Moore Canoeing

Sport Canoeing Skills Philosophy

Owning the skills to get the most from your canoeing equipment is in many ways more important than owning fine equipment. Here we outline exactly what those skills are, so that you can begin to discover the endless variety of motions that they make possible upon the water. 2011 Note: There is a LOT of material here, not meant for a quick read, rather, this page is meant as a reference that you may wish to return to again and again as your sport canoeing skills and understanding deepen.

(Terms in this article that are shown in red will be linked to our glossary and other articles in the future.)

Defining the Purpose

In Sport Canoeing, our purpose is to move upon the water with precision and grace, as naturally as is humanly possible. Individual sport canoeists may have more specific, personal purposes. To move upon the water with precision and grace, as naturally as is humanly possible, however, is the umbrella purpose that binds us together.

Describing All Conceivable Motions

Here, we are not talking about canoe strokes, we are talking about all possible motions of any object, anywhere.

six degrees of freedomIn Sport Canoeing, the model we use for describing these motions is the six degrees of freedom. This model uses the fact that space has three dimensions and that two kinds of motion are possible in each dimension: An object can move along the length of a dimension, called translation, or it can rotate around it, called rotation.

The six degrees of freedom double when you consider that each translation and rotation can occur in one direction, natural, or the other, reverse.

The six degrees of freedom will be applied to the motion of a canoe, below.

Defining the Technique

To discuss canoeing technique, it is necessary to introduce canoeing equipment—even though, ideally, the equipment is subordinate to the technique. Trust me on this for a moment, and we will return to it in the next section. To better understand how these ideas are developed, you may also want to look at the spiral theory of knowledge, which, like the six degrees of freedom, has universal applications.

Ultimately, however, to move upon the water, no special equipment is necessary. You can use a technique called swimming. But our bodies, so good for moving upon the land, are poor equipment for moving through the water. And swimming requires that you get wet—usually an unpleasant experience outside of highly controlled environments.

But what if your body were more fluidly shaped—say, twice as long, half as wide, no appendages—and to help you better cut the water, you had a pointed head!? And what if this new aquatic body could keep your land body comfortable and dry? Now you're out there in style! These are the premises for the modern sport canoe.

We aren't finished, however. To move your new aquatic body, we can do better than the hands you were born with for paddles, and the poor strength and leverage of only your arms to work them. What if you had a hand six times as big, with the ideal shape for propelling you and the strength of your entire torso behind it? That's your cue.

Now, in possession of an imagined canoe and cue, we can begin in earnest to define the Sport Canoeing techniques for moving upon the water with precision and grace, as naturally as possible.

It is impossible to do this all in one sitting—again, I'll refer you to the spiral theory of knowledge—but we can lay a sound foundation for the technique and its terminology.

Canoe Motion Terminology

The terminology for Sport Canoeing technique is very simple, considering the huge complexity of movements it describes. When possible, we have clung dearly to traditional canoeing terminology, but much of the traditional lexicon is very concrete bound, with some strokes named for people—and even ski moves!—because someone, somehow, at some time thought it was appropriate. The old terminology was acceptable when canoes were used primarily for utilitarian purposes, but Sport Canoeing has expanded canoeing technique many times beyond anything previously considered, and a new, simpler terminology was necessary.

six degrees of freedom applied to canoe motionAt its root, defining Sport Canoeing techniques revolves around moving your canoe—your aquatic body—upon the water. To see how the canoe can be made to move and to give names to those motions, let's look again at the six degrees of freedom, this time applied to the canoe.

Here is how the six degrees of freedom is applied to create the Sport Canoeing motion paradigm:

Translating the:

X axis is called running;

Y axis is called slipping;

Z axis is called lifting.

Rotating on the:

X axis is called heeling;

Y axis is called trimming;

Z axis is called turning.


These are the types of motions. The natural and reverse directions are, respectively:

Running: forward and backward;

Slipping: onside and offside;

Lifting: up and down;

Heeling: onside and offside;

Trimming: fore and aft;

Turning: onside and offside.


