The Stern Squirt

The stern squirt is a smooth probing into what’s going on under the water on those swirly interfaces between eddies and main current, where with just a little effort one can harness the power of the water to become vertical.  The stern squirt is considered a beginning play-move, largely because it can occur in relatively low-stress environments like slow-moving eddy interfaces, and also because mastery of stern-squirting (and exiting gracefully from it) is a skill that will prepare you for other, more ‘advanced’ moves.

The stern squirt was developed, as I understand, as a means of performing a fast pivot turn by slalom boaters, but has since been explored as an art form by Squirt artists and seems only recently (say, as of the early to mid-90’s?) to have caught on in play boating circles.  The origin of the term ‘squirt’, as I recall, was in reference to a boat’s tendency to ‘squirt’ out from the slab of differential water like a bar of soap, or a watermelon seed.

The means by which a stern squirt occurs is at once simple and complex- all you’re doing is performing a pivot turn while crossing an interface, after all- but there are a lot of finer details that are involved, and a lot of ways to get it wrong.  We’ll begin by discussing some fundamental principles:

  • Shape of the interface:

The interface is where two masses of water, traveling in different directions, meet.  Usually (but not always) this interface is the result of downstream water rushing by an obstruction, either a rock or the bank, creating a low-pressure system that draws water behind it upstream, where it feeds back into the main current at the top of the eddy.

At the top of the eddy there will be a small area of calm water, water that is held in place by the upstream current in the eddy- and it is where upstream water deflects off of this calm water and into the eddy line that we refer to as ‘the squeeze’- it’s the most dynamic part of the eddy line, and this is where we’ll talk about crossing the eddy line- at the top of the squeeze.

All along the interface, the two masses of water ‘rubbing’ against each other will describe a ‘grain’ to the interface- it will want to turn you in the direction of the grain, and for our purposes we’ll be doing everything with the grain of the interface.  There are moves designed to go counter to the grain of the interface but these will be the subject of a different article.

  • Your boat as ‘wing’

For the stern squirt, we want to forget about the idea of your boat being a floating object on top of the water- for our purposes, the end of your boat will behave like a wing in the water.  The objective is to cross the interface at a manageable angle, and use spin momentum to drive the initiation of your end into a manageable glide angle- in order to ‘fly’ your stern down into a glide pattern in the oncoming current.  In this sense, it’s important to achieve an angle of attack that is steep enough to engage your end into the oncoming slab of water, but not so steep as to stall, which will thwart your spin momentum and usually result in you performing an impromptu fish survey.

  • Edge independently of lean

In establishing your angle of attack, we must address something we all learned when we first learned to do an eddy turn- we’ve trained ourselves to both edge and lean against the oncoming water, because edging away from the oncoming current creates a climbing angle with our hull, and leaning away from oncoming current prepares us for the moment of acceleration we’ll experience as we engage the oncoming current.  For the purpose of squirting, however, we want to initiate a diving angle with the end of our boat… but we still want to lean in such a way that we’re prepared for the acceleration of the oncoming current.  In this sense, it is vitally important that we separate the concepts of ‘leaning’ and ‘edging’.

Stroke Concepts:  For our purposes, there are two strokes involved in initiating a stern squirt- and they’re both driven by your torso.  For the purposes of our discussion, it’s important to visualize your paddle as merely a transmission device, a bit of traction- while your torso, (not your arms) does the driving.  In this sense, it’s important to think about the stroke as a process of winding up your torso, placing the paddle, and then unwinding your torso against that traction- and moving the boat with your torso, rather than with the paddle stroke.  Another key concept to ponder is that we initiate spin momentum from the outside of the turn, but control and maintain it from the inside of the turn.

How to do it:

For our purposes, let’s assume that we’re in an eddy on river left, facing upstream- there’s an interface to our left, and it’s rotating counter-clockwise.

We approach the eddy line at a fairly conservative angle- we want to cross the eddy line facing perhaps 45 degrees off perpendicular to the oncoming current, and it’s important that as we cross the interface that our boat be ‘flat’- that is, neither edging upstream nor downstream just yet.  As with any peel out, the last stroke from within the eddy should be on your right side- this is the stroke that will initiate our spin momentum, and begin the boat’s rotation towards downstream.

As your hips cross the interface and your bow has begun to swing downstream with the current, you should wind up your body to the left, in order to place a deep stern pry on your left.  The stern stroke works best if you engage water within the eddy you’re just crossing out of- it’s going in the direction against which you wish to rotate.

Once you’ve placed this stroke, begin to unwind your body and edge your boat upstream, while sitting tall in your boat.  As you unwind your torso, you will swing your stern down into the oncoming current, and commit your weight upstream, using your stern pry to anchor you as you drive your boat under you with your rotating torso.  If your angle of attack is too sharp, the oncoming water will overpower you and flip the boat before you can fly the stern down and underneath where you’ve committed your weight.  If it is too flat, you will have simply spun on the eddy line.  It is vital that you commit your weight towards where the boat will peak- if you don’t it’s unlikely that you’ll initiate your stern at all.

