighten it out, keep the boat from turning too tightly towards the paddling side. Learn it in flatwater, because it's less help in whitewater with currents and waves slapping the boat from all directions, but does work even there for short periods between changes in currents.
 
I find it very counterintuitive.

It is counterintuitive.

If, for example, you are a righty and start the boat carving to your on-side to the right—most easily with a couple of cross-forward strokes, but alternatively with an on-side under-hull deep C stroke—and if you heel (J-lean) the canoe*, the water will start piling up on the left bow (off-side) of your canoe, which Tom calls the "side of opposition". (The side of opposition, a term most often used when carving or side-slipping, is the side of the canoe against which the water is piling up, thereby applying a water pressure differential.) The water piling on the left bow, and the concomitant lower water pressure on the right bow, causes the hull to want to keep deflecting in a circle turn to the right, inertially and automatically and persistently.

To counterbalance this rightward deflection inertia, you paddle on the right with no correction. If you paddle close to the boat and weakly, the boat will continue a fairly tight circle to the right. As you increase the force of your on-side (righty) strokes, or increase your stroke frequency, or increase your stroke distance from the canoe (but not sweeping past your knee), you will open up the circle into larger and larger diameters.

As you practice a lot with increasing stroke forces, stroke rates and stroke distances from the canoe—which you should do on calm, windless flat water—you can learn to go in such a wide diameter circle that you are paddling essentially straight ahead with NO CORRECTION NECESSARY! Charlie Wilson calls this the inside circle forward stroke. I've always called it the carve balancing forward stroke since John Berry taught it to me in 1983.

* The natural tendency of a hull to carve well and how strongly will vary with different hull shapes and rockers. The direction of the accompanying J-lean also varies from hull to hull. In a highly rockered whitewater canoe such as Tom's Outrage, the carve is likely to be stronger with a J-lean (heel) toward the inside of the circle (what freestyle lingo calls an axle turn). In low rocker touring canoes, the hull may carve more strongly with a heel to the outside of the circle (what freestyle calls a post turn). In some canoes, you can carve equally well no matter which way you heel it.

The key is always to build up enough differential water pressure on one side of the canoe's bow quarter that the canoe wants to turn away from that pressure and keep turning away.

The reason that Tom emphasizes that whitewater paddling involves carve balancing "in circles" is because surgical moves in rapids are usually very short forward bursts followed by a turn into an eddy, out of an eddy, S-ferrying across a river, or spinning in the middle of a rapid—all without having to worry about correction strokes.

It's obvious that to employ Tom's technique effectively, you MUST have a highly efficient cross-forward stroke. This takes many hours of practice initially on flat water, and then many further hours in increasing hard whitewater because you have no off-side bracing ability when on a cross-forward stroke. Cross-forward stoking in or across heavy hydraulics is a sophisticated balancing act that requires a lot of confidence built on experience because you are precariously near a dump. I've paddled a lot of class 4 rapids in my day, and I don't think I ever had as strong a cross-forward as Tom Foster in big water. I'd use an on-side strern pry (river-J) in some circumstances instead, which does kill momentum and velocity as Tom points out in the video.

Tom's surgical dissection of a class 4 rapid starting at 22:50 of the third video is Dragon's Tooth Rapid on the Monroe Bridge (Dryway) section of the Deerfield River in Massachusetts.
 
Tom's surgical dissection of a class 4 rapid starting at 22:50 of the third video is Dragon's Tooth Rapid on the Monroe Bridge (Dryway) section of the Deerfield River in Massachusetts.

Here is a video of some canoeists and kayakers running Dragon's Tooth. None of them dissect the rapid with sophisticated eddy turns and ferries the way Tom Foster does. That's either because they don't need to, don't want to or, far most likely, don't know how to. "Getting through" or "blasting down" or "surviving" a hard rapid—although that does require experience and skill—is not the same thing as "paddling" it.

 
I just watched the first video and it's good info even if you are only a flat water paddler. Coincidently I was just carving on side and off side circles from the stern seat of my 20' White and I didn't know they were a "thing".
Just to be clear, I was carving circles, but not exactly like he did in the video. I was using forward and cross forward strokes but was turning away from the side I was paddling on. I could carve the boat towards my paddle side eliminating the need for correction, but any circle I potentially could carve would have been too big of a radius for WW maneuvers. Fun stuff to work on though.

The "side of opposition" was new info to me and will be helpful in the future.
 
I was just carving on side and off side circles from the stern seat of my 20' White and I didn't know they were a "thing".

You're a special case, Al.

I'd like try the carve balancing (AKA bow pinning, AKA inside circle) forward stroke in that canoe from the stern. I suspect I could get the canoe to carve toward my paddle side and heel into the carve, but I'm not sure how long the "straightness" could be maintained from the stern position. Foster's entire technique emphasizes the foward stoke being taken entirely in front of midships, where the off-side yawing force of the forward stroke will be minimal. At the stern, the leverage will be such that the off-side yawing force of forward strokes will be maximal. Hence, I wonder if I would too quickly overpower or out-balance the on-side carve with forward strokes from the stern.

