This is a great bit of writing about a journey through sport - and a serious love affair with kayaking. Great imagery too! Andrew has his own blog where he writes about all matters kayak, where you can find more pieces like the one below: click here to link to it.
Andrew collects boats like I collect running shoes (or bikes, or tents) - there is a fascinating 'Life in Boats' post here if you want to see some of the kayaks Andrew mentions below.
I really didn’t like sport at school, I was terrible at football, shocking at athletics and disinterested in just about every other sport. My sports journey started through Scouts; there I was introduced to a wide range of (to me) more exciting sports like grass skiing (which I hated), orienteering, climbing, hiking and an assortment of water sports. At the time only hiking really ‘stuck’ and for most of my youth you would find me trudging across Dartmoor with a big pack preparing for one long distance walking event or another.
My interests changed at university in Yorkshire where climbing and kayaking became part of my day to day life. I lived 15 minutes’ walk from the Cow & Calf Rocks and about the same by car from the River Wharfe and the Student’s Union had very active climbing and paddling clubs. Over my three years at university paddling quickly became my passion and I was out kayaking on white water somewhere at least twice a week almost without fail.
I received some good coaching from club coaches, my skills rapidly improved, and because I was out so frequently so did my experience and critically, my confidence. Quickly I left grade two and three white water trips largely behind and with the support of a couple of equally ambitious friends started to really push myself, padding much harder and more risky grade four and five rivers, where the consequences of a mistake are often serious. At this time I was running complex rapids, fairly large waterfalls and thinking little of the potential consequences. I was in my twenties with no responsibilities and I was ‘charging hard’.
Of course like any sporting career this wasn’t always without incident. On one occasion a friend and I drove across to the Lake District through flooded roads and torrential rain, in one village on a hill we went through there was even three inches of water flowing downhill at a crossroads! This should have been a warning signal, but we were both young and fired up. We had set our sights on paddling the River Duddon a grade five test piece in the South Lakes that neither of us had done before.
The guide book said, get in at a small bridge across the river with a section of flat water above. This was of course in the time before the advent of GPS so driving up the road we saw ahead of us exactly what seemed to be described in the guide book and preceded to make our normal shuttle arrangements, leaving cars at both the access and egress points for our trip down river.
We however, got it badly wrong and actually proceeded to launch onto Seathwaite Tarn Beck, a normally dry and vey rocky minor tributary of the Duddon, which due to the conditions had grown to look like a river itself and was running at a solid grade 5 on the day.
Once in, I made a small error about a hundred meters from our access point and I capsized with no chance to roll my kayak back up due to being knocked about by underwater rocks in the shallow but very rapid flow. This led to a long, rocky and at times fairly painful swim down about half a mile of what was now a raging torrent of white water with lots of drops and complex rapids. Eventually I managed to grab a tree branch and haul myself out onto the bank, standing up was however challenging as I had hit my right leg very hard on a rock whilst being thrown around in the water. Eventually I got up and leaning on my paddle went in search of my boat which had sped off downstream. I quickly found it, wedged mid flow in a four foot waterfall, full of water and firmly pinned vertically.
A kayak full of water can easily weigh a ton so as you can imagine for two of us extracting this was quite a task. Once it was freed I found the nose of my lovely blue plastic Pyranha Magic Bat kayak had been bent up at a forty-five-degree angle and was completely beyond repair, signalling the end of this trip and time for a new boat! Driving home was a real challenge, as was walking for about ten days afterwards but like most sports injuries it was my pride that was hurt most! After a short while I was back on the water pushing my limits once again, although this time in a shiny new kayak, thank heavens for student loans!
It’s funny how injuries don’t put you off, and how you can rationalise potentially life threatening incidents and still continue, within a year not only had I completed some coaching awards, but I was also chairman of the canoe club. It wasn’t just personal progression that was driving me at this time but also a strong drive to get others involved and see them experience the fun I get from the sport.
