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Straight Talk By Farwell Forrest

One of the joys of writing is receiving letters from readers. Every time I go on-line to check my mail, I experience the same gleeful anticipation that I once felt on Christmas Eve. And I'm seldom disappointed. Sometimes, of course, there's nothing but a lump of coal in the bottom of my stocking, but such days are rare, and the occasional piece of crank mail is a small price to pay for the privilege of corresponding with paddlers from around the world. Far more often than not, readers' letters are a real treat.

I'm not just referring to letters of praise or encouragement, either. Critical letters can also be a pleasure to read, particularly when the criticism is informed and timely. If the critic has a sense of humor, too—well, that just about makes my day.

Such was the case recently. I got a letter from Dirk, a reader living in the Netherlands. Dirk had just finished looking over "Going Straight," our first illustrated how-to piece, and he wasn't altogether happy with what he'd seen. I only had to glance at the subject header, though, to know that I was in for a good read. Dirk, it seemed, was someone who shared my fondness for bad puns, as well as my passion for canoeing. I wasn't wrong.

I hadn't read far before I realized that Dirk's letters were too good to keep to myself. I therefore asked him for permission to reprint them, and he graciously consented. Here are his letters, then, along with my replies, edited to protect Dirk's privacy and, in a few places, to improve readability. Dirk's words are in italics. Mine—including quotations from my article and earlier letters—are in normal type.

This is what Dirk wrote:

Subject: Telling it Straight?
Date: Thu, 17 Aug 2000 13:30:06 +0100
From: Dirk
To: sameboat@paddling.net

In response to your article
"Going Straight" from In the Same Boat ("Different Strokes")
By Farwell Forrest

I would like to say something about:

Happily, there's a better way. It's called the "J-stroke." Before I describe how the "J" is done, though, I should say a little something about the art of paddling itself.

A better way, I think, to correct the veering problem for touring paddlers and the like, is the "pitch stroke", if necessary followed by the "J-stroke".

On the long term I suppose most (good) paddlers will learn to do the pitch stroke by themselves when using a "J-stroke", but unfortunately often without realizing this, so when asked what they do, they will say they are making a "J-stroke"?!

keep the blade moving parallel to the canoe's keel (that's the boat's centerline). DON'T follow the curve of the gunwale. Keep your paddle moving straight back, parallel to your intended course.

Actually the blade is moving very little through the water; if it was, there would be no resistance for propulsion, like moving your blade through air! Because it is impossible to move the blade parallel to the canoe's keel—unless you do the pitch-stroke—that is the reason the canoe will veer away!

So I suggest if you are telling people how to paddle straight, why not (try to) do it right immediately?

I realize that it is more difficult to teach people the "pitch stroke" than the "J-stroke", but I think you should at least mention it, because on the long term this will prevent people from possibly not ever (trying to) learn the "pitch-stroke"?

Sincerely,

Dirk
the Netherlands
A Canoe Worriers production, no hope lost yet.

What a wonderful letter, I thought: cogent, to the point, and witty. (The "Canoe Worriers production" tag at the end had me howling with laughter.) And it was right on the money. Every writer prays to be blessed with such critics, so I didn't lose much time in replying:

Subject: Re: Telling it Straight?
Date: Thu, 17 Aug 2000 11:58:18 -0400
From: Farwell Forrest
To: Dirk

Dear Dirk,

Thanks for taking the time to (ahem) set me straight. There are, of course, countless variations on the "J"—the "pitch," the "Canadian," the "Indian," etc.. They're all kin. Each employs changes in the paddle blade's angle of incidence at some point in the stroke to compensate for induced yaw. And the differences between them aren't always obvious. In a few instances I suspect they have more to do with writers' desires to distinguish themselves as innovators than with any real improvements in mechanical efficiency.

Is this the case with the pitch stroke? Did Calvin Rutstrum set out to create a brand-name variation of the J as a means of promoting his New Way of the Wilderness? I don't know, to be sure—but I do know that I'm not convinced that the pitch is noticeably superior to the more conventional J. A novice who masters the J will be able to get where he wants to go, and do so with reasonable efficiency. That's the important thing, I think. He can then embellish or refine his stroke repertoire as his interest and time permit.

Your point concerning paddle movement is well-taken. Water is incompressible. But it's important to remember that the paddler's frame of reference is his canoe. While his paddle blade is in fact more or less stationary in the water, the paddler sees the blade move relative to the canoe. This perception is far stronger than the physical reality you (correctly) describe. In the interest of clarity, therefore, I've always found it best to adopt the paddler's frame of reference in describing stroke mechanics.

There are numberless precedents. Though Mikolaj Kopernik (Copernicus) has been dead nearly 460 years, for example, we still speak of the sun "rising" in the east. More to the point, most textbooks in celestial navigation still invoke the imagery of an earth-centered universe. This isn't accidental. It's done for good reason. Basic instruction is much more likely to be understood if descriptions of physical phenomenon correspond to perceived reality. That's as true in paddling as it is in taking a meridian altitude of the sun.

Still, we'll be returning to the subject again in future. When we do, we'll be able to give more time to the pitch, as well as to the many other variations on the J.

