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Discovering the Source

Learning to cope with boofs and drops with our kayak coachesPYB Paddling Coach Ben Lawes offers some advice on how newcomers to the sport can get started in paddling.


Sea kayaking is a great way to see wildlife and dramatic coastal sceneryIf you are reading this article it may be because you're wondering why your mates keep banging on about what they got up to last weekend when the rivers were up. Or, because you like the idea of canoeing down a river, enjoying the tranquillity the Indian stroke affords, allowing you to creep up on nature's more elusive creatures. Maybe the sound of paddling alongside grey seals, through gaping zawns or exploring areas only accessible to the adventurous sea kayaker appeals.

This is the first of a series of articles that will aim to answer many of the frequently asked question for newcomers to boating and help you gain the insight, information and a few of the skills that you need to progress in your chosen route through 'Paddle sport'.


Access to Access

Freestyle Kayaking. Just on of the many kayaking and canoeing disciplinesLiterally millions of people participate in paddle sport within the UK alone let alone the rest of the world. We currently have ten world champions in various disciplines so we're clearly not bad at it either! What this means to you, the beginner as it were, is that the coaches and coaching scheme must be pushing the right buttons as well. The other handy spin-off of this enormous participation figure is that, unless you really do live in the middle of the boonies, there should be some sort of facility near you that caters for people wanting to get into paddle sport.

Back up, what do I mean by coaches and coaching scheme?

The coaching scheme is a process by which individuals go through a series of training and assessment courses in order to become a recognised WCA, BCU, SCA or CANI coach. That's Welsh, British, Scottish and Northern Ireland canoe association. These associations are the National governing bodies for the sport and regulate safety and coaching standards. Essentially this means that a person has proven they are able to operate safely, have a certain level of personal ability and the required amount of previous experience and can coach to the required standard. The higher up the coaching ladder people go the better at coaching, more experienced and adept they need to be. Coaching levels go from 1through 5, 5 being the top level. This means that if you want to get some formal type of coaching you should get a qualified coach to do it. This neatly hands over responsibility of your wellbeing to that of the coach. They can then be accountable for the suitability of the venue and quality of the equipment.

However, this is not to suggest that your mate, who happens to have their first kayak squirreled away in some corner of the garden, can't take you out and show you a good time! Here are a few points you may like to consider before embarking on a potentially Titanic like voyage.

  • Does it have airbags, these displace water in the event of a capsize? ( not to assist breathing underwater)

  • Is there anything inside that could trap your feet i.e. a faulty footrest?

  • Can you easily get into and out of the thing? (Obviously this can be done on dry land)

  • Do you trust your mate to pick a suitable location in order to nurture your enthusiasm as apposed to scaring the living daylights out of you!

  • Is a 1943 Mae West lifejacket appropriate or should a more contemporary design be worn. (It's not by the way if for no other reason than that of fashion)

  • Don't be tempted to go out on your own. Never less than three should be!

Flippancy aside you can appreciate that there are some safety points to think about for your first time. Using a qualified coach should dispel those worries and they won't cancel on you when the rivers are up.


Where are these coaches to be found?

Kayak Coaching. Employing a Kayak Coach is the best, and safest way to get started in kayaking.Depending upon where you live, try contacting one of the National governing bodies. (Addresses etc at the end of this article). They will have a list of clubs in your area with contact details.

Attending a multi activity course at a BCU approved centre is a good way of experiencing an introductory session.

Your local leisure centre may run try-it sessions with qualified coaches. This is an especially good option during the winter months as you may find yourself in the pool. This may prove to be a lot more conducive to having a positive experience than a lake a little above freezing point.

The above should point you in the direction of finding out where you can go to get started. The following will advise you on what you might expect from an introductory session and what kit you might need.


All the gear but no idea!

If you choose to attend an introductory course the provider should have all the necessary specialist equipment. You will need to provide clothes that will keep you warm in the event of getting wet. Thin thermals and maybe a fleece jumper should do, tracksuit bottoms for the legs and a pair of old trainers for your feet. Footwear is important as you can never be sure what's on the lake/river bed. There should really be no reason to spend money on Gucci kit; plenty of time for that later parents and partners beware!


What do you mean capsize?

An introductory session may follow this sort of format. The coach will probably enquire about any injuries you may have had i.e. dislocated shoulder, back injuries etc.

This information is important to the coach and will be treated in the strictest of confidence.

This may be an opportune time to voice concerns you may have with your water confidence i.e. head under water, getting trapped in the kayak.

This will allow the coach to structure the session accordingly and for you to have a more constructive introduction.

Coaches are trained and experienced in dealing with these perfectly reasonable concerns and will have a number of strategies to ally your fears. Don't get frustrated if you can't get it to go in a straight line, chances are the kayak you'll be in will be designed to be highly manoeuvrable. 

The main thrust of an introductory session will be for you to have a safe and fun time. You should want to go again! Lots of games will be played, enter into the spirit of these as they are designed to increase confidence and can become the building blocks for skill acquisition.

Time of year permitting, the coach may ask you to perform a capsize drill. This involves turning the kayak over whilst still in it and getting out. This is a huge confidence builder and well worth doing. Top tip: always ask the coach for a demonstration - clients revenge!

So you are now somewhat prepared for what to expect and what you may need to wear. Of course this is by no means prescriptive and coaches will vary on how they deliver sessions.


Open or Closed

Open Canoeing, also known as Canadian canoeing or 'open boating' is growing in popularity. Many people choose to kayak and canoe.Not to get too technical at this point but predictably there is a choice of craft to try. This is another good reason to go to a club or an approved centre. Invariably they will have a selection of canoes and kayaks to have a go in, although at this stage why specialise? The two types most likely to be available are probably open canoes or closed cockpit kayaks. Open canoes are the type of craft that Native American Indians used for hunting and following migrating herds. They are typically a journeying craft built for multi-day river trips carrying up to two adults and all necessary camping kit. The cockpit area is open and the paddler usually adopts a kneeling position. These days they tend to be made out of plastic and can be a good second hand purchase. Open boating is steeped in history and traditional lore but has also evolved into a dynamic and skilful whitewater sport with many disciplines from marathon through to freestyle.

Closed cockpit kayaks are the invention of the Inuit people. Again, used primarily for hunting, the Inuit developed a very high level of skill allowing them to roll their kayaks even without the use of their paddles. This becomes important when to swim would be potentially fatal in the freezing waters around Greenland.

The kayaker sits in the cockpit area with their legs covered by the deck of their kayak. Nowadays cockpits are of a keyhole design and consequently easier to get out of.

Learning to Kayak on flat water will help you develop skills but proper coaching  Kayaking has long been associated with adventurous expeditions such as white water 1st descents of rivers in Nepal, circumnavigating the British Isles and dropping off massive waterfalls in Iceland.

There are of course many other facets to the sport of kayaking ask your coach to tell you about them.

More articles written by our kayak coaches and outdoor instructors

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