There has never been a more inclusive time for participation in this sport in the UK. With the phenomenal successes of the Lee Valley Whitewater Centre in the South, River Active and the Slightly Whitewater group in the North West and partnerships between professionals and local clubs becoming more commonplace across the UK, it feels like the whitewater paddling community roots are in a real growth phase, and diversity of age is definitely on the up.
One thing I believe is really notable now is that there seem to be far more paddlers who have 'reached a certain age' learning to paddle for the first time than I ever remember. Older paddlers are of course nothing new. Since river paddling is such an addictive sport those who get into it young have a propensity to stay in it until their arms literally fall off (figuratively not actually literally). The older veteran paddler who bashes down rapids with the rest before spinning yarns about the expeditions of yesteryear that they had to Jeep across continents to get to, is a familiar and much loved demographic in our community. These folk are of course still about (long may they continue), but what I really want to talk about is another breed that are appearing more and more commonly on rivers and whitewater centres across the UK. The Mid-Life Beginner & Intermediates! This emerging group of paddlers are out there learning new tricks, getting the same thrills, the same spills, and the same joy out of the early stages of their paddling career as the 15 year olds. Speculating at a few reasons for this... Massive advancements in the health and abilities of our population mean people are more able and resilient far later in life than they were in the past. This means the occasional capsize and the odd bump that are a part of the learning process are no longer the massive obstacle they once were. What's more, advancements in the equipment we use mean that you can learn from a stable and comfortable boat, and you can stay warm even after a few swims. Kayaking itself has never been a more forgiving sport to start to learn. Furthermore, the paddling community is as warm and welcoming right now as it ever has been. To outsiders watching from the banks at Lee Valley, the Dart and the mighty Dee, hearts are warmed by the sight of paddlers regularly dropping whatever they're doing to lend each other a hand. One person's struggle is another's duty to support as a friend, or just as a fellow boater. This feeling of kinship is one of the things that makes the kayaking and canoeing community great.
Don't just take our word for it though, here's British Canoeing Ambassador Pam Phillips talking about why she thinks you can enjoy and improve your kayaking no matter when.
The following exerpt was written by Barbara Stewart on the factors at play in Mid-Life kayaking, and the 'Peter Pan Effect'.
Have you noticed the rejuvenation effect on paddlers taking up our sport mid-life? They come to it saying “I just want to be happy paddling on the lake” or “just a bit of exercise but I don’t want to wear a deck”, but months or years later, there’s a spring in their step and that determined look in the eye as they shoulder their boat and set off to do Town Falls.
What has brought about this transformation- here are my thoughts on the factors at play.
(Disclaimer- the following is based solely on the views of the author-even if the following transformations do not actual take place, just believing (rightly or wrongly) they are happening is sufficient to generate the Peter Pan effect.)
Cryotherapy- is the use of freezing temperatures to generate health benefits-what could be more life enhancing than that first blast of icy water to the face, followed by that first capsize and first swim or roll? Once done, you just want more.
Adrenalin- the stuff that churns your stomach, makes you wish you were anywhere else and wonder, am I the only one feeling it? But it sets your body alight and sends electricity through you. The very source of feeling alive.
Unburdened by previous performance-you carry no baggage such as “well, I used to be able to do such and such”- as an MWK (Moderate Water Kayaker) your achievements are your “firsts”, your “bests”. They are your standards and no one else’s- except other MWKs egging you on (see camaraderie below)
Callisthenics-body weight (plus kit and boat) exercise. After the discovery that there’s more to paddling than “pulling on the paddle” you discover that driving, edging, trimming and rotating is actually requiring full body commitment and yes, it is feeling good, generating all that power. So, you start to think “more time at the gym/in the pool/on the water will help my paddling” and you emerge from your mid-life former self a finely honed, muscled athlete (see disclaimer above regarding the power of believing).
Legitimate retail therapy- at last you have something to “collect”. Of course, “just one boat” isn’t enough and a new dry suit is “essential” for safety. You get to wear orange or pink or fuchsia because they are visible on the water- plus all your mates are buying “stuff” as well, so the game of “(substitute friend’s name) has got a new ( substitute equipment name) and he/she really rates it, so I’ll get one too”, never stops.
Camaraderie- a thread running through all of this article is your paddling buddies. MWKing is not a solo sport (although sometimes-see adrenalin section above- it can feel like it) at every step of the way you are sharing the joys and fears of similarly obsessed others-making the “highs” higher and the “lows” less painful- Peter Pan is never on his own!
Play- where else do you get to ride the best roller coasters in the world, for free (or a reasonable charge) and just keep going around again? It’s you who is doing it- not as a passenger but as the driver. Where else can you be extremely silly and fall about (and fall in) laughing? Being a big kid is what it is all about.
Where else can you squeal with delight, curse at the unexpected or groan at the inevitable and still be able to pass it off as “getting in the zone”?
Ratty says it all “believe me…… there is nothing, absolutely nothing worth half so much doing as simply messing about in boats”.
Paddle365 is now running Over 50's specific coaching courses, enabling those who wish to advance their kayaking skills within a team of peers to do just that.