What is canoe/kayak slalom? Put simply Slalom was originally developed to build river running skills in a safe environment. It is this very usage which could benefit many paddlers today, and turn relatively easy white water into a lot of fun, but generally it is not.
Why is slalom such a minority part of paddling these days? Put simply I think that it is the curse of the Olympics! While positive in some respects, Olympic involvement puts a highly competitive edge on something that was originally fairly grass roots.
Spend any amount of time at places like the Canolfan Tryweryn site and you will rarely see club or recreational paddlers mixing with the slalom guys. Slalom practices are taken very seriously, to an almost obsessive degree. To be the best in a sport you have to train hard but this can and does cause a small amount of friction occasionally when that training takes place alongside recreational users. It is this seriousness that often puts off general paddlers from having a go at slalom. They see the paddling equivalent of lycra clad cyclists hammering their way through a course all the while being shouted at by their coaches, and make the decision that this really isn’t for them. A bit of lazy paddling followed by a nice big piece of cake and a cup of tea in the cafe would be a nice way to spend the day, thanks.
On the other side of the coin not many truly dedicated slalom guys run rivers for fun. This is in part due to the amount of training they need to do in order to be the best. They are not really aware of the access issues that are abound on our waterways. They are skilled on slalom courses, which are often held on limited sections of natural rivers, but most often on artificial concrete channels. They could benefit from decent wild river experiences to see what their skills were originally developed for.
Slalom for me is the equivalent of an exercise in the martial art of Wing Chun called Chi Sau. Chi Sau is half way between a drill and fighting. It focusses on one element of fighting, namely being close in and controlling the opponent. Chi Sau has, strangely, been developed into a competitive sport by some, and Chi Sau in general is often mistaken by many practitioners for being fighting, and indeed the encapsulation of Wing Chun itself. The reality is however that it is not. Far from it.
What happens as a result of the competitive aspects of Chi Sau is that practitioners develop techniques that work to defeat another person in a Chi Sau environment. This is great for Chi Sau, but not so great for a real fight where all rules are off and the full sphere of distances and underhand tactics come into play.
Chi Sau was designed to refine skill at extremely close quarter fighting. Applied practical fight based Chi Sau is over in an instant, and yet a large percentage of people practice Chi Sau for the sake of beating another person at Chi Sau.
I view canoe slalom in the same way. It was developed originally to refine certain aspects of river running in a safe environment. In a white water environment it helps to develop water reading as well. However slalom gates are a set course. Many modern slalom paddlers actively avoid crossing stoppers, and indeed many courses are set up to avoid this as one high level slalom coach recently told me after he had tried to coach a slalom group on this very skill. The modern moves in slalom such as 180 degree pivot turns are designed to work specifically for slalom in specific types of slalom boat. Such moves, while fun on a river, are designed for a specific application, namely to get around upstream gates smoothly.
Much of slalom does not emphasise crossing deep into eddies, or river running strategy with a group, or safety management. Slalom is a single part of paddling in a bubble, and while it makes people quite skilful at handling boats, in my opinion the people who practice slalom super seriously to the exclusion of getting out on wild river runs with friends are all the poorer for it.
Likewise there are a lot of recreational paddlers who could really do with learning and practicing slalom.
For beginners particularly (and in fact many long term paddlers) slalom practice would help hugely. Slalom would help the positivity of paddling, driving the boat to it’s destination, and emphasise the positioning of the boat in the flow to make certain moves. Slalom can turn a G2-3 rapid into one where G4, G5 moves must be performed.
We’d have a lot less hesitant, reactionary low/high bracers if slalom was made a staple part of club paddling!
Both sets of paddlers have a lot to learn from one another and it is a great shame that they do not mingle more, as they once did when slalom was much more directly a part of recreational paddling.
I have just obtained a 3.5m slalom boat for myself, a Caiman Premier. That’s it on the right. Quite distinctive! I haven’t fully made up my mind about the whole zebra thing! While the bodywork is looking a bit shabby through use, make no mistake it’s a solid boat and damn fast! To all plastic boat paddlers out there I have one thing to say. Slalom boats are fun!
They are pure performance machines. They like to move, and do not like to be paddled passively. Much like a F1 car needs to be driven hard, slalom boats are the same. They do not forgive wishy washy paddling. They are narrow and tippy, and the edges from halfway past the cockpit catch easily if you get the edging wrong. The hull itself, being made from carbon fibre, is rigid as hell and gives total feedback from the water, which is further enhanced by the carbon fibre seat, which is glued firmly in place to the boat.
Basic it most certainly is, but it has to be one of the purest forms of kayak paddling. A slalom boat will hold a line very solidly, and while you are driving it forward will be reluctant to turn. Trim a little along with a sweep stroke however and it’ll spin on a dime. Edge and it will carve a turn like a knife.
The length will catch you out, and that tail will take a few bashings the first few times out – even when carrying it to the car, but you get used to it. Eventually.
I wanted to get used to such a boat because Cheltenham Canoe Club, who I practiced slalom with a bit last year in my creekboat barge, have joined forces with Wyedean Canoe Club, who I am closely associated with, to restart slalom at Symonds Yat.
This to my mind is one of the most positive things to happen in a good while, because both clubs paddle white water recreationally as well. The Symonds Yat rapids have a history of slalom, and would possibly be one of the best places around to hold slalom competitions in England. Much pushier than Matlock, but not as scraggy as Jackfield. Cheltenham has long practiced slalom, while Wyedean has a history of slalom in the anals of history. It is good that it is making a return to it, not least for the beginners or less experienced who I feel will gain huge amounts of confidence on white water from practicing the slalom gates.
Symonds Yat isn’t a monster rapid by any stretch of the imagination, but it is pushier than some give it credit for, especially at it’s sweet spot at levels juuuuuust before the rapids start to wash out. Adding gates to it gives it a whole new dimension, and I defy anyone who is bored of catching the basic eddies on this stretch not to be challenged to get through a full set of gates without touching them! This isn’t a case of just hitting eddies. It is a case of hitting eddies with pinpoint accuracy, while keeping the boat moving and a strategy for getting through the gates mid flow, while aiming for the next upstream gate in another eddy.
Most river runners will hit an eddy and stop. Slalom gives flow, and lets you understand how to keep that boat moving and play the river in a different way. Before short stumpy boats came along, playing the river meant playing the eddies and the river flow, keeping the boat moving gracefully through linked moves. It’s a lost art and one I rarely, if ever, I see being demonstrated on any river unless it is an ex-slalom guy in a plastic boat.
I would highly recommend that river runners give slalom a good go, and from an early period of paddling. Likewise slalom guys really should get out on natural river runs with the general paddling community more.