Kayaking for Beginners: Resignation

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The adventure continues.


A white kayak.

Back in early December, just as the general weather was showing signs of improvement after a considerable period of adverse conditions, I opined in this blog, that in order to get up to speed to take on the DW challenge the weather was going to have to play ball by remaining calm and allow a reasonable period of time before chucking anything else by way of rain, snow, ice or wind at me. No sooner had I written that thought than the UK took on the mantle of rain capital of the world. This month, things were just beginning to improve to the point where the Thames was discarding the last of its red caution boards when it snowed, and froze for more than a week. As the snow finally melted last week and heavy rain cleared away the last of it, the warning boards were back up again after just two days as the accumulated melt-water and rain slid straight into the canals and rivers around the country.

Meanwhile I've been using the more sheltered parts of the Wey Navigation to keep some sort of practice sessions going, even to the extent of going out while warnings of high flow rates prevail. In fact, I had worked up to an overall paddling distance of almost seven miles, which I thought would be a good stepping off point for longer trips. I had hoped that the general weather would become a bit more settled and I would be able to get out onto the Thames more regularly to practice with the more erratic ebb and flow there. I had also arranged for my son to drop me off at the other end of the Wey near Guildford at the end of the month, and then to paddle back about ten miles to New Haw. This would have achieved my first goal of a ten-mile paddle, albeit a month late but nevertheless a reasonable achievement within the scheme of things.

As a build up to this I set off for another two-mile interval session on a rather bleak, overcast day just before the last of the ice was washed away by the first of the rain. That went quite well and I put in a slightly faster time on the outward leg, turned around without a break and returned with the flow faster than previously. This was quite encouraging, so I prepared for a step-up of another five-mile trip before setting out on the 'long' one.

The five-miler was to be the usual route to Pyrford and back. It was cold, darkish and wet, and it started badly. I don't know if it was just familiarity breeding contempt but for some reason as I pushed off in the same way as I’ve done a hundred times before, I wobbled badly and almost lost it. As I pushed off from the lock bank with my left hand, I lurched over to the right and it was only by luck that the right-hand paddle was in the correct position to supply a support stroke and keep me upright. I can't claim that I did a proper support stroke intentionally as my left hand wasn't even on the paddle’s shaft, it was just waving in the air. But my right hand reacted and pushed the paddle into the water providing just enough correction to keep me from taking a very uncomfortable bath. I still have this recurring vision of the water’s surface only a couple of inches from my cheek and the paddle blade disappearing into the cold green murk.

Once under way though I realised that I’d forgotten to start the watch and as I needed the speed calculation I performed the unnerving manoeuvre of getting both hands together in the middle of the boat and fumbling with the buttons to get the thing going. After that I progressed onwards wobbling like a raw beginner all the way. After a half mile I got a grip, stopped shaking and things settled down a bit. It was hard going again and I was soon struggling to maintain headway. The river was on a danger alert and the flow was quite fast, although no real difference to previous sessions under the same warnings. At the end of a mile I was bushed, and knew that whatever else, I wasn’t going to make it to Pyrford.

I had pulled up on the boat club’s frontage and just sat there contemplating the situation for a while. It was at that moment that the unspoken awful realisation hit me that if I couldn’t make a five-mile paddle at this stage of the game, then there is no possibility whatsoever of doing 125 miles in just a few weeks. In fact I knew I had run out of time and I wasn’t going to make it at all. After five minutes I turned the boat around and went home.

I guess then that’s about it for the time being at least. Just too much to do and not enough left in the reserve tank to do it. Reluctantly I’m going to have to relinquish any thoughts of competing this in year’s race, as it just wouldn’t be practical. But it would be foolhardy as I haven’t yet really got to grips with conditions on the main river, let alone the tideway. Neither have I yet been able to get a support crew together which would have been necessary to get me to the start and through the race. I only have my own mistakes made early on and inexperience to blame. I can’t really blame the weather as other more experienced competitors have already clocked up 200-300 miles in practice this year. But then neither has it done me any favours.

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