Benny had himself another local outing this weekend; this time to the National Water Sports Centre in Nottingham.
We signed up for a two day course, to reach BCU canoe and kayak 2 star level. This involved two full days on (and in) the water, learning various paddle techniques; forwards, backwards, sideways, turning, bracing and stopping in a variety of different sized canoes and kayaks. We’d kayaked a little before, fooling around on sit-on-tops on holidays, sea kayaking around Gozo and Comino, along with various other short play times on the water, but had had no actual formal training. The closest we’d come to lessons was attending ‘Paddle in the Park’ at the same venue several weeks prior to this visit. There we had gleaned some rudimentary skills and definitely improved technique-wise with the patience of very helpful instructors, informally awarding us our BCU 1-star for our efforts.
Our main goal this time was to tune up our skill set for our upcoming sea kayak trip to Greenland, where we’ll face long distances of up to 20km each day in arctic waters and want to ensure both forward stroke efficiency (to prevent over-tiredness) and kayak stability (to prevent capsize).
We couldn’t have picked a better weekend weather wise, with temperatures over 25 degrees and clear blue May skies above. Camping locally the night before, we had a relaxing breakfast with bird song before starting our lessons at 9am Saturday morning.
After being kitted out with wetsuits and life jackets, our guide Elvis started us off in small, highly manoeuvrable open river kayaks. We learned forward and backward paddle and sweep stroke turning, edging and draw stokes, all in various combinations of set moves. Next up was sit on tops, partly to ascertain if our core and legs were working appropriately as part of our forward paddle stroke, along with revisiting all other stokes as before. The different hull design made these kayaks handle much more like the sea kayaks we expect in Greenland; more stable and straighter in the water yet, surprisingly, when edging they turn opposite to the previous river kayaks; an important tidbit to remember.
Time on the water was really the key goal; repetition and practise raises the standard and allows paddling movements to become automatic and instinctual, rather than considered and slow. Simply doing and doing again, with suitable instruction and expert nudging along the way, was exactly what we required.
Open canoes were the next play. We began learning to paddle a canoe straight with strokes only on one side, using J strokes as a stern rudder and adding braced bow rudder strokes for turning. The open kneeling position was a welcome change to the cramped sitting position in the kayaks, and the paddling had a calm, measured simplicity to it. We learned overturning the canoe and rescuing both the paddler and the canoe. This proved a difficult task due to the weight of the volume of water the canoe can hold as it had to be manually lifted up over the bow of the remaining upright canoe and then turned over to drain before resetting.
We tried blue Arcadia kayaks next, another variant on a longer sea kayak design, and my favourite to paddle so far. Faster, leaner and more comfortable, right up to the point where I mistakenly practised a canoe only high stabilising stroke and flipped the boat right over, meaning I got an unexpected but cooling swim and we both have the opportunity to undertake another rescue and kayak recovery. All in the name of learning.
To finish off the first day we decided on a more playful end and took out stand up paddle boards. Starting in a kneeling position we slowly paddled down the lake, then stood up to continue. The paddling is more akin to punting; short, vertical strokes from a high position, but it’s really a standing canoe J stroke that’s the typical steering mechanism. It’s definitely good to start to understand the crossover between strokes across the full range of paddle-powered boats and how connected (and yet unique) each particular craft is.
Finishing at around 4pm, we returned to the local campsite and set up in the sun to enjoy a very leisurely dinner and a few well earned beers. Nicky’s mum had joined us for the day and after walking her dog around the Water Sports Park she joined us for dinner and drinks. Nicky even managed to skillfully produce a very nice dessert based on a recipe from the campervan cookbook – yum!
The following day on the water was more of the same, only with a greater emphasis on bracing and rescue, so proved to be a lot wetter. First we had a bit of free time to revisit and tried out a few different kayaks to ensure we still remembered the lessons from the day before. Then Elvis got us back in the manoeuvrable river kayaks to start the wet work, where we were also joined by Scarlett, a British team slalomist and speed kayaker. We quickly progressed through lessons, from low brace support strokes to high brace, then on to ‘get an ear wet’ before applying high brace, to ‘whole head under’ to ‘opposite shoulder under’ to fully upside down in the water. We never progressed to full Eskimo turns, as that’s more of a 3 Star level and is arguably best first practised in the more controlled environment of a pool. From here we did a simple ‘release spray deck and get out’ before rescue, and then a ‘stay in the kayak and await help’ where you bang on the sides of the kayak and wave your hands until a helpful paddler bumps your hand with their bow and you can leverage yourself out using their kayak as support.
In conclusion: a fantastic few days with a long yet always positive learning curve, with some sore muscles and a few bruises, adding up to a great experience that will keep on giving. Along with the memories, the experience and new-found skills this weekend will provide access to many enjoyable future adventures.