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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

Strait is the Gate

Taking the Wiggle Test

By Tamia Nelson

July 2, 2002

Strait is the gate, and narrow is the way….

Kayak or canoe, solo or tandem — no matter what sort of boat you favor, yours will have a personality distinct from all others, even from other hulls pulled from the same mold on the same day. Every boat responds in unique ways to each paddle stroke, wave, and weight shift.

Surprised? You shouldn't be. Think of the cars and trucks you've owned. Each vehicle is an individual, with its share of quirks and eccentricities. Canoes and kayaks are no exception. They're much simpler than cars, of course, but watercraft inhabit an interface between two very different worlds. Even a farm pond has more moods than the roughest country road. And not many paddlers stick to farm ponds. Ocean or river, stream, lake, or pond — each is also unique. Wherever you paddle, you'll have to take conditions as they come. Your technique had better be up to the challenge.

All of which amounts to saying that good boat control is essential. But it can't be had by wishing for it, and reading (or watching videos) isn't enough, either. You have to practice regularly — in your boat and on the water. This is as true for experts as it is for rank beginners. No boatman can afford to rest on his oars for long. Each day afloat brings new problems to solve, and every new skill will be tested in new ways. Learning never stops.

OK. Practice makes perfect. But it's easier said than done. Few paddlers have a river or beach on their doorstep. And fewer still have infinite leisure. The hours you spend driving to a distant put-in are time stolen from paddling. What you need is a training tool that can be used anywhere there's water — that farm pond I mentioned earlier, say, or even a swimming pool. Sound too good to be true? It's not. The answer lies in something we Americans call the English gate. (The less reverent Brits call it the "wiggle test," and I like that name better.) Whatever name it goes by, though, it doesn't take much to get started. As the American name suggests, you need a gate: two light poles suspended from a rope will work fine, as will two buoys made from empty bleach bottles tethered to an anchored spacer. Put the poles or buoys three feet apart for solo kayaks, five feet for a tandem canoe, and somewhere in between for a solo canoe or tandem kayak.

What else do you need? A body of water with enough space to pivot your boat on all sides of the gate. It needn't be large. A swimming pool will do for shorty kayaks. Larger boats will need more room, but even tandem canoes can manage in all but the smallest ponds or tiniest bays. Stay on flatwater, at least at first — you'll want to avoid windy days, too — and be sure you have five feet or so of water under you if you intend to roll. That's it.

Once you've made your gate and found a place to put it, you're ready to begin practicing. You need to "work" the gate, paddling through it according to a set plan. The goal? To complete the wiggle test in the shortest possible time, without fouling (touching) either pole or buoy. You'll cheat, of course, unless you're a candidate for sainthood, and maybe even then. No one's watching, after all, and no one's keeping score. But if you don't cheat too often, you'll find that your times get shorter and shorter as you practice, and that you almost never foul the gate. Before you know it, you'll be in the cat-bird seat — in control, your boat responding exactly to every paddle stroke and weight shift. Just enough to do the job, no more and no less. That's what "control" means.

Ready to begin? Then zip up your life jacket, grab your paddle, and head for the water. If you're a complete beginner or a weak swimmer, if the water's cold, or if you just like company, ask someone to come along with you, even if you usually paddle solo. As Farwell will tell you, you can get into big trouble even in a small pond. Once you're on the water, start out slow. Strive for a clean test with no fouls before you try to pick up the pace. Speed will come later.

Here's the standard program:

Check your watch. (It had better be waterproof.) Now paddle forward through the gate from your starting position. (IMPORTANT! Whichever way you're facing, the pole or buoy to your right when you start is always the right-hand pole. The other pole, the pole on your left at the start, is the always the left-hand pole. Remember this.) As soon as your stern clears the gate, pivot around to the right and return the way you came. Then, when you're back at the starting point, pivot left and go forward through the gate once more. Congratulations! You've just completed Phase 1. Your path should look something like that of the expert waterman below:

Like Water...

Time for Phase 2. Back-paddle outside the right-hand pole. When your bow clears, go forward through the gate. Now back-paddle outside the left-hand pole. Are you clear? Then drive forward between the poles again, angling left. Before you know it, Phase 2 is done.

Now back-paddle outside the left-hand pole, but instead of waiting till your bow clears and going forward, execute a reverse pivot and back-paddle through the gate stern first. Once you clear, continue in reverse, pivoting once again and back-paddling through the gate to your starting point. That's it for Phase 3.

Confused? Here's our expert in action. Just follow him.

Off a Duck's Back

You're nearly done. Go forward on the outside of the right-hand pole, reverse through the gate, go forward again around the outside of the left-hand pole, and then back-paddle though the gate for the last time. Whew! You've finished your first wiggle test. Check your watch, then take a break while you figure your elapsed time. As long as that!? Don't be disappointed. And don't rush things. Practice makes perfect. Catch your breath and try again. Concentrate on keeping your act clean. Speed will follow.


It took you less time on the second attempt, didn't it? And you fouled the poles less often, too, I'll bet. Good! It was hard work, though, wasn't it? Don't be surprised — or discouraged. Nothing worth doing is ever easy. You'll get better. And once you've got your time for a clean test down to less than two minutes, you'll be ready for a new challenge. If you're paddling a closed boat, try adding a roll at the end of each outside leg in Phase 2. When that starts getting easy, add rolls at the finish of each outside leg in Phase 4, as well. (If you're of a mind, you can roll an open boat, too. See the 1954 edition of the Red Cross canoe handbook. You end up with a swamped boat, of course, so it's not a practical self-rescue technique in a canoe that doesn't have lots of supplementary flotation. But it can't be denied that it's a great "gee-whiz" stunt. It's not a bad way to cool off on a hot day, either.)

Still too easy? Then it's time to move your gate to a local stream or river. If you're lucky, you'll find an abandoned bridge over a riffle or moving pool. Get the permission of the authorities to hang your gate from the bridge. And you don't have to stop there. After you've mastered one location, move on to other, more challenging sites. The possibilities are infinite. Don't get careless, though. Never practice alone on moving water, and always wear a helmet if you're in a closed boat — or if you're planning on rolling any boat. Your head's worth protecting.


Whatever you do, and wherever you do it, keep practicing. Good boat control is the hallmark of the competent paddler, and there's no better way to build your skill than by working a gate. The Apostle Matthew may not have been a fisherman, but it seems likely he knew a thing or two about handling small boats. "Strait is the gate," he wrote, "and narrow is the way,…and few there shall be that find it."

The good news? You can be one of the few. It's just a question of practice.

Copyright 2002 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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