A review of 2013

It has to be said that I am not a big fan of paddling blog yearly summaries. They tend to be a bit self absorbed. It has always been my aim that people can learn something from this blog, or at least get people thinking even if they disagree with what I write. I would like then to offer my own perspective on my kayaking journey so far and hopefully impart some learned lessons, as well as perhaps turning into a self absorbed diatribe at times!

Triple drop on the Etive

Triple drop on the Etive.
Photo: Brian Duthie

When I think back to the time I took my very first paddle strokes, and my first extremely apprehensive capsize drill I am often amazed at how far I have come. Most of the time my progression has felt fairly small, and yet the reality is that I have come a long way. Far further than I would ever have expected when I first turned up at River Strokes in Hay-on-Wye in 2010 only just having learnt how to swim, telling  Dan Povey, the coach there, that I planned only to buy a crossover kayak and paddle the flatwater river Severn!

There have been many milestones on my journey of learning to kayak so far. There’s the aforementioned first capsize, the first time I paddled whitewater, my first surf, my first roll, all major stepping stones among many.

As a person progresses in a particular skill the improvements become smaller and it is easy to reach a plateau. Some people will be open to new methods, and others wont. A case in point is one of my other major milestones, the time I met and was coached by Simon Westgarth.

I have been with many of the known UK coaches. All of them exceptional and with their own angle on things. My short time with Simon Westgarth one day in November 2012 on the Dart was a revelation, and it completely changed the way that I paddle. From my forward stroke to the way I enter and leave eddies, to the way I look at and read water.

His methods are backed up by mechanics, logic, and extensive experience, but they often fly in the face of the dogma that is conventionally taught in clubs.

This year has been one of putting things into practice, as well as getting more exceptional coaching from Ross Montandon of New Wave Coaching. Ross is a coach of the mind! His enthusiasm for getting onto the water is infectious. It is difficult not to be inspired by such people. That is not to dismiss the other coaches I have taken lessons from. Most certainly not.

Chris Eastabrook, Dave Fairweather, and Dan Butler have all given me major milestones, aha moments, inspiration and progression in equal measure. Special mention must go to Dave Rossetter, a man who could tell that I wasn’t using my feet when I paddled even though he couldn’t see them! All world class paddlers, amazing personalities, and fantastic teachers.

If you want to be taught something you should seek out the best people you can. So before this blog becomes an endless stream of vomit inducing sycophantic ramblings I can highly recommend any of these people.

Eddy Mead practicing for the Sickline in Austria.

My friend Eddy Mead practicing on the “Champions Killer” drop on the Wellebrucke section of the Oetz in the run up to the Sickline event.

2013 saw my first run of an alpine river, which was eye opening in itself due to it’s power. Hopefully I will get the opportunity to paddle more in the future. More inspiring was being able to watch the Adidas Sickline, which enabled me to see first hand some of the best paddlers in the world tackle some of the hardest rapids in the world. Austria was a much needed break away from the UK.

River Oetz in Austria

My first breakout on an alpine river. The Oetz in Austria.

I have become much more in touch with my own mortality this year. After what seemed like a good year of progression I suffered my first truly horrendous swim. An extremely uncomfortable event that had me recirculated in a slot out of my boat a good many times. I did wonder if I would get out, and I really do not think I could have held out much longer than I did.

I eventually rolled tightly into a ball for a third attempt after what seemed like an eternity of trying to catch a breath and was finally flushed. I discovered that such techniques work and can possibly save your life. My rescuer was on the brink of getting to me when I flushed, and was there when I resurfaced, I grabbed his boat  and we perched on some rocks for me to recover. I was hyperventilating for a considerable time and threw up. It would be prudent to say that it wasn’t a pleasant experience.

Wain Wath Falls, River Swale.

Wain Wath Falls, River Swale on one of my more successful descents!

A few weeks earlier I had an extended swim on the Orchy in Scotland in what seemed like calm water on the run out from Eas a’ Chathaidh. I just could not get to the side due to the funky currents that are there. I had literally become drained of all energy, and when I was finally dragged to the bank I had nothing left. I threw up several times through exhaustion. An embarrassing experience.

What can be learned from such events? The easy thing to say would be that I was paddling above my grade and that I should go back to basics a bit. Certainly that is one thing to be considered. But there is more going on. I don’t believe that I was paddling above my grade however. Pushing myself to a new level perhaps, but not recklessly or with abandon.

On Eas a’ Chathaidh on the Orchy I had attempted a rapid that was bigger than anything I had tried before. The river was running at a chunky level. I made the first crux move, and although my boof wasn’t exactly stellar I still made a good line if a little messily. I made a good line out too, but got rolled by the stopper at the end. I thought I was stuck in it, panicked, and pulled the deck. The video shows that I was in fact well clear into calm water!

Entry to Eas a' Chathaidh

Entry into Eas a’ Chathaidh on the River Orchy. Photo: Ross Montandon.

A lesson to be learnt here is that I need to become more comfortable going over in features and to get used to the feeling of that churning water and to roll in it. One simple attempt at a roll could have saved me what turned out to be an exhausting swim as well as a ball ache of a walk back up the river for the person who had rescued me!

If we rewind a bit further to an earlier part of the unfolding incident I was a bit too laid back on the run out. Driving the boat positively here would have saved me from going over in the first place! Once again the video doesn’t lie. I was hesitant.

