Freestyle boats come in for a lot of jesting from those who are uncomfortable with trying one. Are the derogatory comments deserved?
The partial title of this post “Where’s the rest of your boat?” reflects a comment that many a paddler in a freestyle boat will be familiar with. A reference to the current short, stubby nature of modern playboat designs. This along with “Where are your legs?” are amongst many a good natured jest. But it does speak to something deeper, with many paddlers having a very firm opinion that they will never been seen to paddle such a playboat.
The irony is that many such paddlers want to get better at kayaking, and improve their confidence. Freestyle would be one of the best ways to achieve that in a safe environment. Don’t just take my word for it. Many of the worlds best paddlers such as Rush Sturges and Pat Keller are on record as stating the same. Alluding to previous articles I have produced here, pushing yourself further on easier water is the way to prepare yourself for the harder stuff. Not running harder stuff, getting beatered a lot, to use modern “paddle speak”, and then hoping you will gradually get beatered less!
So why then does freestyle often get a bit of a bad rap when it comes to the attitudes of a fair few kayakers today? For some it is the lack of the “badass” factor. Playing about at somewhere like Cardiff or on a small wave doesn’t allow the brag factor like running some Grade 5 knar somewhere. It seems that if you’re not charging in a big creek boat, you’re not boating. It’s an attitude that needs to change.
Incredibly there are people out there who regard anything less than G4 as flat water! Like running lower grades, some are almost apologetic for going in a playboat. “I’m only in this boat because I’ve been told it will be good for my paddling” is a similar phrase to one I have heard a good few times.
It has been suggested by some circles, particularly in the US, that the clean, family image of freestyle projected by the likes of the Jackson clan has also turned some against it, somehow viewing it as a bit naff. A hugely mistaken, narrow, and misplaced view in my opinion. Particularly when you watch people like Bren Orton compete on the huge waves of the Ottawa such as The Ruins, or Cuban wave on Itanda Falls on the White Nile.
For others it is the competitive sport image that it has. Freestyle is a competitive discipline, and that connotation rankles with some people’s sensitivities, despite the fact that at heart it is simply something you can mess around doing for fun. You don’t need a short stumpy modern boat in order to playboat.
Performing tricks well does take practice though, and this aspect, again, is something that can be an unpopular thought. It is amazing to think that to get good at something you need to practice, isn’t it?! Another reason that is used is that some of the best places to practice freestyle when the rivers are low is at places like CIWW and HPP, “concrete channels” as they are sometimes referred to, derisively.
The real factors
But some of the primary factors that prevent a lot of paddlers from giving freestyle a proper go are these. Firstly having a go at freestyle means going upside down… a lot. When you start out, this inevitably means taking a few swims. When many people have reached a point in their river running development where they rarely capsize or swim any more, psychologically it can seem like a step back to end up swimming or going over a lot again. This can be a huge mental block for some.
Even more amazingly is that I have known some paddlers to see the mere act of capsizing, even if they roll up successfully, as a failure of some type.
However, to digress for a moment, let’s rewind a bit to look at what irks many paddlers on rivers, and the reasons why many of them attend coached courses.
- They want to get better at paddling.
- They want to be more confident on the river.
- They want to be more in control of their boat.
- They want to improve their roll.
On each and every kayaking course I have ever attended, without exception those four reasons will be mentioned prominently in every single pre-paddle briefing in course participants objectives and desires. The course then proceeds, and the student learns lots of stuff about strategies for running rapids, how to spot lines etc. All very important things. But fundamentally what is often missed is the “why” of their objectives. In other words, why they have those hangups in the first place.
When we look at or run a rapid our minds are full of “what if’s”. If we look at some beginner and intermediate paddlers, why do they lack confidence on the river? Why are they not in control of their boat? Lack of experience is one answer, but such issues can still occur even if the paddler in question has the skills but underestimates their abilities.
Much of the time such people will look at a rapid, and this is what is really going through their heads.
- If I go over, my roll might fail and I will swim.
- That stopper will slow me down, and I’ll get stuck in it, and then swim.
- That wave train looks like I’ll lose my balance and go over, my roll will fail, and I’ll swim.
- I don’t want to swim down that rapid.
Hmmm, a bit of a running theme going on there! Why are they worried about those things? It is because the fundamental aspects of kayaking that allow them to take control of such situations, such as stroke timing, balance, rolling ability in moving water, and wave/stopper skills are not there. Or at the very least the paddler doesn’t have the confidence in their ability to carry them out. The latter in particular because maybe, just like I used to do, they avoided putting themselves in those situations to practice, even if it was safe to do so.
Let the big bathtub gather dust in the summer
Using the summer season to allow the big bathtub creekboat to gather dust while getting into a small playboat instead, and learning a few wave/hole tricks would achieve the following.
- They would get to practice rolling again and again and again in a safe environment, in a totally live and unpredictable way. The resultant effect being a bomb proofing of the roll. And the result of that being much more confidence in the roll in unpredictable situations, which in turn bolsters confidence.
- The increased ability to roll even when tired and short of breath.
- Improved stroke timing.
- Hugely improved balance in rough and unpredictable conditions and in all types of body positions.
