As I mentioned in the previous post I had always wanted to try kayaking. After I started to gain water confidence I tried a couple of trips in hired boats down the river Wye. I loved it. So in August 2010 at the grand old age of 35 I decided to book myself on a five day long course with a company in Hay on Wye called River Strokes. I had rung around a few places, but Dan at River Strokes was the only one who seemed to show any understanding of the water confidence issues that I had. For while I had gained water confidence, I still had hangups.
One of the sticking points of learning to kayak is the capsize drill. Mention kayaking to most people and many will respond in terror because the thought of being upside down in a boat fills them with fear. For someone with water confidence issues it can be the worst possible nightmare scenario!
Dan is an extremely chilled guy, and due to his own experiences fully understands water confidence issues. Many kayak instructors bark orders, or have no understanding of such things because they have always been around and loved water. In fact I know of people who have been put off kayaking for life as a result of some kayak instructors pushing them too far with no understanding or concept of this. Dan has no such problems.
When I first rocked up at River Strokes I had the intention of learning kayaking so that I could get a nice touring style boat and bimble up and down the River Severn on the flatwater. Dan told me that he will most probably have changed my mind by the end of the week to like white water. I wasn’t so sure, but I went along with it.
The first stage of learning was to learn the basic strokes and stability on flat water. Getting into a kayak for the first time, especially a whitewater boat, is a bit of a wobbly state of affairs. These boats feel unstable and it is hard to get them to go in a straight line.
The more I learnt, the more I appreciated that kayaking is a skill, much like martial arts. Balance must be learnt to keep the kayak tracking flat when needed. The position of the arms on the paddle, and position in the water is critical to stop the boat from veering off course. I also learnt that whitewater boats love to be on edge. This is part of what enables them to be manoeuvred so swiftly in moving water.
Boats have what is called primary and secondary stability. Kayaks in effect have two hulls. Eventually you learn that the tippyness of a kayak can be your friend. It is all part of the learning process.
One of the earliest things Dan asked me to do was a wet exit. This is to show that you can exit the boat safely should it overturn. This is also the point that many people can be put off kayaking. Performing a wet exist isn’t just a case of getting out of the boat as soon as possible though. It also serves as a confidence builder.
The key to a good wet exit is to remain calm. When Dan first asked me to perform it I took an absolute age sitting in my boat plucking up the courage to go along with it. Eventually I went ahead and found that it was a lot easier than I thought. Gravity helps you. There is no chance of you being trapped in the boat, a common fear. It simply won’t happen. Many people do not believe me because it can sometimes be a squeeze getting into the boat to begin with, therefore it must be hard to get out again, right? Wrong. So very wrong. You will literally float out with very little effort. This fact doesn’t stop non-kayakers disbelieving me though!
Later in the week Dan would get me doing the same exercise every day, leaving it longer and longer before I exited the boat. As the week progressed Dan also taught me some basic moving water skills, entering and existing eddies, and even a bit of wave surfing. Unfortunately nausea was an issue for me even though I have never been seasick before. In spite of this I knew once the week had finished that kayaking was definitely for me.
Kayaking has all the aspects I am looking for. It is a highly precise skill set that can be constantly developed and improved, it is highly social, and importantly it is a huge amount of fun. This was only the beginning however. I would constantly go back to Dan’s coaching to improve further in flatwater and on grade 1 – low 2 situations. I cannot recommend going to a professional coach enough. Many kayakers only learn off friends or casually at their club. Professional coaching will stop you from developing bad habits and speed your development drastically.
Below is a short video clip from my first week on the water.