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How to get into Whitewater Kayaking - Part 1 - Finding friends and mentors

Updated: Jan 28, 2021

If you, like many others today are waking up and realising you’ve had enough of a life without whitewater kayaking, but don't quite know how to get into it, this article is intended for you.

Paddling on moving water is one of the most amazing adventurous activities mankind has ever devised. Using the skills you will learn as a kayaker, you can access places that only paddlers are able to exist in: Deep gorges and remote woodland rivers give the paddler alone a feeling of connection with the earth and a unique perspective to see it all from. The journey of learning and improving those skills too, is in itself an incredibly satisfying journey. Kayaking can motivate you to travel all over the world, but since there are moving rivers everywhere, it also has the ability to bring an adventurous life closer to home. In Britain we enjoy a nearly unique access to year-round kayaking on flowing rivers. This is because it can rain at any time, and when there is rain... there is kayaking to do.

It doesn’t happen overnight though. Whitewater kayaking skills are hard won and the consequences of being out of your depth can be catastrophic. Even the smallest current can flip a beginner paddler, and until you become adept at reading and understanding the river environment, it's not always easy to know what you’re getting yourself into. This is why getting into whitewater kayaking can seem like a very hard thing to do. You’ll need to go through a process of gaining knowledge and technical proficiency, and since your safety depends on it, you’ll also need to find experienced people to paddle with. This article offers some tips to help you go through this process and become the whitewater kayaker you dream of being.

Use the paddlesport community to access mentorship, support and friendship

Whitewater kayaking has been called the most individual team sport there is, and the reason for this is that although only you can pilot your boat, personal risk management dictates that paddling as part of a team is an absolute must. Put simply, in the words of Bette Middler (or Donkey), ‘Ya Gotta Have Friends!’ Thankfully, you’re not alone. The paddlesport community is filled with people who love being out on the river and everybody else needs adventure buddies too. You just need to find them. There are several really good ways to do this:

Online Forums and Groups- Social media is a great way to make contact with the whitewater community in the present day. Instagram is good for finding inspirational figures, but in general Facebook remains the best place to ask for advice, build networks and arrange your first trips with your regional paddlesports community. A quick look in the search bar will throw up lots of suggestions for local whitewater enthusiast groups for you to join- If you pick the wrong one and make your first post, you’ll likely be redirected to the best option for you from there anyway. These groups are amazing networks of enthusiasts who are happy to share their knowledge, and you may find that just by joining you get to see who is heading out and meeting up. It is also not uncommon for experienced paddlers to post online looking for ‘guinea pigs’ who they can practice their coaching and guiding skills on. If you see an opportunity come up to be a guinea pig for a developing coach or leader, or to go with them to their qualification assessment, you shouldn’t hesitate. Guinea Pigs are required for all British Canoeing’s coaching and leadership qualification assessments, and being one will give you access to fantastic guided experiences with dedicated trainee guides under the watchful eye of high level professionals.

Paddle365 Students had this to say about online forums and groups:

"Online groups and the ability to communicate quickly allows you to build up a network of people with similar abilities and goals, and means there's usually somebody out and about if you have an unexpected day free."-Paul

"I also found that attending guinea pig days with leaders in training or assessment was brilliant. The paddle sport Guinea pig page on fb will alert you to any assessments coming up and you can book a space. These days are very different to coaching days, there is little to no coaching at all but you do get river-time in a controlled environment - I’d definitely recommend those." -Adam "I also think that SWWK has its place, there is a lot of valuable information and a lot of opportunities. I guess the main thing would be to make kayaking friends, you can't do much without someone to run the shuttle with and rescue each other." -Jess (SWWK stands for Slightly Whitewater Kayaking, a popular online kayaking facebook group)

Canoe Clubs - This is the traditional route into whitewater kayaking proficiency. Your local kayaking club could be exactly what you need in order to get started. At Club meet-ups you often get the benefit of instruction from other members who will have been taken under

-the-wing by those who were there before them. Clubs give members access to basic equipment hire and the chance to join club trips, where you’ll head out for a river adventure under the guidance of the other members. Clubs depend on new membership in order to continue their cycle of membership development, so they are sure to be welcoming. In time you’ll learn the technical, tactical, environmental and rescue skills needed to support someone else on the water, but for the first while you will need lots of support and the club is a good place to find it. If you do go down this route it doesn’t mean the club has to be your only paddling team. If you want to get the best of the whitewater community, you should consider going out with multiple clubs and networking through the other ideas listed.

