X-treme; Come hell and high water

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The Independent Culture
Shaun Pearce climbed into a canoe for the first time as a teenager when his mother enrolled him on a beginners' course. After falling in 13 times, it's difficult to imagine why canoeing appealed to him, but now, aged 29, he's one of Britain's top slalom canoeists, with the 1991 World Champion and 1994 World Cup Champion titles under his belt.

"Canoeing is a great sensation," he says. "Heading for slalom gates at speed requires lightning reactions. Your body swings from side to side, and you have to use your feet to raise the boat over the waves. Everything comes towards you really quickly - it's an exhilarating feeling."

Slalom, or K1, canoeists use double-ended paddles to race across white- water rivers and between 20-25 gates suspended across the water. Riders incur penalties for missing or hitting gates. After two runs, both time scores, plus any penalties, are added together for a final score.

If this all sounds a little complex, consider the swirling currents, huge rocks and various other obstructions canoeists have to negotiate.

"You aren't physically strong enough to fight against the water, so you have to use it to your advantage by putting your boat into faster currents.

"If you crash through waves, the water hits you in the chest and slows you down, so you try to lift the canoe over waves and use the currents coming off the rocks to manoeuvre the craft."

Slalom canoeists need to be fairly strong in the upper body, and have a good sense of balance, though this improves with practice. A liking for cold water also helps.

Kayak canoes are made from carbon fibre, like Formula 1 cars. They measure a minimum of 4 metres in length, and must be no lighter than 9 kilos. A race canoe at the top end of the market costs between pounds 600 and pounds 800.

Over recent years, man-made slalom courses have become more popular than natural routes.

"Most of the race courses now are artificial concrete channels," says Pearce. "On a natural river, you're going to get consistent flow most of the time. You can look at artificial courses, and by the time you race on them they can have thrown up something new, so you have to use quick reactions."

Easier for television coverage, spectators and construction, man-made courses are also easier to train on as they lack the hidden dangers of natural white-water rivers.

While warm-weather training in New Zealand in 1991, Pearce needed all of his experience to escape an unpredictable river.

"I was adjusting slalom poles and had paddled across the river when my canoe caught on a rock," he recalls. "I was effectively pinned, with my canoe pointing upstream.

"The water was forcing me backwards. I couldn't reach the release tag on my spraydeck [a piece of clothing designed to prevent water coming in], and my training partner couldn't get to me because the bank was basically jungle.

"The boat was about to go down, and I had one last ditch attempt to pull the cable. I just managed it. As soon as the water rushed into the canoe, the pressure equalised and literally spat me out of the boat to safety."

With the World and World Cup championships taking place next year, and the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games a year later, Pearce and the rest of Britain's top canoeists have plenty to train for.

Interested parties should note that the slalom discipline is only one very small part of canoeing. Thousands of people tour tranquil rivers, canals and lakes every weekend around the country - doubtlessly many fall in, but at much slower speeds.

Contact the British Canoe Union for further information (0115-982 1100)

Alister Morgan


Atlantic Pursuits

11 Priestacott Park, Kilhampton, Bude, Cornwall (01288 321765). This well-run centre specialises in small groups of all standards, teaching Open-Canadian and kayaking in local bays. Prices include equipment and lessons: half a day pounds 10, full day pounds 20, three days pounds 55, five days pounds 90.

Bradwell Outdoor Education Centre

Bradwell Waterside, Southminster, Essex (01621 776256) This county-council-run centre is affiliated to the BCU, and runs beginner and improver courses in single-seater kayaks in calm waters. Five-day courses, including tuition, equipment and full board, cost pounds 135; the daily rate is from pounds 15.

Edale YHA Activity Centre

Rowland Cote, Nether Booth, Edale, Sheffield (01433 670302). Affiliated to the BCU, Edale offers beginners, improvers and advanced courses in kayaking and Open-Canadian canoeing. Two-day courses start at pounds 83; or sample canoeing as part of a multi-activity package.