All these experiments are good because they contribute to improved paddle feel and boat control, even if they are not used as practical traveling or turning strokes.

The "side of opposition" was new info to me and will be helpful in the future.

The side of opposition is important in side-slipping. When side-slipping, you will reduce water pressure resistance by heeling up the side of opposition. For example, if you are side-slipping toward your paddle side with a static or dynamic draw, the slip is more efficient if you heel up the paddle side of your canoe, which is the side of opposition pushing against the water, rather than heeling that side down toward your paddle, which initially seems more intuitive and natural and which most people do.

So also for a side-slip to your off side with a running pry: You would heel down toward your paddle side so the side of opposition—your off-side, which is piling up water—is heeled up.
 
Thanks for your input Glenn. Like I said above, I was turning away from my paddle side when I was carving circles, so no great feat. I also don't know exactly what bow jamming is, but if that's what's making his boat carve like that then I'd say it's critical for WW. My bow isn't even in the water, so it's not part of my bag of tricks, but it sounds like a momentum killer on flat water to me. I'm going to disagree that the amount of yaw from paddling amidship is less than that from paddling from the stern, in my big boats anyway. I think that paddling close to the centerline of the boat creates a lot less. It's counter intuitive that you would get less yaw from a centralized position, unless it relies on bow pinning.

I was paddling my 18' OT Guide today kneeling in the center in a stiff wind. I was paddling in front of the center thwart but still had to start my stroke with a C to prevent immediate yaw. What am I missing?
 
the slip is more efficient if you heel up the paddle side of your canoe, which is the side of opposition pushing against the water, rather than heeling that side down toward your paddle, which initially seems more intuitive and natural and which most people do.
Tom's video demonstrates that doing an onside sculling draw. It was exactly opposite of what I had been doing. I tried doing Tom's way (he leans back and away from his paddle) and it does indeed work better than leaning toward the paddle.
 
the slip is more efficient if you heel up the paddle side of your canoe, which is the side of opposition pushing against the water, rather than heeling that side down toward your paddle, which initially seems more intuitive and natural and which most people do.

Tom's video demonstrates that doing an onside sculling draw. It was exactly opposite of what I had been doing. I tried doing Tom's way (he leans back and away from his paddle) and it does indeed work better than leaning toward the paddle.

If you lean (heel) toward your paddle during an on-side drawing slip, the water piles up just below your gunwale and offers relatively more resistance than if you lean the hull away from the slip direction, in which case the water offers less resistance by flowing more freely under your hull.
 
I was turning away from my paddle side when I was carving circles, so no great feat.

That's not the feat that Foster is illustrating. It's the opposite. The "on-side inside circle" drill is making your canoe continuously turn toward your paddle side in a circle while forward stroking, and being able to tighten or widen the radius of circle at will, all from your from your on-side foward strokes. If you widen the radius enough, the canoe will almost be going straight without the need of a correction on your forward stroke.

I personally don't think that's an efficient forward traveling stroke on flat water because you continuously have a bow wave piling up on your off-side bow plane. That causes resistance.

I also don't know exactly what bow jamming is

That's how the canoe continues in an on-side circle even though you are forward stroking on the on-side: water piles up on the off-side bow plane and forces the canoe to "carve" to the on-side. You have to heel the canoe to create and sustain the carve. Which way you heel depends on the canoe's hull shape.

My bow isn't even in the water

That would certainly work against this technique. I don't know how much. I've never paddled a 20' canoe at all, much less solo from the stern. As I said, I'd like to try. I suspect if you can juice the canoe to turn toward the on-side and heel to that on-side, some sort of on-side carve could be created by the pile up of water pressure on the off-side of the hull aft of the bow. How much, I know not.

I'm going to disagree that the amount of yaw from paddling amidship is less than that from paddling from the stern, in my big boats anyway. I think that paddling close to the centerline of the boat creates a lot less.

That's a reasonable point. You are closer to the center line in the stern, but I'm not sure how that interacts with the huge lever arm you have in the stern, which is way behind the canoe's pivot point. Paddling behind a canoe's pivot point will naturally yaw that canoe to the off-side. In your case, the very long length of the canoe helps resist the yaw.

One must also consider the width and lengths of the canoes. Foster is paddling a 12' canoe that's only 25.5" wide at the gunwales, and he's doing the entire power phase of the forward stroke from ahead of the canoe's pivot point. To paddle a 20' canoe efficiently from a centralized position would essentially be impossible for 5-9 me; it would be much too wide. The best I could do would be to heel the canoe way over "Canadian style", which would shorten the waterline. As I say, I'm not sure how all these changing dynamics would affect the on-side inside circle drill.

