Our Readers Write
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, toowell, 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.
Mineincluding quotations from my article and earlier
lettersare in normal type.
This is what Dirk wrote:
Subject: Telling it Straight?
Date: Thu, 17 Aug 2000 13:30:06 +0100
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
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
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 keelunless you do the pitch-strokethat 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"?
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
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 surebut 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
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
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
Subject: Re: Telling it Straight?
Date: Fri, 18 Aug 2000 15:10:59 +0100
To: Farwell Forrest
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
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!
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
Subject: Re: Telling it Straight?Reply
Date: Sat, 19 Aug 2000 10:54:34 -0400
From: Farwell Forrest
I am very glad you find our column of interest. Rest assured that
we will return to the subject of "going straight" in futureand
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.
* 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 firstas in
the originalthis 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 hopelesswhen 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
shortand well worth any number of lumps of coal!
Copyright © 2000 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.