Graduation from university brought huge changes for my paddling: I returned home to Devon, joined a local club and due to the nature of the club dialled back the kinds of white water I was paddling a little. For several years I climbed and surf kayaked in the summer, then ran rivers when it rained in the winter. This period saw me take my first paddling trip abroad, two weeks in the glorious French Alps exploring amazing white water rivers around the spectacular hilltop town of Briancon, including white water classics like the Chatteau Queyras Gorge on the River Guil, and the Durance Gorge.
At that time I also worked for Devon County Council’s Youth Services, and led a project helping young people from rural villages plan and deliver their own outdoor activity programmes. As with many people my career however took a few twists and turns, and quickly work became my main focus and my paddling suffered. I moved to the Midlands for work, joined a new canoe club and for a while was active as both a paddler and coach, whilst this wasn’t the most active period of my paddling career, I did manage my second foreign trip and spent two weeks exploring the exciting high volume rivers of Austria and Switzerland.
This including one incredible trip down the River Vorderrhein in Switzerland that involved traveling to our access point fully kitted up with our kayaks aboard the local train service! Sadly once again work intervened and for almost ten years I didn’t paddle, although the desire to never left me.
About four years ago I came to an important personal decision, work matters, but so do the other things in life I love. I returned to paddling, updated my coach qualifications, took my formal river leadership qualification and got involved in a Stoke on Trent based canoe club.
This process let me to attend a White Water Safety and Rescue course on the river Tees, the irony of which will soon become apparent. The first day of the course was a lot of fun, involving swimming in rapids and exploring rope systems to rescue people and equipment from the river. At the end of the day, I entered the river to act as dummy casualty for some simple kayak-to-swimmer rescues. Unfortunately I was tired and giving it no real thought, so I jumped in, moving maybe one meter forward with no vertical fall. Wow what a mistake!
As soon as I hit the water I knew things had gone badly wrong, my right foot had hit a submerged rock and I was now floating in the water and could feel my foot moving completely separately from the rest of my leg. The poor paddler who came to rescue me expecting a ‘mocked up’ incident got the shock of his lifetime: instead I had to persuade him I had actually really hurt myself. He helped me get to the side and I dragged myself up onto a shingle beach leaving my injured leg in the cold water cradled by my other foot. Help soon came and the emergency services were called, unfortunately I was about a mile from the road and at the bottom of a steep rocky slope.
Once the paramedics arrived I was able with the help of some pain relief and an amazing inflatable splint to climb with help to the top of the bank, I was then stretchered to a nearby field where the Cumbria Air Ambulance had landed to bring a doctor to check out my injury.
After a little debate about cutting me out of my expensive dry suit, which I wasn’t having any of, I was helped out of this and the doctor was able to diagnose that I had badly broken both bones in my right leg, I was however otherwise ok - so they sent me to hospital by ambulance instead of getting a ride in the helicopter! In fact I had managed to break my leg in three separate places and ended up with several pins and was off work for about five months whilst I healed. This didn’t stop me paddling once I was fit again.
I’m over forty now and I will never again be the ‘charging hard’ paddler I was in my twenties, now I have too many other responsibilities, less flexibility and perhaps more sense? But my passion for kayaking remains just as strong. Today I coach on a regular basis and lead trips for my club, the Potteries Paddlers, both to introduce novices to the delights of white water kayaking on easier water and help our more experienced paddlers to enjoy the UK’s many more challenging grade three to four white water rivers. I’m also an active part of the club in many other ways and I do what I can to help it grow and prosper so others can benefit from the exciting, challenging and formative experiences that my sport has given to me.
In the world of kayaking I was once lucky enough to meet an inspirational Staffordshire man by the name of Donald Bean who I met on the water at an event on the North Tyne. Sadly, Donald is no longer with us, but he paddled challenging white water well into his eighties, including many notable expeditions undertaken after he retired.
Donald wasn’t an ‘excellent paddler’ but he left a legacy in the sport that few can claim, not one of first descents or extreme kayaking, but one filled with adventure, passion and a respect for others. He did so much to inspire and enthuse others to get involved in this amazing sport, I’d like to think that one day in the distant future I can look back at my time and have achieved just a little of what Donald did.
This is what a life in sport means to me.