Monday, 13 September 2010

Kayaking - river, lake and sea

A new chunk from the She Who Dares book, more to follow.....

SWD Dare factor ***

Not to be confused with Canoeing, a canoe is an open boat – more on those in Canoeing.

A kayak is what I would have called a canoe years ago until I was re-educated by the lovely Linda and Barbara. I suspected they were more experienced after I witnessed the easy way they slipped a splash deck on and tore up the river, flipping the boat over and rolling, graceful and seal like, nose clip intact.

You never know where being in She Who Dares will take you. Linda joined after listening to a speaker at a women’s motivational seminar share her experiences of the group. Linda went along the following Wednesday to find out more and watched the kayaking:

“They looked like they were having fun, until they started larking about and capsizing. I took one look at the colour of the river water and thought ‘this is definitely not for me!’ Goodness knows what made me return – the camaraderie I think.”

Going back the following week took Linda’s life in new direction. Over the years she gained her kayaking and canoe qualifications and is now a member of Herts Canoe Lifeguards, patrolling outdoor swims and triathlon events, she runs a social paddling group from work, as well as establishing the charity ‘Active Works’ which raises money for disadvantaged and disabled youngsters to participate in kayaking, canoeing and other outdoor sports. Most weekends she, Barbara, Sonia and others are to be found strapping their own kayaks to the roof of a car and heading off in search of white water.

When it came to my first paddling session with She Who Dares, I hadn’t been in a kayak for over 20 years. Getting in to the boat was half the problem. I tried a technique I remembered from Ranger Guides, shifting my weight across a paddle balanced over the back of the boat. My hopes of impressing the others with my technical abilities were soon sunk, along with the lower half of my body as I found myself waist deep in the water, at least I had now warmed my wetsuit. Equipment is important for this activity; most centres will provide or hire what you need; a wetsuit, waterproofs, buoyancy aid, helmet and a boat and paddle. Wet shoes are a good idea, and possibly gloves. If you want to undertake longer trips, you may consider investing in a dry suit. The formidable Barbara often kayaks in hers. She may look like a punk version of the creature from the black lagoon advancing down the river, trussed in black rubber decorated with a multitude of zips, but those zips are designed to be in just the right places. Caught short on a long trip, she can employ a she pee, inserted in the right zip; it gives her the freedom to wee standing up. True equality at last!

Kayaking is a sport that can be enjoyed all year round. My initial session was in mid January. It was bitterly cold, the sky the colour of weak, cold tea. The river had frozen into ice and stretched out like a winding glass road through brittle banks. I was on the point of turning for home, but She Who Dares don’t mind about the cold, so I had to go through with it. Clad in a wetsuit, fleece, waterproof trousers and top, socks, trainers, buoyancy aid and helmet I slid gingerly into the boat, and after a brief weighing of the paddle in trembling hands, I was off. Well, almost, the icy water was dripping down my arm and soaking into my woolen gloves. Phil made a dash for the kitchen and emerged waving, not a flask of brandy, but a pair of bright yellow marigolds and some elastic bands. Suitably attired I set off trying to keep up with the others.

Four years and a lot of keeping up later, I’m just about able to hold a straight line and show off a few paddling skills. It’s excellent exercise and really builds core strength. That January day it was enough to just keep moving forward, my boat skimmed like a puck over the frozen surface as it cracked and creaked beneath me, driving the paddles through the ice, churning forwards to pools of still water, where I pushed the paddles through clear water. I was exhausted. It wasn’t a long trip, but it was an eye opener. Who were these women who could traverse through such conditions, were they mad? I was struck with a creeping admiration.

Many kayaking trips have followed on the river Stort and the Lea, in much better weather, and with better water quality than when Linda first shuddered at the water colour twenty years ago. There is a sense of being part of a secret world, away from the traffic and bustle, sliding past on calm green water under lush trees and hidden inlets. In a kayak you’re on the same level as river life, ducks, swans and water voles skim past, electric blue dragonflies dance. You see the river from the surface, and on capsize drill, from below, plunging into a willow green blurry waterscape. Exploring the waterways takes you past restored towpaths and artistic sculptures. Beautiful clapperboard houses with gardens hidden from the road are revealed in all their glory from the riverside, small jetties and rowing boats moored at the ready. People are friendly too, if you follow river etiquette and stay away from fishing lines and narrow boats.

