White-water affairs

Canoeing is a sport that is not too expensive to take up, and beginners' classes are widely available. So, what are you waiting for?

The British seem to have had a knack for inventing sports and then sitting back while the rest of the world excels at them.

Perhaps that explains why we do lead the world in canoeing, which was not invented by a Brit.

"Britain has two world championship titles at present," explains Bryn Vaile MBE, press officer for the British Canoe Union [BCU]. "Brothers, Stephen and Andrew Train, are World Champions at Canadian Doubles (C2), and Ivan Lawler and Steve Harris are World Champions in the double Kayak (K2).

In addition, Anna Hemmings was runner-up at the World Championships (single Kayak), while the British slalom team were world champions in Brazil last year.

More than 150,000 people try canoeing on holiday alone, while 100,000 attempt the One Star proficiency test in schools, scouts groups or for Duke of Edinburgh Awards.

Canoeing is also very popular with disabled groups, while an estimated 400,000 enthusiasts regularly canoe in the UK, often under the instruction of one of more than 10,000 qualified instructors.

"Canoeing is popular at all levels," claims Vaile. "It's relatively low-cost to try, as many clubs have the necessary equipment. It's fun regardless of how good you are, and you can do it all over the country."

Slalom, sprint, marathon, rodeo, expedition or canoe polo; there seems to be a discipline to suit every temperament, whether you're after an adrenaline rush or a relaxing pastime.

As the British number three at the Olympic discipline of slalom, Helen Barnes falls squarely into the first category. Slalom involves racing small boats down ferocious white-water rivers. Staying upright is a skill in itself, but the discipline also requires competitors to navigate their crafts through suspended marker poles. But why risk life and limb?

"It's a really challenging sport," she explains. "Once you've mastered how to balance and control your boat, it's so exciting. You have to be quite brave at the higher level because white-water runs can be quite intimidating."

Moulded from carbon, her canoe has sharp ends and a very low volume, so it's strong, yet easy to flip on its side and manoeuvre.

"I've been canoeing for almost 10 years now, after going on a adventure holiday when I was 15," Barnes reveals. "We did a range of activities like rock- climbing and windsurfing. When we tried canoeing it was really difficult and everybody was falling in and it seemed like good fun."

At the top level, athletes train twice a day, six days a week working on basic fitness, swimming and technique.

These skills are essential as white-water rivers can easily pull a rider under the water. After a canoeing accident in France, Helen spent a week in a French hospital, but she insists that the sport is safe.

"Basically, I was on a river as powerful as they come. Canoeing really is a very safe sport."

The incident inspired her to improve her rolling technique (which involves flipping the boat into an upright position after being dragged upside-down underwater). She was so successful that she now holds the world record for the fastest time for 100 rolls at 3 minutes 47 seconds. She describes the incident as "fun".

"It's a real adrenaline rush. Some of the white-water drops are so terrifying, you see them and think `I don't fancy that', but after you've done it..." No more explanation is needed as she tails off.

Asked to describe canoeing in three words, she says: "Fast, dynamic and exciting."

She left out addictive.

LOW DOWN

It's an easy sport to learn if you follow the safety procedures. Many clubs offer starter packages.

Costs: You can get a half-day course in canoeing from around pounds 16-pounds 20 at all major clubs.

Contact: BCU on 0115-982 1100, which will send you a starter pack or advise you where your nearest local club is.

Visit: The International Canoe Exhibition on 21 & 22 Feb, at Birmingham NEC (0121-780 4133).

Equipment: A standard boat costs around pounds 200. A top-class boat can cost up to pounds 600. A family sized Canadian boat would cost around pounds 600-pounds 2,000. As a beginner, it's best to use the equipment at your local club.

Canoes are made of the latest plastics and are extremely durable, so all you need is a wetsuit, life jacket and a bit of training.

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