Make a splash: the challenge of learning to kayak

The Observer’s pop critic joined a kayaking club thinking she’d be able to glide along with moorhens, but soon found herself practising sprints and turns for her racing debut

For as long as I have run, I have hoofed unathletically alongside canals and rivers – I come out in hives if I breathe too hard near roads. And for as long as I have been a towpath user, I have looked enviously at the people in canoes and kayaks, slicing through the water, eye level with the moorhens.

One day, I might give kayaking a go, I thought, vaguely. Sit-on-top kayaks always made for a far better day at the beach on holiday. Rowing itself never seemed remotely attractive – too much ruling class baggage, too much shouting. But in a kayak, I thought, you might wander pacifically about in nature, maybe spot some riverbank wildlife you don’t normally see and, almost as an afterthought, perhaps build a little upper body strength.

Kismet intervened a few years ago. The firstborn expressed a desire to join the local canoe club. After navigating a waiting list, I signed up for an introductory adult course. And another.

You learn about different types of canoe and kayak; paddles; the various strokes and how to keep ‘river right’ and self-rescue if you fall in.
You learn about different types of canoe and kayak; paddles; the various strokes and how to keep ‘river right’ and self-rescue if you fall in. Photograph: Oleksandra Korobova/Getty Images

There was basic handling in boats you couldn’t tip over if you tried. We learned about different types of canoe and kayak; different paddles – never oars! – the various paddle strokes. We learned to keep “river right” and how to self-rescue if you fall in – not fun in winter, but necessary as hitting cold water can shock the body, and disorient even a strong swimmer.

It was, mostly, fun. It got me outdoors. I wasn’t in a rut, exactly – I had plenty going on – but it was the best kind of challenge: completely new to me, different from all the things I would do normally, and neither extreme nor ridiculous. Women were well-represented. The club actively welcomed the differently abled. It wasn’t all buff 23-year-olds, it was retirees, kids, lots of people of all ages who had recovered from something. I soon had triceps to speak of. Yes, there was the danger of river pollution and Weil’s disease, but with every dunking, I got more used to being plastered in weed.

Our local club happens to be a racing club rather than a touring club. Beyond the introductory course, very little pacific meandering goes on. You are still eye-level with waterfowl, but ducks scatter before you, letting their indignation be known.

I signed up for the racing course. And then joined the club.

I started with the kids. Eventually, a group of newer adults and younger teens coalesced. We learned racing technique, how to carry our kayaks over locks – portaging – and, later, wash-hanging (slip-streaming in the wake of another kayak to conserve energy). We learned – well, others learned – how to turn anticlockwise at speed around buoys. We did “fartleks” – interval training in which you leap-frog one another to build up sprint speeds. We trained for stamina over distance. We sharpened our technique, using the leg drive against the kayak footplate to power the stroke. We learned that a successful stroke requires shoulder and torso rotation, not just pulling with the arms. We did race starts; time trial after time trial. Every time I lost concentration or was issued a new kayak, I fell in. It has been character-building. Like most new habits, training is about turning up and just getting a little less worse, over time.

And that is how I came to be lining up, my son’s too-tight old club race vest under my buoyancy aid, number board attached to my kayak, at the starting line of my first five-mile marathon a few weeks ago.

To be clear: I run for trains and buses, and I run for the endorphin rush and the improved sleep. I have never raced. I’m not uncompetitive, exactly, I just don’t go in for gung-ho stuff.

But having stepped a little outside my comfort zone, I now found myself surrounded by a bevy of far more experienced entrants, being buffeted by 12mph winds, a stranger to myself. I had – ugh – carb-loaded. I had even (whisper it) sucked down a gel.

A straight run … once you’ve learned basic kayak technique.
A straight run … once you’ve learned basic kayak technique. Photograph: Aki Maedomari/Getty Images/EyeEm

Waiting for the signal, I wobbled about perilously. It was partly me, partly the kayak. Built for speed, racing kayaks are inherently unstable, not suited to sitting still. And I wasn’t even in a fast boat. I had progressed from a broad-bottomed stability 10 craft to something like a stability six. The stability threes and twos are like stiletto heels; the ones are like hypodermic needles. The people who race in those have pencil hips and abs made of titanium. I have borne children and my core is made of pasta. That pasta might be a little more al dente than it was a few years ago, but not by much.