Teamwork along the river has been established in the many games we’ve tried out. Cilla, one of the instructors, always paddled with her yellow rubber duck. She’d start an improtu game of water polo at any point by flinging it into the air, resulting in a melee of crashing kayaks. A favourite anecdote of another instructor, Russ, he of the enviable golden flowing locks, involved the legend of the giant pike that lurks in the deep pools of the river. He made his presence known one day during a game of water polo, as the ball arched through the air towards Russ it was intercepted by the leap of the huge pike, who snatched it between his jaws before sinking back into the water, ball and fish were never seen again.

More of our kayaking has been on the lake at the excellent Enfield Scouts Sailing Association. The placid, and marginally warmer, waters are good for beginners. The games and dunking still continue under the tutelage of Barbara, she of the punk dry suit. Another kayak enthusiast inspired by the group, although it wasn’t always the case:

“ I first sat in a kayak in 2003 – I hated it, I couldn’t control the thing, it was uncomfortable and I was scared… the following year I went to pool sessions with the group and was rolling within six weeks. Since I could now roll, I set about learning the other stuff. The obsession began to bite. Before kayaking I was unfit, flabby and coasting seamlessly from having babies to middle age. Now I’m fanatical about my core stability, keeping my weight within boat’s weight range and maintaining fitness for paddling.”

Sea Kayaking

Sea kayaks are much bigger than river craft, flat based and more buoyant, where you often sit on, not in, the boat. Although waves can turn you over quickly on the shore, it’s shallow and easy to stand up and get on again. Once out over the shore surf you can turn round and experience:

Surf Skiing

Using the kayak as a large surfboard, you can bob about and catch a wave, like surfing, but use the paddle as a rudder to give you some steering and control. This is the theory. In the choppy swell of South Wales a turn too far one way or the other results in a quick washing machine experience and a mouthful of sand.
After we’d played around in the surf we set off under huge skies and wheeling gulls. Hugging the coast, a kayak can see things denied to the hill walkers on the cliffs above, secret coves and nesting birds, rock arches and seals. We paddled parallel to the headland, turning the corner to a deserted bay, the sound of the sea churning tumbling pebbles drowned out the birds. Reaching the shore we heaved the kayaks up on to the beach, stepping gingerly over the giants teeth boulders, back into the water like a harem of sprightly seals to commence the annual game of balancing on one kayak. After much heaving, puffing, panting, shoving and grasping of inappropriate body parts, we hit a record eight.

Sea kayaking has now become a holiday pre-requisite for our family. From the creeks and coves of Cornwall, to the bays of Majorca, still waters of Cuba, weaving between boats at Balmoral Bay, Sydney, or the shallows off Maui, where the first inhabitants of the island arrived by dug out canoe, any beach with a boat has us donning buoyancy aids and grabbing paddles. In Maui there was a moment when my heart stopped as a large fin broke the water, feet from our kayak. I uttered a stream of expletives and stopped paddling as more joined it; only to swoon in relief when my daughter pointed out we were surrounded by a school of spinner dolphins, not great whites. We floated gently, allowing them to explore our bobbing boat, before swishing away through the turquoise water, effortlessly spinning over the surface of the sea.

Where we’ve been kayaking

Start at a recognized base; never go out on your own (unless you have a large insurance claim to make)
BCU – British Canoe Union (it’s kayaks too), list centres in the UK

Harlow Outdoors

Enfield Scouts Sailing Association – ESSA, near Naezing, Essex

Herts Young Mariners, Cheshunt, Herts.

White water at Llandysul – North Wales:

Sea kayaking:
Morfa Bay activity centre, South West Wales:
St Mawes
Sydney, Australia – Balmoral Bay

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