As your stern begins to bite into the oncoming water and ‘fly’ its way down, note that your rotation and acceleration have begun to move you rapidly downstream, and slightly back towards the eddy you just left.  As the stern goes down, sit forward (this will help to drive it down, using your weight) and note that when your squirt peaks, you will be facing roughly downstream, and slightly back towards the eddy from which you came. Look over your left shoulder, towards the inside of your turn- if you want to continue screwing along the interface use a draw stroke to rotate yourself so that your next stern pry will sweep your stern into the back-flowing eddy water.

Keeping it going

It’s possible to continue screwing the boat along the interface- once we’ve crossed the interface and engaged the oncoming current, it will accelerate us downstream and back towards the interface we just crossed- after all, it was a pivot turn using the oncoming water to accelerate us in that direction.  As you approach the interface from the other direction, a draw stroke on the inside of your turn can be used to rotate the boat on its long axis in order to prepare you to repeat the stern pry that fueled your rotation into the first turn.  From there, your pry can be used to engage the oncoming water on the far side of the interface, followed by another draw, and another subsequent pry.

Stern squirt Vs. ‘back ender’

The squirt differs from a ‘back ender’ fairly significantly in terms of the way it occurs.  A squirt occurs as a result of slicing your boat into a mass of oncoming water- your attack is driven by the rotation of your boat around you- while a ‘back ender’ is caused by oncoming water pearling your stern.  Often ‘back enders’ occur as a result of being stopped by a hole enough for the downstream-flowing water to engage the stern and drive it through, underneath the paddler.

Stern Squirt vs. Eddy Turn

Generally, the squirt takes place in the same places that we traditionally perform eddy turns- when going into and out of eddies.  The eddy turn is designed to keep the whole boat on top of the surface, and involves presenting the oncoming current with a climbing angle along the whole upstream edge of the hull.   The stern squirt, true to its roots as a pivot turn, approaches the same situation with a diving angle on the stern, in order to facilitate a dynamic and swift turn.

‘Screwing up’

The ‘screw-up’ is a method of recovering from past-vertical squirts, back-enders, and really any sort of vertical move in which you end up going past-vertical.  It should go without saying that whatever you can do with the stern, you can also (within reason) do with the bow- meaning that you can do ‘screw-ups’ from both the bow and the stern.

The ‘screw up’ from the stern is merely a high-brace done from a past-vertical position, with a twist- as your bow passes over and past vertical, you simply reach across to whichever side the bow isn’t falling with the paddle blade on the side to which the bow is falling, and perform a high brace.  As you place the stroke, you screw the boat on its long axis while the bow is falling, and instead of ending up upside-down under the boat, you finish the maneuver above the water on a high-brace recovery.

Screwing up from the bow is largely the same, but in reverse.  When passing vertical on the bow in a moment beyond recovery, a crossbow draws or a cross-bow pushing sweep (depending upon whether the paddle is engaged or not) can be used to provide traction against which to screw the boat on its long axis.  Again the same principle applies- use the paddle blade on the side to which the stern is falling, (or if it’s going straight over, pick a side and go with that) get that blade to the side on which the stern is not falling, and brace up from there.

When screwing up, it’s important to understand the shape and direction of the masses of water around you- remember, the power of moving water can be both an obstacle and a gift; use it to your advantage whenever possible.

  • Boat Considerations:

Today’s smaller, slicer rodeo beasts make this maneuver pretty accessible, but they also tend to lower the stakes.  In longer boats with more volume, stern squirts are both more difficult and more rewarding.  About all that’s really necessary for this maneuver to work is a stern with parting lines that you can initiate with your weight, and a reasonably flat stern deck- for boats with crowning decks and high parting lines, this maneuver is an exercise in brute strength.

  • Whirlpools:

Whirlpools can be fun!  More dynamic than an eddy line, big whirlpools are an excellent place to play with dynamic past-vertical and sustained squirting.  Keep in mind that whirlpools can be exceptionally powerful, and that it’s useless to try to go against their grain!  Instead, concentrate on turning with the grain of the whirlpool, opposing its rotation only with your paddle.  So long as you rotate at least as fast as the whirlpool in the direction in which it’s turning, and you make an effort to stay ahead of your boat in the rotation, you’ll be golden.

Getting in and out of whirlpools:  To escape a whirlpool, go in the direction in which it’s rotating- centrifugal force will help you up and out of the gravity well.  To go down into a whirlpool, go against its grain- you’ll slide very quickly down into the vortex.  To initiate a squirt in the vortex of a whirlpool, paddle into it against its grain, and as you reach the vortex, slice your stern down with the grain of the whirlpool’s rotation.  The idea is to miss the vortex with your bow, against the grain of the whirlpool… and as you fall into it, hit the vortex with your hip and drive your stern down in exactly the same manner as a regular stern squirt.  What will follow is likely to be a dynamic series of stern screws… very fun stuff. 🙂

  • Rocket Moves:

You can use the fast-moving water in the trough of bigger waves to do a squirt up the face of a wave!  To initiate a squirt (exactly as you would while crossing an eddy line) as you’re going downriver in the trough of a wave, just approach the wave at an angle and as you pass through the trough, slice your stern into the trough such that your stern engages the faster water of the trough.  In big wave trains this move is a hoot.

  • Where not to squirt:

pretty much the only places you don’t want to squirt are where the water is too shallow, or the water is too violent or dangerous for you to be comfortable in it.

…so there you have it- the stern squirt, in probably too many words.