Kayaking isn’t a competition, and it’s okay to ask advice or help.
I’m not sure why, but for some reason the idea of asking advice or help for some people is a tough hill to climb, as if it’s some sort of weakness never to be shown. The trouble is, though, that white water kayaking is so full of nuance and little bits of skills knowledge that can make a big difference that having an ego about it is, well, ridiculous.
Another facet of this is a race to be seen as a high grade paddler. I’m sure anyone who has been on a coached course will be familiar with this type of person. The one who runs G4 and up rivers and name drops them like a unicorn pooping cupcakes. They then get onto a G2 or G3 river at the beginning of the course and… swim.
I’ve swum on all sorts of rivers, and I’m happy to admit that. I’m also quite open to admit that I’ve swum on rivers as a result of being an idiot and going on them when I probably had no business doing so. What I don’t understand is when a person is a G2 or G3 paddler, but they want to see or present themselves as a G4+ boater.
A slightly G4 paddler
Years ago I tagged along on a course where a group had told the coach that they were grade 4 paddlers. It was a pre-requisite that they were in order to get onto the course in the first place. As an opener we all went on a G3+ river to warm up, and the result was multiple swimmers on quite straightforward rapids. The reality was that they were G3 paddlers who had survived down the occasional G4 on a club trip. This inability to judge personal ability, to me, seems quite rife in kayaking.
I used to paddle G4, and I’ve even very stupidly thrown myself down the odd G5, but I would never, ever had classed myself as a G4 paddler. Why? Because while I could sometimes get down G4 rapids of note, I couldn’t always style them, wouldn’t have been able to run them blind or without local knowledge, sometimes swam them, and often succumbed to psychological blocks when approaching them. The Tawe in south Wales was one of my favourite rivers, and still is, and I used to run it quite regularly. But, there’s paddling the Tawe and then there’s paddling the Tawe. The Tawe is a river that can go from being a G3+ technical boulder garden slide fest to a huge volume potential nightmare with terminal holes in the space of a few minutes. I was a G3 paddler who could run G4 on the right day in the right conditions.
Use it or lose it
These days I don’t think I would even class myself as a G3 paddler. Two years of intermittent Covid lockdowns plus looking after my partner as she went through cancer treatment has taken its toll. I’m rusty as hell, hesitate a lot, miss my boof and key stroke timings, and my old head demons have come back to haunt me. But it’s okay, it’s just the way it is.
It’s not that I couldn’t get some semblance of form back if I paddled rivers regularly, but it’s just not practical. I can’t leave my dog at home all day while I drive to north Wales early in the morning, getting back late in the evening. And while I could arrange for someone to look after her, rain doesn’t tend to respect the idea of giving people lots of dog sitting notice! Plus I’m a bit jaded with the whole idea of getting up at silly o’clock on a freezing cold winter’s morning to drive 3 hours or more for a river at the drop of a hat anyway. But that’s just me being grumpy.
The point is that for some reason in white water kayaking there’s a lack of honesty about skill level. People go for coaching qualifications with minimal experience and knowledge instead of just trying to learn more for themselves, trying to fully understand things, and enjoying the journey. It’s not a competition to race to reach an end point. The river doesn’t care about your pieces of paper, and it really, really doesn’t care about hurting your ego. Just be honest about your abilities and realise that it’s not a weakness to admit you don’t know something.
One comment on “Skills honesty”
Another great article – agree with just about everything you’ve said!
A few observations of my own on the theme:
1) The guy who taught me to paddle a long time ago used to say that you couldn’t say you “owned” a river unless you could make EVERY eddy on that river. That may be a little extreme but I think it makes the point that there’s a big difference between being in control going downriver and merely being a “passenger” on a “conveyor belt” hanging on for dear life!
2) Which leads to my next point – and one that I think you’ve touched on before: the boat you’re in makes a big difference. Going down Grade 2 and staying upright in a massive high-volume creek boat that floats over everything is rather different to going down the same river in a playboat/ full-slice boat. In my humble opinion, more people should be spending more time doing G2 in half-slice boats developing better boat control rather than rushing to do G4+ in creek boats! (I think this may be an unfortunate side-effect of the YouTube era: most high-profile kayaking videos seem to be of G4+ so maybe beginners think this is the norm and that they should be doing the same to be “proper” WW paddlers?)
3) And water levels make a big difference as well: doing a G3 in low water (for example) doesn’t mean that one can paddle the same river in high water.
At my kayaking prime (a long time ago) I was pushing into G4 rivers but due to not doing much WW paddling for several years I wouldn’t go near a G4 at the moment and am much happier having fun on a G2 in a low-ish volume boat – and I’m okay with that!