In a kayaking world full of short stubby spuds and voluminous creek boats the sport of slalom has taken rather a back seat. Speak to many white water kayakers and slalom is met with suspicion. Some respect the skills of slalom paddlers, but think that they spend all their time on artificial courses with no relevance to white water river running. Some just do not think it’s a cool thing to do when they could be forward flipping a playboat or running a G5 creek instead.
The idea of actually having sessions where you practice skills is one that is lost on many a person in this day and age. Practice my forward paddling technique? Why? I can move the boat through the water, so why bother? It’s a fair point to a degree. However my question to those with that attitude is wouldn’t you like to run the rivers with more skill, style and efficiency?
Personally I have always been interested in canoe slalom. It was what had me hooked on the idea of kayaking in the first place back when I watched the BBC’s “Paddles Up” television programme back in the 80’s. Of course it took me until 34 years of age to pluck up the nounce to learn to swim and then to learn to kayak. But my desire was there, along with my admiration for the skills of slalom paddling.
Before I go any further I should establish where slalom comes from. Back when boats were made of wood or from fibre glass paddlers couldn’t afford to take the same sorts of risks that people in plastic boats take today. To run a white water river while avoiding rocks is a real skill to be respected. This may be news to the modern paddler who quite often actually aims for the rocks!
So, our predecessors were faced with a conundrum. How do you train paddling accuracy and skill without risking wrecking a load of boats and possible injury? The answer is simple. Erect some poles and practice aiming for them and going through them.
At one time in the UK Slalom was huge (it was on TV for one thing!) Quite often it would be rare for a white water paddler not to be skilled at slalom.
Finding somewhere today to practice canoe slalom is difficult. For one thing there aren’t that many clubs left who have any sort of canoe slalom following. The second is that there aren’t that many locations in the Midlands at least that have any sort of slalom set up. It was by sheer accident that I discovered a couple of groups at my local play weir at Nafford who regularly practiced slalom skills there.
I had been looking a good long while for a place to practice this sport, primarily as a way to improve my river running skills. My introduction to it proved that it would be highly useful. Getting through those poles accurately is tricky!
For those doubters among you here is what setting up a slalom course achieves. Take your average common all garden weir with a nice outflow. Pretty simple isn’t it? Some would say dull. I mean, all you can do is ferry glide practice right? Wrong. By setting up slalom poles you are creating a complex rapid that has to be negotiated, with must make crux moves. Not only are you drastically increasing your accuracy and river placement skills but you are also having to learn stroke timing and efficiency. With slalom you need to keep the momentum going. Slalom will teach you methods of paddling your boat that you might not have thought possible before. For example crossing mid river eddies without S-turning and while keeping momentum. This requires a confidence of using totally the opposite edge to what you may be used to, along with a really good stroke placement.
All skills can be transferred to plastic boats. In fact I am still having to use my creek boat until I can get hold of a slalom kayak. It is hard to do, but I am still learning valuable skills. Body rotation, posture, power delivery, looking at where you want to be all come into it and are developed to the nth degree.
Now, I know what some of you may be thinking. You may be thinking that you can learn these same skills by simply doing your usual river running. Well, you could, but it will take a longer period of time, and you would have to be very disciplined to be able to focus and refine the different skills. After all, does a footballer wait until an important match to practice his/her skills? Does Lewis Hamilton wait until a Grand Prix to practice? Of course not.
By practicing slalom locally to where you may live gives you multiple runs on a course that literally forces you to develop the skills I mentioned, while at the same time having a lot of fun doing it. Then when you come to travel a long distance to a river you will be more prepared to run it smoothly.
Regarding slalom boats themselves, you should have a taste, you might like them! These longer boats are different to paddle to playboats and creekers. They track exceptionally well and will feel rather tippy to the uninitiated. However they are very manoeuvrable. The biggest thing that will strike a paddler who is used to plastic boats is the sheer feel and feedback from the water that you get from a carbon kevlar boat. There is simply no equal, and it is easy to understand why slalom kayakers would prefer their boats over plastic ones. The speed that a slalom boat is capable of is astounding. Want to attain back up sections of the Graveyard on the Tryweryn? Or to paddle back up Serpents Tail on the Dee? In a slalom boat you can!
Playboating as well as using a short slicey ,edgy boat is often suggested as a way to improve kayaking skills. Playboating certainly will improve rolling skills and edge awareness. However it is about time more kayakers became aware of just how much value slalom would give their river running. Slalom is directly related to river running because that’s what slalom actually is!
For beginners, learning white water slalom in my opinion would be invaluable. Rather than teaching the same old things along with the dreaded low and high brace (please stop it, please!), slalom on weir outflows and rapids such as Symonds Yat would introduce a really fun way of learning river running in a controlled environment. For beginners having a positive posture and drive in their paddling is often lacking (although I could just be speaking for myself!) Learning to slalom on moving water would teach and internalise positive paddling technique and accuracy, which would accelerate their skills on river runs and also increase their fun in the process.
Rapids such as Symonds Yat are drastically under utilised with the area becoming synonymous with basic eddy hopping and not much else. The addition of slalom poles to such a site would not only add a lot of challenge, but clubs with beginners groups could get a lot more out of their day in the process.
I am highly glad that I have found a couple of slalom groups to practice with. I am not so much into competition, but may well enter a couple as a way of building some experience of it on differing water. But for general positivity and accuracy it simply can’t be beaten. The cardio work out it gives is an added benefit as well!
With the huge reaction the Canoe Slalom received at this years Summer Olympics in London, with any luck the sport will benefit from a resurgence.