That's it! These familiar terms, alone and in combination, describe every possible motion of your canoe.

That's how the canoe moves, but what about the infinite possible motions of your cue—the instrument that moves your canoe?

Cue Technique Terminology

In the broadest sense, all cue motions fall into only three categories: strokes, recoveries, and moves.

In a stroke, the cue moves very little—a few inches at most. Its function is to anchor the cue's blade firmly in the water so that you can apply a force against the water and move the canoe.

Recovery names the techniques for moving the cue's blade from the end of one stroke to the beginning of the next stroke. Recoveries have little immediate effect on the canoe's motion, but the cue often moves a great distance. During a recovery, the cue remains right there in your hands, but you and your cue may travel through space as far as 20 feet or more! There are three classes of recoveries:

Dry recoveries, where the blade travels through the air between strokes;

Wet recoveries, where the blade slices edgewise through the water between strokes;

Combination recoveries, where the recovery is partially wet and partially dry.


Move names the simultaneous performance of a stroke and wet recovery. During a move, force against the water is applied with the blade, moving the boat, while the blade slices edgewise through the water, recovering to ever new locations.

Looking more closely at strokes and moves, in Sport Canoeing, there are only nine family names for all possible strokes and moves. Strokes and moves that cause the canoe to:

move along the Y axis (slip) are called draws;

rotate on the Z axis (turn) around the cue's blade are called axles;

rotate on the X axis (heel) are called braces (in extreme cases: rolls;)

move along the X axis (run) are called (are your ready?)—they're called strokes;

slow in any translation are called brakes.


Oops, that's only five. Rudders, jams and sideslips are three of the others. They are variations of the draw, and will be described more meaningfully after the next section. The final one is sweeps, which is a variation of a stroke. It is executed far from the canoe's center causing the canoe both to run and to turn at the same time. Together, these eight names are the roots of every stroke and move

Root Modifiers

To further define the many possible variations of the eight root strokes and moves, each root can take one or more standard modifiers. When you review the eight sets of modifiers, below, keep in mind that the first member of the first five sets (natural, fore, mid, proper or common) is usually not spoken—it is assumed, and when spoken it is only for clarification.

natural, reverse

fore, back

mid, bow, stern, full

proper, inverted, comic

common, cross

kinetic, static

5 degree, 4 degree, 3 degree, 2 degree, 1 degree



Natural and reverse—In a natural stroke, the natural face of your cue is used for support against the water. (The natural face of a cue is the face in common with the palm of your hand as you hold the top grip; the other face is the reverse face.) Reverse strokes have exactly the same shapes as natural strokes, only in reverse—as if you were watching a movie of a natural stroke in reverse. Reverse strokes also have the exact opposite effect on your canoe's motion, compared to natural strokes. Note that reverse DOES NOT refer to the direction that your canoe travels. Reverse is reserved exclusively for cueing techniques for moving your canoe. A reverse back stroke, for example, will move your canoe forward. Backward, on the other hand, referring to the six degrees of freedom is reserved exclusively for describing the canoe's motion.

All strokes and moves may use the natural and reverse modifiers except for jams. Because proper jams use only the reverse face and inverted jams use only the natural face, neither modifier is needed or appropriate to define jams.

Fore and back—Please distinguish between these terms and the terms forward and backward used to describe a canoe's motion in the six degrees of freedom. Fore is almost never spoken; back is used to indicate a stroke or move that moves a canoe opposite of an equivalent natural stroke while using the natural face of the cue for support. For example, a reverse sweep and back sweep have similar shapes and affects on your canoe's motion, however, the reverse sweep uses the reverse face of the blade for support while the back sweep uses the natural face of the blade. The only exception to this rule is back jams. Jams always use the reverse face of the blade unless they are inverted.

Mid, bow, stern, full—These modifiers refer to where a stroke or move is executed relative to the length of the canoe. For example a bow jam is executed near the front of the canoe, a stern jam is executed near the back of the canoe, and a full sweep extends from the bow, passes amidships and closes near the stern.

