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Make a splash: the challenge of learning to kayak

for for as long as I’ve been running I’ve raced unathleticly along canals and rivers – I get into beehives if I breathe too hard near roads. And as long as I’m a towpath user, I envy the people in canoes and kayaks cutting through the water, eye level with the moorhens.

One day I might go kayaking, I thought vaguely. Sit-on-top kayaks always made for a much better day at the beach on vacation. Rowing itself never seemed even remotely appealing—too much baggage from the ruling class, too much shouting. But in a kayak, I thought, you could meander through nature, maybe spot some wildlife on the banks that you don’t normally see and, almost as an afterthought, maybe build some upper-body strength.

Kismet intervened a few years ago. The firstborn expressed a desire to join the local canoe club. After navigating a waiting list, I signed up for an introductory adult course. And another.

You will learn about different types of canoes and kayaks; paddles; the different strokes and how to keep ‘river straight’ and self rescue if you fall into it. Photo: Oleksandra Korobova/Getty Images

There was simple controls in boats that you couldn’t tip over if you tried. We learned about different types of canoes and kayaks; different paddles – never oars! – the different paddle strokes. We learned to keep “river right” and how to save yourself if you fall into it – not fun in the winter, but necessary because hitting cold water can shock the body and disorient even a strong swimmer.

It was mostly fun. It brought me out. I wasn’t really in a rut – I had plenty to do – but it was the best kind of challenge: completely new to me, different from all the things I’d normally do, and not extreme or ridiculous. Women were well represented. The club actively welcomed the disabled. They weren’t all handsome 23-year-olds, they were retirees, kids, lots of people of all ages who had recovered from something. I soon had triceps to talk about. Yes, there was the danger of river pollution and Weil’s disease, but with each dunking I got more used to being plastered with weeds.

Our local club is more of a racing club than a touring club. There is very little peaceful walking outside of the introductory course. You are still eye level with waterfowl, but ducks disperse in front of you to express their outrage.

I signed up for the race course. And then joined the club.

I started with the kids. Eventually, a group of newer adults and younger teens merged. We learned racing technique, how to carry – carry – our kayaks over locks and, later, hang waxes (slip-streaming in the wake of another kayak to save energy). We learned—well, others learned—how to spin buoys counterclockwise at speed. We did “fart” – interval training where you jump over each other to build up sprint speeds. We trained for endurance at a distance. We honed our technique by using the leg drive against the kayak’s footplate to power up the strike. We’ve learned that a successful shot requires a rotation of the shoulder and trunk, not just pulling with the arms. We’ve done race starts; time trial after time trial. Every time I lost my concentration or got a new kayak, I fell in. It was character building. Like most new habits, training is all about popping up and getting a little less worse over time.

And so I got in line, my son’s too-tight old club race vest under my buoyancy aid, license plate attached to my kayak, at the start line of my first five-mile marathon a few weeks ago.

To be clear, I run for trains and buses, and I run for the endorphins rush and improved sleep. I’ve never raced. I’m not competitive, exactly, I just don’t go in for gung-ho stuff.

But after stepping a bit outside of my comfort zone, I found myself now surrounded by a bevy of much more experienced participants, ravaged by 20 mph winds, a stranger to myself. I was on – ugh – low carb. I had even (whisper it) sucked a gel down.

A straight run...once you learn the basic kayaking technique.
A straight run…once you learn the basic kayaking technique. Photo: Aki Maedomari/Getty Images/EyeEm

Waiting for the signal, I wobbled precariously. It was part me, part kayak. Built for speed, racing kayaks are inherently unstable, not suited to sitting still. And I wasn’t even in a fast boat. I had evolved from a broad-bottomed stability craft to something like a stability six. The stability threes and twos are like stiletto heels; they are like hypodermic needles. The people racing in it have pencil hips and titanium abs. I have given birth to children and my core is made of pasta. That pasta may be a little more al dente than it was a few years ago, but not much.

The experienced racers shot away; I stayed in the churn, but upright. Gradually I found my pace. I think I caught up with someone. Fast kids overtook me.

I didn’t mess up the first corner: big win. I didn’t screw up the portability, or the second turn. More small victories. When it was windy, I kept my paddle low. As the winds subsided, I tried to coordinate legs, arms, torso and breath to move faster. Sometimes, for a minute or so, I was almost alone on the water, almost at one with the boat, limbs miraculously in sync. The feeling of flying as the prow split the water glistening in the dappled sunshine was a cliché, but no less true.

I stumbled in, penultimate in my class, arms like sausages, fingers like claws. But I hadn’t fallen for it. And now I have a race time. And next time I might beat it.

How do you do that

British canoeing is the national governing body for paddle sports. It can put you in touch with the over 400 certified clubs in the UK, including women’s paddle sports groups. Access to Adventures is a charity that wants to make sport accessible and affordable for everyone with a disability.

This type of sport usually involves group activities, many of which are suitable for families, so it is a fun pastime with many events. Forums like the Open Canoe Association, GoPaddling and the British River Guide are sources of information about meet-ups, mentors and travel.

If you enjoy spending time in, on or even underwater, there are plenty of options. Tried British Waterski and Wakeboard Association, british rafting, the National Coasteering Charter, the Barge Association, the British Sub-Aqua Club or even the underwater hockey club – the British Octopush Association – for tasting sessions and local group information.