Kayaking: Learning to Paddle

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A white kayak.

My first serious foray into kayak world took place on Sunday, 15 April. I joined in with five others for our first attempts at 'Paddling' as it's known to those in the 'know'. That's to say with paddles, as opposed to bare feet, rolled up trouser legs and a knotted hankie on the head to keep the sun off. We were duly introduced to kayaks and how to get in and exit them intentionally and what to do when you exit them unintentionally. We all found some rather inventive ways to do that. We also received an insight into which way 'up' to hold a paddle and what to do with it when in the boat, and pointed in a generally correct direction.

At first all went reasonably well. The first few quivering strokes had us out into midstream of the Thames at Hampton, and then trying to get back you begin to realise your limitations. We headed for a small side-water in the lea of an island where we could practice in reasonably calm conditions. After about an hour or so I began to find that one of my limits was the ability to sit upright with legs stretched out in front of me. The peculiar 'L' shape that you are forced to adopt I found to be particularly difficult to hold, especially as I have in recent years developed a significant Buddha Belly that gets in the way, and after a couple of hours my back muscles were giving way. Eventually the only relief was to lay back against the rear of the cockpit which made for a very unstable condition.

We had eventually paddled up to the weir at Molesey Lock and were practising a slalom course around three or four mooring posts in the water. It has to be said that 'slalom' is probably the wrong word for the course that most of us described. It was supposed to be an easy snaking in and out of the posts, but in most cases it was more like three-point turns, and it was at the exit to the second attempt that I came unstuck. I was trying to fend off a rather large branch in the water that was heading my way, with the paddle, when I overreached and capsized.

At least I didn't have the ignominy of being the first to have capsized, two others had their moments occurring on the way up.
Now the capsize drill was supposed to have been done at the end of the day's events, in shallow water where you can stand up on the river bed. Although we had talked the drill through, I seemed to have premeditated that in the deepest part of the river and the weir was only about twenty-five meters away. It's surprising just how cold Thames river water is deep down, and it fair takes yer breath away. I was towed back to a handy pontoon jetty and struggled to get out while clinging onto paddle and boat. Resurrected, we carried on back to the shallow end to carry out the drills, this time intentionally.

The second outing on the following Sunday concentrated more on paddling technique and staying dry. We had dropped one member of the course, he was the second guy to go in the drink the previous week so we were now down to five. This time we headed upstream to Walton lock and 'portaged' (carried) our boats through the rollers there. Now the boats we were using are the stable kind, being wide and flat. What they gain in stability is at the expense of increased drag, and consequently speed through the water. It takes a lot of effort, or really good technique to get the things to move, especially against the current. Coupled with this I was also having difficulty getting the thing to go where I wanted it to go, or at least keep it in a straight line.

Although during the intervening week I had tried doing some stretching and exercises to improve the staying power of the back muscles, and dieting to reduce Mr Buddha, I was still unable to hold the upright 'L' position as muscle fatigue set in. All in all my lack of abdominal strength spoiled my ability to pick up the lessons in the latter half of the day. Although we did do more than double the distance to the previous week I was glad to finish the course and still be dry. We all duly received our BCU one-star awards but it didn't really feel to me as if I had deserved it. Nevertheless we were all offered club membership and 'improvers' sessions so we could go do it all again.

Where there is tea there is hope, but I'm going to need to practise... a lot.

Kayaking for Beginners Archive


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