Proper, inverted, comic—These modifiers refer to the orientation of the blade. During a proper jam, for example, the natural face of the blade faces the canoe, and the support is on the reverse face. During an inverted jam, the natural face is turned away from the canoe and is also the support face. In some moves it is possible to invert the blade two different ways. The less likely of these two is the comic variation. Comic may also modify back strokes and moves. Again, where two variations of a back stroke or move are even possible (requiring the blade to be rotated 360° from the first), it is the least likely of the two which is the comic variation. Comic strokes and moves seem quite awkward at first—thus the name—but when performed fluidly can produce striking results.

Common, cross—Common modifies every stroke and move executed on the onside, but is almost never spoken. Cross modifies every stroke and move that requires the cue to be crossed over the canoe to the offside for execution, and it must always be spoken.

Kinetic, staticKinetic modifies any stroke or move when the dominant energy for executing it comes directly from you. This includes all strokes and many moves. Static modifies any move when the dominant energy to execute it comes from the existing motion of the canoe. For example, static axle defines a move that converts the running energy of a canoe into a turn. An easy way to differentiate these two terms is to observe that a kinetic stroke or move imparts kinetic energy to the canoe, and a static move consumes the canoe's kinetic energy—slowing or eventually stopping the canoe.

5 degree, 4 degree, 3 degree, 2 degree, 1 degree—X-degree usually modifies moves but can be applied to strokes. These terms refer to the number of degrees of freedom in which a given move carries you. In a first degree axle, for example, as much available energy as possible is converted into turning the canoe. In a fifth degree axle, however, some energy will be used to turn the canoe, but some energy is also used to heel, slip, lift and brake the canoe. This is a vital concept in the efficient operation of a canoe. Sometimes you may want to move in several degrees of freedom at once, but when you want only to move in one degree, isolating and eliminating all other degrees, so that they won't waste energy, will make a dramatic difference in performance. This concept is also the primary reason that the six degrees of freedom translation of the Z axis is included in the Sport Canoe motion paradigm. In a canoe, it is not possible to translate the Z axis—at least not very far—but many canoeists, through poor technique, try. Inadvertently trying to move your canoe vertically is a terrible waste of energy, and awareness of the attempted Z axis translations will help you eliminate this waste.

Sculling—This attribute may modify moves, only. Sculling most often modifies draws and braces. It refers to the technique of slicing the blade from edge to edge, and alternating the pitch of the blade at the end of each slice to allow constant support of one blade face or the other.

Other Technique Terms

Additional names for strokes, moves and combinations may be used if they help communication. Rudders and jams, already mentioned, are a good example of this.

A rudder is really only a sub-category of a draw that is executed near the bow or stern of the canoe. Thus, by causing only one end of the canoe to translate the Y axis the canoe can be turned or otherwise steered.

And a jam is really only a sub-category of a rudder—particularly, either a reverse or inverted rudder. (A reverse and inverted rudder, however, is still a rudder.) Jams deserve a name all their own because they have such distinct qualities.

A rudder is really only a sub-category of a draw that is executed near the bow or stern of the canoe. Thus, by causing only one end of the canoe to translate the Y axis the canoe can be turned or otherwise steered.

A sideslip is also a sub-category of a draw. It is a static draw which moves the canoe directly sideways, to on-side or off-side, and executed with cross, natural, reverse, back and inverted singular or multiple variations.

Here is another example. At Moore Canoeing School, when we introduce the kinetic axle we usually call it the circle stroke because it is friendlier and more descriptive to a beginner. Once a variety of possible modifications has been introduced, however, axle becomes more meaningful.

And we often use plant to describe the critical blade position of a stroke's beginning, the transition point from wet recovery to stroke.

Some of the strokes and moves described in the above examples may be familiar under other names. Call them what you will, but be careful of redundancy, and be sure of the purpose and physics involved. Many popular names are misnomers. For example. while demonstrating a reverse brace during a Sport Canoeing class for advanced whitewater canoeists, it is common to hear a chorus of, "Oh! a righting pry!"...Well...kind of. A traditional pry, though, is really more like a mid jam than a brace, and is used to move a boat on the water plane, translating the Y axis, or rotating on the Z axis. A brace, on the other hand, rotates a canoe on its X axis. A pry will produce a bracing effect, but only a 2 degree brace, at best.