Paddle365 students said this of clubs:

"Clubs are an amazing way for people who don’t have gear, a car or any whitewater experience to gain mentors and get to go paddling. I learned through a combo of professional lessons and a club, and having recently moved to the US where fewer of the people I paddle with come through a club system I notice big gaps in their river running skills such as boat scouting, paddling as a team and performing rescues..This is because they learned to paddle by paying for a lesson and that was that." - Aime

"I do think there is huge values in clubs if you have the right one near to you like I do. They’ve been super supportive of my journey... But I’ve also benefited from things like joining more than one club. And recently especially, finding great coaches." - Lisa

Professional Instruction and Guiding - As mentioned previously, the skills required to be a part of a self-sufficient whitewater paddling team are hard won. It takes a lot of time in a boat taking on new challenges to push your experience and competency level, and when you challenge yourself you're also bound to have failures as part of the process. This can be a school of hard knocks, but if done carefully, you can and should aim to develop whitewater paddling skill in a way that doesn't compromise your safety. It is possible to do this without professional help, but if you're looking to develop your skill and understanding quickly and safely, building a relationship with a professional whitewater coach can be incredibly beneficial.

Coaching courses and guided days with a coach and a small group are a perfect way to work on your skills, build your network, and see a strong representation of how a team runs a river. Remember that although professionals are where they are for a reason, they are also not magic. They will use safe paddling strategies to limit risk but they can't fully remove it. For this reason you should be realistic with yourself when signing up to an open course pitched at a certain level of paddler.

- If you want to build experience with a guided river adventure, consider picking one that is pitched just outside of your comfort zone. That way the guide will be able to do their job creating safe strategies to allow you to paddle at your best as you go. - If you're aiming to develop your skill level however, consider booking a course that is set in an environment that you're already comfortable in. That way, the coach can do their job creating challenges that push your technical ability.

If you're ever unsure, a quick email or phone call with the coach or guide running the course should quickly give clarity.

Paddle365 Students said this about getting coaching: "Getting some coaching early on helps you set a marker for what you should be aiming for. I'm also a big fan of checking in regularly with a coach as you progress - it's a different headspace to when you're out with your pals, and it lets you be quite selfish about your own development. I pick a coach on three criteria: Are they a good paddler? Are they a good coach? And are they a nice person? Asking around will generally get you the answers, and help you make a decision depending on what you think you personally need." - Cara

"I started in September and didn’t know a single person. I was lucky enough to make a paddle buddy on day 1 from attending a rolling course. We stayed in touch but arranged to attend more courses together until we were more confident. 365 have been responsible for 90% of my coaching with an occasional day elsewhere to mix it up a bit. Sticking with one or two coaches allows them to monitor your progress closely and you’ll find the follow on training is much more specific to you. It also enabled me to meet more people and stay in touch via the 365 messenger group for that course. Handy. - Adam

Attend Events

Whether its a big kayaking festival like Teifi Tour, Tryweryn River Festival or Wet West Paddlefest, a race event like a Division 4 Slalom or the Morriston Enduro, a coaching symposium, or your local Doggy Paddle, you owe it to yourself to give paddlesports events a try! These events are excellent fun and many of them are very beginner friendly. Not only will you get the chance to compete in fun paddling competitions and win prizes, you'll also have the opportunity to make friends who will form part of your river crews for many descents to come. The best friendships are cemented on the river, but it often starts with a pint at the river festival!

Here's what some our our Paddle365 students had to say about events:

"I love the events for the atmosphere they bring. There's nothing like doing one of your first grade 3 rapids to the applause and cheers of a few hundred fellow kayakers. (Teifi Tour). For me it's a way to catch up with many of my friends whilst also meeting lots of new people. I love the excitement and the enthusiasm of the people who attend these events - its always nice to spend time with like minded people!" -Del

" The SCA's CVC (Club Volunteers Conference) is brilliant for meeting new people and having a laugh (followed by a drink) with old pals. I hate to call it 'networking' because it sounds like work, but ironically its the only time I've ever enjoyed networking. SWPS (Scottish Women's Paddle Symposium) was genuinely life-changing from a paddling perspective - three years ago I met some girls at it who I would never have met otherwise as we all live hundreds of miles apart, and we still text each other most days. Both of these events cater for all levels, and I harangue newbies in my club to go (particularly the girls to SWPS)." - Cara

My personal favourite events are the ones run by River Legacy including Tefi Tour and T-fest. These events are super friendly and inclusive with whole weekends developed around getting people paddling. I firmly believe Tefi Tour has something for everyone and have taken a non paddling friend along who had a great time and got a free t-shirt for their efforts( and loss of one shoe). They are always super social with activities for downtime would recommend! -Toby

All of the photos in this article were taken in the UK on Paddle365 Whitewater Skill Development Courses by Jamie Greenhalgh.

If you enjoyed this article and would like to see more, be sure to follow the Paddle365 Facebook and Instagram Pages and look out for the next parts in the series, on getting the right kit, and learning the basics.

A big thank you to those from the Paddle365 Mentorship Group who contributed their thoughts and ideas!

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