Why so serious?

Nafford Weir near Pershore

More smiling needed! Mucking about on a local weir.

Recently I watched Bill Parks new Rivering kayak documentary. It hasn’t been publicly released yet, but soon will be. I played a very, very tiny part in helping him out with the film both from a crowdfunding contribution and some tips on sound design. So I got to see the film early. When it comes out you will have to see it. It is a different kind of kayaking documentary. In a world full of films about serious and dangerous expeditions and endless sponsorship based GoPro shorts, ‘Rivering’ is a breath of fresh air. Made in the style of the Warren Miller ski films, and in keeping with those films’ sentiments, ‘Rivering’ showcases the reality of white water kayaking. It focusses on real people, real characters, and shows that the fact of the matter is that we are all just messing around enjoying getting chucked in the river and having all round having fun with friends. As one of the participants says, “None of this philosophical BS!”

We live in a time when work is a bind. It is all too easy to be jealous of those who have somehow made a living out of the outdoors. It is always tempting to just down tools and just go looking to seek out that lifestyle. As a result of the clamour to somehow make a living out of what we enjoy or to make something more on a voluntary basis, there’s also a lot of seriousness around, with participants endlessly chasing paper qualifications, often to the detriment of their own fun and skills. Clubs often demand such things, despite the fact that there is no legal requirement. From a public perspective it does of course look good to have people with pieces of paper,  however a court of law will be looking at general competence through actions taken and risk assessment should anything happen. In other words, a court of law won’t let you off for negligence just because you have an Advanced Water Endorsement or 4* Leader qualification. Negligence is negligence, thus having a piece of paper may offer a small glimpse that you are competent at the time of assessment, but it is your actions on the day that will be the defining aspect of the outcome.

As I just mentioned quite often participants are chasing these pieces of paper to the detriment of their own paddling and experiences. It is almost as if they are sucking the life out of what really should be a very enjoyable activity. In other words just going out and boating for the hell of it. Let’s be honest, white water kayaking for the vast majority of participants who are not going on expeditions and running epic grade 5 Guinness Stout, is about clowning about on the water, and for the most part making a prat of yourself in an attempt to look cool. If you are old enough to remember 1970’s and 80’s Saturday morning television, white water kayakers were the kids who watched Tis Was instead of Noel Edmonds Swap Shop – I’ll leave younger readers to do the research. Indeed, safety is of paramount importance and must be taken seriously. To this end I would place recent WWSR courses and live varied experience well above any coaching or leadership awards in terms of priorities. But when all is said and done and the cows have gone home, what we do is about having fun.

I know plenty of people who have made their hobby their job, and it doesn’t always have a happy ending. What happens at the weekend? They don’t want to be doing what they have been doing all week! They say that art is born of restriction and dies of freedom, and the same can often be said of your hobbies and pastimes. Often when you cannot go out and do what you enjoy every day of the week because of work and other responsibilities you relish the experience more when you do get those opportunities. And yet, we see posts by sponsored athletes travelling the world and seemingly just spending all their time on the river and camping in really cool places. We are being sold this aspirational lifestyle, but the reality is that much of it is fake. Many of the people who we assume are on the river every day going around the world do in fact have day jobs that they have to hold down. Some are paramedics, some are teachers, some are IT technicians. There are even one or two lawyers! Surprisingly few of them are actually working full time in the outdoors. Things aren’t always what they seem. Yet you would never know this from looking at their Sponsored Athlete Facebook page updates! Of course there are exceptions too.

Such people make a real effort to spend time on the water whenever they can. And yes, they do go off on big expeditions and travels. That they are fantastic boaters is never in doubt. Many of them with nary a paper kayaking qualification between them. Yet I could bet your last Pound that not many people would turn down the opportunity of learning from them if given the chance, despite not being able to show you an envelope full of leadership and coaching awards! This is not to say I am against professional coaches. Quite the contrary. My boating wouldn’t be where it is without them. Professional coaches are literally making kayaking their life and their job. The select few of the best are just as happy boating at the weekend for themselves as they are coaching others. And that’s the key thing. While they are doing this for a living, the best of them still make time to develop their own skills, but they keep the fun aspect alive. In other words they are not taking their coaching to the point that they get bored of boating.

If you have a day job and 100% of your focus when recreational boating is spent looking after the welfare of others rather than developing your own skills when you finally get some free time, the fun can be stifled. I see it all the time with volunteer club leaders who don’t get the chance to develop their own skills because all of their effort is spent looking after others and filling in logbooks ready for going for their next qualification. Their skills then fall into a rut, and once there it is very difficult to gain the confidence to push yourself again. If Dave 4Starleader swims in front of his peers, wouldn’t that be terrible? Again I see this often, where senior members of a club do not want to try anything just in case they are seen to swim, or even in some cases merely capsizing in front of the group.

On the flip side I have also seen people move away from white water boating due to losing the love for it in general. Fair enough. Some of them simply pushed themselves too far, too fast in pursuit of getting the relevant experience and skills for their paper chase, and had a bad experience. Some of them stayed focussed on one aspect and just drifted away because they got bored. There is so much to do though. If you run rivers and had a bad experience, forget the paper, pull back and try something different before you hang up your spraydeck and buy a pair of sandals. Try playboating, and don’t be so quick to write off artificial courses. Think of the confidence you’ll get from improving your roll in such conditions. More importantly think of the fun of being in a group having a laugh while doing this. Try surf kayaking. Try flat water freestyle! Try a white water packraft.

In other words, take the pressure off yourself. Gain your skills naturally and methodically by having fun! If you get skilful, then take on the paper, if you must. But if you don’t have the skills, one of the worst things that you can do is to gain yourself just enough technique to pass a list of basic requirements, before moving onto the next bit of paper.

If pursuing a work life in kayaking is what you really, really, want to do. Don’t forget the reasons why you got into the sport! To sum up this rather convoluted and sometimes contradictory blog post, however you wish to pursue kayaking, in whatever arena, make sure you remember that you need the fun out of it as much as anyone else. Don’t allow it to become stale.

Oh, and when it is released, make sure you see Rivering !

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