During my swim I almost made the first eddy but got taken off down stream at the last moment. I really have to learn to swim like a madman until I’ve got my hands on the bank! I gave up too easily and thought I could simply drop down an eddy and catch it just below. I found out in short order that this was not to be the case!

I learnt that my swimming stamina is low in general. It is an abject lesson that paddling on higher grade rivers is not simply about kayaking skill, but of mind preparation and importantly, physical stamina. If things go wrong then your physical fitness and ability to calmly find a solution in a highly pressurised situation will take precedence.

My physical state was exacerbated by my food and energy intake. I am not unfit. I have been practicing martial arts for the last 20 years or so as well as taking part in other activity sports. My biggest problem is eating. I have a particular issue eating in the morning, usually feeling too sick to do so, and I cannot eat a huge amount in one go. I need to find a solution that gives me a good energy top up throughout the day that is easy to manage.

With regard to my recirculation incident on the Swale I had gone into the day with a very dark feeling to begin with. My mind wasn’t on paddling. My work situation and a general depression about the future had set in, along with remembering my father who had passed away not so very long ago. These sorts of things take their toll, especially when confronted with the prospect of running a river that has far bigger features than anything I had run previously.

Such thoughts and mental state have no place on the river because they not only detrimentally affect my own performance, but they could also have an effect on those who I am paddling with. I need a way to deal with such thoughts or compartmentalise them.

The recirculation incident itself has two other major points to take from it. The first is to never underestimate a feature. The drop in question, Wain Wath Falls, is rated at grade 3 and is not known to recirculate swimmers. Clearly I had found the sweet spot and sweet water level for such an event! The second is that you must think clearly and rescue yourself if at all possible in such a situation. Things were going horribly while I was tense and panicked. Things went well when I relaxed and thought more calmly.

One last thing I have learnt this year is to ignore river guides. Maybe as a very rough guide to a river they can offer a vague insight. However I am beginning to ignore the river grading system more and more, and I am finding that many river guides offer a totally exaggerated view of the rivers they write about, or indeed underestimate them.

Descending the  Allt a Chaorainn, a tributary of the Etive.

Descending the Allt a Chaorainn, a tributary of the Etive. Photo: Ross Montandon.

One case in point is Eas a’ Chathaidh, the site of my silly swim. Well one of them. This is a fairly big rapid for certain. Okay it might be a tiddler on a world scale, but for a UK based river it is fairly chunky and makes for an an impressive sight when viewed from the bottom. The guides rate it as a grade 5.

Rapids can change grade depending on levels. Some become harder as the river level increases, while others become harder as the level decreases. An all encompassing grade does not account for such anomalies. When I paddled Eas a’ Chathaidh it was running at a fairly chunky medium level. A grade 5 is generally seen as a rapid that has no obvious route down, and that a swim would highly likely result in death or very serious injury.

When I looked at Eas a’ Chathaidh I did not judge it to match such a description. The line that has to be taken is fairly straightforward. You probably wouldn’t want to mess it up too much, but the good line is there for all to see. Then it is a case of holding the line together through the second smaller drop or feature into the outflow.

A swim could possibly be painful given the rocks that could present themselves, but I could not see any obvious undercuts, siphons, or other hazards that I would consider life threatening, or at least highly life threatening. I would not have attempted the rapid if I did. Of course I do have to allow for the possibility that my relatively inexperienced eyes did not spot some hazards that may have been present.

Regardless, for this reason I would rate Eas a’ Chathaidh as within my ability and an acceptable risk. That is now my grading system. Sure I cocked it up with a pointless swim at the end, but I got through the main meat of it with a good line and I am sure that given another go I would get through just fine.

Easan Dubha on the same run is another example. I walked this one incidentally. This is also rated at grade 5. At medium levels there are certainly routes that you would not want to take, and a swim at the bottom risks the swimmer being taken down Saw Tooth below. That would not be a pleasant swim at all.  What we have to remember is that what is considered to be grade 4 can deal out severe beatings, injuries, and even death. Grade 4 is still a potentially serious proposition and that should not be forgotten in a world where grade 4 is often considered an “everyman’s” grade now.

When I saw Easan Dubha at a low level a couple of days previously it looked to be a whole different proposition. There was no obvious line down it, and a cock up looked like it would be very painful indeed, perhaps needing a protracted rescue effort. This was closer to my idea of a grade 5.

Last year when I paddled the middle Tawe for the first time I was incredibly nervous. Jules, my regular paddle buddy, a man who is known as a feature probe, was actually considering not going on the trip. The reason for both mindsets was because we had read the river guides. These river guides made it sound as if it was constant grade 4+ to grade 5 with death waiting around every corner.

We paddled the river at a low level and ended up having the best days paddling we had ever had! We can’t wait to go back and give it another go with slightly more water. We know that the Tawe certainly does become a very serious proposition when it is high, but at a low to medium level it looks like one of the best runs in the UK. For those who are experts I hear that at a high level it most certainly is one of the best runs in the UK. A much underrated classic.

The river guides act as a way of giving you a general idea of what to expect. However do not read into them too much or you might prevent yourself from opening your eyes to some fantastic new runs.

Anyway, that’s enough from me for this entry. See you on the river!

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