DB BOOKCLUB: Freestyle Kayaking


Reviewing Carlos Martín Romanillos’ FREESTYLE KAYAKING. by Mike Toughill

Playboaters. They are the ballerinas out on the river. All the rafters, canoes, and even regular kayakers who don’t play are drawn to watch them dance in the wildest features. Performing arrays of moves and spins as effortless and variable as the current itself, they sit atop the heap of whitewater disciplines in the minds of the general public.

Like any true field of expertise, playboating has a language all its own. With roots handed down from the hair days of 90s rodeo boating, and influences from other sports most notably skating, snowboarding, and surfing, it’s an archaic dialect describing endless varieties of combinations of precise body movements. Even within the greater community of Dirt Bag Paddlers, most of us don’t know what these guys in the tiny boats are talking about. After all, I’m just a terrapinesque rafter!

Lucky for me, and others either looking to begin or expand their playboating skill set, or simply wanting enjoy watching the local freestyle comps with a bit of knowledge, there is Carlos Martín Romanillos’ fantastic illustrated book FREESTYLE KAYAKING. Published originally in 2014 in his native Spanish, it is now available in English for an even wider audience. Full Disclosure: I was a small part of the team that worked on the translation.

FREESTYLE KAYAKING is the most modern source of moves, but also covers lots of kayaking basics so it can be useful for beginners as well, especially visual learners. The illustrations are very detail oriented and remind me of the late William Nealy’s work. The book itself feels like this generation’s KAYAK, a famous Nealy skills guide. Basic play skills are broken down, ones not utilized by other types of kayaking, such as the double pump, used to set up many moves.


Definition: Movement of the blade backward and forward to lift and dip the ends of the kayak. Many rodeo moves begin with this movement, so it is essential to master it properly.

Placement: At all times the position of the paddler is perpendicular to the kayak or even leaning forward. The position of the arms is the same throughout the double pump: elbows bent 90° to maintain the paddle shaft parallel to theshoulders. The movement is generated by rotating the trunk for moving the blade without having to bend or stretch your arms.

Edge the Kayak: Bow about 45° the kayak to the side on which you do the double pump, so the ends will enter the water in sink more easily.

Starter Stroke: Put the blade beside the front edge of the cockpit andpaddle towards the Stern until the shaft is as parallel to the water surface as possible. Keep the body perpendicular to the kayak and the kayak edged throughout the stroke.

The trajectory of the blade shouldbe parallel to the kayak to prevent it spinning to the opposite side to the stroke.

The main goal of the starter strokeis to put the shaft of the paddle parallel to the kayak in the water surface. The bow will rise slightly and it is good, but you mustn’t put all your attention on it.

A common mistake is to lean backwards the body trying to get a bigger bow elevation, if you do it you will lose your correct body position to continue the double pump.

Focus your attention with keepingthe kayak edged and putting the shaft parallel to the kayak in the water surface, not in the elevation of the bow.

Sink the bow: The rear blade is almost horizontal, support the weight on it to lift the Stern while you sink the bow by carrying all the weight on your heels.

Upload the bow: pull up the blade again to recover the parallelposition to the kayak in the water surface. The bow will lift while the stern sinks in the water.

You not do not need to push hard with the paddle to perform this step, because gravity will help the raised stern to sink and the buoyancy will pull the submerged bow out of the water.

You should end with the body and paddle virtually with the same position as after the starter stroke, with the difference that the bow will now be higher out of the water and the stern deeper submerged.

If you continue swinging you can sync and raise the ends of the kayak more and more with the help of gravity (upper end) and buoyancy (lower end.)

As with all freestyle sports, combinations of basic moves are elevated into complex performances that are judged on accuracy and style at standardized events. Here is where Carlos really excels at explaining and illustrating the variety available.


While performing the McNasty the kayak rotates 180° with the bow sunk and then takes off and makes a loop forward.

On the other hand the pistol flip consists in using an edge transfer to taking off and inverting the kayak, connecting the flight with a forward loop.

Because of their minimum differences both maneuvers are usually confused and even considered the same one. Even the official definition is the same for pistol flip and McNasty so most of the people name the maneuver McNasty when it is done in a holeand pistol flip when it is done in a wave.

The book closes with some great info on how competitions are scored using ICF points, concisely tabled for easy reference. There is also a chart explains where best, and best not, to practice each move according to river feature. There’s also some key info particular to playboat kayaking and safety.

EXCERPT: Spray skirts can be released if a wave breaks directly over the tub or the kayak lands completely reversed after a flight. The kayak will fill with water and you have to swim, which can be dangerous.

You can avoid this problem by using an Overthruster, which is a piece of plastic or fiberglass, half-moon shaped, which is coupled to the front of the tube the Overthruster is rigid so it avoids water frompushing in the spray skirt and releasing the rubber with which it is fixed to the edge of the tub. Some Overthruster models are bent outward to increase the volume and buoyancy of the kayak.

You can get the same effect by putting under the spray skirt something that prevents water pushing it inward (ball, waterproof bag, piece of cork…) but make sure you do not block the exit of thelegs in case of an emergency exit of the Kayak.

To order: visit our friend Carlos at freestylekayakingbook.com.es or find him on Facebook !

Feliz Navidad!


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