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.


Kitty Empire

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