Canoe freestyle is a whitewater discipline and competitions take place on stationary river features. These can be breaking or partially breaking standing waves, holes and stoppers typically formed at the bottom of small drops or weirs where the water flows back on itself, or eddy lines on the boundary of slow moving water at the river edge and faster water. In International Canoe Federation (ICF) events, athletes have a set time to perform as many different moves as possible, scoring additional points for style. Finals are judged on three 45-second runs.
Canoe freestyle is a constantly evolving discipline, with new tricks being developed to complement and improve on existing moves. These moves fall into three categories, entry moves, basic moves and bonuses, and are similar to those performed in freestyle snowboarding, surfing and skating. Spins, flips and turns are accompanied with names including roundhouse, donkey flip and the mcnasty.
Canoe freestyle is contested by four types of boat, kayak (K), canoe decked (C), open canoe (OC) and squirt. In kayak, competitors are seated with their legs out in front using a double-bladed paddle, in contrast to the single-bladed paddle used in a kneeling position in canoe decked. Open canoes also use the single-bladed paddle in a kneeling position, but are slightly larger boats with no spray-deck to enclose the cockpit. Squirt boats have no restrictions but a greater emphasis is placed on smooth control and graceful moves. Points are awarded for each different rotation during a 60-second choreographed routine, and bonus points can be gained for how deep and how long the boat can be kept under water during a mystery move.
Walt Blackader is generally thought to be the main pioneer of canoe freestyle. In 1968 he developed his own techniques for entering rapids sideways and backwards, and he and his friends would go on to make custom fibreglass kayaks that were more nimble. As extreme sports like wakeboarding and snowboarding began to increase in popularity during the 1980s, so did the recreational form of canoe freestyle, also known as playboating. The competitive side followed in the 1990s, but it was not until 2006 the ICF recognised canoe freestyle as an official discipline.
The first canoe freestyle world championships sanctioned by the ICF was held in 2007 on the Ottawa River in Canada, and the first world cup series began the following year. These events take place biannually on alternate years.
The Jackson family are prominent figures in canoe freestyle. Father Eric was a world champion in the discipline and Olympian in canoe slalom before going on to found Jackson Kayak that produces competition boats. His children Dane and Emily won three of the six events at the most recent edition of the world championships, in 2015 on the Ottawa River.