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Friday, 19 September 2014

Canoeing

LAST time I sat in a canoe I was 10-years-old. It was during a school trip to an outdoor activity centre, and I clearly remember spending the whole session concentrating on not falling into the cold water.

Trying it out for a second time at the age of 24, the experience proved to be very similar.

Joining Duddon Canoe Club on a rainy Friday night, by the docks in Barrow, I was kitted out with a wet suit, life jacket and a pair of water shoes.

Although I had been looking forward to the session, walking towards the water’s edge, I began to have second thoughts.

At 5pm it was already getting dark, the water was choppy and despite being in a wet suit I was shaking from the cold.

Looking into the uninviting water, all I could think was, if I’m this cold out of the water, imagine how cold I will be if I fall in. I was put in a kayak made for beginners and promised that it was very stable.

However, worrying about capsizing dominated the first half of the lesson, with me paddling extremely slowly, and not giving it my all in case I went overboard. Scott Wilson drew the short straw and was put in charge of teaching me the sport. This saw him spending the majority of the hour helping to steer my boat the right way, and rescuing me when I got stuck.

I was there to learn the art of Olympic canoeing, which includes two events: the sprint and the slalom.

Canoe sprint events at the Olympic Games are head-to-head races conducted on still water, as opposed to the white water time trials of the canoe slalom competition.

Athletes race over distances of 200m, 500m or 1,000m, either solo, in pairs or in teams of four.

Athletes use a single-bladed paddle from a kneeling position in canoes, which are steered by the athlete making corrective strokes with their paddle.

Kayaks are steered using a small rudder, with competitors sitting in the boat and using a paddle with two blades. Deciding I had got the hang of the easy kayak, Scott decided to try me in a racing boat to give me an authentic Olympic-style experience. I had not expected such a huge difference. As soon as I entered the water the boat felt like it was going to tip up and no matter how still I stayed I couldn’t keep myself upright.

So, screaming like a baby, to the amusement of the rest of the group, I was taken out of the boat and swapped with one of the much younger members who jumped in and put me to shame.

By the end of the lesson, I was feeling slightly more confident in the water and, having not fallen in, I was more willing to try and perfect my technique rather than concentrating on staying in the boat.

So, when Scott invited me to try paddling on moving water the following week, I jumped at the chance.

Canoe slalom competitions consist of timed runs down a white water course, containing up to 25 gates.

Touching a gate adds a two-second time penalty to the run; missing a gate incurs a 50-second penalty. The time taken to run the course in seconds is added to penalty seconds incurred to give the overall time.

My first ever white water experience was to take place at Greenodd, and I was warned to come prepared because I was expected to fall in.

Paddling forward on moving water is a much trickier skill to master. There was only a slight current where we were practising but that was enough to send my boat spinning round in circles.

And fighting against the current paddling upstream left my arms feeling like I had been lifting weights at the gym.

My instructor, Scott, explained that he had become hooked on the sport after taking his son Brandon to lessons many years ago.

He said: “Canoeing is a fantastic way of keeping fit and seeing more of the beautiful part of the country we live in. It is far less tedious than going to the gym.

“I enjoy being outdoors and especially being on or around water. I also enjoy putting my skills to the test on challenging water.”

Nearing the end of the lesson, I was exhausted but didn’t want to get out of the water until I had mastered the sculling draw – moving the boat across the river sideways. I could see how Scott had become addicted and I found that I too wanted to keep pushing myself, whether that meant falling in or not.

Canoeing is definitely my favourite Olympic sport so far.

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