I do know that I've never seen any solo whitewater paddler do so from the stern of an untrimmed canoe. I've seen videos of solo stern paddlers in gear laden and trimmed canoes making straight shots through mild rapids, but you can't play rapids that way, which is what Foster is advocating and teaching.
 
I just figured out bow jamming. First I assumed I needed more weight towards the bow, if not bow heavy, at least a flat trim. Second, was starting with offside strokes to start the carve. Third was to maintain the lean and the carve when switching to onside forward strokes. It worked surprisingly well with very little perceptible correction in my forward stroke, but with quite a bit of lean.

I first tried it with a bow heavy trim kneeling at the front thwart to get the feel for it. Then I moved back to kneeling on the center thwart and repeated it. Finally I was able to repeat it while kneeling behind the center thwart with my knees under it, a pretty flat trim. The key, I found, is to get the carve started before switching to forward strokes. It's fun learning something new, now I'm going to go brush my teeth and eat breakfast.

Glenn, I don't plan on doing any WW while seated in the stern seat. I had a day trip planned for the upper Delaware this summer that fell through. It would have included a couple rapids. My plan was to paddle it kneeling from the stern thwart with the option of standing with a long paddle or pole, allowing me to adjust to a bow heavy trim. Standing with the paddle would also enable me to more easily paddle on both sides of the boat from a centralized position.
 
I do know that I've never seen any solo whitewater paddler do so from the stern of an untrimmed canoe. I've seen videos of solo stern paddlers in gear laden and trimmed canoes making straight shots through mild rapids, but you can't play rapids that way, which is what Foster is advocating and teaching.
Well, here is one paddler I know who has paddled some pretty significant whitewater solo from the stern of an unladen and untrimmed (and un-outfitted as well) tandem canoe. This is "Bookem Danno" going over Baby Falls on the Tellico ledges. He used to also paddle the Lower Yough this way. But he marches to the beat of a somewhat different drummer. So did Tom Foster, for that matter.
 

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The key, I found, is to get the carve started before switching to forward strokes.

Yes, absolutely.

If you are starting from a stopped position, you must start the on-side carve with some off-side strokes first. If you are practiced with cross-forward strokes, as Foster demonstrates, you can use those. Otherwise, you would have to start with your paddle on the off-side, take some sweep strokes to start the carving turn, heel the canoe, and then switch the paddle back to your on-side forward stroke.

If you are already paddling underway when you start the drill with your paddle on-side, you can goose the canoe into an on-side turn with an on-side deep C stroke, heel the canoe, and then go back to forward strokes when you feel the carving resistance build up on the off-side bow. At least I can goose a short canoe with a deep C stroke. I've been a little hesitant throughout to predict what happens in the long canoes you paddle. You might get a stronger carve in a long canoe by heeling to the outside of the turn, but then you would be on-side forward stroking over a raised gunwale, which is a little klutzy.

It's fun learning something new

That's the point: learning different ways of boat control. The technique is mainly useful in whitewater, which is the forum we're in, but the drill should be first practiced and mastered in calm water, as Foster and most anyone would advise.
 
The "on-side inside circle" drill is making your canoe continuously turn toward your paddle side in a circle while forward stroking, and being able to tighten or widen the radius of circle at will, all from your from your on-side foward strokes. If you widen the radius enough, the canoe will almost be going straight without the need of a correction on your forward stroke.
I find that pinning the bow on flat water in my 13.5 ft. sport canoe (2.5 in. symmetrical rocker) can be quite effective in that, as you suggest, I can paddle with little or no correction so the paddle strokes are short and efficient. And typically it works best if there's a slight breeze to help in keeping the bow pinned.

I personally don't think that's an efficient forward traveling stroke on flat water because you continuously have a bow wave piling up on your off-side bow plane. That causes resistance.
I think it's a matter of scale and degree; a heavier lean with plenty of bow wave to carve a tight turn vs a lighter lean with a touch of bow wave to provide some resistance to the yaw created by the forward stroke. That's with some rocker; in a fast 16.5 ft. solo cruiser (no rocker) it's easier to keep the hull flat, use a bent shaft paddle, and just switch sides every 5 to 7 strokes.
 
Well, here is one paddler I know who has paddled some pretty significant whitewater solo from the stern of an unladen and untrimmed (and un-outfitted as well) tandem canoe. This is "Bookem Danno" going over Baby Falls on the Tellico ledges. He used to also paddle the Lower Yough this way. But he marches to the beat of a somewhat different drummer. So did Tom Foster, for that matter.

Well, those southern boaters do some interesting stuff. Randy Carter wrote a famous whitewater book in the early 1970's with pictures of running empty tandem canoes in rapids. Not that I would do it, but I can almost see a boof-landing benefit of running a straight shot over a falls from the stern. I don't imagine Danno had a roll.
 
Current makes paddling counterintuitive. I’m still learning to be be consistent. Sometimes I feel like I nailed a feature and sometimes like I was lucky. I’ll definitely watch these.
 
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