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The fonics of freestyle

Bren Orton Photo by Peter Tranter

There can’t be a sport on earth that has changed as much, or as quickly, as kayaking.
By Steffan Meyric Hughes

As recently as the early 90s, there was really no such thing as ‘freestyle’. OK, so there was ‘rodeo’, performed by bearded men in nasty boats, some of them brilliant paddlers given the limitations of the day. A wonderful bonus on the (must-have) Dudh Kosi DVD shows American paddlers Rob Lesser and John Wasser throwing prototype ‘endos’ on a standing wave on the Snake River, then rolling up fast to retain; and repeat.

These were the days (mid-80s) when merely performing an Eskimo roll on flat water was a trick in its own right, and frequently used as a victory salute after a hard section of water. Without the web, names were necessarily localised. Getting stuck in a stopper and trying to juggle had no name. In fact the only standardised names for anything that I remember were the shudder rudder, the ender (or ‘endo’) and the pirouette. We spoke also of intendos (intentional endos) and unintendos (accidental ones). This was the era of the Game Boy after all.

Eric Jackson

Eric Jackson competing at the GoPro Mountain Games

Just 15 years later, everything had radically changed with the advent of short boats, YouTube and horrendously complicated moves named after masturbating monkeys, crashing jetliners and Greek mathematicians. Paddlers had lifted moves from other balance sports like surfing and skateboarding and suddenly the whole thing had become dynamic, aerial and (debatably), quite cool. These days, some of the names for moves are just off the scale in their originality and weirdness.

The names of freestyle (or ‘playboating’) moves can be divided quite easily into three genres: literal, derivative and original. I have listed them here under these categories. Kayaking is not a sport that records its history well, and I couldn’t track down every current move, let alone the many, like the rail-grab-based ‘limerick’, that have fallen into disuse. All those on the ICF scoresheet are here – and a few others if they have interesting names. I’d like to thank those who helped with my research, namely Corran Addison, Eric Jackson, Billy Harris, Ken Whiting and Brendan Marks. If you want to know what the moves are, or how to do them… ask someone else. I can’t even loop – yet!

Corran Addison

Corran Addison

The granddaddy of all freestyle moves, this was actually invented by a slalom paddler in 1979. It was Norbert Sattler who first threw the move at the 1979 slalom worlds in Jonquiere, Quebec, Canada. The first splitwheel was thrown by Eric Jackson 14 years later.

Corran Addison

Corran Addison 1994

Flip turn:
Part of the development that became the helix, it traces its origin back to Corran Addison and Steve Fisher (who named it).

If the cartwheel was the first real ‘move’, then this one is the most iconic. It was, as far as I can tell, invented by top US paddler Clay Wright, who also named the variants (air loop, back loop etc).

Corran Addison came up with the ‘clean’ prefix to describe a move done off one paddle stroke (with the strokeless move later getting the ‘super clean’ prefix)

From skateboarding, where a rider plants his deck sideways and forces the slide the ramp. Adapted to kayaking by Corran Addison in the late 1990s.

From skateboarding, adapted to kayaking by Corran Addison (late 1990s). The skateboarding term was originally called a Ty hop, after its inventor Ty Page.

From skateboarding (the inimitable and amazing Rodney Mullen no less), and adapted to kayaking by Corran Addison sometime in the late 1990s.

Claire O'Hara

Claire O’Hara by Pete Astles

Corran Addison, “The air screw was originally called the Airchimedes Screw (named after the Archimedes screw that pumped water circa 500BC) but no one knew what I was talking about so it evolved to just airscrew.”

Corran Addison, “Because of the Lockerbie crash back in the 1980s – the first Pan Ams I was doing I described as ‘take off, and then go into a spiralling dive to crash’. I pulled the first one off in competition in early spring 1999 at the Chambly Rodeo in Quebec.”

The helix was invented and named by Steve Fisher after some years of development on the Zambezi River. The name presumably derives from the definition of the word (‘spiral’).

Quim Fontane

Quim Fontane, Hurley 2015 by Peter Tranter

Tyler Curtis, c1999, origin of name unknown, but it’s probably named after the movie, which came out in 1999.

Tricky Whu:
Invented on the Ottawa at the right-hand side of Horseshoe Hole in the summer of 1999 or 2000 by Brendan Marks. A blind splitwheel into the recently-invented matrix (above). “It’s a weird name by design as it was a parody of the other freestyle names at the time. There was a band named Tricky Woo, and I remember paddling with Tyler laughing that it would be funny if announcers had to shout out moves like ‘tricky whu’ over the PA. I was planning to win the local rodeo that year with the move, but the week before the event I taught EJ how to do it and I ended up placing behind him in second. He beat me using the tricky whu!”

Corran Addison, c2000. “Morphius came from the matrix move as a sort of nose variant.”

