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Emily surfing Superhole

Emily surfing the Superhole wave in Uganda – Photo Alexander Neal

I think most people who take part in white water kayaking will agree that it’s a bit of an odd sport. We get dressed up in weird and wonderful gear and then pretty much throw ourselves into cold water, in the UK at least, often in the midst of winter. To none kayakers we are pretty crazy for wanting to do that.

But as boaters we are acutely aware of the great feeling of successfully styling a rapid for the first time, the amazing sensation of speed while surfing a standing wave, or satisfaction of figuring out how to do a tricky move of technique.

I am generally pretty outspoken when it comes to the way I see a lot of people pushing the grade they are on when they can’t even do the harder moves on lower grade rivers. Likely I bore people by saying it continuously. But one thing that would surprise a lot of white water paddlers, even ones who have been paddling for a long while, is how much like a beginner and out of control they would feel if they jumped into a slalom boat on grade 1 and 2, and then tried to run gates successfully.

Hard moves on easy water

When you do this you realise just how good the slalom guys are. It is incredibly hard to do, even on supposedly easy water. Especially if the course is set up with staggered gates that require you to literally zig zag down the river. Nowhere is the idea of performing grade 5 moves on easy water more exemplified than this.

If you try this, and imagine that those gates are not sticks of plastic or wood, but are in fact must make positions on a difficult and technical rapid, then you are somewhere towards understanding how much control, balance and skill you really have. Or rather the lack of it. This can be a demoralising slap in the face for some paddlers who have been used to surviving down rapids in the guise of ‘improving’.

Water unreliability

Recently a friend and I were talking about white water paddling. He has taken a small step back from the sport in favour of mountain biking. It is easy to see why. He can go out whenever he wants without having to coordinate with anyone else, and he isn’t reliant on the weather. Likewise, if he falls off he might break a leg, but at least he would be able to breathe!

The unreliability of water was a good reason why he made the shift to biking. And it is easy to see why. Once you advance onto steeper rivers it becomes harder to synchronise your availability to the times when the water is there.

This is in contrast to when you first start boating. When you are a beginner, everything is new. Every ferry you do without capsizing is a success, and every time you get on the water you have fun. The low grade rivers that you do have little gradient, and so they are very reliable for water. Quite often you don’t even need to wait for the rain for these rivers. They just run, meaning that you can get your fix of boating even in mild sunny conditions.

Running before you can walk

But as you improve your peer group or club then wants you to come on trips to slightly more advanced water. Right there and then, instead of being nudged towards doing much more complex things on the easier water that you have been doing, such as getting in a lower volume boat and really starting to advance your boat control, while simultaneously getting a lot of unintended rolling practice in a safe way, you are pushed towards more consequential sections of river.

You eventually manage to get down the rapids on these runs and you are congratulated at how much you have improved, and so it goes on. Getting down these harder rapids with your hair dry or with a successful roll becomes a mark of success. No matter how much you went down these rapids like an out of control pinball. But you made it down! Success!

Trouble is that these new rivers that you are starting to do are steeper. They run off faster, and so your trips become much more reliant on the weather. So then you have to start literally chasing the water. 4hrs drive to get a couple of hours paddling in? No problem! Either that or you don’t manage to go out as much, and you end up doing the same old stuff on your local grade 2.

Sometimes, eventually, this chase for the water becomes tiresome. I have seen people totally give up as a result of it.


But those same people would often never consider getting in a more playful boat, or doing something like slalom, because going on lower grade water is, to their minds,  ‘boring’. Each to their own. From a personal standpoint I cannot understand a mentality that views practicing and learning something new, even on lower grade water, as boring. Especially if the skills will be developed by doing this will make them a much better paddler on the type of water that they really want to be on.

A lot of paddlers today refuse to get out of their creek boats. But let’s just think about what it takes for a creek boat to come alive. Big pushy water, or manky rocky steep creeks. They’re called creek boats for a reason. They’re designed for the mankiest, most dangerous water possible.

Given that, it makes no sense to be doing summer boating on a grade 2 manmade white water course in a huge bathtub. If you want to get better, you need to be in a boat that is going to get pushed around a bit.

Yet a lot of people still won’t do this. They are afraid of the instability: You don’t get better balance by not practicing balancing. They are afraid of going upside down more than they are used to: You don’t get better at rolling by avoiding rolling situations. They are afraid of such a boat showing them their lack of skills: You don’t get more skilful by avoiding the challenging and varied practice of skills. In short, it’s the age old problem of wanting instant results for minimal effort and time. But as anyone with a high level skill will tell you, if you want the skills you have to work for them.

