What paddling a Ripper has taught me.
My name is Simon, and I’m addicted to play boating…
Okay, I’ll come clean, I haven’t spent a lot of time in my river boat. At. All recently. The reasons for this are wide and varied. With the lifestyle Emily and I have, along with the distance we are from white water rivers, it’s just a lot more practical to turn up at a play spot for a few hours on the water before going to the pub, or getting grown up stuff done. Park and play is also one of the only reliable ways to challenge yourself in the UK in the summer months when the rivers hardly run. And if I’m brutally honest I’ve become a bit of a fair weather paddler. I love rain, but I really don’t do that cold thing any more.
As a result I’ve spent pretty much all my time in a short stumpy boat, which is a lot of fun, but it really hasn’t done my river running skills any favours. Any skill I had is still under the surface, somewhere, waiting to be discovered by archeologists. I just need some more time on the river to get them back again. Assuming they are really still there. The Ripper is highlighting any deficiencies in current skill level in no uncertain terms.
A hard pill to swallow
For example I went on a short trip the other day to run the horseshoe section of the venerable Dee in North Wales. Much as I think endless eddy catching is pointless, it’s a great way to get stroke timing and angles back on track. I achieved this by totally beatering down Serpent’s Tail.
The first eddy at the top right was no problem at all. Coming out of it though was another matter. It’s boily and surgy as hell at the best of times, and if you want to make the other eddies, for example the large one halfway down on river left at some levels, you need to exit with a decent ferry angle.
But rushing got the better of me. I exited the eddy almost side on to the flow instead of biding my time with the surges to come out at a decent angle that would allow me to jet across the flow. It was a schoolboy error of epic proportions. Needless to say I didn’t make the next eddy, got caught up on the rocks and did the last section backwards and upside down. Hurrah for offside rolls! At least the water wasn’t as cold as I was expecting.
So, err, yeah, that’s one lesson learnt. “Do what you *know* you need to do”. I ignored what I knew in my head I was supposed to do, and instead I rushed and went for the exit when I knew full well I’d be at totally the wrong angle. Doh!
This idea of doing things in a way that gives you the best advantage was highlighted in a coaching session with Eddy Mead the week before. Emily and I had decided we needed to get our river running mojo back, so we did a tailie and river running clinic with him. We needed a catchup anyway since I’d moved further away and hadn’t seen him in ages, so it was a good way to have a chilled trip out and get some much needed coaching at the same time.
This trip again highlighted that I knew what I was supposed to be doing, but, well, wasn’t. A case in point was going off a small drop.
I know full well that one of the best ways to approach a drop is to do it in a an arc (the lazy ferry as Simon Westgarth calls it), and drop the edge on the side of the boof stroke slightly, and perform the stroke in a way that keeps the pressure on the blade throughout. Instead I was bottling it, approaching pretty much head on, and snatching the boof stroke. Not a good look, and very, very frustrating.
But I have to keep a perspective on things. I know that the skill and knowledge to get back on track is in my head, somewhere. Probably rattling around somewhere in there on a proverbial street corner drinking whisky out of a brown paper bag.
No, I’ll never be Bren Orton, but I’ve always been happy with the idea of being able to own grade three and be comfortable on grade four. But again being realistic, with the time I get on the river these days, being able to totally own grade three is a good level to aim at again. I’d rather that than to be one of those who clatters down grade four thinking that they’re the dogs bollocks when it’s clear to all that they have no control.
The Ripper has made me aware though of just how much a boat like this teaches you. A boat like the Ripper doesn’t trip you up to be spiteful. It merely shows you where you are deficient, by making you very wet.
One prominent part of paddling the Ripper that I have found is that it is uber sensitive to edge control. It is very, very easy to either over egg it, or to under do it. It also lets you know in no uncertain terms if you’ve put edge on when you really should have kept things flat. Paddling a Ripper well requires very precise edge control and awareness. Especially in the ultra-narrow size small that I paddle.
Even paddling forward needs edge awareness. If you drop an edge on a stroke the Ripper lets you know. In fact I would say that paddle length is important with this boat. If you paddle with too short a paddle, and let’s face it, there’s a lot of people who do, you will find yourself leaning for strokes. This is not good in the Ripper.
At one point a while ago I thought I’d totally lost my skill, so I got into Emily’s Z-One for a few ferries once. Absolutely fine! Back in the Ripper and I was either under doing it, or over egging it. This isn’t to blame the boat. The boat is just very sensitive to control input. There is a lot of advantage to being able to learn how to finely control edges. It also makes you much more aware of what happens with different types of directional momentum. Which brings me onto…
Like edge control, the Ripper is very sensitive to angle. It is very easy to power into the flow and find yourself heading straight up stream, or surfing a wave rather than jetting across it. Likewise it is also fairly easy to end up getting carried off downstream from too much angle. It would appear to be a quite fine line. But again it makes you think a lot more about where the angle of your boat actually is to the flow.
Some of you reading this will be thinking “Well, the Ripper is clearly too difficult a boat for me, so I’ll just stick with my big bathtub”. That’s fine, but it depends if you want to get better and more knowledgable or not. Avoiding boats that can trip you up if you aren’t sharp enough is the kayaking equivalent of sticking your fingers in your ears going “Lalalalala I can’t hear you!”
You might not want to take such a boat on a higher grade of river, but that’s a good thing, because it shows you in no uncertain terms that you haven’t wrung every last possibility out of the lower grades. And if you haven’t truly wrung every last possibility out of the lower grades, what are you even doing trying higher ones? You’ll only get taught the same lessons using your bathtub on a higher grade river as you will using a boat like the Ripper on a lower grade. But with one big difference; You’ll be taking a lot more risk with regard to injuries, or worse, with the former. Wouldn’t you rather be taught those essential control skills in an environment that doesn’t involve a potential battering?
The other moral of this story is that the rivers you were capable of running yesterday are not indicative of the rivers you can run competently today. If you’ve take time out, you need to build back up again.