Side Kick:
Eric Jackson, “This is where you start an airscrew, bring the boat over your body, then bring it back down the way it came… super fun but not on the score sheet.”

Eric Jackson move, “Front surf a wave then porpoise the bow under the water, lean back and let the water go over your boat and body, then lift your bow back up without coming off the wave – non-scoring move.”

Corran Addison, “The Blunt came from the concept that we would ‘slice’ into a cartwheel… the blunts (first ones) were about 45 degrees (not vertical) and the nose appeared to bounce off the water’s surface like the nose was blunt, rather than sharp and slicy… from there the variations just came on their own.”

Mat Dumoulin

Mat Dumoulin, Hurley 2015 by Peter Tranter

Named by Eric Jackson. Presumably it’s a portmanteau of ‘failed helix’.

Stone cold cutter:
Invented by Eric Jackson, named by Jay Kincaid. Not a scoring move and name origin unknown.

Space Godzilla:
The move was invented by Corran Addison, who says, “Before the 1999 worlds, loops were hit and miss with the longer boats and pointy ends. In the lead-up to the ’98 worlds I was training to do loops consistently, but with low success and figured out that if you put a quarter twist on the loop with a cross-bow stroke (so the tail sliced in rather than slapped in) then I went from 10 per success rate to 99 per cent.

“In the ‘98 pre-words, I went for the loop (which I was calling a modified loop) and stuck it – first time as far as I know that a loop was stuck intentionally in modern freestyle competition. At the 2000 pre-worlds in Spain, I started to work on traditional loops upstream of the hole during practice (in the Riot Disco) and I was able to do them consistently. In fact again I was the only one doing them, and my success rate was so good that I had ‘South African Air’ written on the boat in big letters.

“However, being the only one who could do them, the rest of the field voted not to recognize a Loop AND a Modified loop as two different moves. People didn’t want to lose to moves they couldn’t do – so the modified loop was shot down. Javid Grubbs renamed it the Space Godzilla (not sure where he got the name) in an attempt to have the two moves recognized in the 2001 worlds as being separate moves.

“In this he was successful, but then they refused to recognize and left and a right space godzilla as two separate moves (left and right cartwheels are recognised). The usual shit.”

Alan Ward

Alan Ward, Hurley 2015 by Peter Tranter

Fonics Monkey:
Invented by Billy Harris in 2000 and named by his students. The move’s a good’un, invented by Billy Harris after experimenting with cross-bow cartwheels with some of his paddling students. But the name is the best ever given to a freestyle move.

“Not really my choosing, but I made a promise that if I learned to do it they would get to name it,” Billy relates. “The students were watching South Park at the time…” The episode in question (S3, E12) is the one in which Eric’s mother gives him a tiny monkey in a box who beats out spellings with a drum. Eric takes it to the school spelling bee in order to cheat, but when the teacher puts him on the spot to spell ‘chair’ (“why do they give me the hard one?”), the monkey is no help at all. He’s hidden away behind the stage curtain with a hard one of his own entertaining himself in a manner that is fun and costs nothing.

The episode (Monkey Fonics) also gives us, once and for all, the correct spelling of the move. So all arguments about the name and spelling of this move are forever over; no more phoenixes please.

Stephen Wright

Stephen Wright, Hurley 2015 by Peter Tranter

McNasty (AKA ‘pistol flip’ or ‘back pan-am’):
Eric Jackson. Remember last month’s column on antonyms like sick? Here’s an antonym crossed with a Big Mac, “I love Mcdonald’s and tend to put a ‘Mc’ in front of a lot of words to ‘Americanize’ what I am saying. I thought the move was ‘Nasty’ in a positive sense and wanted to give it a little extra special sauce with the name, too!” Stout!

Lunar Orbit:
Eric Jackson, Zambezi River, 2003, “It was during a bright daytime noon overhead. I literally saw the moon over my bow on my first try of this move and I described the move as ‘squirt your bow up to the vertical and then do a full rotation around the moon before bringing it back down through the water vertically.’”

Macho Move:
named by Eric Jackson for obvious reason!

Super blunt:
Patrick Camblin’s bread-and-butter (c2010/11) is sometimes cited as the first combo move in freestyle, but Corran Addison’s super blunt (clean blunt to super-clean spin) predates it by at least a decade. The naming is obvious.

About thepaddlerezine (654 Articles)
Editor of The Paddler magazine and Publisher of Stand Up Paddle Mag UK.

2 Comments on The fonics of freestyle

  1. I feel like freestyle could have went more mainstream if they had adopted more names from similar tricks from skate and snow, but then again those sports got crazy with their trick names too.

  2. Watching the explosive evolution of what has become freestyle down the river has been a sight to behold. I a always gravitated towards rivers for their solitude but watching and learning from the younger crowd has greatly improved my skillset all the way around and I am an open boater, my river running boat of choice being the Dagger Rival designed by Bob Foote. What a wonderful boat!!!!

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