Slalom Tips: Unraveling Upstream Gates

Setting up the "L" move. Photo: Thomas Hall
Setting up the “L” move. Photo: Thomas Hall

By Thomas Hall

A little while ago, I went for a paddle on the slalom course at the “Pump House” in Ottawa, Ontario, a little stretch of river right in the heart of Canada’s capital city. I’m definitely a beginner when it comes to slalom, but my slalom friends, John Hastings and Kathleen Tayler from the Canadian national team, gave me a hand. I thought that a few slalom tip articles for beginner and intermediate paddlers would be welcome, so I asked for Kathleen and Johnny to help me come up with a few simple, practical tips.

We’ll start with one of the hardest parts of slalom to master: upstream gates. To get the best result you want to spend as little time as you can paddling upstream, so your ability to efficiently paddle upstream gates is crucial to a solid performance in slalom. This article will help you understand some of the mechanics of upstream gates better so you can paddle faster. For the non-competitive paddler, it will help you to better control your boat while moving in and out of eddies.


Approaching the gate correctly is critical to executing the fastest turn possible. You need to execute a quick turn while conserving as much momentum as possible.

To do this, don’t paddle straight toward the upstream gate. Why? If you paddle straight toward the upstream gate, you’ll often find yourself spending more time in the eddy because as you cross the eddy line your momentum is carried downstream, causing you to end up behind the gate and having to put in more strokes to paddle through the gate and around it.

A less direct approach—an L into the gate—is faster. Instead of paddling directly toward the gate, you paddle downstream until you are parallel to the gate. Once parallel, push the bow of your boat using forward strokes on the inside blade—the blade that is closest to the gate on the upstream side—to move behind the gate and around the pole. This may seem counter-intuitive, but remember, we want to spend as little time in the eddy as possible. The “L” approach means you enter the eddy when your momentum is neutral and not going downstream, as it would be if you had paddled directly at the gate. In fact, if done right, you would be already moving upstream because entering the eddy with no downstream momentum the upstream current in the eddy will push you up through the gate.

Turning soon. Photo: Thomas Hall
Turning soon. Photo: Thomas Hall


To execute a quick turn you want to enter the gate having already begun your turn. Having the bow of your boat upstream of the far pole will ensure you don’t hit it during your turn and that you are poised to spin around the inside pole as fast as possible.

But critical to executing this cleanly is the position of your boat. Generally, you want to keep your boat as flat as possible. By keeping it flat water flows under the boat, and doesn’t get caught on edges which can pull you downstream when you want to go up, or vice versa, and of course can even flip you.

When turning through an upstream gate you approach flat and then as you angle the boat downstream to cross the eddy line—something everyone who doesn’t constantly swim does automatically—you want to push your weight forward driving the bow of the boat into the water. By driving the bow down you’re actually helping the boat spin because the upstream current in the eddy is catching the bow and pushing it upstream, while the stern is still in the current and being pushed downstream. Furthermore, as the bow is pushed down it won’t hit the gate during the turn.

As you become more advanced and comfortable with your edges, you can keep a flat boat as you enter until you are behind the gate then tilt your boat using your knees on the thigh braces to the outside edge. The stern will be underwater during your turn. This will help you do what is a called a pivot turn which is the fastest method of turning your boat.


As you execute the turn you bow will pop out of the water. At this point getting the body around the inside pole without touching it, and exiting the eddy with the best angle to get to the next gate is the obvious goal. But keep in mind the dynamics of the boat while you finish the turn. As you exit the eddy and automatically lean downstream to prevent your upstream edge from getting caught, you are reversing the process described above. The bow is now being pulled downstream and the stern is being pushed upstream helping you to turn, or, if you’re not careful causing you to hit the gate.

Don't get stalled in the eddy catching the gate. Photo: Thomas Hall
Don’t get stalled in the eddy catching the gate. Photo: Thomas Hall


Instead of doing repeats on your favorite river with different gate positions, try some flat water drills for a change of pace.

Set up a gate in flat water. Approach the gate from a similar angel as you would in the river, and if you have your approach angle, speed, and boat angles right you should be able to make the turn with one stroke. Remember to practice doing upstreams on your left side and right side. Remember you’re trying to conserve the momentum of your approach. If you can do that, you should be able to get through the turn with next to no effort.

The article was originally published on Canoe & Kayak

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