The experienced racers shot off; I was left in the churn, but upright. Gradually, I found my pace. I think I overtook someone. Fast children overtook me.

I didn’t mess up the first turn: major win. I didn’t mess up the portage, or the second turn. More tiny victories. When it was windy, I kept my paddle low. When the gusts eased, I tried to coordinate legs, arms, torso and breath to move faster. Sometimes, for a minute or so, I was almost alone on the water, almost at one with the boat, limbs miraculously in sync. The feeling of flying as the prow split the water sparkling in the dappled sunshine was the stuff of cliche, but no less true for it.

I limped in, penultimate in my class, arms like frankfurters, fingers like claws. But I hadn’t fallen in. And now I have a race time. And next time, I might beat it.

How to do it

British Canoeing is the national governing body for paddle sports. It can put you in touch with the 400-plus certified clubs in the UK, including women’s paddle sports groups. Access Adventures is a charity that aims to make sports accessible and affordable for everyone with a disability.

​These sorts of sports typically involve group activities, many are suitable for families, so it’s a sociable pastime with lots of events. Forums such as the Open Canoe Association, GoPaddling and the UK Rivers Guidebook are sources of information about meet-ups, mentors and trips.

If you like the idea of spending time in, on or even under the water, there are lots of options. Try the British Water Ski and Wakeboard Association, British Rafting, the National Coasteering Charter, the Inland Waterways Association, the British Sub-Aqua Club or even the underwater hockey club – the British Octopush Association – for trial sessions and local group information.

Contributor

Kitty Empire

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
On the right track: how walking connects me to the land and its people
From the Himalayas to Palestine and north London to south Devon, hiking gives a sense of belonging

Ashish Ghadiali

05, Jan, 2022 @12:00 PM

Article image
A wild affair: develop a passion for photography and nature
Catching wildlife on film has taken our science editor from Shetland to Kazakhstan, but his photograph of a woodpecker in the garden of his London home gave him as big a thrill

Robin McKie

08, Jan, 2022 @9:00 AM

Article image
Weird and wonderful: how to buy objects that bring joy to your home
You might think an architecture critic would surround himself with designer ornaments, instead Rowan Moore collects unique objects that defy the rules of good taste

Rowan Moore

07, Jan, 2022 @12:00 PM

Article image
Click and collect: my insatiable passion for auction websites
Find your furniture at online auction and you too can decorate your home with haunted dolls and lamps that look like they’re covered in semen. Eva Wiseman explains how

Eva Wiseman

01, Jan, 2022 @12:00 PM

Article image
Recipe for contentment: cook and take life one meal at a time
Learn how to make food with care and attention, says Tim Adams, and the daily ritual of family cooking becomes a rewarding and meditative experience

Tim Adams

03, Jan, 2022 @12:00 PM

Article image
Go on, I dare you: Philippa Perry’s advice for a fulfilling new year
Philippa Perry tackles readers’ personal problems every week as our agony aunt. Her tip for an amazing 2022? Get out there and find a new passion

Philippa Perry

12, Jan, 2022 @2:59 PM

Article image
From torment to pleasure: how playing the violin became part of me
A bullying teacher almost made our classical music critic give up playing as a child but when she switched lessons for making music with friends she discovered true delight

Fiona Maddocks

02, Jan, 2022 @12:00 PM

Article image
Fall in love with art: delight in collecting paintings
Finding art for your walls is not about investment or education, it’s about looking for what moves you and enriches your life

Rachel Cooke

08, Jan, 2022 @12:00 PM

Article image
Cultivating calm: how gardening helps me find peace
Thanks to an elderly neighbour, Rebecca Nicholson started gardening and has not stopped reaping the fruits of her labours in terms of mind, body and soul

Rebecca Nicholson

04, Jan, 2022 @12:00 PM

Article image
Loving and giving: try volunteer work
Helping others is rewarding but don’t volunteer to make yourself feel good. Know your strengths, play to those and, above all, stick to commitments

Bidisha

09, Jan, 2022 @12:00 PM