The cartwheel seems to be one of the first 'modern' play boat moves that most aspire to perfect. A cartwheel looks pretty impressive but in essence there's not a great deal to it - it's a series of sweep strokes with some careful edging and body rotation - it just takes a bit of practice to bring all the elements together and hey presto, you're there!

The basic skills required for cartwheels are, oddly enough, covered in the BCU 1 star syllabus. The sweep stroke, probably one of the most important strokes you'll ever learn, is all that's required (well, a good sense of balance and timing also helps!). You'll also need a boat for the job, ideally a short slicey boat; I started with a WaveSport Ace - nice and slicey, but a bit longer than a conventional modern playboat!

Essentially a cartwheel is rotating the boat around the paddler using a combination of forward and reverse sweep strokes. The trick is, the boat is rotating in the vertical plane not the horizontal. The true skill comes from getting the boat into the vertical plane and keeping it there! This is where a bit of balance and good timing is required.

Before starting to cartwheel there's a few things to bear in mind. Cartwheels require flexibility, mainly in the torso so it's essential to warm up appropriately, stretching those muscles for maximum bendiness!

Dan Cartwheeling
Dan Cartwheeling
Dan demonstrating (not very well) a cartwheel on the River Adur in West Sussex.
18 May 2006

The Flat-Wheel

To start we'll use the flat wheel as a means to get you cartwheeling! It's called the Flat Wheel because it's a cartwheel on flat water. Personally I think the flat wheel is harder as there's no moving water to assist with boat rotation, but because it's being done of flat water we can concentrate on what you and the boat are doing rather than worrying about the water around you! Once you've sused that, cartwheeling should become far more naturally - it's all about building the muscle memory!

Turning the Boat

Okay, lets get back to basics and see if your 1 star skills are up to scratch! To start we'll rotate the boat using forward and reverse sweep strokes (forward sweeping on one side and reverse on the other). The important points are trunk rotation and head position! Get someone to watch you doing your forward and reverse sweep combinations; they should be able to see that the boat rotation is coming from your torso rotation and not your shoulders! Your boat should appear to rotate around your body without moving forward or backward.

To start off with we'll spin the boat in a clockwise direction, starting with a forward sweep on the left side and a reverse sweep on the right. They key points are looking over your right shoulder at where the bow of the boat will be in a few seconds time and making sure the bulk of the rotation comes from your torso and not your shoulders!

Practice this in both directions and make sure the switch between the forward and reverse sweep stroke is as as clean as possible. Remember, it's not about speed and strength, it's all about technique!


Okay, so you've passed your 1 star, lets see about that edge control! This is a simple exercise to see if you can maintain an edge. This is very important as this is what gets the cartwheel started and controls it in the vertical plane.

To start off, lift an edge, lets say the right by lifting your right knee and pressing down with your left bum cheek! Try and get around 30 to 45 degree edge. Now using forward paddling, paddle around in a large circle holding that edge! When bored, switch edge and paddle back in another circle. Practice this over and over - remember, try and hold that edge constant - get someone to watch you!

Initiating a Cartwheel

For the purpose of this exercise we'll be doing right handed cartwheels. For left handed, simply insert left when I say right, allright?

Okay, so you can do sweep strokes and hold an edge. Lets see if we can initiate a cartwheel using a pump!



With some forward momentum, place the boat on its right edge by lifting the left knee then do a powerful forward sweep on the right side of the boat to drive the bow up and out of the water (starting off a pump).
  • Hold the edge.
  • Slightly lean back (towards stern) to lighten the bow and weight the stern.
  • Use Torso muscles to apply power (un-twist from left to right).
  • Direct paddle force downward.


As the bow reaches its vertical limit, look over your right shoulder towards the stern of your boat twisting your torso around to the right fully (wind up). This winding up of your torso is important; it's what develops the rotation that's about to follow! Bring the paddle around to the right ready for a reverse sweep.
  • Lead with your head, look at the stern.
  • Hold the boat on its right edge.
  • Torso should be rotated around to the right (wound up).
  • Paddle ready for reverse sweep (blade flat on water).


As the bow slams back down into the water, drive the stern upward using the momentum of the falling bow and a reverse sweep. Keep looking over your right shoulder.
  • Timing is critical, apply the reverse just as the bow reaches the water surface.
  • Use your torso to rotate the reverse sweep.
  • Think of the paddle as being flat on the water and you/the boat are moving around it.
  • Look at where the stern is about to go (remember our sweep stroke drills from earlier).


You're now in a bow stall, hopefully with enough momentum to keep the boat rotating, if not, you need more power during the reverse sweep and a bit more rotation in your torso. You need to be quick now, look over your right shoulder, twist your torso completely around to the right ready for a forward sweep.
  • Lead with your head.
  • Wind your torso up ready for a forward sweep.
  • Keep blades free of the water.


As the stern starts to fall, look over your right shoulder and set the paddle up for a forward sweep on left side of the boat. Try to keep the blades free of the water.
  • Rotate trunk around to the right fully ready for left forward sweep.
  • Keep blades free of water.


The boat should momentarily be lying on its left edge. At this point initiate a left forward sweep to drive the bow up and the stern down.
  • Look over your right shoulder (should be up in the air!).
  • Drive the bow up by using a left sweep with the blade flat on the water.
  • As the bow rises, un-twist your torso (this helps the boat rotate).


Okay, if the boat stops here it's called a stern stall but hopefully there should just be enough momentum to keep the rotation going, if not, simply look over your right shoulder across the water and bring the paddle around ready for a reverse sweep and the stern should follow!


As the bow starts to fall look over your right shoulder towards the stern. Allow your torso to follow your head by twisting it fully to the right. You're trying to place the right blade at the stern ready for a right reverse sweep.


If you're here, well done! That's you first complete revolution and you're now back at step 3. See how long you can keep it going for!

When you get the Cartwheel right, it will feel easy - you can pretty much throw the boat around only using torso rotation - honest! A common mistake is to rely on your paddle and strength only (no torso rotation); yes this may work, but it's bad technique (I know, I used to do it myself).