Kayaking for Beginners: Improving on the Thames

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The adventure continues.

Improving on the Thames

A white kayak.

It turned out to be the third time lucky with my efforts to get away from the relative tranquillity of the Wey and back into the perils of the Thames. The first booking with the club's Improvers group came to naught when the session was cancelled due to adverse river conditions. The second time I wasn't able to get a booking, but on the third week I struck gold. My Plan, such as it was, was to take up with the Improvers group and ease myself back into the flow by using one of the club's very stable beginners boats until I got the feel of the wide open and windswept spaces on the river again, rather than venture out in my much more 'tippy' Lance.

I managed to get booked on the session with the group leader by Wednesday last week, and kept a close watch on the river's status boards throughout the week as the warnings crept back again to red along the whole length of the Thames after more torrential rainfall. Although the rain had pretty much stopped by Friday and the flow rate was dropping by Saturday the warning boards still showed yellow. E-mails were flying around all over the place and the session leader came up with three alternatives depending on conditions on the Sunday morning. 1) to go out as usual. 2) to take two-seater boats (Gulp!) upriver and come back to the clubhouse with the flow, and 3) take the boats to the Wey (Oh No!). Sunday dawned, yellow boards were still up for our stretch of the river but the session leader deemed it safe to carry out the normal session, although it was going to give us a real work-out heading upstream.

By this time I found myself coming down with a sore throat and a cod in de 'ed. Not wanting to miss this session though I dosed up with ‘Aspirin' and ‘Day-Nurse' to clear away the symptoms for the duration. Late Sunday afternoons always feels to me to be a completely 'wrong' time to be thinking about sodding about on a river, and a cold and wet one at that. Really, to my mind, that time of the week should be reserved for the more civilised pursuits like a glass of vino and a Sunday roast, but at least I would have the chance to try out the new Lycra. Eventually seven of us met up at the clubhouse a bit before 4pm. The Sun was to set at around 6.0pm so the light was already failing under a pall of grey cloud and mist just short of rain.

When it came to the allocation of the boats the others had already earmarked their favourite ones from previous sessions and it turned out that since I was last there, all but one of the old flat-bottomed beginner's kayaks had been got rid of, and the only one remaining was already collared by someone else. After some discussion about the relative wobble factors of the available boats I was allocated a nearly new racing/touring kayak which is almost identical to my Laance including a similar wobble factor of 10, This now presented me with something of a problem as I had been assuming that I'd be venturing out into fairly marginal conditions in one of the forgiving, ultra-stable, beginner's boats. So, I had the choice of either chickening out completely or taking it on the chin and having a go, with the near certainty of swimming home.

Myself and another guy, who had also been allocated the same type of boat as me, spent some time swapping over boats and trying to get the seat adjustments correct. Prior to launching we all received a general talk on water flow and currents and boat handling in adverse conditions. There's more to it all than meets the eye, what with having to make allowances for the increased speed in turns and the rolling effect when sideways on to the stream, and the extra sideways drift, and the nose of the boat being pushed off course, and coming in behind the jetty so as not to caught under the jetty by the flow...

We pushed off and I'd have to say that the others didn't look too stable as we progressed up stream against the rather considerable flow. But after a while it didn't seem as daunting as it had the last time I went out in similar conditions. All the work on the Wey seemed to be paying off at least as far as getting the thing to go in a straight line is concerned. On the previous sessions I had been heading off at all unpredictable angles as the current deflected the boat's direction. This time it seemed relatively straightforward keeping it on a heading diagonally across the river.

After about a mile of steady paddling we took to more sheltered water in the lee of an island which afforded a bit of a rest until we reached the point where the current entered the side stream and being a bit narrower increased its speed. That was hard work getting through the bottleneck and back into the main flow. But we managed it in single file and did a long sweeping turn out and across the river to the other side for the return journey in the now fast fading light. There we found that the wind was gusting up against us and driving a light, misty rain directly into our faces, although we now were being carried downstream by the flow. This was quite unpleasant as the light faded and gaggles of ducks fled the water for their dry land overnight perches.

The hard work of paddling against the stream was tiring and the inside of my Cag and thermal vest was saturated with sweat. The old problem of keeping an upright torso also now returned as I sagged backwards to the rear of the cockpit, making the likelihood of a capsize even more possible. Ultimately I just kept going with the flow as the others crept ahead and I followed on behind. But the return journey always takes considerably less time under such conditions and we were back at the clubhouse in short order. Being last back I had to make another long curving turn across the river while the others got their boats out at the jetty and I followed on behind making quite a reasonable landfall as I tucked the tail end of the boat into the jetty with some judicious paddle work.

That session was only three miles, but it was hard going and a little further than I would normally have gone. But, against my expectations I'd managed to do three miles in marginal conditions with a tippy boat and didn‘t have to swim. I'm really pleased with that and it turned out to be a real confidence booster. The work that I've done on the Wey seems to have paid off slightly, insofar as I was able to get the boat going in the direction I wanted without too much trouble. I don't have the stamina that the others have and that's the main thing to work on now.

At the moment though the warning boards are still on yellow, there isn't a session planned for this coming Sunday and I've still got a raging cold.

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