How to master the white magic

Thrills, spills, and getting soaked to the skin - Eric Kendall is introduced to the wild world of white water canoeing.

Russell is a canoeist. White water is his medium. A first glance at this racing, wet world might not persuade you to join him, but if you do, the tug of the waves and experience of a stopper, even a small one, will bring you back for more. This plunging whirl of water, where the river's flow is violently reversed, constitutes both dream and nightmare for canoeists. A stopper grabs and then holds you, and can flip you all too easily. Then your rolling skills come into play, as much a test of nerve as of technique, as every extra inverted second increases the chance of your helmeted head clashing with a rock downstream.

Serious canoeing is a far cry from the school-day experiences of ex-guides, scouts and management trainees. Money, in the shape of dry suit tops, snug-fitting wet suits and other state-of-the-art equipment can go a long way to making this a warm, fun experience, even though peak season on British rivers is November, when the anglers have packed up and the water is high.

Getting into all this gear is a performance in itself, which transforms outdoorsy types like Russell into strutting, strangely Elizabethan figures with tightly moulded skullcaps (extra warmth beneath a free-draining helmet) and wetsuit-stockinged legs. Spray-decks - the stretchy Neoprene covers worn around the waist that prevent the canoe filling up during the good bits - complete the picture, flapping like rubberised tutus in the breeze.

Russell spares onlookers any embarrassment during his transformation, changing on a little mat by the car, head poking from an enormous towelling bag complete with arm slits, allowing the whole process to be undertaken in the presence of women and children. Throw in some knotted hankies, buckets and spades and you could be on the beach at Scarborough - both air and water are nearly as cold. Out come the contact lenses, on go the bottle-thick glasses, strapped into place; it's a battle zone out there, but a less likely looking armada would be hard to imagine.

On the water it's a different story. Half human, half canoe, the bobbing craft play out a balancing act with the power of the river, using it and fighting it in turn. Going against the flow is an explosive spurt, a mixture of raw power, paddling technique and feel for the run of the water, searching out eddies that give respite from the irresistible progress of the river.

From initial forays on calm, flat water and even heated pools to master essential techniques including the roll, progression to the choppy stuff can be surprisingly fast. It's a sport to do in groups for support - the knowledge that two people are chasing after you as you sweep downstream, bottom up, is comforting and often of practical help; lose or break your paddle and you're at the mercy of the flow until someone or something - such as the river bottom - grabs you.

The variety of craft available reflects the diversity of the canoeing world, most of which is driven by competition. For white water canoeing, this means the slalom, performed round dangling poles, and wild water racing, though canoeists who travel can mix plenty of white water into their tours.

But the simplicity of canoeing, handed down from its Eskimo origins - stretched seal skins, not fibreglass - is an aspect that canoe designers will never get away from, whatever materials they use.

This is messing about in boats at its best. Just add water.

Getting started

First attempts are often made in the warmth of the local swimming-pool - more chloriney-blue than white water. This is often the place to make contact with a club; youth services and schools are the other main starting- points.

The British Canoe Union (0115 982 1100) can provide details of approved centres all over the country which run courses. The BCU is based at Holme Pierrepont, Nottingham, where the National Watersports Centre has a man-made white water slalom course and hosts national and international events as well as providing training facilities.

In north Wales, Plas y Brenin (01690 720394) runs a five-day "white water, sea and surf" course for competent flat water paddlers; Plas Menai National Watersports Centre (01248 670964) also caters for all levels.

Britain has plenty of white water and even more flat water, for learning the basics. When canoeing abroad, save yourself and the locals from confusion by remembering that a "kayak" (from the Eskimo) is a craft paddled by a double blade; "canoe" is paddled with a single blade (from the birch- bark canoe). In Britain, "canoe" is the general name applied to boats that can be carried (portaged) by their crew.

Even the most ludicrous optimist should face the fact that getting wet is part of the fun, so warm clothes to put on after canoeing are almost as vital as the right kit on the water. Surgical gloves and Vaseline can also add to the fun, apparently, alleviating chafing injuries to the hands. Bring your own synthetic, long-sleeved thermal wear and fleece to put on under specialist items such as wetsuits, which should be supplied as part of a course: it's worth fighting fellow pupils tooth and nail for the best-fitting clobber at the start. There will be plenty of time for group bonding later.

News
people

Actress sees off speculation about her appearance in an amazing way

Arts and Entertainment
Serge Pizzorno of Kasabian and Noel Fielding backstage at the Teenage Cancer Trust concerts
musicKasabian and Noel Fielding attack 'boring' musicians
News
peopleLynda Bellingham's tragic final Loose Women appearance moves audience to tears
Arts and Entertainment
'Right Here' singer Jess Glynne is nominated for Best Newcomer at the MOBO Awards 2014
musicExclusive: Jess Glynne hits out at 'ridiculous' criticism of white artists nominated for Mobo Awards
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
Separated at birth? Frank Sivero (left) claims The Simpsons based Mafia character Louie on his Goodfellas character
arts + entsFrank Sivero sues Simpsons studio over allegedly basing mobster character on Frank Carbone
News
Carl Bernstein (left) and Bob Woodward (right) with former 'Washington Post' executive editor Ben Bradlee
people

The Washington Post editor helped Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein bring down President Nixon

News
news

Voices
Stephanie first after her public appearance as a woman at Rad Fest 2014
voices

Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing
books

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Education

Science Teacher

£21000 - £35000 per annum: Randstad Education Cambridge: Qualified secondary s...

Deputy Head of Science

£22000 - £36000 per annum + MPR / UPR: Randstad Education Southampton: Our cli...

ICT Teacher

£22000 - £35000 per annum + TLR: Randstad Education Southampton: Our client is...

SEN Learning Support Assistant

£60 - £110 per day: Randstad Education Group: Youth Support Workers Glouceste...

Day In a Page

Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

A new American serial killer?

Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

Want to change the world? Just sign here

The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals

'You need me, I don’t need you'

Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals
How to Get Away with Murder: Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama

How to Get Away with Murder

Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama
A cup of tea is every worker's right

Hard to swallow

Three hospitals in Leicester have banned their staff from drinking tea and coffee in public areas. Christopher Hirst explains why he thinks that a cuppa is every worker's right
Which animals are nearly extinct?

Which animals are nearly extinct?

Conservationists in Kenya are in mourning after the death of a white northern rhino, which has left the species with a single male. These are the other species on the brink
12 best children's shoes

Perfect for leaf-kicking: 12 best children's shoes

Find footwear perfect to keep kids' feet protected this autumn
Anderlecht vs Arsenal: Gunners' ray of light Aaron Ramsey shines again

Arsenal’s ray of light ready to shine again

Aaron Ramsey’s injury record has prompted a club investigation. For now, the midfielder is just happy to be fit to face Anderlecht in the Champions League
Comment: David Moyes' show of sensitivity thrown back in his face by former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson

Moyes’ show of sensitivity thrown back in his face... by Ferguson

Manchester United legend tramples on successor who resisted criticising his inheritance
Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2015

UK city beats Vienna, Paris and New York to be ranked seventh in world’s best tourist destinations - but it's not London