A traditional term with a similar heritage is the turning brace. This move has probably been discovered thousands of times when canoeists observed that a hanging (static) brace also turned the canoe, and, henceforth, was used both as a brace or a turn. In Sport Canoeing, we would call this kind of turn a 4 degree axle; turning brace has no place in the lexicon.

Informally, call moves what you wish. If you prefer to call a 2 degree inverted axle a Christie, or a reverse draw a push-away, go for it.

Defining the Equipment

Sport Canoeing requires only two items of equipment: a cue and a canoe. Each of these is a huge subject in and of itself, and we will post volumes of information about them on this Web site. Immediately, we will only look at this equipment in general terms, based on what we've already discussed about Sport Canoeing's purpose, possible motions and technique.

The Cue

The cue, or its more primitive form, the canoe paddle, is the primary piece of equipment. This is often counter-intuitive to beginners because the canoe is so much bigger—and you actually get inside of it. Ask any expert, however, and he will immediately agree that the canoe paddle is more important than the canoe. Of course, a canoe is essential, but its shape and proportions are defined by your purpose and your technique. And you will notice that nearly everything in our discussion of technique, above, referred to how you handle the cue.

For an example of the subordination of equipment to technique and of the canoe to the paddle, imagine that your purpose for canoeing is simply to travel. Also suppose that you also want to invest as little time as possible in learning new skills, so you decide that the steering technique you use will be to simply switch sides every few strokes. Then you observe that you can maintain a straighter course if you switch sides after every stroke. You realize that it would be less cumbersome to execute this technique if only you had one blade dedicated to each side of your canoe—so you invent a double-bladed paddle. Sitting high on your canoe seat, you find yourself flailing the air with the recovering blade on your long double-bladed paddle, and realize that for every inch closer to the water that you sit, you can make your double-bladed paddle two inches shorter. So you sit on the bottom of your canoe and shorten the paddle to a manageable length. The problem now, however, is that you keep banging your elbows on the gunwales! You resolve that the solution is to make the sides of the canoe lower in order to keep the gunwales out of your way so you can more easily reach the water. But that creates yet another problem—with the sides so low, your canoe has become very unseaworthy, and water keeps splashing in. To solve this final problem, you put a deck on your canoe. What do you have? A kayak. Kayaks are not propelled with double-bladed paddles by some whimsical choice— they were designed (consciously or not) for double-bladed paddles. This is a good schematic example of how purpose determines technique, which determines the paddle design, which determines the boat design. You can't rightly shuffle that deck.

Returning to the Sport Canoeing cue and keeping in mind everything we learned earlier, the cue must be sized and proportioned to match the size and proportions of your body, and designed to use your musculature and the natural lever systems of your body to greatest benefit. Your interface with it—its grips—must have shapes and textures that are natural, comfortable and sure. The blade must be sized and proportioned to anchor firmly in the water, yet be thin enough and properly profiled to slice effortlessly through the water during wet recoveries. It must be straight and perfectly symmetrical so that you can use either the natural or reverse faces indiscriminately, with predictably identical results. It must be light and well-balanced. Together, these features will make a cue seem so much a natural part of you that you will often be unaware that you even hold it in your hands.

With such a cue in your hands, any canoe can be made to perform well. To execute all of the techniques discussed earlier, however, a sport canoe must have a few special qualities.

The Canoe

Above all, a sport canoe must stay out of the way of your cue! This translates to: The canoe should be narrow enough that you can easily reach the water with the cue. This feature makes sport canoes feel much more lively than the utility canoes that most people are accustomed to. The feeling can even be unnerving to beginners, but the liveliness becomes a prized sensation after a little experience.