- Hugely improved and refined edge control.
- A stronger core.
- The ability to relax and enjoy the idea of going over rather than seeing it as something to be avoided at all costs.
Improving all of those aspects would help the participants river running confidence and skills considerably.
Leap of faith
And yet, for many, that ability to take a leap of faith and eat a few words to try it, is elusive. I can speak from experience. I have only been paddling for around 7 years now, but for nearly five of those I avoided playboating with any degree of commitment. I was the guy who on river trips sat in the eddy watching everybody else surfing and having fun when a good wave or stopper was found.
I thought playboats were silly, slow boats that encouraged bad paddling technique. Playboating to me was just stylised capsizing and consisted of random mishaps rather than real skill. But as time went on I made a discovery. I was wrong. Totally and utterly wrong.
Playboats, if you find the right one, can be tremendous fun down river as well (remember, a playboat doesn’t have to be short and stumpy). And if you have good paddling technique to begin with, playboating won’t make it worse. It is you who decides what technique, good or bad, to use! In fact I found out that playboats give you instant feedback on everything you need to improve. I stopped being a luddite and started to enjoy myself.
My girlfriend, Emily, found the same thing. She was quite apprehensive about getting into a playboat at first. However, one time at CIWW she got into my Dagger G-force, and that was that. She never looked back (and I rarely got to paddle it any more!) She felt much more comfortable in that small boat than any of the river runners or creekers she had owned previously. She began to stick herself into waves and holes, and her roll has now come on tremendously. Her white water roll is actually getting better and more reliable than mine!
Where previously she would have avoided putting herself into situations where she might go over, she now plays around doing tailies on eddy lines, and going over doesn’t phase her. And all because she took a leap of faith, got herself into a playboat and started playing. She took loads of swims at first, but it only took her a few weeks before she was coming up far more than she was swimming. The development was that quick.
These days paddling a big boat is the fashion. Charging down river, taking the racing line, and flare boofing off everything. It’s a lot of fun! The Pyranha 9R is the current must-have bit of gear. With it’s epic boofing abilities, momentous speed, sporty edges and flat hull, for those with the skills and experience it can really open up the river. But all things in balance. If you focus only on one type of paddling you will miss out on a whole other set of useful skills.
Thankfully some of the old school boats such as the RPM are making a comeback in popularity as well. But if we are talking about beginners and intermediates, the short boats offer a type of feedback and tricks ability that will improve everything from balance and core strength, through to flexibility, and proper rotation much more readily.
A very important factor to remember is that many of the boaters that we see tearing up the rivers in videos are usually all actually pretty darn good freestyle boaters already as well. If you take any of the best boaters in the world, and many of the best coaches in the UK, a large percentage of them have some sort of freestyle background. Even if it was rodeo back in the days of the longer boats for those of a certain vintage.
Rush Sturges, Evan Garcia, Benny Marr, Pat Keller, Aniol Serrasolses, Eric Jackson, Dane Jackson, Emily Jackson, Adriene Levknecht, Mariann Saether, Clay Wright, Nick Troutman on a worldwide spectrum, through to Ross Montandon, Lowri Davies, Chris Brain, and Simon Westgarth, on a UK level (to name only a few) all have extensive experience with freestyle. Many of them are freestyle champions on a worldwide and European scale, even if they might usually be best known now for their creekboating and river skills.
There is something to be said for this in that although many coaches in the UK have a pretty solid, or even exceptional, freestyle background or ability, many do not coach these skills extensively or openly, with the exception of people like Lowri Davies and Chris Brain. Despite those very skills being intrinsically related to their own paddle skills development and confidence. Preferring instead to focus on coaching down river skills and strategy.
Business and popularity
Part of the reason for this is that business is business, and for many of the reasons I have outlined above, freestyle courses are not in huge demand. Freestyle itself is a very niche subset of kayaking these days. When Emily and I have attended short freestyle workshops at CIWW during Paddlefest days, we are usually the only ones who have booked on. Selfishly, we aren’t complaining, because it means we get more one to one coaching! Yet paddlers who avoid the “silly short boats” are missing out on a lot of fun!
A case in point is the practice of freestyle on flat water. One of the beautiful things about a short freestyle boat is that not only can you make good use of all the small surfable weirs and artificial courses, but on a warm day when you have a hour to spare, you can hit a flat water river somewhere and still practice tricks. I am always amazed at just how much fun this is to do. The fact that you can take a flat, benign venue and turn it into a playground is fantastic. For those of us who have to travel at least 2hrs for any decent white water, this is a major bonus.
I am sometimes asked too, why I would prefer to mess around at a place like CIWW or a weir in the summer, when I could be on a mountain bike or walking up a mountain in a natural environment when the rivers are low. Both Emily and I go walking into the hills and mountains regularly. We enjoy such environments as much as the next person. But we also really enjoy being in and around the water, wherever that may be, often going to the beach. Mucking about in a boat on a wave on a hot summers day, pausing for a civilised cup of tea and cake to watch the world go buy, even if it is in a “concrete channel”, really does take some beating!
Give freestyle a proper go. You never know, you might actually enjoy it!