Kayaking: Success

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A white kayak.

The weather of the last two weeks of May and most of June took a decided turn for the worse. Wet and windy were the order of the day and the river wasn't looking very friendly whenever I went to take stock. Coupled with this, the improvers group seems to have petered out with no other takers for the late Sunday session. So, as Mrs D and I were off on holiday for a couple of weeks, and as I didn't want to be the sole 'improver' inflicting my own brand of ineptness on some poor soul from the club, of a Sunday evening, I decided to give the whole thing best until our return from holiday.

Unfortunately, things weather-wise didn't improve while we were away. We heard weather reports which told of storms and heavy rainfall causing flash flooding and flood alerts on rivers across the UK. When we got back we found that it was all true, and worse. The poor weather continued through June in much the same vein, with the overspill into the river keeping it high and flowing fast. So, instead of chancing my arm out on the water, I concentrated on a little jogging to try to reduce the fat and increase the muscle around the waist. This is still a work in progress...

Much about kayaking is to do with confidence. Confidence that you won't fall in the water, and if you do, that you can extract yourself without a great deal of difficulty. So taking to engorged, fast flowing rivers unaccompanied is not a good idea. Beginners' boats are designed to be as forgiving as possible so that you can stand some chance of staying upright even when doing something stupid. They are wide and flat-ish at the cockpit so that as the boat rolls, a larger area of the hull comes into contact with the water's surface, which gives an increasing resistance to the roll. Of course this only works so far, and a tipping point is eventually reached beyond which the boat and occupant overbalance and continue to roll inverted. Confidence comes from knowing where that tipping point is and what to do if you go too far. And that of course, comes from practice.

At the beginning of all this I had invested in a new kayak which I intend to use in the DW. I have also, apparently, committed the cardinal sin of buying a boat without trying it out first, which, apparently, you should never do. You should at least learn to paddle first, then try out various boats to get the feel and select one that you are comfortable in. I, however went ahead on the assumption that since I had almost no prior knowledge of what to look for, anything could be got used to eventually. Mine is a 'Laance' (Yes the spelling is correct), made by a company in Reading. It's also designed as a racing boat which means that it doesn't have the same stabilising broadness of beam that the 'oyster-shaped' beginners boats do. Racing kayaks are graded for 'tippyness' on a scale of one-to-ten, where the most stable are rated a 'ten' and the least a 'one'. In deference to the inviolate rule, I had conceded that a 'ten' rated boat would be the best choice, and as the Laance is an attractive boat, rated ten, that would be the one for me. As it is somewhat more 'tippy' than an outright beginner's boat, it means that I need fairly calm conditions to try it out and get used to it. Consequently it has sat in the back garden since February, waiting for suitable conditions for its maiden voyage.

With this in mind and to get the master-plan restarted, Mrs D and I took a morning out to look for a shallow part of the river that I could use to practise in, where, if upended, I'd be in shallow enough water to be able to stand up and recover the kayak. So, armed with an eight-foot long bamboo garden cane, we visited various spots, and much to the amusement of various onlookers, 'dipped' the river to gauge its depth. At the club's pontoon, the usual place that I've launched from, six feet of the cane disappeared without touching the bottom. Other places between Hampton and Kingston were much the same. The last stretch we tried was along the Canbury bank near Teddington, a long, curving sweep of the river which has several landing stages and a low bank. This looks the most promising as it's only a couple of feet deep, three or four feet out from the bank. Although it probably shelves steeply a few feet out, it provides a recoverable situation.

Meanwhile my son came up with a rather better suggestion. The River Wey near er... Weybridge, which is shallow and has barely any flow to speak of. So, with this encouragement we took the boat to this calmer location while Mrs D came along as official photographer to capture the moment and, like as not, one of those £250 moments for 'You've Been Framed'. Yours truly eventually squeezed himself into the rather thinner cockpit than he is used to, only to find that adjustments were necessary to get his legs in as well. Once that was straightened out we took a Zen moment to calm and settle in. Rarely have I been more tensed up as we all contemplated the tremor waves emanating from my central core, that radiated through the boat and out in all directions across the water's surface. But, after a few minutes, I finally gained a modicum of balance and tentatively pushed away from the bank.

I had been expecting, and was fully prepared for, a half-roll out of the boat as soon as it was away from the bank. But, to everyone's surprise, not least mine, I was still upright and moving forward minutes later when the local lock into the Thames hove into view. At this point I thought it better to grab the bank and consider this rather unexpected turn of events. Getting quite this far hadn't figured in the game plan. Now, not wanting to risk a swim from a three point turn, we retrieved the boat and pointed it back the way we had come. The return trip was still as shaky as the outgoing one, but nevertheless, successfully completed without a capsize.

At this point I decided that it would be better to quit while I was ahead and enjoy the success of not falling in the water on the first outing. That 'pleasure' will no doubt come later. My son likened my efforts to watching his son learning to walk. Looking at the video, what I liken it to is a portly, sad old git having a second mid-life crisis. I had the first one in the '80s and know what it feels like. I'm quite pleased with a bit of success for a change, and the boat feels as if it might be manageable with a lot of practice. I was really pleased with the pace I was covering the water, as it was much faster than the oyster, even given that I was not putting any real effort into the strokes, merely trying to stay upright.

Unfortunately Mrs D was cheated out of her £250, maybe next time? I need practice and to get focussed on the task in hand.

Kayaking for Beginners Archive


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