A sport canoe should heel easily. Heeling can cause a canoe to turn more dramatically than when it is left on an even keel, plus it just feels good. The heel should be smooth and predictable, and it should not require you to throw your weight around excessively to execute it.

The canoe should be asymmetrical. Not just any kind of asymmetry will do. Canoes are made asymmetrical for a variety of reasons. Racing canoes, for example, are made asymmetrical to enhance speed, and some canoes appear to be asymmetrical simply so their designers can call them asymmetrical! Sport canoe asymmetry does enhance speed and efficiency, but, more important, it enhances control.

To understand how this is achieved, we will first examine a symmetrical canoe with reference to five different kinds of centers. This is simpler than it may sound, so hang in there. In a symmetrical canoe, the center of buoyancy is at the physical center of the canoe. For the canoe to trim properly, the center of gravity (you) must also be at the physical center. Finally, the canoe's center of lateral resistance is also at the physical center. (The center of lateral resistance refers to the point in a canoe wherein, if you pulled directly sideways on the point, the canoe would move sideways without turning.) Everything is fine so far.

The problem arises when we examine where the centers of your strokes are. Because humans are not symmetrical—our arms tend to stick out in front of us—our strokes are usually centered ten to twelve inches in front of our bodies, and therefore a perfectly symmetrical stroke will not have a symmetrical effect on a symmetrical canoe.

The solution is to move the center of buoyancy aft so you can move your center of gravity aft—which also moves the center of your stroke aft—while keeping the center of lateral resistance forward, near the center of your strokes. The control that results from this kind of asymmetry is delicious.

Many canoes are made symmetrical today on the rationale that they are used to go backward as often as forward. This is grossly simplistic thinking, and makes as much sense as sport dancers putting toes on the heels of their dance shoes because half the time one partner or the other is walking backward, anyway.

Be warned: You can learn to manage a symmetrical canoe, but it will require you to develop inferior technique.

The final, major distinction of a sport canoe is its interior design. Your sport canoe is an interface between you and the water. It is every bit as important for the interior of the canoe to conform to your human physiology as it is for the outside of the canoe to conform to the properties of water.

It is important that the interior arrangement allows you comfortably to kneel in the canoe. Kneeling is important because it permits only a thin layer of skin (and, perhaps, some padding) between your skeleton and your canoe—allowing you to instantly read and respond to the water beneath you. If you sit on a seat with only your rump and heels in contact with the canoe, you will have little heeling control, and you won't feel much interplay with the water—except maybe when you fall in.

To kneel comfortably, your knees should not be required to carry much of your weight. They should simply be touching the boat—a sensory touch. Compare it to lightly draping your hands on the steering wheel of a sport car—a light touch so you can feel every nuance of the road.

To kneel in this way, your weight can be supported by your rump, thighs, lower legs and even your feet. The best arrangement for achieving this is an ergonomically shaped pedestal situated in the center of the canoe to affect proper trim.

You can think of the pedestal as a large ball joint in the center of your canoe that allows your entire terrestrial body to rise like a giant limb out of your canoe—your aquatic body—able to rotate and reach the water 360 degrees around you. Yummy.

Developing the Skills

Now, with a purpose, technique and equipment in hand, what skills should you learn first and next and next? It will be tempting to try out some of the hot, more advanced moves early on, but, like trying to learn calculus before algebra, it is more likely to lead to frustration than to expertise.

The fastest route to expertise is to approach the skills in the order they are presented in the Solo Sport Canoeing Skills outline. If you wish to strike off on your own to achieve Sport Canoeing expertise, one and all will admire you when you succeed. However, we have observed that only about 1% of the population can do this simply by practicing between reading articles and watching a few videos. The rest of us need live instruction to direct, assess and correct our technique. And even the 1% will greatly benefit from expert coaching.

Articles like this one, and videos like Basic Solo Technique are most valuable for understanding what is possible before you begin and for review after you have engaged in personal instruction.

Put this theory to the test! Bookmark this page so you can read it again after completing a session at the Moore Canoeing School.


© Patrick Moore, Moore Canoeing 2000 - 2019     

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