How to master the white magic

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The Independent Online
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.