“For years I’d indulged in walking, mountain biking and other land based activities but had always avoided escapades of the aquatic kind. A nagging feeling that maybe I should try something else, a free Monday night and a number of friends interested in kayaking convinced me to give it a try.
First impressions arriving at the reservoir were promising – a bunch of friendly people, a wide array of boats and a willingness by everyone to lend the benefit of their experience. My initial efforts at navigation were somewhat mediocre; I marvelled at skilled members wearing their boats like a glove and wondered if I would ever reach that level of ability. Nevertheless I was bolstered by a successful capsize drill and realising that my less than fantastic swimming was amply supported by the buoyancy aid.
Knowing that the worst that would happen was a bit of a dunking provided the confidence to experiment. Over the course of the next couple of months my navigation skills improved considerably – not competent, but certainly reasonably good at correcting the course of the kayak.
My skills slowly increased; a variety of different kayaks taught different issues of manoeuvrability, connecting up strokes and the importance of flexibility and subtlety of movement. Sea kayaks enforced the importance of banking, and then there were the canoes.
Whilst the vast majority of the boats available are kayaks – a boat that’s steered with a double bladed paddle and enclosed from the elements by a spray deck, there are also a number of canoes typically using a single bladed paddle and open to the weather. Canoes are a key illustration of the difference between strength and skill; ultimately the key to both kayaks and canoes is finesse in positioning of the paddle, but it’s possible to substitute finesse for raw strength in certain cases of kayak movement. Attempting to paddle a canoe as easily as a kayak quickly showed me some areas where my kayaking technique required improvement and the advantages of each type of boat.
Practising kayaking was taking some time – I’d started right at the start of the season in May, and continued on until around October as the clocks were about to change. Daylight starts to become an issue, so the club retires to Westhoughton Baths to practice moves in an environment that is substantially warmer, cleaner and more shallow than a reservoir. In particular, perfecting the fabled roll or other moves that may result in exiting your boat – a capsize drill is usually not difficult when on a river, but can be time consuming.
Personal experience has taught me that rolling is definitely a move worth learning. Aside from the Monday night meetings I’ve been on a couple of trips, learning that there’s somewhat of a difference between water that’s moved by the wind and the wash of other boats, and free flowing water in a river. River boating involves faster decision making, more varied scenery and a degree of excitement. It also, if you’re unlucky or lacking in skill, includes a certain amount of unwanted close up examination of the river bed.
Realisation that there’s suddenly a large quantity of water rushing past your head and that you’re upside down is not necessarily a major issue if you can’t roll – perform a capsize, keep hold of your paddle, make your way to the shallows and then wait for your boat to be retrieved. The buoyancy aid will prevent drowning, and the way ahead is scoped out by the more experienced members to ensure the less able paddlers do not get into trouble – it’s no shame to admit you can’t handle a section of the river, and I have skipped parts until my probability of handling them was reasonable.
It is reassuring to know that capsizing on a river is not a large problem, but the time to get back on the water can vary. On some occasions I have been back in my boat within a couple of minutes. Unfortunately another instance involved capsizing in one of the less ideal spots – it took some time to swim to the shallows, whereupon other members had retrieved my waterlogged boat. Getting back in involved emptying the boat, dragging it up a steep bank, along a road, then back down again – this can be rather exhausting, but do think of the warm shower, refreshment and diverting chat with everyone that night and the satisfaction when a drop is finally mastered and you can look back and marvel at what you have achieved.
The baths sessions are therefore a vital part of making river trips more enjoyable and pleasant. I must admit that a roll still eludes me, although I’m very close. Regardless, it keeps skills sharp and livens up the cold and dark Winter nights.
The future undoubtedly contains new adventures – more practice, social events with the club and further honing of my skills. My progress is variable, but most importantly I’ve found a new activity with people I like, and it’s difficult to put a price on that.”