Thanks again for your letter. A well-informed reader with a critical eye is a writer's best friend, after all. It's also good to see that our column is being read in Europe. Please don't be too worried on our account, however. While it's perfectly true that the lot of a verloren hoop ("lost troop") is not a happy one, it's entirely possible for skirmishers to survive a battle. In any case, we adopted the name with an eye to an 18th-century meaning of its English counterpart, forlorn hope: "a gamester's last stake" (from Captain Francis Grose's 1796 Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue). If you know anything about the uncertain prospects awaiting creative endeavor in America, you'll appreciate the irony. We certainly do.

Best wishes,

Farwell Forrest
Contributing Editor and Columnist, www.Paddling.net

Within twenty-four hours, Dirk had written back. That was a red-letter day indeed. In our hurry-up-and-do-it-yesterday culture, any correspondence that lasts longer than a single exchange is reason to celebrate. Here's what Dirk had to say in answer to my first letter:

Subject: Re: Telling it Straight?
Date: Fri, 18 Aug 2000 15:10:59 +0100
From: Dirk
To: Farwell Forrest

Dear Farwell,

Thank you for responding so quick and extensively. I do indeed read and enjoy your writings about paddling. I try to follow anything about paddling, as far as this is possible with a text browser (MacLynx, that is; unfortunately I cannot respond in the forum).

And because you use "Verloren Hoop" which means "lost hope" in my language, I thought you were perhaps able read my website? I have been thinking about translating this in English, but since so much good information about canoeing is available in English via the Internet, especially the writings of John Winter on his own site and that of Swift canoe, I am afraid I cannot add something really useful for people who can read English well.

But you are quite right when you say:

A novice who masters the J will be able to get where he wants to go, and do so with reasonable efficiency. That's the important thing, I think. He can then embellish or refine his stroke repertoire as his interest and time permit.

But if you mention switching as an other option, I think the pitch stroke should be mentioned too? So that people can try to learn this stroke after they have mastered "plain" J-ing? I sure wish somebody would have told me early in my paddling career about switching and pitching!

Actually, the "switchers" I know use the pitch stroke as well; in fact, they (we) use all the strokes needed to get the job done. But I think switching to go straight is (most?) efficient if you are paddling with a rather high stroke rate: greater than 40 strokes per minute. Not really something for beginners?

Will be reading your further writings with interest!

Sincerely,

Dirk

Once again, I lost little time in replying. In deference to the fact that we were communicating in Dirk's second language, however, I was more careful than I'd been in my first letter to limit my use of contractions and other informal constructions. The result was necessarily a bit stilted, but I hoped it would be easier to understand:

Subject: Re: Telling it Straight?—Reply
Date: Sat, 19 Aug 2000 10:54:34 -0400
From: Farwell Forrest
To: Dirk

Dear Dirk,

I am very glad you find our column of interest. Rest assured that we will return to the subject of "going straight" in future—and that we will discuss both hit-and-switch paddling and the pitch stroke when we do.

You are not alone in using a text browser. Tamia and I each rely on an early version of Netscape, and we have very slow and uncertain Internet connections. As a result, we do 95% of our on-line work without loading images.

Though I cannot read Dutch*, I would very much like to visit your website. (I can read German, after a fashion. I might therefore be able to understand the sense of what you have written, even if I am unable to follow it in any detail.) And I have tried to drop by on several occasions. So far, however, I have not had any success. I get no further than a message telling me to try to connect later. I will keep trying.

This brings me to another, related point. I have found your letters extremely entertaining and informative. I am afraid, therefore, that I cannot agree with you when you write that you have nothing useful to offer English-speaking readers. I would strongly urge you to consider translating more of your paddlesport writing into English. If I can be of any help, you have only to ask.

Thanks again for taking the time to write, and for giving me the benefit of your critical insight.

Best wishes,

Farwell

* I often wish I were more of a linguist. Verloren hoop, for example, is a puzzle. You note that it now means "lost hope." In the 16th century, however, it apparently carried the connotation "lost troop" (literally "lost heap") and was used to identify skirmishing parties ordered forward of the main body of an infantry force. The implication, of course, was that such skirmishers could not expect to be welcomed by the enemy, and that they might easily become casualties.

The phrase verloren hoop was soon borrowed by English speakers, who transformed it into "forlorn hope." At first—as in the original—this phrase referred to the members of a skirmishing party. Later, however, it acquired a number of figurative meanings, all of which identified activities which, though risky or uncertain of outcome, might still turn out well. Today, however, "forlorn hope" is usually taken to mean something completely hopeless—when it is used at all, that is!

And that's where our first exchange of letters ended, though I'm glad to say that we've resumed our correspondence since. From the outset, Dirk's letters have always been interesting and thought-provoking. Not only did he draw my attention to several weaknesses in my original article, but he also had me dipping my paddle into the great sea of words that is the English language, an excursion I enjoyed almost as much as paddling my pack canoe out onto the 'Flow on quiet autumn evenings. It's been a real pleasure, in short—and well worth any number of lumps of coal!

Copyright 2000 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.







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