Yet counterintuitively, because they won’t get into a lower volume boat and quite literally learn how to play the river in a much safer environment, be that in a low volume slicey boat like the Pyranha Loki, or learning some freestyle tricks in a short boat like the Jackson Rockstar, they instead prefer to learn by the school of hard knocks in more consequential environments. An environment that by its very nature will discourage them from trying harder moves, and hence improve their skill, because the consequences of getting it wrong can be cold, tiring, and even injurious. So they get good at surviving down their regular runs, but overall their skillset stays pretty stale.

But it makes a good profile for Facebook, with the steep water in the background, or the camera catching you at a moment when it vaguely looks like you know what you are doing. Even if in reality you know that you were fighting for control or were totally off line.

The endless quest for the micro eddy

A lot of paddlers in the UK are obsessed with catching each tiny eddy on the Tryweryn. They see it as a mark of their skills, or a sign of improvement. But catching eddies, even small ones, is very easy. It has minimal use on a real river trip, but it’s something to discuss in the pub afterwards. Especially on a small river like the Tryweryn. There are other issues with this, including the fact that a lot of these same paddlers have no idea how to punch over a truly strong eddy line, or how to keep their momentum into the back of the eddy as opposed to doing the ‘British eddy turn’ that sharply turns the boat upstream ending up extremely close to the eddy line thereby blocking anyone else who might need to come in.

Another problem that I see is that once they can catch every eddy on the Tryweryn, they often never move beyond that. Some food for thought: can you hit every slalom gate for instance, including the mid-stream staggers, in a continuous, smooth paddle? Can you hit eddies by dropping in sideways to a foam piled wave or stopper and using it’s power to spin round and carve over into the eddy? Can you use lateral waves or curlers to help you change direction and get where you need to be? Do you know how to attain back up the rapid, a very useful skill to have in some rescue scenarios? Regarding freestyle, if you refuse to do any play boating because you don’t like going over or it might make you swim more often, what are you going to do during that inevitable time when you get caught in a stopper for real during a river run?

Comfort zones

Sometimes you just have to eat your ego and be a beginner again in a new skill. Inevitably that is one good reason why some paddlers do not like to go back and try slalom or play boating. They have reached their comfort zone where they are no longer a beginner, and they no longer swim as much as they did, and therefore anything that changes that status quo is uncomfortable. But to keep improving you have to forget all that.

I recently came back from Uganda. Let me tell you, paddling that sort of water, even on their so-called lower grade sections, was an experience. The water didn’t do anything that I would have normally expected, and literally much of what I thought I know about paddling a boat on white water was completely turned on its head. Eddy lines that were wider than a swimming pool, whirlpools coming out of nowhere, wave faces that were so steep that you’d get stopped dead mid way down a wave train, or flipped backwards. Eddy’s that had huge recirculating currents with waves that were more like being on the sea. I had to forget what I thought I knew, and I swam many times. The next time someone tells you that the boily eddy’s at Cardiff and HPP are not like real rivers, don’t believe them. The White Nile is a 100 times worse I can assure you!

Paddlers often look at guys like Bren Orton, Pat Keller, Clare O’Hara, Lowri Davies, Dane Jackson, Joe Morley, David Bain etc and make an assumption that they are all naturals, and that it is an unachievable dream to be as good at kayaking as they are. Simply saying that they are naturals is a comment born out of laziness and an unwillingness to admit that it’s actually hard work that makes a good kayaker. Those guys have to work constantly on their skills. They didn’t get good by sitting at home watching YouTube!

They are constantly boating, but extremely importantly they are not only doing varied boating, but every last one of them spent many years doing freestyle or slalom on lower grade water. And it is that that gave them such a solid grounding from which to progress.

The point is that ego has no place in learning. Having a go at slalom or play boating is not dull, and if you swim, who cares? They are both hugely rewarding. The difficulty of learning how to playboat is a challenge, and a journey to enjoy. Personally I love the fact that I can do some advanced boating in relatively safe environments. In the UK we rely on the rain for our river runs. Especially the higher grades. And the reality is that there are more hours paddling to be had during the year on artificial courses or lower grade rivers over the spring, summer, and autumn, than there is as a weekend kayaker trying to do G4-5 over the winter. And if the soul extent of your skills amounts to eddy catching in a big boat, you really do need to ask yourself “How can I make the next leap in skillset?”

I can tell you now that the answer isn’t to catch smaller eddies!

2 comments on “This is how you are holding back your kayaking progression

  1. Anyone who is great at anything has opportunity, talent and did the hard work needed. The idea that anyone can do this is unlikely as the only one you can effect is the last one so many people start with only the possibility of 1/3 of whats needed.

  2. Really liked this, dusting off my paddles is always interesting joining others again and this is hilariously valid. Cheers. 👍

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